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Personal view: Can evangelism hinder conversion?

October 2014 | by Graham Pickhaver

Over the past years I have re-read The diary of Kenneth MacRae (Banner of Truth), a Free Church of Scotland minister who ministered in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and for the last 35 years in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis.

MacRae was a man of tremendous energy, who faithfully demonstrated the marks of a true minister of the gospel by giving himself to the ministry of the Word and prayer (Acts 6).

One thing he was not too keen about was administration, church courts and church assemblies! At the same time, he exhibited that rare mark of grace, a real sense of personal unworthiness and inadequacy.

His regular ministry included preaching on average six or seven times a week, with normally three services on the Lord’s Day. His pastoral pattern was to faithfully visit his congregation and conduct worship in every home. Often a day’s visiting would take him to 15 homes.

MacRae preached faithfully the whole counsel of God, without gimmick or distraction. He was always concerned about how much effect his preaching was having upon his people, yet throughout the diary you find references to people coming to him, because they were awakened by the sermon and in real distress about the state of their souls. The Holy Spirit was touching lives as MacRae faithfully went about his work.

Hidden snare

Sometimes evangelism can actually be a hindrance to conversion. Churches run introductory courses on Christianity, with that predictable conclusion that people will sign up and be counted as Christian.

Others pressurise seekers to pray the ‘sinner’s prayer’ or sign the ‘decision card’, without any real evidence of conversion. Particularly in children’s work, it is so easy to ask children the wrong type of question, that can immediately infer they have become Christians.

Some churches have a culture that naturally attracts certain types of people, who, once they have got used to the practices and routines of that culture, are accepted as members of that community without any serious weighing up the evidence as to their conversion.

The result can be false assurance for the individual, deception (and later disappointment) for the church, and, finally, drifting away from spiritual things. The reason? No solid work of grace was ever accomplished.

But how different is the New Testament concept of evangelism, where the questioning and interest came not from the evangelist but from the person himself.

Peter preaches a stirring message on the day of Pentecost, but it was the people’s conviction that led to their cry of, ‘What must we do?’ (Acts 2:37). In the case of Lydia, Paul’s words found a ready mind and heart, because the Lord had already opened her heart (Acts 16:14).

God’s work

Without any warning the Philippian jailer calls out to Paul, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ (Acts 16:30), or the Ethiopian treasurer says to Philip, ‘What hinders me from being baptised?’ (Acts 8:36).

None of these incidences show any unhealthy influence from people, but exemplify the Holy Spirit working in regenerating influence and power. The church is indeed called to evangelise, but we must let God do his work.

Often this takes place in the quiet place, when a person has been challenged with the gospel — perhaps a Christian meeting or private conversation. He or she goes home and in their own room respond to the Lord, in repentance and faith. It is often a sign of genuine conversion when man has had no significant part in a sinner coming finally to a place of trust and repentance.

Let’s not grieve the Holy Spirit by trying to do his work! As co-workers we have our part to play, but let the Lord do his, and then the fruit of genuine conversion will remain.

Graham Pickhaver

The author has ministered in Baptist churches and taught Religious Education in two Norfolk schools.