One of the reasons the average Christian does not like sharing the gospel is that she may have been taught a model of evangelism that resembles a search and rescue operation. The goal in this model is to find the non-Christian, defeat the unbelief holding him hostage, and win him over to complete belief in Christ, all in one encounter. The tactics, therefore, must be aggressive and direct, and always aim for conversion in that moment. If the target does not want to be rescued, the attempt is a failure.
For the average Christian, this is frankly a scary proposition. The only kind of person to which this approach appeals is someone who is naturally blunt, extroverted, and fearless. Some people are like this and can be very effective in evangelism. But really, how many people get saved the first time they hear the gospel? And if the approach is “one and done,” and the encounter has been unpleasant, the unbeliever may be less likely to be open to the gospel than before. This model of evangelism, then, has limited value.
Most Christians blanch at the thought of search and rescue evangelism. Such a confrontation is too intense to imagine, and, therefore, better left untried, or left to the experts. As a result, most Christians don’t share their faith on a regular basis.
Search and rescue, however, is not the only model of evangelism and apologetics.
Paul uses the metaphor of planting and watering when he speaks of his partnership with Apollos in building up the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 3:5-9). He recognizes that he and Apollos play a part in the cultivation of gospel teaching, but it is God who produces the fruit. Paul recognizes both God’s sovereignty and His use of secondary means, such as himself and Apollos.
Without a recognition of God’s sovereignty, the seed cultivation model seems untenable. After all, where is the urgency in evangelism if I am only playing a part in God’s rescue of a sinner over time, and not producing the fruit myself right now?
With a belief in God’s sovereignty, however, we come to see that the salvation of a sinner comes at the end of a long process. God has called that sinner without ceasing all his life through creation, which declares God’s glory every day (Ps. 19:1-2), and through a multitude of various contacts with the truth. These may include him seeing Bible verses on a billboard, meeting Christians who cross his path, hearing a radio preacher, holiday visits to a gospel-proclaiming church, reading a gospel tract, existential crises, experiencing joy and beauty, longing for peace and hope, and many more.
While the search and rescue model carries a built-in urgency, its “all or nothing” approach can make Christians immune to any sense of urgency. This is because if every contact with an unbeliever is a do-or-die moment, I will tend to avoid evangelizing simply because of the emotional stress brought on by “urgency overload.” Search and rescue urgency is a wonderful goal for every believer, but it is not realistically sustainable for the average Christian.
The seed cultivation model does carry a sense of urgency, but it is driven by joy, not fear. This urgency arises out of a conviction that God is the one doing a great work of search and rescue in this world and has called his people to be sowers and waterers of the seed of the gospel. We are assured that our little, frail efforts at evangelism and apologetics are empowered by the very Holy Spirit who has the divine ability to transform hearts through regeneration. Our efforts are the secondary means that God uses to bring the gospel message to unbelievers.
In this model, then, we play a real part in the salvation of souls, all the while resting in the confidence that God is the one who brings the fruits of repentance and faith.
This means that whether an unbeliever gets saved or not when I share the gospel, I am helping to cultivate the seed of the implanted knowledge of God in every person by shining the light of the gospel in their hearts. I may be the first to plant the seed or I may be the one who gets to reap the harvest. Either way, the relentless pressure of the search and rescue model is removed, and I can freely and confidently speak as much of the gospel as the Holy Spirit makes the unbeliever’s heart ready to receive. I can rejoice that any part of the gospel that I have the ability to proclaim will continue to bring that unbeliever to a saving knowledge of Christ.
If the average Christian would see evangelism this way, perhaps more actual evangelizing would take place in churches. And with more Christians than just the extroverts sharing the gospel, perhaps more souls would be saved, and more churches would begin to grow again.
Let me conclude with an example. I was in a coffee shop Wednesday waiting for my son to get a haircut, when I struck up a conversation with a woman sitting next to me. It was one of those glorious opportunities when I didn’t have to coax conversation about spiritual matters out of her. She had a dozen questions about God and the Christian gospel, and we talked for almost an hour in a very natural and relaxed tone. Although she didn’t trust Christ as her Savior, her misunderstandings about so many aspects of the gospel were cleared away. She walked away with a clearer sense of her need for Jesus, and some gospel pleading on her heart. It was an evangelistic victory because the seed of the gospel was watered.
Seed cultivation is always a victory, because it’s all God calls us to do in evangelism.