Two weeks back, we looked at missions and personal evangelism and the goal of it all. Why did Paul give his life to spreading the gospel? And we got the answer: Paul was all about winning. He mentions the word win five times in four verses in 1 Corinthians 9:19–22. That was our focus in APJ 1898.
It’s pretty easy to speak of evangelism in the abstract like that. And it’s far more challenging to actually do evangelism. So today I want to encourage you with a story. This is the story of one man’s attempt to win another man to Christ — a story of two neighbors. And it’s a story that will challenge us to consider the all-important question behind our evangelism: What is Jesus worth to me? Your answer to that question becomes your sharable testimony. It’s what you offer others as you seek to win them to Christ.
When it comes to personal evangelism, I’m encouraged by gritty and honest stories of doubt and hesitation and overcoming fears. And that’s what we get today, the story of one man, Pastor John, seeking to win his next-door neighbor to Christ (a man named Allen) in a very rare, extended story told by Pastor John in 1982, over forty years ago. Here it is.
I have a neighbor named Allen, and he’s a single man in his forties, I would guess. When Noël and I moved into the neighborhood over here, I met him probably on the first or second day. And in that conversation, I asked if he went to church anywhere, and he said no. And my response to that was, “Well, you’re sure welcome to come to Bethlehem anytime” — he knew I was the pastor there because I had told him that — and I dropped it.
Now the reason I dropped it there — I mean, I assume when somebody says they don’t go to church anywhere that they probably don’t know Christ, because Christ moves his people into fellowship — the reason I didn’t follow up on that, though I suspected he needed the Lord very much, is not because I had a very clear and wise strategy for reaching him in the next few weeks. It’s because I was inept, and my faith was not vital, and Christ was not very precious to me at that moment, communicating to me a love for this man.
Prayer and a Book
Now, a year goes by. During the year, from the summer of ’80 to the summer of ’81, I saw him I don’t know how many times, but never in any extended conversation — just passing along the way. “Hi, Allen.” “Hi, John.” And that was it, pretty much, even though he lives right next door.
And during the year, I could hardly ever go to prayer without him coming to mind. I would go to God feeling low sometimes and say, “God, I want power. I want blessing on my life. Is there anything standing between me and you? Is there . . . ?” Allen, Allen, Allen, every time. I felt so guilty. And what happened was that I began to pray very fervently, and I asked the Lord to give me courage, and most of all love — that I’d be authentic, really care, so that when I spoke it was real.
And then the Lord began, very patiently, to move me step by step. Here was step number one. He caused me in the spring to start carrying this little booklet around, Becoming a Christian by John Stott. I’d carry it in this pocket right here every day.
And I vowed to the Lord, “Next time I see Allen, I’m going to talk to him about his faith. I’m going to tell him, ‘Allen, I care about you. And this book has been a help to me, and maybe you could read it and we could talk about it.’” That was my text. The Lord laid that on my heart.
Okay. The summer passes all the way through to July, end of July, and it’s time to go on vacation. Never seen him. I hadn’t seen him for three months. I’d been carrying this thing the whole time. It’s all shabby. So I got a new one out and put it in my pocket.
Then I think it was about the day before vacation, just before August, and I had to get some grading done on the side of the house, and I had to get his permission because it was going to go over into his yard, I thought. And I told him about the grading. “Is that okay?” “Oh sure.”
“Allen,” I said, “you remember last time we talked? You said you didn’t go to church anywhere, and I assume that means you don’t have much interest in Jesus either. And you probably know that I count him as my Lord, and I’m really concerned when people don’t care about Jesus. I’ve been carrying this book around for three months in hopes to give it to you, so that maybe we could talk about what it means to trust Christ. Would you mind reading it?” “Sure, I’ll read it.”
He was going to the Boundary Waters the next day. He took it. He was very courteous, thanked me for it. And that was the last I saw of him till Christmas — but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Face to Face
After that, I was in constant prayer about how I should follow up on this. If you really care about somebody, you don’t stick them with literature and run away. “What do I do next, Lord? What’s the next move?”
One Monday morning in the fall, I was praying back here in my study, and I couldn’t get off my knees until I made a vow to the Lord. And what I vowed was this: I’ll call him tonight. Then I got up, and I told these interns that afternoon, “Guys, I’m going to call him tonight, and I’m going to ask him if we could talk about the book.” And they prayed for me.
At 7:30 I called him, and he wasn’t home. I called him again. He wasn’t home. He didn’t come home all night. I felt good. I hadn’t done that for a long time, and that made me feel good that at least I’d done that. Now, I didn’t feel right to call him the next night, because the Lord started to lay on me another thing: Forget the phone. Let’s have a face to face. Go. Jesus went. Go. Quit this intermediate stuff and go, if you care.
Now, the next thing that happened was this Christmas open house we had. That was at the end of November, and he came. That’s the first time I’d seen him since July. But the living room was just full of people. We sat on the floor together. He felt so good to be there. He’s just natural. And I said, “This is great. He’s not as scared of me, and that’s good.”
But I didn’t ask him about the book there because there were so many people around. I don’t know whether I should have or not, but I didn’t. And he left, and I felt good that he had felt free to come. And I felt like now I know he’s not afraid of me, and so we can be natural with each other.
In This Together
And then I did something that I recommend to everybody. Monday, December 14, I took a retreat day. For five hours, I prayed and read the Bible, and the Lord laid on me a great burden for last week’s sermon and this week’s sermon. And I suspected very strongly I couldn’t preach it if I didn’t follow through with Allen. That’s pressure for a preacher.
The fruitlessness of our witness at Bethlehem really weighed on me, and I knew the problem was as much with me as with any of you. And therefore, as a leader and a pastor, I knew some changes had to be made in me. Sure, I witness every Sunday from this pulpit. And you may think, “Oh Piper, he’s so fortunate. He can just declare the word all the time and feel great.”
And I talk to people about the Lord in my study every time they come there. I hardly let anybody get out without the gospel. That’s easy. But when it comes to going to the people in the world where they are, like Jesus did, I am as hesitant as any of you. So don’t think any differently. We’re all in it together.
“I said to myself, ‘I have to quit denying the gospel through silence.’”
I knew something had to give in me. Something had to snap. Some long, ingrained fears had to be overcome if I was going to be any authentic minister, if I was going to keep going as pastor. I said to myself, “I have to quit denying the gospel through silence.” If I’m going to stand in this pulpit and say to you, “Love your neighbor, love your neighbor, love your neighbor,” I had to quit contradicting that command by my own neglect.
So, December 23 rolled around. Early before breakfast, I was praying downstairs, and the Lord did something he hasn’t done forever, in one sense, to me. I was wrestling, wanting the resolve, yet not wanting the resolve, to get up off my knees and go. And the Lord would not let me up until I vowed to do it that night.
How Much Is Jesus Worth?
Now, besides eighteen months of prayer and faltering and little baby steps, the thing that brought me to that point was this question: How much is Jesus worth? And I took one of these big yellow sheets of paper, and I laid it beside me on the couch where I was kneeling. And I wrote for myself, “How much is Jesus worth?” at the top of the page.
And then here’s what I wrote in answer: “Jesus, I would rather have you as my Savior and leader than keep my health, have my sons and wife, or preserve my own life. You are more valuable to me than all I own, all the friendships I cherish, all the pastimes I enjoy, and all my plans for the future.”
And then I wrote, “Why? Why is he so valuable?” And I wrote three answers. First, “Jesus, I could have no peace with God without you. My conscience declares to me there is a God, and I am an accountable sinner. And without your death on the cross, Jesus, I would live daily in the misery of guilt.” Second, “Jesus, without you, my life would be like a ship without a rudder in a sea of time, with no destination at all. I want meaning and significance to my life. And I know if the Bible’s true, only you can give that meaning, because you give meaning to the whole universe.” And then third, I wrote, “Without you, Jesus, eternity and death would be fearsome to me. But God sent you into the world, so loving me that if I just believe on you, I need not perish, but have eternal life.” And I put a text with each one of those reasons for why he is so valuable to me.
And I jumped up off the floor, and I said, “I’m going to read that to Allen today.” And I went over and typed it on a piece of paper so I could give it to him. Before I left the room, I asked the Lord for a promise. “I need a promise, Lord, because I’m going to chicken out today. I’m going to chicken out if you don’t give me a promise.” And you know what he gave me? Chariots of Fire the movie, and the text “He who honors me, I will honor” (see 1 Samuel 2:30). And I looked up another one: “If anyone serves me,” Jesus said, “the Father will honor him” (John 12:26). And I just paraphrased that for myself. I said, “Okay, if that’s true, then it means, ‘He who aims in love to testify of my value, I will honor.’”
“And the Lord opened my eyes to see there is nothing in the world more valuable than to be honored by God.”
And the Lord opened my eyes to see that there is nothing in the world more valuable than to be honored by God. And I fought the battle all day with that text, and it was great. At noontime, I went to Logos Bookstore and bought a New Testament and Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. And I wrote a message of hope and a prayer in each one of those. And I wrapped them up as a Christmas present.
That night, we had guests for supper, and after supper, I told them what I was going to do and asked them if they would pray for me while I go next door. And we prayed, and I called him. “Hello, Allen, this is John Piper, your neighbor. I’ve got a Christmas present for you. Can I bring it over?” “Sure.”
He’s home. Great. Victory number one. And I go over and knock on his door, and he lets me in. We stand there in the living room, and the television is on. And I say, “I’ve got a couple of books here I wanted to give you for Christmas. And there’s something else I want to say too. Is it okay?” “Sure.”
I said, “You know from our conversations that Jesus is really important to me, and I know that you don’t believe in him the way I do. And I’ve been praying for you every day for almost a year. And I just felt this morning I had to come tell you why Jesus is so valuable to me because I’d like, like crazy, for you to believe in him too.”
And I took out this piece of paper, and I was going to read it, but the television was on right there beside me. You just can’t imagine the atmosphere. It was so rotten for sharing something so precious. So instead of reading it, I just held it there. I said, “I wrote these down. I’ll leave them with you.” And I paraphrased them. I said, “This is how important he is to me,” and I said, “These are the reasons.” I gave them those three reasons in my own words.
And then I said, “Allen, have you ever desired that kind of a relationship? Have you ever wanted to know Jesus like that?” And he said, “Turn off the television and sit down.” That’s great. And we sat down on the couch and talked. And among the things that we said, he said, “I read that book in the Boundary Waters, and I heard some Christians singing a song in the Boundary Waters.”
And I said, “That might be kind of nice to have faith like that.” And I said, “What hinders? What’s the hindrance? Is it what it would cost? Lifestyle? Or is it intellectual problems?” And he said, “Yeah, the latter.”
And I said, “Well, one of these books, C.S. Lewis, was a tremendous help to me when I was a freshman in college, overcoming lots of those hindrances. And I’d love to talk with you about that book and about those problems.” And he said, “Yeah, that would be great. Could we talk again?” “Sure.” And he thanked me for my concern.
Now, that’s where the story stands today. And I pray for him every day. Now that’s the first time I ever did that in my life. Go to a neighbor. I’ve talked to other people about the Lord. A neighbor: the hardest person to witness to and go into his house and say, “I love Jesus. It’s so important to believe in Jesus. Can I tell you why it’s important?” I did it, and I would do some things very differently. Retrospect is always better. You learn by experience.
Three Lessons for Evangelism
Now here are the lessons for us from that story.
1. God is patient. Don’t give up on God. He’s patient. Eighteen months of guilty feelings, and he did not abandon me.
2. If you continue in prayer — this is all you’ve got to do, I promise. If you will not quit praying, the Lord will do the rest. That’s all. He’ll get you one way or the other. All you need to do is pray. What we do is we feel so guilty every time the name comes to mind, we put it out. We blank it out. But if you don’t blank it out, and you keep praying, He’ll do the rest. He’ll make the way.
3. If you do what I did — take a piece of paper and write out, “How much is Jesus worth?” and then put that in your own words, and then say why, write why — there’s your testimony, and it’s yours. It’s authentic. It doesn’t have to come from any book. And you’ll have a testimony, and you’ll have the prayer support. And our church will be on the way to harvest in 1982.