The phrase "evangelistic leader" is a tricky one. The adjective "evangelistic" is a reasonably straightforward spiritual term. It implies that someone has the mental skills, the spiritual gifts and the drive to share the gospel with others.
The evangelist is surely someone who is focused in two directions at the same time: they are looking towards God and looking towards human beings. Functionally, one could see the ideal evangelist as being someone who, like the perfect communication medium, transmits the message received from God to the nonbeliever without reduction, exaggeration or distortion.
The problem word in the phrase "evangelistic leader" is the noun "leader." Fundamentally, this word is an organizational term and one capable of a number of interpretations. Are we referring to someone who takes the lead in the evangelization of a nation or in a style of evangelism? Are we meaning someone who writes or teaches on evangelism, or do we mean someone who trains evangelists? Are we talking about someone who runs an evangelistic organization with a number of evangelists, or are we simply referring to someone who is respected and acknowledged in the evangelical community as being unusually gifted in the area of evangelism?
These are different if occasionally overlapping roles.
The challenge comes in distinguishing roles that are conflicting. So, for instance, you could imagine that there are three types of evangelistic leaders:
1. Mission-focused leader. These are the task-focused pioneers, always actively doing evangelism whether on the train, plane or pulpit and always plowing ahead (often in the face of criticism) into new areas or with new methods. They are focused on doing what has to be done. For them, every minute spent in the office or chairing a meeting is a distraction.
2. Strategy-focused leader. These are much more long-sighted people, constantly stepping back to look at objectives, goals and "the big picture." They are constantly refining what they are doing and working out how things can be done better. They are people who read reports, digest analyses and stare at maps.
3. Structure-focused leader. This is the man or woman focused on building the team under and around them. They are involved in such things as training and teaching others, writing books and transmitting skills. They are focused on their colleagues and the organization.
In the context of evangelism, all three have their strengths, yet they all have their weaknesses.
The mission-focused leaders are always preaching but can sometimes—often literally—be in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong message. They are so busy chasing the ball that they can neglect to play their part in the team. Those supporting them struggle to manage them.
The strategy-focused leaders are sometimes so busy trying to see the wood that they fail to see the trees. They can become so obsessed with flowcharts, spreadsheets and the next big thing that they lose focus on preaching the gospel
The structure-focused leaders create wonderful, smoothly operating organizations but can end up being suffocated by them. Evangelism becomes something they themselves once did.
The ideal evangelistic leader somehow manages to balance a focus on all three. It isn't easy.
Perhaps the most helpful way of understanding the phrase "evangelistic leader" is to think of it in terms of someone who models best practice. While the ability to evangelize is, to a large extent, a spiritual gift, it is also something that is learned. Certainly there are people who have the spiritual gift but do not make the most use of it because of bad habits or bad practice that could have been removed with training.
Ironically, one of the tasks of the evangelistic leader is to downplay their own role. They need to model the sharing of the gospel in a way other Christians can imitate. We always need to remember that, in an ideal world, the professional evangelist would be redundant simply because the entire church was doing evangelism. Surely Christianity only has specialist evangelists because "ordinary church members" are not doing it.
Unfortunately, it has to be said that we live in a time where the word 'evangelist' has acquired negative connotations. The reality is, though, that although we live among people who don't normally care much about morality, when it comes to the life of an evangelist, they are capable of remarkably fierce scrutiny. Anyone who preaches is expected to be consistent with their message. On this basis, anyone who has been called to be an evangelistic leader must surely fit the job description of an 'overseer' given by Paul in 1 Timothy 3:2: "An overseer then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, sober, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach."
The Preaching of the Gospel
With regard to the gospel, or the evangel, there are challenges. These can be in both substance and style.
There are enormous challenges in exactly what is preached.
There has to be an intentionality to preaching. If you don't aim for the target, you are guaranteed not to hit it.
In one sense the "eternal gospel" is precisely that: unchangeable. Yet it is so rich and broad in its message that any gospel proclamation must inevitably emphasize one aspect over another. This raises questions as to where the evangelist places the emphasis of the gospel. Reconciliation? Forgiveness? Worth in Christ? Hope of eternity? Peace? But at what point does emphasizing one aspect of the gospel slide into a distortion of the Christian message?
It is a truism to say the modern generation is totally unfamiliar with the biblical narrative, but it is nevertheless an important one. The evangelist needs to be able to sense the culture he or she is addressing and deliver a message that reaches them where they are.
There are also emphases of gospel preaching in the past that were once effective but have now lost their compelling power. So, for instance, today we live in a culture in which few people are ever told that they are failures. We are all winners; "everybody gets prizes." How does that affect the traditional evangelistic preaching, which goes back to at least the Reformation, of making people aware of being failures at the highest level who must deal with their sin and their guilt before God?
There are also issues in theology that need to be addressed. For a number of years, theologians have told us we are being unfair to the Jews of the Old and New Testament to treat their beliefs as a religion of works and to treat the gospel as a religion of faith. Now, however, the pendulum seems to be swinging back. There are fashions in theology, like everywhere else, and the evangelists need to be able to carefully evaluate what they are saying.
It is now commonly expected that the preacher will get involved with political or social issues. In one sense this is utterly laudable, yet it is also problematic. Should the evangelist talk about hot political or social issues? There are times when silence is appropriate. Yet there are also times when the failure to comment on some moral failure can be seen as condoning it.
There are extremely difficult intellectual or moral sensitivities today that need to be thought through and either carefully handled or skillfully avoided. Intellectually, there are some very able apologists for Christianity capable of tackling the issues raised by modern philosophy or science with a great deal of skill. But to do that is not a gift given to everybody, and a great deal of harm has been done by preachers of the gospel recklessly engaging in matters about which they know embarrassingly little. In the moral area, there are really hot issues such as abortion. After all, in any sizable audience, there will be many women who have had abortions and a number who have been scarred in this way. There are increasing numbers of issues of transgender and sexual identity.
The time was when anyone with a clerical collar or the title "reverend" was treated with some measure of respect, and their failures to adequately deal with hard questions tactfully overlooked. In the West, those days seem to have disappeared, and evangelists can expect hostility.
The way the message is delivered is a matter that should concern the evangelistic leader.
There must be engagement with the audience. Too much evangelistic preaching does not engage. The preacher must try to sense body language and mood. Any evangelistic preacher should be aware of any visitors or people on the fringes and always give the opportunity to anyone to follow Christ.
Inasmuch as possible, the evangelistic leader should try to set the tone of the meeting beforehand through careful preparation. Such issues as microphone, lighting, placement of chairs and the presence and type of music are all things that can either add to the preaching of the gospel or take away from it. God can transcend bad presentation through the Holy Spirit, but we should do all we can to remove that necessity.
We live in an astonishingly fast-moving culture or cultures. One result is that there are real language issues today, particularly with young people. The standard formal, educated middle-class language of evangelicalism of the past is something of an alien tongue to many. With high levels of immigration, there is also a strong likelihood that there are a number of people in the audience for whom English is a second language. A clever pun that works for some may well put off someone who is struggling to follow even the basic meaning of the talk.
What is contemporary and cool today is off-puttingly out of date tomorrow. If you are not fluent in contemporary idioms, don't risk using them.
In an age of political correctness, there needs to be a special sensitivity to language. Ironically, because most political correctness is largely superficial and not often thought through, speakers can get away with saying all sorts of things as long as they do not utter some particular word or phrase that is a known trigger.
There is also a real danger in misreading the audience. Trying to analyze modern culture is like staring at the sea. There may be spectacular waves going in one direction on the surface, but in reality, these may be superficial; the real movement in the sea may be deep, strong currents out of sight much farther down. A case in point is probably the new atheism. It is very loud and very attention-grabbing but is not really where most people are deep down. This is where evangelistic leaders need to listen to God as well as those friends and colleagues who are gifted at understanding the culture.
An evangelist must be sensitive to the mood as well. Every evangelist knows the situation in which they have prepared a message but, due to some personal or national tragedy, the attitude is different, and the message must be modified.
Self-indulgence is the enemy of much good preaching of the gospel. It is all too easy for a preacher, and perhaps especially an evangelist, to indulge themselves in some overlong anecdote or what they think is a witty joke. But the true evangelistic leader has a passion and compassion for lost people and everything they do is refined by asking themselves the rule of whether this will help or hinder the lost coming to Christ.
The Future of Evangelistic Preaching
As to the future? Things are moving so rapidly that prediction is hard. Some comments are, however, worth making.
One element almost certainly remains important, and that is the ability to engage with the audience. The time was when people had no option but to politely listen to a speaker, however boring. After all, that's what the radio and the TV gave them. If you don't engage with people now, they will immediately turn to their smartphones.
With regard to presentation, there are two contrasting and conflicting pressures that will surely continue. On the one hand, there is a pressure on evangelists to be slick and polished; the audience of an evangelistic talk has seen everything and expects professionalism. On the other hand, there is a suspicion about the over-polished package. In an age of computer-generated imagery, you really can have too much of a good thing. Authenticity is important.
We are seeing a growing sense of loneliness. There is almost an inverse rule that the more people become digitally connected, the more they become psychologically isolated. People may have 200 friends on Facebook but none in reality. In such a world, it will be more and more important for the evangelist to engage and be accessible. You cannot, of course, be everyone's friend, but you want to make your hearers feel if they were stuck in a car with you for an hour, the two of you would be friends at the end of the ride.
Courtesy of smartphones, fact-checking is something that can be done instantly. It's no longer adequate to misquote Chesterton or attribute some sporting feat to the wrong person.
One slightly worrying trend is the rejection of the reasoned presentation of the truth for aggressive and powerfully delivered soundbites that ignore any facts. Regardless of what you think of Donald Trump's politics, he has set a worrying trend in terms of his presentations. There has always been a tradition in preaching of "argument weak: shout more loudly" but it is to be hoped that we will not see this as a new norm in the future.
We increasingly see evangelistic events going online instantly. This poses both enormous opportunities and risks. Yes, the evangelist can now speak to millions and have his or her message available for people to revisit whenever they want. Yet at the same time, there is now the possibility that any unfortunate misstatement will be around the world instantly and without any chance of ever being retracted.
God and the gospel will stay the same.
J.John is in his third decade of ministry as an evangelist, minister, speaker and social activist. He is the author of several books including just10 and the National Evangelism Course. To learn more about him, visit canonjjohn.com.
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