The Impossibility Gap

Some of my favourite places to speak at are venues like coffee shops, workplaces, or universities. After one such university event, where the Christian Union had asked me to talk on “Why did Jesus have to die?” we had an amazing time of Q&A after which I felt the Spirit nudge me to end the event by leading people who wanted to in a prayer to commit their lives to Jesus. It was an incredible evening and God was very much at work. But I remember that one particular evening not for how powerfully the Lord moved, but for a conversation afterwards. As we were packing up to leave, a campus ministry leader came up us and asked: “How did you do what you did there?”

“What do you mean?”, I replied.

“You just preached the gospel very openly then prayed, very publicly, and invited people to respond to Jesus—and you did that in a university meeting room. I didn’t think evangelism like that was possible in this day and age. How did you and your colleague do that?”

That’s not the first time I’ve heard that sentiment expressed: that evangelism simply isn’t possible. That a workplace, campus, group of people, or even our culture is so secular and so post-Christian that evangelism just doesn’t work anymore.

I confess I’ve occasionally fallen into the same way of thinking myself. A few years ago I became friends with Peter, a Christian GP. And I remember being very surprised when one day he casually remarked “I love being a GP, it creates so many fantastic opportunities for evangelism”. Without thinking, I said words to the effect of “Really? I thought the health service was so secular and any expression of religious faith so frowned upon, that evangelism just isn’t possible?” Those three little words just slipped out: evangelism isn’t possible.[1]

Why did I instinctively respond with incredulity? Why was that campus minister baffled by seeing evangelism take place on campus? Why do many of us (if we are honest) worry or doubt that evangelism is really possible in “this day and age”? I think it’s because there is a massive temptation to buy into the myth that the secular UK (or the West in general) is simply too difficult ground for the gospel. But is this actually true? And if we’re in danger of thinking this, how can we overcome the Impossibility Gap?


Because the Impossibility Gap is so deep rooted in many of us (we haven’t deliberately adopted it, but we’ve become quietly and subtly infected by it), I want to hit it and hit it hard—so here are six powerful pieces of counter-evidence that taken together will, I hope, form a powerful corrective.

First, however tough a context for evangelism the secular West may be, Christianity has grown (and grown rapidly) in equally tough (or even tougher) contexts in the past. For instance, look at the growth of the Church in the first century. The first century Greek and Roman world was not easy, far from it. Yes, it was very religious, but religiously pluralistic—the pagan world had little time for the idea there was one God and that every other god was a false one. Add to that the ever daily threat and problem of persecution, as the young Church was seen as an increasing threat to the authorities. Yet despite those challenges—a hostile culture and hostile rulers—the Church grew from 120 people in AD33 to 31 million by AD350; or to put it even more dramatically, from 0% to 52.9% of the Roman Empire in 300 years.[2] The early Church didn’t look at the culture and think “impossible”, they looked at it and thought “What a challenge! Let’s follow the Spirit’s lead and see what happens”.

From the past, we can also look to the present. For today, Christianity is growing like wildfire in far tougher contexts than the West. Look at China, where the Church is growing exponentially despite the best attempts of the Communist Party to stamp it out, that there are probably about 120 million Christians in China. Indeed, China is on track to become the world’s largest Christian nation by the 2030s.[3] That growth has all happened in the past few decades. Or consider Iran, where a totalitarian Islamic regime rules with the iron fist of Sharia Law and has made conversion from Islam illegal. But despite arrests and torture, the Iranian church now numbers over a million and is the fastest growing church in the world.[4] There are similar stories across the Middle East. Christians in these terrifically difficult settings could easily say “Evangelism is impossible; it can’t be done!” but they haven’t and God is at work in amazing ways. Let’s be encouraged by and learn from their courage, faith, and example.

Third, sometimes the Impossibility Gap grows because we have a tendency to romanticise our own past. We imagine that churches were full to bursting in Victorian times (and before) and we pine for the lost Golden Age of Christianity, when our country was so thoroughly Christian it was like living in heaven on earth.[5] But that is far from the reality. In Victorian times, surveys of religious attendance show a very mixed picture. For example, Horace Mann, commenting on the 1851 Religious Census remarked that ‘a sadly formidable proportion of the English people are habitual neglecters of the public ordinances of religion’.[6] One can read contemporary reports of ministers grumbling how ‘There were only a dozen people in church on Sunday, and three of them were drunk’.

A little earlier in time and Wilberforce, that famous Christian MP and reformer, was so upset by the spiritual state of the country that in 1787 he wrote in his journal that ‘God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the Reformation of Manners’[7] (he meant by the latter the spiritual reformation of his country). A few decades earlier still, John Wesley was so concerned by the religious state of the UK that he threw himself into the re-evangelism of the UK, covering over 250,000 miles on on horseback and preaching over 40,000 sermons as he sought to share Jesus.

It is clear: the past was not a Christian utopia, but as tough then as it is now, yet that didn’t hold back Wesley and others from faithfully preaching the gospel. And I’m thankful that they did: it’s because of that Great Chain of Witnesses which stretches down through the centuries that you and I eventually heard the gospel ourselves.

Fourth, it’s helpful to remember that the West is highly unusual. The secularism that we see in places like the UK, Europe, and North America are a cultural blip both historically and geographical. In most parts of the world today, religion is growing—humanity is becoming more not less religious and worldwide, atheism is in decline. According to the latest research from the well-respected Pew Research Centre, by 2060 the number of people identifying as atheists or agnostics will have declined to 12% (from 16% today).[8] And those patterns are increasingly being reflected in the UK through factors like immigration. Many of the largest churches in cities like London are now immigrant churches—and there’s a beautiful sign of God’s long-term provision in the way that those immigrant churches are now helping to re-evangelise the nation that evangelised them through the missionary movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Fifth, remember that the UK and the West are not Christendom. Sometimes we can have such a myopic view of culture and history that we begin to assume that God’s plans and purposes for his Kingdom have the UK, or the US, or the West at their centre. And no wonder we then get distressed when those countries undergo seismic cultural shifts. But don’t beat yourself up too much: this is simply the same mistake that as intellectual a giant as St. Augustine made when, watching the Roman Empire fall (it was largely Christian by this point) he felt everything was over. Then Augustine suddenly had an epiphany: God’s purposes were not dependent on one culture, country, or Empire. Empires rise and empires fall but the work of God goes on; the gospel cannot and has not ever been pinned down to one culture.

In his book, Whose Religion is Christianity?,[9] African theologian Lamin Sanneh points out that Christianity is the only major religion whose cultural centre keeps shifting. Islam, for example, began and has remained an Arabic religion—Muslims read the Qur’an in Arabic, and pray in Arabic facing Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Or consider Buddhism—despite many postmodern westerners trying out Buddhism-lite, true Buddhism has largely remained an Asian faith. Atheism, which functions for many as a faux religion, is largely a Western construction and has remained so.

But Christianity, by contrast, looks very different. It began in the Middle East and rapidly spread outwards across the Roman Empire. It then spread eastwards into India (where the Mar Thoma Christians of Kerala trace their heritage back to St. Thomas), along North Africa, and upwards into Europe. With the Pilgrim Fathers it travelled across the Atlantic and became an American faith but now is growing so rapidly in China, Africa, and South America, that the centre of twenty-first century Christianity is the southern hemisphere. You can’t pin the gospel down to a culture. And that’s a hugely encouraging thought.

And then, sixth, we can easily overlook the fact that the Church is growing here in the UK. When I moved back to the UK from Canada in 2016, I quickly noticed that in the six years I’d been away, lots of green shoots of church growth had popped up. I kept meeting church leaders whose churches were growing—and in unusual places: inner city Liverpool, the stockbroker belt just outside the M25, or among Iranian immigrants. These are often the kind of places that are missed by surveys that focus just on the decline of old established churches.

I’m not alone in noticing this: a friend of mine, Sean Oliver-Dee, wrote a whole book about. Called God’s Unwelcome Recovery,[10] it tells the story not just of how God is at work in all kinds of places, but also why that story is less than welcome. One can understand why the secular media don’t welcome positive stories about the Church, but there’s the slightly sharper of question of why as Christians we sometimes don’t want to hear them. Could it be that we need a bit of wakeup call: after all, sometimes it’s easier to sit around in small huddles, telling ourselves horror stories of how bad things are, rather than getting out there and doing something—sharing Christ and serving our communities. When Christians do that, God seems to have a habit of showing up.

Furthermore, we can also miss the huge openness in our culture. When Solas partners with churches to put on accessible evangelistic events in neutral spaces like cafes, coffee shops, pubs, universities, or workplaces, Christians find it really easy to invite their friends and those friends often show up! There are incredible opportunities for evangelism in our culture if we are willing to step beyond the four walls of our churches, address the questions that people are really asking, and show how Jesus and the gospel are as relevant as they have always been.


Those are six good reasons why we need to nail the coffin shut on the Impossibility Gap and then bury it, six feet under, and ideally lay down some concrete on top for good measure. Evangelism is not impossible—not in the UK, not in the West, not in any context. It may be difficult, it be tough, it may require some godly courage and willingness to follow the Spirit’s leading in new ways; but it certainly is not impossible.

But I also realise that the Impossibility Gap may not just have crept into our minds but also into our hearts and souls and that facts, helpful as they are, are not enough to rid us entirely from its icy grip and its frosty whisper “Can’t be done” in our ears. So how can we, personally, take steps to overcome the Impossibility Gap and inject more joy, excitement, and enthusiasm into our evangelism? Let me offer a few suggestions that may help.

First, try praying. Pray especially that God would give you greater confidence in his plans and purposes, especially his plans for the growth of his Kingdom. You might also read and pray your way through biblical passages that talk about God’s power and rule, such as Psalm 93—this a great confidence building activity.[11]

Second, start reading testimonies of what God is doing in people’s lives. Our friends at both Christianity Explored and Alpha have pages on their websites full of stories of how people came to faith in Jesus—it’s hugely encouraging to feed your mind and heart with these kinds of testimonies. We also regularly feature similar testimonies on the Solas website: for example, check out the stories of people like Christopher Yuan, Peter Byrom, Sarah Irving-Stonebraker, or Dez Johnston.

Third, take action. Get involved in evangelism, of any kind—either through something your church is doing, or by prayerfully committing to sharing Christ with friends, neighbours, or colleagues. Now this is point at which the Impossibility Gap may become really personal, because maybe on hearing my third suggestion some readers might think: “Even if the things that Andy says are true, I personally can’t do anything because God can’t use me. I that accept evangelism is possible in this country, but it’s not possible for me.” And if we asked you why, perhaps you would object that you are too young, or too weak in faith, or too inexperienced, or whatever.

I understand the emotional force of those objections, I really do. But don’t let them hold you back. Be encouraged, because when you read the Bible you discover that God used people with all kinds of weaknesses, failures, objections, and hang ups for his purposes. I would go so far as to suggest that I can’t think of a single example in scripture of a perfect evangelist who had everything all figured out and together.

For example, God used Abraham (a coward and a liar); Moses (knock-kneed with fear at the thought of speaking); Jacob (a thief and a cheat); Jonah (a racist who so hated his enemies, he didn’t want to preach to them); Rahab (a prostitute); David (an adulterer and murderer); the Gadarene demoniac (a social outcast); a bunch of frightened men and women, hiding out in fear of the authorities. If God was able to use all those people (and others equally messed up), he can certainly use you and me.

God is able to use even the smaller and the weakest to spread the good news of Jesus. A few years ago I was involved in a mission week at a major university. My colleagues and I worked with the Christian Union on the campus to bring the gospel to thousands of students. We would start each day with a prayer meeting and would encourage the 50 or so students who attended it to invite their friends to the various outreach events that day. One particular student, Lucy, a tiny slip of a girl, repeatedly said she hadn’t got the courage to invite any of her friends—she was terrified they would laugh at her or reject her: “It’s impossible, they’ll never come anyway” Lucy said sadly.

Finally by the Thursday of missions week, we had encouraged Lucy to pluck up the courage to invite just one friend to a lunchtime event that day, when the pastor from one of the nearby churches was going to speak on Christianity and sexuality. Her friend accepted the invite and came to the talk. During the Q&A she even asked a couple of questions and then hung around after the event to talk to the speaker. More questions followed—and more and more. For four hours she asked the speaker question after question until finally she said: “This all makes sense to me. How do I become a Christian?’ And there, at the back of the lecture theatre, Lucy and the pastor prayed with her friend to receive Christ.

The next day, at the morning prayer meeting, I have never seen such a rapid change in a person’s demeanour. From shy and timid, Lucy was now bold and confident—“God used me!” she kept repeating. “He used me! Me!” Despite her fear and trembling, Lucy had stepped up and the Lord had been faithful. And Lucy went from being the most timid person to one of the boldest student evangelists on campus I have seen, all as a result of that one experience of the Lord using her.

One of my favourite passages of scripture is Revelation 7:9-11 where John’s amazing vision of a “great multitude too numerous to count” are described, standing in heaven before God’s throne and worshipping. People, we are told, from every nation, language, people group, and culture. Which tells me that God plans to rescue and redeem people from every culture: from Iran to China, from ancient Greece to ancient Rome, right down to people from the secular post-Christian West. And the beautiful thing is that rather than do it himself, which he has the power to, God chooses to work through us, despite our fears and our inadequacies. God delights in using the weak things of the world—because it’s when we realise we don’t have the ability, we’re forced to rely on him, as we’re supposed to.

As C. S. Lewis would have put it, Aslan is very much on the move. And so the question is whether we going to stand, trembling on the sidelines and watch, or are we going to go with him. Maybe with shaky steps and fearful hearts and knocking knees, but nevertheless stepping forward, with confidence in our hearts and a song on our lips. Maybe a great missionary hymn to encourage us, such as this one:[12]

I, the Lord of sea and sky
I have heard my people cry
All who dwell in dark and sin
My hand will save
I, who made the stars of night
I will make their darkness bright
Who will bear my light to them?
Whom shall I send?

Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night
I will go, Lord, if you lead me
I will hold your people in my heart

I, the Lord of snow and rain
I have borne my people’s pain
I have wept for love of them
They turn away
I will break their hearts of stone
Give them hearts for love alone
Who will speak my word to them
Whom shall I send?

Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night
I will go, Lord, if you lead me
I will hold your people in my heart

I, the Lord of wind and flame
I will tend the poor and lame
I will set a feast for them
My hand will save
Finest bread I will provide
‘Til their hearts be satisfied
I will give my life to them
Whom shall I send?

Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night
I will go, Lord, if you lead me
I will hold your people in my heart

May this, indeed, be our prayer: “Lord, nothing is impossible for you! So here I am, Lord, please send me.”

[1]        Peter went on to explain how he’d just learnt to ask really good questions of patients: ‘Tell me about your diet, are you eating well?’; ‘And exercise: are you exercising properly?’; finally: ‘What about spirituality, are you finding space for that?’ Invariably patients reply along the line of: ‘Spirituality? What do you mean?’ And then Peter would say something like: ‘Well, you know, some people meditate; some people do yoga; in my case, I’m a Christian, I read the Bible, pray, and go to church—those kind of things.’ Peter went on to say that in the majority of cases, the patient would then ask: ‘You go to church, doctor?’ And now they’re asking him, and he is much freer to talk about his faith in reply to their questions.

[2]        A great account of the Early Church and its growth is F. F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame: The Rise and Progress of Christianity from its First Beginnings to the Conversion of the English. (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1982).

[3]        See

[4]        See

[5]        This kind of romanticism is not helped by songs like Jerusalem. It’s worth remembering that the answer to the first verse is ‘No they didn’t’ and the answer to the second is ‘Fetch it yourself’.

[6]        Horace Mann, Census of Great Britain, 1851: Religious Worship in England and Wales, (Ge. Routledge), 1854, p. 93. Census of Great Britain, 1851: Religious worship in England and Wales, abridged from the official report made by H. Mann. 1854, Census of Great Britain, 1851: religious worship, England and Wales: reports and tables [1690] H.C., (1852-3), Vol. LXXXIX, 1, [1852-3] and Census of Great Britain, 1851: Religious worship and education: Scotland: reports and tables [1764] H.C., (1854), Vol. LIX, 301, [1854]. See the discussion at

[7]        Cited in Kevin Belmonte, William Wilberforce: A Hero for Humanity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007) p. 100.

[8]        See ‘Size and projected growth of major religious groups, 2015-2060’, Pew Research Center,

[9]        Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity?: The Gospel Beyond the West. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003).

[10]       Sean Oliver-Dee, God’s Unwelcome Recovery: Why the New Establishment Wants to Proclaim the Death of Faith (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2015).

[11]       I can also highly recommend the 30-day devotional book, Confident, published by Keswick Ministries; it’s a brilliant series of short daily Bible studies designed to help grow your confidence in God.

[12]       Dan Schulz, Here I am Lord. There’s a great version you can watch and listen to here: