Do you see, do you see, all the people sinking down,
Don’t you care, don’t you care, are you gonna let them drown,
How can you be so numb, not to care if they come,
You close your eyes and pretend the job’s done.
These lyrics of Christian singer/songwriter Keith Green in his provocative song, “Asleep in the Light,”are a clarion call to the church to engage in evangelism. They capture well the absence of love for the lost that is so prevalent in many churches. Yes, there are exceptions, and I know stellar men and women who are passionate for Christ’s mission here on earth. However, in my experience and exposure to our congregations (much greater exposure than most) they are the exception, not the rule.
I must hasten to add that I am not speaking of a lack of attention given to missions in the churches. Missions is in our DNA. In our history (both the CRC and URC), our missionary efforts have far exceeded our numbers and surpassed those of any of the other Reformed or Presbyterian denominations. When it comes to prayer and giving to missions, our people rise to the occasion and excel. This is commendable and exemplary, so please do not misunderstand me.
What I am referring to are the lives of individuals and local ministries. As a generalization, we do not attract new converts from the local communities into our churches. We have done an excellent job of making disciples of our children (although even that is a topic for a future article), but biological evangelism, while necessary, is insufficient. I believe this is due largely to a lack of passion and burden for unbelievers.
One criterion of spiritual health is a love for the lost. Churches and Christians routinely underestimate or eliminate this as a criterion. Yet it is an essential component and indicator of individual and ecclesiastical health.
It is essential for a number of reasons. First, we are the body of Christ, and as such we should imitate and reflect him to the world around us. Jesus regularly told us the reason for his coming was to seek and to save the lost. We ought to do no less. Jesus commissioned the church with the task of making disciples of all nations. With worship being the ultimate task of the church, this love is the penultimate task. It is our raison d’etre, our reason for being. I would venture to say that the church is the only institution that exists for the sake of its non-members (I realize this is in need of some qualification, but I am being hyperbolic). Yet, we do not see non-members, outsiders added to our numbers.
Second, behavior is the consequence of belief. For too long we have taught, improperly, that evangelism is not the responsibility of the person in the pew. Members are to pay and pray for others to reach the lost. Hence we’ve taught people to do missions by proxy. This is a sad omission of what R. B. Kuiper, in The Glorious Body of Christ, calls the forgotten office, the office of believer. According to the Heidelberg Catechism, the very definition of a Christian entails being a witness for Christ. Q & A 32 asks, “Why are you called a Christian?” And answers, “share in His anointing. I am anointed to confess His name.” Thus a silent, never witnessing Christian is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. We must reverse course and renew a proper understanding of each believer’s responsibilities. It is essential.
Third, the heart of the problem is the problem of the heart. If we lack love for the lost it is because our hearts do not beat in sync with the heart of God. God is a missionary God, as is seen in each person of the Trinity. We see the Father’s heart in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world.” We see the Son’s heart in his compassion for people: “Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36).
Particularly notable is the Son’s love seen in his tears for the lost in soon-to-be-cursed Jerusalem: “and when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it.”This is the city upon which the judgment of God will fall for their unbelief, disobedience, and rejection of the Messiah. Yet, Jesus knowing that full well, still weeps for them. Should not our hearts also weep for the lost? I confess that my own heart is often cold.
We hear the Spirit’s heart with the words, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” We observe the work of his heart on the day of Pentecost. He is the gift to the church to gather and bring in those who are perishing.
How do we change course? What do we do to grow this love for the lost?
I suggest three things.
Pray that God would give you his heart for the lost. Pray for the Holy Spirit to revive your heart to be like God’s. Jesus teaches us, “How much more will the Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” The Heidelberg also points us to this when it teaches that we are to pray because “God gives his Holy Spirit only to those who pray.” Furthermore, pray for specific people in your life, maybe fellow workers, students, neighbors, or family. It is much more difficult to remain silent when you have been holding someone before the throne of God and praying for an open door to them.
Specifically meditate on the doctrine of hell. Most if not all of us are functional atheists who really don’t believe in hell. Do you really believe that unbelievers will spend eternity in endless misery, torment, and woe if they do not repent and believe? Our silence shows the answer. Penn Jillette, the verbal half of the magician duo Penn and Teller, and an outspoken atheist, says about Christians’ lack of evangelism, “How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? If I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that a truck was coming at you and you didn’t believe it, and that truck was bearing down on you, there’s a certain point where I tackle you. And this [hell] is more important than that.”
Meditate on what it is that you have been saved from, what Jesus endured in your place on the cross.
Bring God Joy
Our being used by God to lead a sinner to the Savior particularly brings joy to the heart of God. In Luke 15:10 we see that it is God himself who rejoices over one sinner who repents.
I long to bring joy to my God and King. Join me in changing our hearts about personal evangelism and a deep love for the lost.
Rev. Paul T. Murphy
is the missionary pastor of Messiah’s Reformed Fellowship (URCNA) in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC. He has been an elder and pastor for more than thirty years.