Dick Eastman took some concerned Southern California teenagers on a prayer retreat in 1969. The weekend became a sacred event as the Lord powerfully assured the interceding young people that their agonizing prayers for their friends' salvation would be answered. Within months of that retreat, the Jesus Movement was sweeping thousands into the kingdom. These young people experienced a burden for the lost—a seldom-heard term today—that propelled them into urgent, compassionate evangelism.
Based on extensive research, Thom Rainer, a skilled observer of church trends, recently listed 15 reasons why churches today are less evangelistic than in the past. Topping the list: "Christians have no sense of urgency to reach lost people." A culture of caring evangelism is largely absent today. We've been sedated into silence by a toxic serum of complacency, narcissism and flirtations with universalism.
The missing ingredient for effective evangelism is urgency. The absence of a holy imperative embarrassingly juxtaposes us from the spirit of the church historically and from the Spirit of Christ.
Urgency is defined as a force or impulse that impels. It's an urge that is compelling, a deep knowing that immediate action or attention is required—and Jesus and the early church had it in abundance. One can almost feel Paul's throbbing heart when he wrote, "The requirement is laid upon me. Yes, woe unto me if I do not preach the gospel!" (1 Cor. 9:16). In evangelism, there is always urgency. Masses are constantly slipping into a Christ-less eternity.
The Student Volunteer Movement of the early 20th century was drenched in an ethos of urgency. Eschatological hopes were high. New modes of transportation were shrinking the world toward what would later be called a "global village." Students were motivated for "world evangelization in this generation." John R. Mott, a visionary missions statesman and prime mover of the movement, often peppered his challenges with phrases like "in our day," "in this hour" and "in this generation." Underscoring all this was the biblical prodding that people must be reached with the gospel now—before it is eternally too late.
Without question, the glory of God is the highest motive for sharing the gospel, but it is not the only motivation. Reaching people who are lost, in every sense of the word, without Jesus—headed for an eternity devoid of God and thus devoid of hope—this is an equally valid, biblical motive for evangelism. There is both a vertical motive for evangelism and missions (the glory of God) and a horizontal motive (the lost state of humanity).
Some noted writers have reminded us of our "great omission" of not adequately making disciples. "Jesus did not tell us to make converts," these writers purport. "He told us to make disciples." That's not exactly correct. He did tell us to make converts. Though some dispute the verse's authenticity, Mark 16:15 is just as much a part of the Great Commission as Matthew 28:19. We have been commissioned to proclaim the gospel to every person on Earth. Paul was clear in his defense before Agrippa that his mission assignment from Jesus was "to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me" (Acts 26:18). That's an unmistakable call to "make converts."
Let's be clear. Of course, those who trust Christ as their Savior should also be discipled and live under His lordship. Obedience to the Great Commission is not a matter of evangelism alone. Every believer should also be an ardent worshipper and committed disciple. But there's a distinct insinuation today that evangelism is somehow the tolerated stepsister to the nobler ministry of disciple-making. Why are we making dichotomous what God has joined together? It's evangelism and discipleship, not evangelism vs. discipleship.
The watchword of the historic Student Volunteer Movement—"the evangelization of the world in this generation"—drips with both grandeur and urgency. Today, we must recover a biblically based sense of urgency, and here's why.
Opportunities have a limited shelf life. Every day of freedom to declare the gospel in our volatile world is a great gift. With the potential of disruptive terrorism escalating rapidly, we should pray with the psalmist, "So teach us to number our days" (Ps. 90:12).
Think of the massive open door for the gospel there was in Japan at the end of World War II. The door flung open wide, but the church stalled. Today that door is barely ajar. In more recent times, there was the surprise toppling of communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Yet, again, we were largely unprepared. What if suddenly China or Iran did stop their persecution of Christians and put out a welcome mat for missionaries? Are we thinking pre-emptively and preparing accordingly? Someone has wisely observed that "the opportunity of a lifetime must be seized within the lifetime of the opportunity." There are thrilling windows of opportunity wide open for the gospel right now in many parts of the world, and they may not be open long.
Life is short. James calls it "just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away" (James 4:14). Certainly there is an urgency for those who do not know Christ. But are we conveying this to them? Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: "Nothing could be more ruthless than to make men think there is still plenty of time to mend their ways. To tell men that the cause is urgent and that the kingdom of God is at hand is the most charitable and merciful act we can perform, the most joyous news we can bring."
Missionary luminary Robert Moffat reminded us: "We have all eternity to celebrate our victories, but only one short hour before the sunset in which to win them." Jim Elliot felt, prophetically, the brevity of time. He journaled this passionate prayer while a student at Wheaton College: "God, light these idle sticks of my life and let them burn for Thee. I do not desire a long life, but a full one—like You, Lord Jesus." Seven years later, his life on this Earth would end at the tip of a poisoned spear as he attempted to get the gospel to the Waodoni. Yet the ramifications of his sacrifice continue to inspire us today.
The season of harvest is brief. I was raised in the city and don't know much about farming, but I do know this much: When it's harvest time, there's nothing else on the agenda. It's not a time to clean the equipment or strategize for next year's harvest. Before daylight and well into the night, the one and only priority is to get the harvest in safely.
By its very nature, harvest is not open-ended; it is a season. One of the saddest verses in the Bible is Jeremiah 8:20: "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved." Jesus warned us not to look for a more opportune time but to put the sickle in now. "Lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest" (John 4:35). There is a vast, ripe spiritual harvest worldwide right now—and it is threatened because we aren't reaping it!
On the clock of a beautiful church spire in Dallas, two words are inscribed: "Night Cometh." Jesus said, "I must work the works of Him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work" (John 9:4).
Eternity is long. Urgency, or the lack of it, is embedded in theology. Our urgency in sharing the gospel will be in direct proportion to how much we genuinely believe people without Christ are truly lost. To use the old term, they are literally unsaved. There's a clear correlation: The church's evangelistic passion has waned as its belief in eternal judgment has weakened.
Hear again the lyrics of an old missions hymn by Fanny Crosby:
Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,
Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave;
Weep o'er the erring one, lift up the fallen,
Tell them of Jesus, the mighty to save!
Rescue the perishing, care for the dying;
Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save.
Do we wince today at such lyrics? If so, it's an indicator of how far we have moved away from the spirit and passion that has historically challenged the church to evangelism. This song was an oft-requested favorite of earlier generations of believers.
Jim Elliot's parents were devout Christians. They urged him to defer going on his missionary assignment in order to spend more time with them. Jim was torn but finally replied that the cry of lost indigenous peoples pressed him toward the perishing. He wrote: "Impelled then by these voices, I dare not stay home while Quichuas perish."
God, give us a new generation of leaders who are "impelled by these voices" and can emit urgency to others. In his book On What Leaders Really Do, John P. Kotter claims that infecting others with a sense of urgency is the difference between effective and ineffective leadership.
"Sooner or later, no matter how hard they push, if others don't feel the same sense of urgency, the momentum ... will die far short of the finish line," Kotter writes.
May you be that kind of intentional leader who is consistently "making the most of the time because the days are evil" (Eph. 5:16). From an eternal perspective, one of the wisest uses of time—an investment that will yield eternal dividends—is bringing people to personal faith in Christ and challenging others to do the same. The writer of Proverbs counsels us that "he who wins souls is wise" (Prov. 11:30).
How can we recover urgency for reaching unbelievers with the gospel? First, ask God for it. Second, make evangelism intentional. Third, see the world through "gospel glasses." Make the gospel first—in your loyalties and your preaching, in how you view people and how you view life.
In medieval times, a king and his royal entourage were passing through a small village. Suddenly a desperate mother broke through the crowds, threw herself in front of the king's prancing horses and pled for an audience with him. "My son is in your prison," she said. "He is sentenced to die. I beg you, your Majesty, have mercy and pardon my son."
The king looked down on the distraught woman and showed compassion.
"Let the decree be heard, that I have shown mercy on this woman and herewith issue an unconditional pardon to her son," he said. "I declare him free to leave the prison."
Then the king dispatched a royal messenger to deliver the news to the prisoner in the jail some 30 miles away. But as the messenger raced toward the prison, he was diverted by a carnival. He stopped for several hours and then, remembering his mission, he resumed his journey toward the prison. Tragically, however, he arrived just a few minutes after the pleading woman's son had been executed.
The king's pardon was never received. The messenger's shameful explanation to the king was, "I stopped at the carnival to laugh at the clowns, and the time just got away." When our own entertainment is more pressing than the evangelistic mandate, our priorities are clearly out of whack.
"The gospel is good news only if it arrives in time," theologian Carl F.H. Henry reminds us. God, make us urgent—and may the gospel arrive in time.
David Shibley is world representative for Global Advance, which he founded in 1990. Each year, Global Advance equips tens of thousands of leaders on site in many nations to be catalysts for fulfilling the Great Commission. His latest book is Entrusted: Anchoring Your Life in the Gospel (Burkhart Books).
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