I grew up in the South during the twilight era of Billy Graham crusades and Evangelism Explosion. As a conservative evangelical Christian, I was schooled in the scenes of mass conversions and multiple invitations. Because of all the repetition, I knew the hymn “Just as I Am” by heart.
Integral to this experience was the “Sinners’ Prayer”; a brief 90- to 100-word prayer that was included in every Sunday morning invitation and at every youth event. It begins with the person praying acknowledging their sin and ends with their asking Jesus to come into their hearts. My young mind probably prayed that 100-word prayer at least 100 times. It became a sacrament to me, a means of regularly receiving God’s grace. It was my formula for faith. When I was in fear or doubt, I just followed the formula, said the prayer, felt better and moved on with life.
This prayer was also my chief means of evangelism. Although I’m an introvert, and quite shy, it was my goal to lead conversations about faith and salvation to a point where the person I was talking with could utter those words. I could then say I “led someone to Christ.”
Even my church would report the numbers of those saved every week, month and year. The success of every outreach and group teach was measured in terms of how many people prayed that one prayer. There was only one problem: Not everyone I shared with prayed those words. And some who did, including myself, lived lives that reflected very little evidence that the prayer was anything more than a quaint poem.
I spent the first decade and a half of my 20-plus years as a Christian burdened with the idea that my task in evangelism was two-fold: to share and to bring about conversion. If I was faithful to the first task but unproductive in the second, I would experience debilitating discouragement. I was measuring my spiritual worth solely by the success I was having with the Sinners’ Prayer.
So when I came to see the responsibility for others’ salvation isn’t mine, but God’s, it’s difficult for me to convey the feeling that washed over my heart.
Each one of us, if we call ourselves Christians, assume the role of evangelist in one capacity or another. Evangelism is the proclamation of the love of God in the Gospel of Christ to those in need of redemption. But it is easy when engaging in evangelism to become discouraged if conversion is not immediate, or if there is not an instant result. To avoid this, I find it’s helpful to recall these three realities.
The Cultural Reality
We live in a results-driven culture. This fact is undeniable. The worth of every business is judged on its profits; the success of every politician on their elections; the fame of every actor on their awards; and the value of every life on its productivity. The biography section of your fading local bookstore is notably devoid of any books on the ordinary non-achieving life. Incidentally, my bookstore itself is fading because it no longer can deliver the cost-efficient results that readers desire.
This tendency to find meaning in our successes is undeniably cross-cultural, indispensably human and as old as Eden. The first murder recorded in history occurred because of a struggle over success and shattered expectations (Genesis 4). One brother’s offering did not garner the results he desired. When by faith Abel produced an offering more acceptable to God, his brother Cain, unwilling to live in a world where someone else was more successful, killed his brother and removed his competition. He followed the formula: gather the offering, give it to God, get God’s favor.
But he was unsuccessful. Cain was cursed to walk the earth searching for significance, marked by God as one enslaved to his desire to be successful in the eyes of men. This environment of competition and the draw to find our worth in success is the fundamental reality of our culture.
Our Personal Reality
Each of us is born into a life of Cain-like wandering, each marked by the desire to reduce faith to a formula for success. The same tendency to be in control, to approach God on our terms, exists in us as it did with Cain. We define the path, write the prayer, people say the prayer, and God is pleased. 1 + 1 = 2. It’s easier and, honestly, more gratifying this way—we control the process, and we take credit for the results.
Our personal reality is that we want control and we want credit with God for our work. On the surface we may be praising God, but too often, deep in our hearts pride takes over and we worship our success, rather than our Savior.
The Sinners’ Prayer is not bad in and of itself. But we must guard against our tendency to trust in the means of salvation more than the man of salvation.
The Reality of Our God
God does not need our assistance in the task of evangelism. This God has written His law on the hearts of men. He can arrest a mountain with His glory and apprehend a heart with a vision of the heavens. However, by His grace and providence, we can only cry out to Him when we believe, we can only believe when we have heard, and we only hear when someone proclaims the truth to us (Romans 10:14).
There is great freedom and relief that comes when we realize that faith is not the result of our work it is the result of God’s grace. Faith is not a formula we follow; it is a gift from the Father. John 6:44 records the words of Jesus that “no one comes to Me unless the Father, who sent me, draws him. …” God’s Spirit draws us out of His compassion not our merits; and we come to faith because of His grace not our prayers.
This divine reality, not just some formula, should shape and encourage our evangelism. We are free from the burden of formulaic faith, and given a message of hope and love to share with those in need. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians that his “message and preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” He did this so that the believer’s faith would not rest in the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.
When we stop relying on mere techniques share our faith, we begin to see the true miracle of grace that occurs when someone comes to know Christ.
So should we share with others? Yes. Should we pray? Absolutely. But remember to rest not in the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.