After a lifelong ministry devoted to evangelism, Dr. Bill Bright, as quoted by Eddie Smith of the US Prayer Center, said, “I am waiting for the day when I can retire from Campus Crusade [for Christ] and be promoted to intercessor.”
Is it possible that Dr. Bright has given to us the secret to successful evangelism? Does this simple quip actually have much to teach us about the relationship between prayer, evangelism and human methods? Is this legendary leader an illustration of how talking with God about people and talking with people about God are meant to relate to one another?
According to Dr. Bright, “Successful evangelism depends on prayer.” It is instructive that he does not credit human methods, resources or training as the source of success in witnessing to others. Referring to the worldwide ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ, a strong and strategic source of methods, resources and training for the Church, Dr. Bright states, “It was born in prayer, its growth has been through prayer and its future depends on prayer.” We all concur, but we must understand this indicates something beyond merely adding more prayer to our personal lives and ministry meetings. The challenge is to discover the biblical relationship between prayer and human methods as we seek to obey the Great Commission to make disciples of all peoples by communicating and sharing the good news of God in Christ.
Though I had flown in jet airplanes many times, it was not until I surveyed the six-seater airplane that was about to take me deep into the bush villages of Zambia that I made an obvious and elementary observation. For the first time I thought about the need for an airplane to have two wings. Had the pilot pondered our journey with only one of the wings, I would not have needed any counsel to wait for the next plane! This is a silly notion to make a serious point.
Prayer and human methods are the two wings required for the airplane of evangelism to successfully get off the ground, fly safely at the appropriate altitude and arrive at its intended destination. Prayer without evangelistic objectives, goals and plans produces personal piety but little witnessing activity. Human methodology that fails to precede and proceed from prayer, is merely human effort and hence, ineffective. As Dr. Bright states, “What is the greatest thing you could do to help somebody else? The answer…is obvious: To introduce them to Jesus Christ.” The answer is obvious. It is the method of introduction that is not.
It is my contention we operate evangelistically with an overrated reliance on human methods and an undervalued partnership with prayer. For some, progress has been to add a prayer support team to an already planned activity. Serious training in intercession or spiritual warfare has become a newfound goal in many circles. Our leaders are beginning to see the need to spend more quality time in prayer, hence, the rise of Prayer Summits and Pastors’ Prayer Groups. These are good and each indicates a growing awareness of the greater role we must afford to prayer. But we must go further.
Looking Biblically at the Importance of Prayer
The first recorded prayer in the Bible is closely linked to human methodology. In Genesis 1:27-30 we are told the Lord created man in his own image (presumably so that relational communication could take place). After blessing both the man and the woman (or, possibly as a sign of blessing them), God spoke to them, assigning them the role of stewarding their environment. By speaking, God initiated a conversation between the creator and the created which we define as prayer. By assigning, God issued the authority and responsibility to decide how to creatively apply themselves to the accomplishment of his command.
In other words, prayer, the conversation between God and man, was the means by which God revealed his will. How could it be any other way, not only at that time, when the written word of God did not yet exist, but even now, when that written word of God is intended to authoritatively guide and guard this holy conversation (see 2 Timothy 3:16-17)? As we approach God’s word (the text), prayer must be both pretext and context. Prayer must precede human plans and strategies and must also be the environment in which they are sought, adapted and implemented. Prayer that leads to successful evangelism, both one-to-one and on a large group scale, must become more than the opening and closing ritual of our strategy meetings. As many have said, prayer is the strategy!
Moses, in Numbers 20:2-12, is both a good example and a warning to us. He brings the expressed need of the people to the Lord in prayer (Verse 6 reads, “Moses and Aaron went from the assembly to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and fell facedown, and the glory of the LORD appeared to them.”). He receives specific instruction on how the Lord will solve the problem and he even blesses those who were in opposition to God’s appointed leaders (Verse 8 reads, “Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.”). Moses, even after having inquired of the Lord and receiving specific instruction, proceeds to, shall we say, improvise. He strikes rather than speaks (v. 11), but more importantly, he takes credit for the result and makes no mention of God (v. 10). What was found in prayer was not followed-through in prayer. This was a sign of Moses’ lack of trust and regard for the Lord’s honor (v. 12). Starting in prayer does not give the evangelist permission to act in accordance with his or her own ideas for implementation.
Joshua encounters the Lord himself (Joshua 6:2) as he scopes out Jericho for the ensuing battle (5:13). Is this, as some suggest, the first prayerwalk? Does the Lord appear as a response to Joshua’s inquiring prayer as he walks onsite to gain insight into the stronghold of the city (6:1)? We do know the Lord reveals a strategy (6:2-5) that proves to be very effective (6:20). We also know Joshua then gave precise instructions to the people regarding their silent marching, the number of times around the city each day, the blowing of the trumpets, the rescuing of Rahab the prostitute and the importance of devoting the city to God (6:6-19).
Our real lesson, however, is when we see the victorious leader take a shortcut in the very next conflict by accepting a strategy that he did not receive directly from the Lord while in prayer (7:2). The report of the men who spied out the next city, Ai, was probably accurate and their strategy sounds reasonable. However, it was based upon what they could see and hear with their natural eyes and ears. God did not empower his people; they were routed by the enemy (v. 4), with the result that “the hearts of the people melted and became like water” (v. 5). As Dr. Bright has said, “We cannot depend on any human methodology. If ideas are not born in God and energized by his Spirit, we are wasting our time.” How then must we wed prayer and methods?
Looking at the Book of Acts for Prayer Guidance
It has been said that if we want to see a Book of Acts revival, we must reinstitute the Book of Acts prayer meeting. The Lord’s command for the early Church to wait in the Upper Room (Acts 1) was a way of preparing them for the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon all believers. But was it also meant to be a first command for all congregations who follow in their steps? Should not we also gather in unity, in expectancy and in faith that the Holy Spirit not only can, but will make God’s will known and direct our steps? In Ephesians 5:18 Paul’s command to be filled with the Spirit is plural; it is an imperative for the congregation, not merely the individual. Pentecost, while being a unique event, is meant to be perpetually remembered when the body of Christ, individually and corporately, bears witness out of prayer-birthed opportunities, prayer-based ministries and prayer-bathed activities. Then the Lord will add to the Church those who are being saved (Acts 2:47).
We must remember when Paul took his first step in planting a new church in Philippi, his first thought was to look for the place of prayer (Act 16:13, 16). May I suggest he did so, at least partly, so that he could partner with those who were already faithfully inquiring of the Lord?
We must also not forget the Council in Acts 15 when they declared their decision by saying “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (v. 28). We must not forget the church at Antioch in Acts 13 who set apart Barnabas and Saul because they heard the Holy Spirit speak while they were worshiping the Lord and fasting. This is a description of prayer that is all too unfamiliar to our planning meetings, boards and committees. The Jerusalem Council and the church in Antioch are examples of both the balance and the sequence of prayer and human response.
Several times Paul exhorts the church in the city to pray toward evangelism. The church in Colosse is challenged to be devoted to prayer that opens a door for the gospel to be shared personally with those who do not yet know Christ (Colossians 4:2-6). The Ephesus Christians are told to pray that the evangelist will have the proper words to fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel (Ephesians 6:19). Believers in Philippi are told to do everything by prayer (Philippians 4:6). This includes receiving and casting vision, assessing needs and resources, planning a strategy, choosing tactics and evaluating successes and next steps.
When Jesus turned the tables in the Temple, it was not primarily because the vendors were selling t-shirts and tapes in the lobby. He was angry because they had blocked the path and drowned out the sounds of worship (praise and prayer) that would draw unbelievers to investigate the one true God. The religious establishment had taken their focus off their responsibility of connecting people and God (evangelism) because they thought they could trust their traditions and methods without constant conversation (prayer) and modification (Holy Spirit inspired methods and ideas).
Sadly, even the commitment to prayer is not a guarantee of balance. The church in Jerusalem earnestly prayed to God for Peter, who had been thrown into prison (Acts 12:5). However, they were incredulous when the servant girl Rhoda said he was standing right outside their door. The church was praying strenuously but not strategically. Strategic prayer expects God to work and asks to be prepared for his often-surprising answers. Strategic prayer decries the problem and expresses the need, but also seeks the solution, which is a God-ordained strategy and methodology.
I would suggest that the answer to balancing prayer and human methods in evangelism is to be found in prayer. This is the asking-waiting-listening-obeying type of prayer experienced when one inquires of the Lord. There must be the depth and patience in prayer that many of us may know as individuals but few know as congregations, ministry teams or 501C-3 (non-profit) organizations. This is not mysterious or complicated prayer. It is the simple, be-still-and-listen-to-your-God kind of dependence, one that refuses to press on until and unless we hear the familiar voice of our good shepherd. This kind of prayer will leave us filled, not with human might or methods, nor by the power of our plans and programs, but by his Spirit.
(This presentation was originally presented at the Billy Graham Center Roundtable. This article may not be reproduced in any form without the author’s permission.)