By Ian McKerracher
Last week we had a travelling evangelist for a week of meetings at our church. That, in itself, is not rare; it can happen 3 or 4 times a year (at Edmonton’s People’s Church anyways). But this evangelist changed my life. To explain why, I have to give you a part of the history at my church, and how it impacted me. People’s Church has a history and DNA known in the city of Edmonton for being cutting edge in worship, prayer, and evangelism. I want to focus on the last one for this particular blog.
I first came to People’s Church some four decades ago. WOW—time flies when you are having fun! I was desperately in need of God, stumbling into the sanctuary as a raw sinner, seeking relief from the rough world. Through a personal experience of faith in Christ I was soon born again, but I was what today would be called a baby Christian. Nevertheless, I was expected to immediately get involved in ministry, an expectation for which I am so thankful today.
Here’s the timeline. I found my way into the church for a Saturday night service, was baptized at the end of the next day’s morning service, and by Friday it was expected that I go out street witnessing with the rest of the church. I was surprised, at first, but with a little reflection it made perfect sense to me.
Being thrown into the deep end so quickly meant it was ingrained into me that my salvation wasn’t about me. It was about God cleaning me up, setting me in the place where he wanted me to be, and by the Holy Spirit providing the tools for me to get a job done, working alongside Him to build the Kingdom of God. That is a significantly larger story than me going to Heaven when I die.
Time passed, and the wild-west days of the 70s were replaced by the weird 80s, and my church’s street witnessing was replaced by other ways to get out the Word. I was still at People’s Church but did not realize how much we were changing. We thought that we were becoming more sophisticated, but really, we just stopped doing most of the evangelism that characterized our outreach in the early days. A church-split in the early 90s impacted us even more, and evangelism was brought down to a whisper; an act done regularly by only a few, mostly pursuing a relational model of sharing the faith.
Ultimately, I came to believe that the time for cold-call stranger evangelism had passed in North America. It was a change easy to justify, given the enormous changes in our culture, including a great mistrust for strangers that was growing around people’s hearts. My efforts became confined to speaking in somewhat off-hand ways to people I had some sort of relationship with—family, friends, and co-workers.
But everything changed this past week. Tommie Zito, an evangelist of whom I had never heard, came to Edmonton. I found it strange that the evangelist and the 15 team members he brought with him from the U.S. were asking for nothing more than billets, food, and an offering in the string of evening services for himself and the ministry.
Using People’s Church as a base of operations for a week set the pattern. After a short explanation of street evangelism methods, members of the team would pair up with volunteers from the seven churches involved and go talk to people on the street, in the mall, or waiting for a bus—wherever we could find them. A script was supplied that included a hodge-podge of various gospel appeals I had learned over the past 40 years, including three steps of what is commonly called The Roman Road to salvation, and finally a prayer for salvation. In other words, there was nothing special about the methods we were encouraged to use. The big difference was, as in my spiritual youth, Tommie demanded we go out and do something Christian—actually talk to people.
The challenge, for me, was to see if cold-call evangelism still worked. I held little hope of success but was prepared to put it to the test in this readymade experiment I was offered. Over the course of the week, the team recorded almost 700 people praying a prayer of repentance and faith, as well as giving a contact number or e-mail. Happily, I found out how wrong I was to doubt. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to tell you that street evangelism still works. I saw it working with my own eyes.
Now, I am not naïve. It is clear to me that the 700 who prayed will not translate into 700 lifelong conversions. Frankly, I’m still aware of how rare it is to hit one out of the park (Make a lifelong disciple of Christ) during these kinds of endeavors. But among the 16 names I was given, I found six people wanting to get more information, and some were even ready to come to the church and attend a next-step meeting. I’m committed to the follow-up, knowing the conversations there will be wonderful—for the most part. Look at that! Being wrong can be a lot of fun!