The Rusty Gap

Always be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope within you.
1 Peter 3:15

 Some years ago, my wife and I enjoyed an Easter vacation in New York city. On one particular evening, following an Off-Broadway musical and a stroll along 8th Avenue to drink in the Manhattan ambience, I turned on the TV in our hotel room to be met with an infomercial for Beachbody’s latest DVD workout programme, Insanity. For the next twenty-five minutes, I was sold an exercise regime claiming to be unlike anything else on the market, and promising pro-athlete conditioning and washboard abs in just sixty days. So upon return to Ireland, I paid my dues to the gods of fitness and pushed play on my first Insanity workout DVD. Let’s just say the workout programme was appropriately name: Insanity is a max-interval, forty-five minute cardio blitzkrieg. I managed about sixteen minutes before having to go outside and throw-up! Yet, slowly but surely, as I kept daily pushing play on my DVD player and hitting the workouts, my body began to respond. The workouts became more manageable, even enjoyable. My body became leaner, my endurance longer, and my muscles stronger. And even if I wasn’t quite ready to join the cast of Baywatch just yet, eventually I made it to day sixty: Insanity complete.

Having reached my goal, I stopped training or watching my diet as closely. Ten months later, I decided to return to Insanity and attack the regime all over again. This time, it only took fourteen minutes for me to revisit my lunch! Why? Because physical fitness is a dynamic reality; our fitness levels never stay static but progress or regress according to how they are stimulated. I am one of those irrational people who, despite my wife’s protests, convinces myself that I can more or less pick up at the level of exercise I left off at following a long hiatus. The hard reality is that, in trying to do so, I either end up discouraging myself to the point of losing motivation, or often injure myself and spend the next two months in physiotherapy recovering before I can even contemplate attempting any level of exercise again. The fact is, our bodies respond to being worked in certain ways. Often, they are capable of far more than we expected when we first began exercising. Yet the moment we stop using our bodies in this way, our fitness doesn’t remain static at the level we left it. It recedes to a basic level until we do things again to build it back up.

The same is often true of evangelism.

Interestingly, when the Apostle Peter encourages Christians to “…always be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope within you” (1 Peter 3:15), the word he uses for “ready” (hetoimoi) is a word that, at its root, carries the idea of physical fitness. In other words, preparedness for effective evangelism is a lot like exercising. Becoming fit takes hard work, dedication, and following good instruction from inspirational people who know more about it than you currently do. And, much like physical fitness, maintaining our proficiency in public witness requires a continual exercising of our evangelistic muscles because, the moment we stop, we get rusty – our skillset begins to atrophy. That is why readiness in Christian witness is not like readiness for a marathon or exam in the sense that we know when the test is coming, and once we have done it we don’t need to keep training any longer. Fitness for evangelism is much more like First Aid training: we have to remain continually ready because we often have to respond effectively to an opportunity that arrives without any prior warning whatsoever. The only sure way, therefore, to guarantee our fitness for these unexpected moments, is to live in a continual state of evangelistic fitness: always be ready.

No doubt many of us can recount seasons of regular involvement in sharing our faith with others, perhaps in those early days as a new Christian, or on summer mission teams with our peers during those four-month holidays that university students have to endure. Like most people, we probably found those initial attempts at sharing the gospel both intimidating and stretching, but the more we kept pushing ‘play’ on those witnessing opportunities, the more we saw the Lord gradually increase our evangelism strength and fitness; it became something we actually enjoyed, rather than simply endured. Yet somehow – often unintentionally – the demands of work, family, care-giving, romance, even church activities took over and evangelism became neglected, like an old pair or running shoes or dumbbells now collecting dust in the garage. Eventually, however, someone or something can come along that motivates us to get off the proverbial couch and back into intentionally shining the light of the glorious gospel into a dark and broken world. But, if we’re honest, committing to regularly share our faith again with others might feel like having to run the London marathon when the only thing you have run in the last fifteen years is a warm bath. Our evangelism is rusty; our proficiency at meaningfully sharing our faith is badly out of shape.

So if we feel a little rusty or all out of shape for evangelism, what can we do? The simple answer is that we have two options: First, we can do nothing and come up with all kinds of creative reasons why we cannot get evangelistically active once again. Or, second, we can commit ourselves afresh to obeying the bible’s command that every Christian be respectfully and persuasively communicating the hope of the gospel among those they know and love. If you find yourself vying for option 2 (and I suggest that you do!), let me offer a few pieces of practical advice that I personally have found helpful in removing the evangelistic rust and getting my public witness moving again.

First, seek out effective means of motivation. One of the very first things that I will often do when I want to get back into a workout regime is to watch inspirational videos on Youtube or Instagram that document people’s fitness transformations. It helps me to see what is possible with a little dedication and stimulates confidence that I too could achieve similar feats of progress. The same is true of Christian witness. Often it’s in encountering the remarkable ways that God has used other people just like us that we gain the confidence that the Lord can and will help us, if only we will give evangelism a proper go once again. So, why not try watching some videos online or reading an inspirational biography of a Christian missionary or unlikely convert (for example, Consumed by Hate, Redeemed by Love by Thomas A. Tarrants, A War of Loves by David Bennett, or David Wilkerson’s classic The Cross and the Switchblade)? You could also explore some of the Solas PEP Talk podcast episodes, or our new series on faith at work, to discover how other people are navigating their Christian witness. If you can, it might also be beneficial to dig out some old photos or footage from mission trips or evangelistic initiatives that you’ve been involved with in the past. Once you get over the embarrassment of your old haircut (or the nostalgia that you once had hair!), perhaps, like the altars Abraham built, you’ll find  doing so to be a stimulating reminder of the joy, grace and help you experienced from God in the past when you stepped out in witness for Christ. Why should you expect any less from the Lord if you step out once again?

Second, begin praying regularly for opportunities to share your faith, as well as for people you know who are not yet Christians. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together described prayer as an “… unbroken, constant learning, accepting and impressing upon [our] mind of God’s will in Jesus Christ.” In other words, prayer is the context in which God shapes our minds and wills to reflect His own love for lost people. Our passion for people to meet Jesus will never be greater than when it’s learning to echo the love of the One who wept over Jerusalem, and prayer is where we capture this quality. In doing so, our appetite for evangelism will move beyond an unhealthy dependency on how convenient we find it at any given moment, or how capable we may or may not feel ourselves to be at it. Instead, we will keep going, even in those moments when it’s difficult and discouraging, because God has transformed our hearts to share his love for people and because we are thoroughly convinced that “there is no other name under heaven given among mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Make a list of five or six people that you would like to have a conversation with about your faith and ask the Lord to give you the courage to have a meaningful conversation with them about Jesus.

Third, be realistic about your evangelism fitness levels and don’t try to do too much too soon. One of the potential hazards in finding inspirational evangelistic figures is that we often want to be able to do the kinds of things that they did, without realising that we are viewing or reading the product of potentially decades of experience and learning in effective Christian witness. So, before you run out and sign yourself up for the Grill-A-Christian night at the local Student’s Union or Atheist society, take a lesson from my unrealistic ventures in getting back into fitness by attempting levels of exercise that I was nowhere near ready for at that stage. You might just save yourself (and others!) embarrassment or, worse, spiritual injury if you do. If, in reality, you are only getting back into evangelism, start with manageable opportunities that are likely to keep you engaged and encouraged. This might be signing up to help facilitate an Alpha or Christianity Explored group alongside a more experienced Christian. It might be strategically sharing good evangelistic content, such as Solas’s Short/Answer videos, on your social media platforms. It could be organising events in your workplace or local community where you invite speakers to come along and discuss ideas on big questions about life, truth and meaning. It may even be taking the time to intentionally work out, write down and memorise a strong, three-minute answer to the question, “Why are you a Christian?” and then find ways to naturally weave it into conversation with others at appropriate times.

Finally, don’t do it alone. I am far more likely not to give up on a new exercise regime if I am doing it with others who can keep me motivated and accountable. It’s the same with Christian witness. Evangelism can be a long and discouraging experience at times, and we all need those Samwise Gamgee figures who can support us, reassure us, and rightly recalibrate our perspective at crucial moments. Try to find a collective of people – ideally from your own church or community (but, if not, then online) – who are passionate for evangelism and with whom you can pray, share resources, and talk with about inevitable disappointments and successes. We at Solas delight in connecting and resourcing people in the context of evangelism. So if we can assist you or your church in any way, don’t hesitate to reach out to us.

Returning to evangelism after an all-too-long season on the couch can be even more intimidating than getting back into physical fitness, even ones as intense as Insanity. It is going to time, hard work, experience and the support of others to help us rebuild our confidence and rediscover those skills of knowledge, perception and conversation that will enable us to become fit evangelists. Remember, however, that our Great Instructor, the Lord Jesus Christ, understands our fears and weaknesses, and knows how to develop us in His own time and in ways suitable to our personality, if we are truly serious about the process. He is not going to throw us into the evangelism equivalent of a 10k within our first week. Instead, as we keep showing up and putting ourself in evangelistic contexts, He will strategically work with us – guiding us, stretching us and encouraging us every step of the way until, eventually, we realise the incredible progress that we have made. Why not, even today, commit again to the kind of fitness that will bring greater and more lasting rewards than even physical exercise (cf. 1 Timothy 4:8)? The kind of fitness that won’t simply benefit your life, but truly has the power to play a crucial role in forever transforming the life of another human being.

There is certainly nothing insane about that kind of workout.