The Professional Gap

“Think of the money we’ll save if we don’t employ a professional and I just do it myself.” Words I once naïvely offered to my wife to justify cutting down a large tree in our back garden. We had been renting the property for over a year and I had grown weary of the way several neglected Conifers had been allowed to eclipse any meaningful sunlight entering the back garden. So, in a rush of blood to the head and meagrely armed with little more than a semi-blunt handsaw and dodgy ladder, I decided to remove one particular problematic tree at the edge of the garden. After a couple of hours of hard labour, I managed to remove all the branches with my saw and some extendable loppers. All that remained was to fell the lingering trunk of this twenty-five foot evergreen. Unfortunately, the height of my ladder only permitted me to cut into the truck at a maximum height of twelve feet. Not letting this deter me (though it really should have!), I pressed on with sawing into the trunk. As I approached the halfway stage, the destabilising truck began to sway. Suddenly it dawned on me just how heavy thirteen feet of think Conifer trunk actually is and I had no skill or experience whatsoever in ensuring that the trunk fell exactly where I wanted it to. As a cold sweat dripped down my back, I accepted the inconvenient truth that the felling was at the point of no return. It was too dangerous to leave the trunk in its current condition: conifer must fall. Just then, a slightly anxious neighbour appeared offering to move the car they had parked on the street on the opposite side of my garden fence. Feebly attempting to assure them that I would make the trunk fall into our garden and not out towards the road, they moved the vehicle anyway. A few minutes of nervous sawing later the trunk fell… smashing right through one of my fence panels and out on the street, landing in the exact spot where my neighbours’ car had been parked just moments earlier! It was like something out of a Laurel and Hardy skit. And – I kid you not – as if to rub salt into the wounds of my stupidity, ten minutes later a private tree services company who had been working in a local property, drove along the street, noticed the horticultural disaster I had created, and offered to tidy everything up and remove all clippings for £50. Armed with proper equipment and expertise, it took the professionals a mere fifteen minutes to fix a catastrophe I had spent hours creating. Explaining the broken fence panel to my landlord, however, wasn’t so easy!

There are many responsibilities in life that really are best left to the professionals. For example, electrically rewiring a house, road vehicle servicing, or Root Canal surgery. The reasons we are wise to delegate such roles to professionals is because, on the one hand, performing these jobs well requires years of specialised training and expertise, and, on the other hand, not performing these jobs well can lead to all kinds of future problems, perhaps even future tragedies. Yet, if we are not careful, the same mindset can subtly creep into our personal confidence and sense of responsibility when it comes to Christian evangelism. As convinced as we may be about the importance of the good news of Christianity being shared with others, we might find ourselves thinking: “This is not really something for me. Sharing my faith persuasively in today’s culture is best left to the professionals. After all, they are ones who can do it most effectively. And if I was to try to do this myself, I might make such hash of it that I create more – rather than less – obstacles for someone taking Christianity seriously!”

In my experience, this professional gap or obstacle to our engagement with evangelism stems from at least three influences: First, is the reality we all acknowledge that sharing our faith is never an easy, and almost always an intimidating thing to do, especially if significant friendships or professional relationships are on the line. Sharing our faith effectively requires important skills in areas such as the art of conversation, in avoiding rhetoric that makes sense only to people within the Church, and in finding the right balance between contributing your thoughts and inviting the thoughts of another by asking good open-questions. Most of us have all seen bad expressions of evangelism, so we know how we wouldn’t want to do it. Yet, we have also encountered exceptionally gifted individuals, for whom communicating the claims of Christianity persuasively and answering difficult sceptical questions appears as natural as breathing. Given the obvious disparity between the gifting of these evangelistic Jedi and a realistic acknowledgement of our personal limitations and inexperience in sharing our faith, it can seem like a no-brainer to point sceptics and seekers towards these “professionals”, rather than expect them to indulge a novice like ourselves.

The second factor influencing the potential delegation of evangelism to “the professionals” is the broader culture within many churches of subcontracting many elements of ministry responsibility to those employed to serve within these arenas. A prime example of this is in the context of youth ministry, where – as a former full-time youth and student worker myself – I often saw parents abdicate almost all responsibility for the spiritual wellbeing of their children to the youth pastor. After all, that’s what they are being paid for, right? Wrong. Yet the same mentality and expectation can creep in when it comes to evangelism. Because many of our historic approaches to evangelism involved getting unbelievers into an evangelistic meeting and “under the sound of the Gospel” – by which we meant exposing them to someone preaching from a pulpit and which would only ever be done by either the pastor or a guest speaker – actually opening one’s mouth and communicating the Christian faith to people became the responsibility of some gifted other; the major evangelistic responsibility most Christians bore was simply to get non-Christian friends and colleagues into a building so that they could experience the professional at work in their evangelism.

Finally, a third factor that I believe is influencing the Professional Gap in evangelism is the way in which much of Christian apologetics is often being unhelpfully modelled today. As UK society increasingly secularises and the vast majority of citizens now grow up biblically illiterate, many Christians now rightly recognise that effective evangelism requires more than simply confronting people with Gospel preaching à la Billy Graham. Most unbelievers have been so thoroughly baptised in secular ideologies and values that they struggle to easily comprehend the rationality of Christian claims and harbour a plethora of questions and misconceptions that they need addressed before they can ever entertain becoming a Christian. In response to these significant evangelistic challenges, many churches or  groups have turned to Christian apologetics, often expressed through the largely academic model of inviting a highly-educated Christian “expert” – either on their own or in debate with an equally intellectual sceptical opponent – to address some “big question” that demonstrates the credibility of Christianity and then be cross-examined on their ideas in a live Q&A session. I can remember such an occasion several years ago in my own church when a world-leading Christian apologist addressed the question of God and natural disasters. Unsurprisingly, this individual tackled the subject and ensuing questions with spectacular expertise and intellect. Yet, in my conversations with attendees following the event, it became clear that this high-level approach actually only served to reinforce, if not entrench, the professional gap in evangelism. Most of those who were there that night left reassured that at least some Christians out there had good answers to these intimidating challenges to faith. Yet when it came to any consideration of them personally engaging with these types of questions among non-Christian friends, the model of apologetics/evangelism that they experienced that evening only served to both convince them that apologetics was for highly intellectual Christians and, therefore, they simply didn’t have the capability (or even the genetics!) to do apologetics/evangelism if this was what doing it well looked like. The success of that evening actually became its failure, especially when this model of evangelism wasn’t supplemented with more plausible expressions and models of evangelism that normal people could have confidence they could get on board with.

As common as these factors might be in influencing a Professional Gap in evangelism we need to resist them strongly for both practical and theological reasons: Practically, we need to resist the professional gap because the frontlines of Christian witness have undeniably moved from the pulpit or Gospel crusade event to the staffroom, coffee shop, office watercooler and home dinner table. As emerging generations grow up increasingly vacuous of prior contact with local church ministries via things like Sunday schools, christenings, or youth organisations, it has become significantly more difficult for unbelievers to willingly attend evangelistic events in church contexts. Furthermore, it is my experience that the weekly in-house demands of full-time pastoral ministry mean that many church leaders spend far less time in meaningful relationships with non-Christians than the members of their congregation who mix with them every day in work, recreation and other social contexts. This raises important questions about where, and to what extent, local churches invest in evangelism, for, humanly speaking, it seems more likely that sustained efforts in training congregations to do effective evangelism outside the church could prove much more sustainable and even fruitful than sporadic approaches at getting people to encounter a specialist inside the church.

The second, theological reason why we ought to resist the tendency towards a professional gap in evangelism is simply because the notion that Christian evangelism is best left to the experts is one that is completely alien to the New Testament. Jesus’ Great Commission that his followers go into society and make disciples by sharing the message of the risen Christ was a mandate issued to every Christian believer  indiscriminately – including even those who still wrestled with doubts about certain elements of their faith (cf. Matt.28:16-20). Moreover, when the Apostle Peter urged the believers of Anatolian Peninsula to “…always be prepared to give to anyone who asks you a reason for the hope within you…” (1 Peter 3:15) as they lived out their faith in first-century society, he was not talking about public speaking from a platform and certainly did not have in mind that this endeavour would be the exclusive task of a small group of highly intellectual specialists known as the “Christian apologist”. It was a command given to every church member! Let us be clear: Absolutely nowhere in the New Testament is the practice of apologetics presented as some kind of spiritual gift, designated to some and not to others. Nor is there any distinct spiritual office of “the apologist”. Christian apologetics is simply what is happening when believers engage with others about their faith, exploring the questions that naturally arise from unbelievers and seekers, and offering persuasive bases for why Jesus’ claims and teachings can be trusted. It is to be a practice as universal and inherent to Christian experience as prayer or partaking in Communion. That is not to say that there is not often a vast disparity of confidence or proficiency in evangelism among believers, often due to things like personality type or levels of training and experience. After all, the New Testament does speak of the gift of evangelism and office of the Evangelist. However, it is simply to make the crucial point that simply because there are often disparities of ability in this area – disparities which may indeed make us feel like feeble amateurs when juxtaposed with those Premier League “professionals” – this does not mean that the Lord does not want us to be active in sharing our Christian hope with others and rather delegate the responsibility to others, no matter how competent. God has more purpose to our being involved in evangelism than simply how “successful” we can be in leading others to Christ. And just because there may be other individuals who are evidently and strategically gifted by the Lord as evangelists does not mean that we are not all as believers to be involved in what Paul described to Timothy as “[doing] the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 2:5). Each of us, no matter what our individual ability at any given moment in our Christian walk, need to be meaningfully engaged in communicating our hope in Christ in accordance with our own personalities, capacities and spheres of influence. And the mandate that Jesus has given each of us to be an active participant in this element of Christian life is not contingent upon the status of our individual confidence or proficiency in doing so, but rather upon the fact Jesus has commanded us.

So before we find ourselves falling for the professional gap again, let me conclude by offering four brief pieces of advice that I hope will encourage you to find your own place in God’s mission and not delegate it to the apparent “experts”.

  1. Remember that God intimately knows and takes seriously your individual personality, as well as your present levels of ability and experience in evangelism, and will not expect you to do operate beyond them. This is not to suggest that we shouldn’t be willing stretch ourselves and even take risks evangelistically at times, nor that the Lord has not promised to supernaturally help us in what to say in specific contexts where we are dragged before authorities without warning to give account for our faith (cf. Luke 12:11-12). It is, however, to reassure us that, like Jesus presented in the Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30), God entrusts each of us with real responsibility in his mission field, we do not all have the same responsibility; and the responsibility we do have before the Lord in this area is in direct proportion to the level of capacity that God has given to us. Of course, when we see or hear an exceptionally gifted evangelistic communicator operating in the sweet-spot of their calling and offering brilliant answers to terrifying questions, it is easy to assume that, if that’s what meaningful evangelism demands, we could never do it. What we need to realise is that this is only one particular aspect of what evangelism could look like, or should look like for that What we need to remember is that evangelism is far from a monolithic enterprise; there are as many different types of effective evangelism as there are personalities involved in sharing their faith. Some people are great public speakers who thrive on a platform communicating to hundreds yet aren’t great at 1-2-1 evangelism. For others, the thought of speaking on a stage terrifies them but they are brilliant at conversational evangelism among friends and colleagues. The challenge for us as individuals before the Lord is to discover and be content with where we fit best in participating in God’s mission, and the only way to discover this is to start trying things and trust that the Lord will faithfully show us were our strengths and weakness lie as we give evangelism a go.
  2. Remember that effective evangelism is a dynamic process and simply because we might lack confidence or levels of ability or knowledge today, does not mean that the Lord wants us to stay there and won’t help us develop. When 1 Peter talks about “always being prepared to give an answer..,” the word Peter uses for “being prepared” is a word derived from the idea of physical fitness. In other words, like physical fitness, our preparedness for evangelism is not a static process, but one that dynamically responds to if and how much we are exercising our evangelistic muscles. Today, we might seem like a million miles away from the abilities of other evangelists. But that is not to say that, with a little personal study or practice we cannot make significant strides in our ability. Of course, we may still never get to the level of others but that may not be what the Lord expects of us, so why expect it of ourselves. Instead, like David in confronting Goliath (1 Sam. 17), we need to avoid the expectation of wearing another’s armour and step into the evangelistic areas as ourselves, with the gifts and abilities the Lord has given – and is continuing to develop – in us.
  3. Start with small steps and do your evangelism with others. One of the most helpful ways to participate in evangelism – especially if you haven’t done it for a while and are a bit rusty – is to do it with others who are more experienced. Sharing your faith alongside others will help mitigate natural anxieties, help us avoid feeling that the responsibility to be successful is all on us, and provide the timely encouragement and support we all need in the crucibles of sharing our faith. It will also allow us an objective pair of eyes that can help us discover where are strengths and weakness in evangelism presently lie. Start with manageable steps so that you don’t get overwhelmed or discouraged. Remember that the most common apologetic that we see the Apostle Paul use when given an opportunity to explain his faith in the New Testament is his personal testimony. So make sure that you can explain your story in a simple and brief way that you can organically weave into conversation with others. Try to learn to explain your testimony in terms of why you are convinced that Christianity is true, rather than simply cataloguing the historic details of how you became a Christian.
  4. Finally, remember that, no matter what our familiarity with or abilities in evangelism, there is ultimately only one expert in Christian witness to the world, namely, the Holy Spirit. Even the great apostles were told not to begin the task of evangelising the world until the Holy Spirit with them, supernaturally empowering them with the only means available to truly transform human hearts (cf. Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8). Therefore, no matter how gifted, knowledgeable or experienced we might appear to be, all of us are only ever going to be mere apprentices or junior counsel to the chief advocate and witness that God has given to “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (Jn. 16:8). What an incredible assurance then that, as we obey Christ and take up the mandate of sharing our faith with others, God has not left us alone the task, but has given all of us – regardless of our ability – the True Professional evangelist, whose primary job description is to stand alongside us, feeble as we will surely be even in our best moments, and boldly bear witness to Christ in the world, endowed with supernatural power that only can change even the hardest human heart.