Ray Comfort is a contradiction of sorts. His diminutive 5-foot-5-inch frame disguises his uncanny boldness when confronting unbelievers with their need for Christ. And his whimsical demeanor conceals his dead-earnest seriousness as he tracks down sinners and confronts them with the claims of Christ.
It's 7:30 a.m. when I meet Ray. He's perched on a chair in his simple office, clad in jeans and short sleeves. A large print of the Titanic sinking is on one wall--reminding him of the plight of the lost. A cat is curled up under a chair. Ray kicks it across the room. I flinch. The cat is stuffed.
In the hallway, a small sign invites passers-by to look more closely. I do, and a rubber spider drops from the ceiling onto my shoulder. Elsewhere, a photo of Ray is tacked conspicuously close to the floorboards. A caption below the photo reads: "Stand up. I'm only human."
Ray looks at his watch. It's 7:45 a.m. and time to head across the street to the Bellflower branch of the Los Angeles Superior Court. Fifty people quietly wait in line outside the building. At 8 a.m., they will enter to face the judge, protesting traffic tickets and other offenses, both major and minor.
But for the next 15 minutes, they are a captive audience, so Ray gives each person a pamphlet with tips on what to do (and not do) when in the courtroom and launches into a simple presentation of the gospel.
"I don't get paid for this. I don't like doing this. I don't want your money, nor am I going to ask you to join a church," he says in a Kiwi accent still thick after 20 years in the United States. "I'm here today because I care about you and where you spend eternity, so please bear this in mind as you consider this issue."
Ray explains the Law--God's Law--and how everyone has broken it. "You need someone who can pay your fine," he says. "That's what Jesus did for you 2,000 years ago."
Some ignore him. Some talk on cell phones. Most listen and take the CD he offers them as he leaves, and they file into the courthouse. The recording is What Hollywood Believes, an exploration of the faith of celebrities--or lack thereof.
Back in his office I ask him why he takes the time every morning to preach outside the courthouse.
"I have a moral obligation," he replies. "Like a doctor with a cure for cancer. Every day I can think of 100 excuses for not going. But there's one good reason why I should go: People are going to hell."
A SOUL PURPOSE
Ray has trained himself well for the task. For years he's had a standing offer: $1,000 for anyone who catches him without a tract. Someone once apprehended him coming out of a pool and demanded payment. Ray pulled a sodden tract out of his swimming trunks.
A few blocks from Living Waters Publications is Way of the Master (WOTM), a ministry Ray founded two years ago with actor Kirk Cameron, star of the long-running sitcom Growing Pains. On the way over to WOTM, Ray stops to chat with two women at a bus stop. They thank him for the tracts, and we're on our way again.
While Living Waters publishes Ray's tracts, books and evangelistic resources, WOTM produces a TV series and training course that won the National Religious Broadcasters' People's Choice Award in 2004. In its second season of production, the show is broadcast several times a week on Trinity Broadcasting Network, and its satellite and cable affiliates.
We sit down to watch a few clips from the show. It's anything but typical of Christian TV programming. For one episode they rent the island of Alcatraz and film on location in the abandoned prison. In another, they take a chimpanzee to dine at an L.A. restaurant. In another, Ray and his team are repeatedly spat upon while street preaching in Jerusalem.
The goal of the program? "We want to equip Christians for personal evangelism," Ray says. A statistic he repeatedly cites from The Coming Revival by Bill Bright, the late Campus Crusade for Christ founder, is that only 2 percent of believers share their faith.
Recalling his early efforts at soul-winning in his native New Zealand, Ray admits that he was motivated to share the gospel, but his results were less than stellar.
"I delivered 'stillborn babies' [spiritually speaking] when I was younger," he says. "I ran around to my surfing buddies and said: 'Christianity's better than surfing. Just give your heart to Jesus. Please say this prayer. It worked for me.'" Looking back, he points out that 27 of his 28 friends backslid.
It puts a damper on evangelistic enthusiasm when 95 percent of those who make professions of faith are never integrated into the church, Ray adds, noting a statistic cited by the Assemblies of God home-missions director, Charles Hackett.
"False converts." That's what Ray calls those who accept Christ for all the wrong reasons. And according to him, the church is to blame.
With his penchant for colorful analogies, Ray explains, "If we thrust people into the heat of modern warfare armed with a feather-duster, it's no wonder that they're fearful." The "feather-duster," he contends, is any method of evangelism that fails to awaken sinners to their desperate moral bankruptcy before a holy God and His Law.
Telling sinners anything less is withholding the truth, Ray contends, comparing it to the danger of informing a group of people trapped in a building that's about to be bombed that God loves them and has a wonderful plan for their lives. It's just not true.
Before his conversion in 1972, Ray's passions rarely stretched beyond catching a monster wave on the beaches of his native New Zealand. But surfing took a back seat when he became a believer, and within weeks of accepting Christ, Ray cranked out his first gospel tract on a primitive Gestetner--a treatise on the cause of racism (sin, not skin). Someone saw the tract, ordered 5,000 copies, and that was the beginning of a ministry that now prints 10 million tracts per year.
After his conversion, Ray assumed his passion for evangelism would be most welcome in the church, so he accepted a position as an associate pastor. But Ray admits that, during his 3-1/2 years of pastoral ministry he fit the role "like a round peg in a square hole."
He found most church ministry mystifying. Why would people want to go to church for counseling, committee meetings and potlucks while all the sinners are outside the walls of the church?
"I abhor pastoring," he says with a shudder. "It's just not me. Some pastors will take a lamb in their arms and embrace it. I say: 'Stand up. Reproduce. What's your problem? Grow up, Lamb.'"
It was in 1982, after several years of relatively unsuccessful efforts at itinerant evangelism, that Ray found himself reading the sermons of Charles Spurgeon that describe in detail the Law's purpose in bringing the sinner to a recognition of his or her need for salvation. He was even more convinced after reading Galatians 3:24: "Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ" (KJV).
After hearing Ray quote from memory an extended passage from one of Spurgeon's messages, I have a sneaking suspicion that the mantle of the 19th-century British fireball has found a new home on the shoulders of this mustachioed street preacher.
I don't think Spurgeon would be offended. In fact, in 1997, Ray got a call from someone who had just listened to his audio message Hell's Best Kept Secret:
"I'm Charles Spurgeon's great, great, great, great-grandson; and I got saved listening to your tape."
Ray was skeptical--until Robert Alan Holm showed up in his office and displayed detailed genealogical papers identifying him as a direct descendant of Spurgeon.
"To me it was such an encouragement," Ray says. "Obviously, Spurgeon prayed for his posterity."
THE SECRET'S OUT
So, what is hell's best-kept secret? For Ray, it's the use of the Law in evangelism--a tool wielded by Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John Wesley, Martin Luther, Charles Finney, John Newton, C.S. Lewis and John Bunyan.
But Ray believes that this tool has grown rusty with neglect, as more sinner-sensitive means of evangelism have become popular. The emotions and the intellect--instead of the conscience--are now the primary avenues of appealing to an unbeliever.
The results of this paradigm shift? Ray advocates a method of evangelism that rejects many of the popular accouterments of the sawdust trail: emotional altar music, sinners' prayers, threats of hellfire and intellectual arguments.
His conversations with unbelievers begin something like this: "Michael, do you consider yourself a good person?" Usually the response is "yes," and then Ray unfolds the Ten Commandments, describing God's requirements of righteousness and humanity's utter failure to meet those requirements:
"Have you ever looked at a woman with lust?" "Have you ever told a lie?" "Have you ever stolen something--even something very small?"
Most also answer "yes" to these questions.
Self-righteousness, Ray contends, is the greatest barrier to a person recognizing his or her need for forgiveness. And the Law offers the perfect antidote to awaken an unbeliever's conscience and reveal that he or she is not, in fact, a good person.
Ray's winsome manner and self-deprecating humor are enough to bring the sinner's guard down, so that he doesn't find himself with a blackened eye when he matter-of-factly breaks the bad news: "Michael, by your own admission, you're a lying thief and an adulterer. Do you think that a just God should allow you into heaven?"
No debates about the existence of God. No wrangling over hypocrisy in the church. No arguments over starving children in Africa. The only question worth asking at this point is the most relevant one of all: What must I do to be saved?
If an unbeliever's conscience is not pricked with the "bad news" of his or her sin, Ray sees no need to offer the "good news" of forgiveness or grace when a sinner doesn't think he or she needs it.
Although Ray's message is rooted in the Ten Commandments--a ubiquitous feature of his tracts, books and street messages--he contends that this emphasis is anything but legalistic.
"The Law is what makes grace make sense," he says. "The more you realize your sin, the more you realize your need for grace."
In 1989, a pastor in Southern California who heard his message on tape, called Ray and invited him to move to the United States and share Hell's Best Kept Secret with a wider audience. Within days, Ray, his wife, daughter and two sons pulled up stakes and moved to Bellflower, California, where he began teaching his message in churches and preaching in Los Angeles' notorious MacArthur Park.
News about Hell's Best Kept Secret was primarily spread by word-of-mouth recommendations, until Institute in Basic Life Principles founder Bill Gothard heard the message and invited Ray to share it at a pastor's conference. Soon after, Times Square Church pastor David Wilkerson was listening to the tape in his car and immediately called Ray and invited him to bring the message to his congregation in New York.
Since then, Ray has shared his Hell's Best Kept Secret message 815 times in churches and conferences in 42 states and nine nations, as well as preaching outside the L.A. courthouse every morning he's in town.
But it's the uncomfortable three years in pastoral ministry that have given Ray a heart for awakening the church to evangelism--and the sensitivity to understand the challenges that pastors face.
"When I go into a local church, I realize that the pastor is virtually saying: 'Here's the keys to my car. You're driving. I'm in the back with my family. Please stay on the right side of the road,'" he says. "It's a great position of trust when the pastor lets me step up to his pulpit."
Ray's single-minded message has brought him a wide audience from nearly every denomination, and although he attends a Calvary Chapel church, he hesitates to focus on denominational distinctions or involve himself in doctrinal disputes.
"There are certain theological issues I don't talk about because I know if I do, doors to certain churches will close for me," he explains. "I have a nondenominational ministry, so I stay away from opinions on charismatic issues, Christian rock music, Calvinism, Arminianism, prophecy and so on."
HITCHED TO A STAR
Who: Kirk Cameron
Founder: The Way of the Master (www.wayofthemaster.com) (with Ray Comfort)
Author: The Way of the Master (with Ray Comfort)
Actor: Left Behind, Left Behind II: Tribulation Force, Growing Pains (TV series, 1985-1992)
For several years, Living Waters Publications enjoyed a loyal following among street preachers and believers in the market for innovative tracts and evangelistic materials. But all that changed in 2001 when someone thrust a cassette recording of Hell's Best Kept Secret into the hands of Growing Pains heartthrob Kirk Cameron while he was promoting Left Behind: The Movie.
After listening to the tape, Kirk was so intrigued that he called Ray to thank him for the message. The friendship that developed from that connection led to Ray advising Kirk and the producers of Left Behind's sequel Tribulation Force to beef up the presentation of the gospel to include--you guessed it--the Ten Commandments. Sure enough, in sharp contrast to the more typical witnessing scenes in Left Behind, lines from the second film have an uncanny ring of Spurgeon to them.
In 2002, Kirk appeared on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, mentioned Hell's Best Kept Secret and Living Waters, and, within hours, Ray's Web site had crashed with 71,000-plus hits. A short time later, the network agreed to let Kirk share the message again--and interview Ray. This time the Web server was ready for the 1 million hits that the program brought.
Today, Kirk admits that his first impressions of Ray were less than impressive when the two first met in an L.A. restaurant.
"He was this unassuming looking, little guy, cracking lots of corny jokes," Kirk recalls. "I was thinking, 'Yeah, just stick with theology, Pal.'" Ray handed tracts to every person in the restaurant, entertained the staff with a sleight of hand routine and flashed a fake ID with a photo of himself--complete with a forehead the size of a soccer ball. Ray's message, however, Kirk found irresistible. "That day began a lot of conversations about ministry and the way to spread the gospel," he says. "When I tried it for myself, I became convinced that what he was doing was absolutely effective--and I wanted to do everything I could to get this teaching to the church."
Although Kirk was used to giving his testimony--both inside and outside the church--he had often found himself frustrated with the results.
"I would try to share my faith whenever the door would open," he admits. "But it was easy to get discouraged, especially living in the culture that we do, which seems to be so antagonistic toward Christianity, absolute truth or the value of the Scriptures."
Those conversations with Ray led to the creation of The Way of the Master, a show that wraps practical teaching on evangelism in a reality-TV format.
"We try to make the teaching extremely easy to understand and apply," says Kirk, who fills the role--with Ray--of co-host and co-producer of the program. "The thing that makes it unique is that every true Christian has a desire to go out and be a witness for Jesus Christ, but most people are very afraid to actually do that."
The two hosts teach on the nuts and bolts of personal evangelism, incorporating Scripture, church-growth statistics and quotes from Spurgeon, Whitefield and Bunyan. Then, the cameras take viewers to the street, where Ray, Kirk and others on their team engage unbelievers in conversation--and, ultimately, the message of the Law, grace and forgiveness.
The episode titles are engaging (for example, "Alcatraz, Al Capone and Alcohol," "How to Witness to Someone Who's Gay" and "True and False Conversion") and tools for application abound. But the theology behind the program is anything but user friendly.
In fact, neither Ray nor Kirk have much time for "consumer Christianity"--as they call the current church milieu.
"Tastes great. Less filling." That's how Kirk describes much of modern church life, borrowing the familiar beer slogan. "Christianity has been tailored to suit the tastes of the modern churchgoer: shorter sermons, cooler music, no confrontation."
The results are pews filled with people who rarely muster the courage to witness. And when they do, it's often for the wrong reasons, he contends.
"Most people think: 'I should share my faith. It's my right. I should be able to say what I want. Stand up for myself,'" Kirk explains. "Really, motivation for evangelism should be the fate of the lost and gratitude for what Christ has done for us." Whether passing out tracts on the street or sharing his faith with Hollywood celebrities, Kirk admits that--like everyone--he faces the dragons of fear and intimidation. But there's always another nagging image that he cannot erase from his mind.
"When I look at the cross and see that Christ was left in bleeding shreds to save me, I'm so grateful," he says. "The desire of my heart is to obey His greatest command--The Great Commission."W.D.J.D.
Four crucial questions every soul-winner must ask and every sinner must answer.
In a spin on the popular '90s bracelet slogan "What Would Jesus Do?" Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron have developed an easy-to-remember series of questions (based on the phrase "What did Jesus do?") that can be used to lead a sinner to a realization of his or her need for forgiveness:
W - Would you consider yourself to be a good person?
"Self-righteousness," Ray says, "is the No. 1 problem we face in witnessing. People think God is their friend, when, in fact, the Bible says God is their enemy."
D - Do you think that you have kept the Ten Commandments?
"Most people think that all they have to do is ask God for forgiveness and God freely forgives," Ray explains. "That doesn't work in our civil courts. No, you're in debt to the Law. He must pronounce judgment on you--a judgment that only Christ can satisfy."
J - Judgment. If God judged you according to those Commandments, would you be innocent or guilty?
"It's true that, as Christians, we are under the new covenant," Kirk admits. "But the standards of the Ten Commandments are still the standards by which non-Christians will be judged. Scripture says that liars, thieves, adulterers and blasphemers will be cast into the lake of fire--these are references to the Ten Commandments."
D - Destiny. So, do you think you would go to heaven or hell?
"We all have a will to live," Ray notes. "Tap into the unbeliever's God-given survival instinct, and they will naturally seek to shun hell and its torment."
Ray and Kirk's five tips for facing--and conquering--the terrors of personal evangelism.
The fate of the ungodly: In the United States, the worst that can happen to a believer for sharing his or her faith is rejection. The worst that can happen to a sinner is eternity in hell.
The fear of the Lord: We should fear God enough to obey Him and preach the gospel to every creature. Paul said, "Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men ..." (2 Cor. 5:11, KJV).
Tracts: Perhaps the most difficult part of witnessing is bringing up the subject. Tracts make it easy to start conversation: "Did you get one of these?" For the faint of heart, a tract makes for an easy getaway.
Conscience: Appealing to the conscience, rather than the intellect or the emotions, will take the "argument" aspect out of witnessing by using the Ten Commandments to awaken a knowledge of sin.
The cross: Would you share your faith more often if you were given $1,000 every time you did it? Most people would. If you could deal with your fear problem for the love of money, could you deal with it for the love of God?
The suffering Savior should be enough to motivate anyone to overcome his or her fears and reach out to the lost.The Comfort Zone
Ray Comfort puts some sacred cows of modern evangelism out of their misery.
Altar-Call Music: "I've noticed the power of music. I find myself weeping while I'm watching Little House on the Prairie. I push the mute button and suddenly I'm back to being a man. You can move mountains with music--and you can also manipulate. Imagine if I said to my son after he broke an expensive vase: 'I told you not to touch that vase. Are you sorry for what you've done? Hold on a minute. Before you say anything, let me put on some music to help you make your decision.' I don't want to stir his emotions. I want to speak to his will and his conscience."
The 'Sinner's Prayer': "Instead of saying, 'Say this prayer after me,' I say, 'You might want to say this prayer.' If a man has committed adultery, do I have to give him a card to read to his wife, 'Dear wife, I'm sorry I committed adultery'? She's not interested in his words; she's interested in his heart. It's not a rote prayer; it's a prayer of contrition."
Follow-up: "If someone is truly converted, they won't need me to nurse them into the church. Your methodology will be directed by your theology. If you believe that people come to Jesus because of something you say, you'll feel that their whole salvation is dependent on you. If you say that conviction is of the Holy Spirit, salvation is of the Lord and no one can come unless the Father draws him--then it releases you to let go."
Friendship Evangelism: "I'm not a big fan of relationship evangelism. Obviously, we have to relate to sinners, but who are the hardest people to witness to? Isn't it your relations? So why would we make strangers into relations? It's easier to witness to a stranger. Besides, the person I build a relationship with over a period of months or years could drop dead--then he's gone for eternity. I can build a relationship with someone in two minutes. I buy them a meal or give them a couple bucks."