If you asked the average Christian what they struggle with most, I would wager that evangelism would be one of the top answers. People find it hard to talk about their faith. They struggle to get non-Christians to understand what it really means to believe in Jesus, trust the Bible, and grasp the truth of the gospel.
I can identify with this. We’ve all had awkward moments. I remember one occasion when a rugby teammate asked me why I wasn’t getting drunk with the rest of the lads. I’d not long been a Christian, and felt a bit of a prat as I shyly mumbled something about “going to church a bit more.”
Now, 22 years down the line—12 of them as an ordained Presbyterian minister in a working-class estate—my experience of evangelism has been very different than it was in those early days. I’ve literally talked about Jesus thousands of times, both from the pulpit and on the pavement. And I’ve come to something of a conclusion: evangelism is easier than discipleship. What do I mean by that?
Essence of Evangelism
For a start, working-class communities are very easy places in which to talk about judgement. Life is hard, people suffer all kinds of injustice, and poverty is pervasive. When drug dealers or gangs exploit individuals or homes, the consequences are obvious. I’ve had well known figures say something like this to me: “I know I deserve hell. I know if I died tonight, I’m going down.”
Equally, I’ve had strung-out alcoholics ask me questions like: “Could I ever be forgiven? Could I go to church? Could I learn to be Christian?” Every now and then, an addict or alcoholic will turn up to church on Sunday. They are desperate for hope, and are open to talking about Jesus. But, sadly, I’ve also done many funerals for young people (far too common on estates and schemes). These could be drug deaths, suicides, or any number of other things. But they all provide opportunities for clear, bold gospel declaration. Oftentimes, the church is packed full.
So evangelism—the act of proclaiming the good news of the gospel—is relatively easy in my context. But discipleship? Actually getting people to commit to Jesus and follow him in the context of the local church? That’s much, much harder.
Difficulty of Discipleship
In middle-class areas, people might take their whole family to church for years without ever talking about faith in Christ outside of that context. In my estate, it’s the other way around. Someone may come in for a week or two. They might even come for a Christmas service. But year-round commitment to worship? Not a chance.
Why is this? There are obvious spiritual reasons. In Mark 4:16, Jesus speaks of people receiving the Word with joy. But they have no roots, so they fail to endure. This is such an instructive verse. If nothing else, it shows us that Christ knew he needed to prepare his disciples, and us, for the frustration of sowing but not reaping.
However, the passage also indicates an answer to the problem. Mark 4:20 highlights the importance of sowing in “good soil”. What is good soil? It’s a soft heart to the Word. But to cultivate this, we can’t underestimate the importance of a healthy church which has a realistic culture of discipleship.
I’ve struggled with this. I’m in a church which was founded by faithful people almost half a century ago (1974). These brothers and sisters had an entirely different set of Christian expectations. Knowing and following Jesus was predicated on the assumption that everyone went to church. Sunday after Sunday, entire families went to church together. At that time, church was the centre of community. In fact, along with a steady job, it was also the mark of respectability. If you were a good, honourable working-class person, you dressed up and went to church on Sundays.
But for those of us in the West, life has changed radically in the last 50 years—especially in once strong ‘Christian’ cultures like Northern Ireland and the U.S. In my own context, some of the biggest issues that prevent long-term commitment to following Jesus in a church community are things like addictions, family break up, poor mental health, lack of male role models, and staggered working patterns. Mum, dad, and the two children simply do not walk through the church doors on Sunday mornings as they once did.
Let me give you an example. Billy (not his real name) grew up on our estate. He was a self-professed atheist. He had no connection to church whatsoever. He’s a bright enough lad. He has a wide social circle and is seen as the ‘life and soul’ of the party. But, like a lot of lads in our communities, he got carried away on drugs. Then he became a young dad after a fling with his mate’s girlfriend. Work became intermittent, to say the least. Cash was tight.
In desperation, Billy turned to a food bank at a local church. He met Christians who fed him, prayed for him, and took an interest in his life. They told him to go to my church, his local estate church. So he did, and became interested in the gospel. He began to read the Bible, come to church regularly, stayed off drugs, and showed encouraging signs of change in his life. He even experienced very tangible answers to prayer, such as protection against drug gangs and debt collectors.
But then tensions developed with his ex. He fell—rapidly—back into old habits. Billy’s life went south. What were the problems? Many of the common ones, sadly: poor mental health, a broken family, lack of role models, and the sheer difficulty of trying to get work with a criminal past.
Of course, as Bible-believing Christians, we know the problems are not merely external. The root of every man’s problem is his own sin. By nature, we’re all rebels against God. Apart from God’s saving rescue in Christ, we remain dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1–3). Add to this the range of complicating factors in our cultural context, and the difficulty of discipleship among the working-classes is ramped up even further.
Don’t Give Up
Anyone involved in ministry in working-class communities will resonate with Billy’s experience. Some might be tempted to suggest the seed fell on “thorny ground” in Billy’s case. Some of it indeed does. Yet, the fact is that genuinely converted people can slip and fall very easily, especially with drug related problems. In short, we must not give up on people too easily. Growth will look different for different people. Christian maturity is not “one-size-fits-all”.
There are so many other men and women who’ve been through similar journeys. But I don’t want to finish on a negative note. I’ve seen encouragements too. Typically, this involves unrelenting prayer, faithful preaching, a warm, open church family, food, sharing life through the week, and close accountability.
Partnership with other Christian groups is also fundamental. I’m thankful for 20schemes and Acts 29 Church in Hard Places training. For me, it’s been good to know I’m not on my own. I have the resources and support to mentor and share with men like Billy for the sake of his growth and the glory of God.
P.S. I got a message from Billy recently. He’s been counseled by a Christian retreat centre for addiction problems. He has been helped massively. He can’t wait to get back into a Bible study with me when he’s home. Sometimes the sowing does lead to a good harvest.