Evangelism in the 21st Century
Years ago now I (Isaac) got into a van with 12 college students and drove around the country. We were doing a service tour of different churches – providing a time of worshipping through music and preaching the Word. In Burlington, Ontario we stopped at a small church, and that’s where I met John Nathan. At the time, he was a pastor. Now, he’s the Ontario regional facilitator for The Gideons. I recently met up with him and we decided to have a conversation on evangelism in the 21st Century – and that’s what this is all about. In this conversation, John reminds us of the Holy Spirit’s role in salvation, how we need to be daily enjoying the gospel, and what we can do to grow in our zeal for sharing the good news.
Who’s Our Guest?
John Nathan is the Ontario Regional Facilitator for The Gideons International in Canada. Years ago in his late teens he was given a Gideons Bible. In a short period of time afterwards he responded to God’s call on his life. Whether pastoring or serving on Gideons, John has been in full-time ministry since 2007. He and his wife Donna, along with their two children, live in Ontario, Canada.
Make sure to check out the The Gideons Canada site (where John serves full-time).
Here’s the app that John was chatting about (New Life App).
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.
With me today is John Nathan who is the regional facilitator of Gideons in Ontario. Thanks for coming on the show today John.
Hey, my pleasure Isaac.
So, I know you in person. I think it was 2011 when I was part of this group of 10 students from my Bible College. We had this awesome privilege at the end of the year to travel along the Northern States up to the Maritimes, and then come along through the provinces. And we stopped at your place because at that time you were pastoring a little Foursquare Church in Burlington. And we got to stay the night at your house.
I don’t know why, but you let about 10 college students crash your tiny apartment. Do you remember that?
Yes, I do, I do.
It was a lot of fun. Anyways, we got to meet John there and his wife. And I think at that time she was pregnant.
Yes, she was.
Why don’t you just tell us a little bit about who you are personally, and then what you do as the regional facilitator of Gideons in Ontario.
Yeah, I’d love to. So you mentioned that I’m married, I’ve been married for twelve years to my lovely sweetheart, Donna. She has been a blessing and a support and a ministry partner. When you came, my wife was pregnant and now my son is 5-years-old. And I do have a girl as well, she’s only 9 months. Their names are Jaren and Jada. It’s been a blessing to serve God and serve my family and serve in the ministry.
A little bit about me – I have 7 years in the secular, financial district. That was with the Royal Bank, prior to working in full-time ministry in 2007. Since then I’ve been doing different things in ministry, but serving.
Yeah, that’s good! So being the regional facilitator of Gideons in Ontario, what exactly does that look like? In fact, just tell us about Gideons first, because I think a lot of us know Gideons and literally we all just think back to the little red books. We also think of hotels with the Gideons Bible, but tell us about who they are, what they do, and then what you do as well.
Sure, so I usually ask the same question: what do you know beyond hotel Bibles and receiving a Bible in grade 3? And a lot of people say, “Hey man, that’s all I know!” Well today we are a ministry that’s existed for about 100 years. What we do is basically mobilize our members who have a passion for evangelism. We find today that people are looking for alternative outlets where they could actually go in and speak, whether it is a soup kitchen or an event. People are looking for avenues, and so what we do is we create that platform for our members.
We encourage people to share the gospel, we believe the good news is what changes hearts. And how we do it is not only by sharing, but we also provide God’s Word with the sharing. So people get an opportunity to take God’s Word with them after dialogue. Our hope is that when they go home or when they go through that difficult time, there’s a Bible.
That actually really had impact on me. My personal testimony is that I came to know Jesus Christ in my late teens, I was 18. I received a copy of a Gideons Bible and it was very foreign to me, but yet, there was something in my darkish moment that I took the Bible and started reading. I remember reading the first chapter, second chapter – it didn’t make any sense to me! I started in Matthew. Third chapter, it didn’t make any sense. But something happened as I was reading in the fourth chapter, I think it was the following day. A light went on.
And for the first time, the Bible, the Word of God, came to life for me.
There was just this pull to keep going back to the Word of God. And I kept and kept reading until I finished the entire New Testament. And from there on I just had a heart to go to a church and then I gave my life to the Lord when a pastor preached a message of salvation and asked people to come forward, and I went, and I responded to the call of God. Since then, everything has been different.
And now, here I am after almost 22 years working as the Gideons Ontario facilitator. It has been a journey, and it is an amazing ministry. They’re doing tons of work locally, nationally as well as internationally.
Wow, that’s great. Going back a bit, because you gave us a hint of your testimony there. I want you to go into detail because I just think it’s really powerful. You first shared with me a little while ago when we met up at a Promise Keepers Canada event that someone had given you a Gideons Bible when you were 18-years-old, and you just started reading it! To me, I don’t know if it’s just the enemy or if it’s just my flesh, but I think a lot of my peers think that that idea of just going and giving someone a Bible, telling them that Jesus loves them, and then walking away – that that doesn’t work. But obviously you are saying, “Wait, it worked for me!” Now God has completely changed your life. So I’m really interested in that moment – because I think a lot of us need to break that notion that that kind of evangelism doesn’t work.
So, tell us a little more about it.
Sure, and I do agree with you. I mean, today it’s not just enough to declare the gospel, we need to define it and defend it. In my situation it was a bit unique. I really believe God’s Word is like a seed. You know, the sower sows the seed. And Jesus refers that to the Word of God. So, when I received that copy of the Gideons Bible, it wasn’t an instant “I got to read this!” It rather was a journey. It was an introduction to God, to the gospel.
Eventually I had to go to a church. The pastor had to explain the salvation message to me, and then there was a response. So the working of the Spirit was gradual. But it was the hook, I would say. So when we share or when we hand out God’s Word, we don’t expect people to respond right away, and we don’t just give the Bibles in a hope that’s like “Just because I gave that Scripture, that person has now accepted the Lord.”
What we believe is that it could be a hook, it could be a net, an introduction to the gospel. And where can they find that except through the Word of God?
So that’s what our hope is when we do give Scriptures – that over a period of time, and we are praying they will read a portion of Scripture – something will open up. And for me, I can’t say exactly what the verse was that opened my eyes, but it was that continued reading.
And obviously it was the Holy Spirit causing me to open up the pages. I mean I didn’t have the power in me, it was God who was at work in me. And He wanted me to keep going back to the Word. It was just that one word that opened up, and I thought, “Okay, it does make sense,” and then again, it’s the other workings of pastors and people coming along, getting connected to a small group, Bible studies, and prayer – all these played a part in changing my life.
That’s so good. And as you say that, you use the analogy, which is a true one, of giving the Word of God and that it’s like a seed. And you took that, and it was planted inside of you, but, the fruit from that seed wasn’t realized until later. And that person who gave you the Bible in the first place probably never saw that fruit of your life later on.
I just think that’s important for us to know that we all play a part in someone’s salvation, through the Holy Spirit obviously, at different periods of their maturity. So for that person who gave you the Bible, for instance, they didn’t get to see you now. Maybe you have, I don’t know if you’ve met that person today! But I’m sure they’d be really pumped.
Yeah, absolutely. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet met them, I don’t even know what he looks like. But, one day everything make sense.
Yeah, that’s so good. That’s just really, really cool. So John, you work with Gideons which means you’re well into evangelism and sharing God’s Word, giving people platforms to do that, so the question I have then is, what does evangelism look like in our Western 21st Century lives? I mean you live in Toronto – big, urban city, multicultural. I live near Vancouver, same thing – big, multicultural. What does that look like? Why don’t we see “classic” evangelism much anymore? What does it look like?
Yeah, I mean, the French novelist once said, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “If God is dead, anything is permissible.” And today we are living in a culture that actually conveys, and acts, and lives like God is dead.
A lot of this has actually contributed to the fact that today believers are not bold in sharing their faith with others. So if less and less is happening with us sharing, the more this quote becomes a reality in our lives.
Today what I find is that there is a misconception when it comes to evangelism, especially what we think about evangelism. You know, Jesus before He ascends, He gathers the disciples, spends time with them for 40 days, and before He leaves He says, “Wait in Jerusalem until you’re filled with the power of the Holy Spirit,” then what happens afterwards is that “you will become witnesses starting in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the outermost parts of the world.”
I think that’s the one thing we have forgotten – the Holy Spirit coming into your life.
We attend a church service, or a concert, or a conference, but the purpose of the Holy Spirit coming upon us and us receiving the Holy Spirit (if we have accepted Christ), is to transform us so that we become a witness. And that’s what’s missing.
And again, most of the times I find it’s because of the misconceptions that we have when we hear the word evangelism or evangelist. The first thing that comes to our minds may be Billy Graham or men who have a big platform. And, I mean, watching Billy Graham intimidates me. It makes me feel like, “Man, I could never do that! I could never speak to thousands of people like that!” And then we feel like, “Okay, maybe this is something for the elite or to those who are called for this kind of thing.” And then we put evangelism on the backburner and say, “It’s for the elite.”
So, there’s that misconception. And I think more and more people are buying into that. And so, evangelism becomes less and less attractive. We also live in a culture where, especially as Canadians, we feel like we want to be polite, we don’t want to confront certain issues, political correctness takes place. So all these things play a factor in giving people a misguided version of evangelism.
Personally I think what will change that is, once again, encouraging people what evangelism is and there are so many people who are doing that.
Yeah, that’s good. Not always when we’re talking about evangelism – you know, we talk about how we can say the gospel well, it’s all about understanding the gospel so you can give it to someone, we talk about relational evangelism, but not a lot is talked about the Holy Spirit’s role. And you’re exactly right, Acts 1:8, what you just said. We are given the Holy Spirit so that we may be witnesses of Jesus’ death, His resurrection, of this good news, in the world. In that sense, you are changed.
I love thinking about Peter who, during when Jesus was on earth, right before Jesus died, He’s stealthily following Jesus, and you see Peter’s fear of man – completely. He’s denying that He even knows Jesus at all. And then the Holy Spirit comes down, Pentecost, Acts 2, he’s now the main guy in front of 120 disciples, and then him and John are walking around healing people in Jesus’ name. There’s this boldness that comes after Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit.
And I think we need to emphasize that when it comes to evangelism. It’s not in our own strength, it’s not in our eloquence of being able to speak the gospel to someone. It’s understanding that it’s the Holy Spirit’s work through me. So I’m glad you say that, because that’s such a good emphasis to bring on.
Yeah, and you see that over and over in the book of Acts. I mean, Peter and some disciples get taken in among the Pharisees and they actually beat them. And they come back and one of the things they pray is “God give us boldness, that we could continue to speak about Jesus,” and they were actually rejoicing! And one of the things they were asking is “Give us boldness.” I think, today, that’s what we need to ask:
“Holy Spirit, give us boldness. Let us not fear man. Let us not be intimidated by what they will think or what they would say to us. But just give us that boldness that we could speak.”
A lot of times, I mean, there are times when I have said things, naturally, I would not have said it. It’s just that sometimes the Holy Spirit just takes hold of your mouth and becomes that mouthpiece. Even the book of Acts was one point said to have been called “Acts of the Holy Spirit.” And there’s a reason why it’s called the book of Acts, because men acted. And today, Holy Spirit is still acting on behalf of heaven, and all we have to do is just come alongside Him and say, “God, here we are, use us.”
I think today more people are open to the gospel, I think people are asking. They don’t just want us to declare it, they just want us to define it. And we need to define the gospel to them. And then we need to defend it.
I’m resonating with what you’re saying, but I feel like (myself included and my peers) the 20s, 30-somethings, I almost feel like we won’t be encouraged to evangelize until we ourselves in our own hearts are constantly being empowered and remembering the gospel. We can just get so caught up in the Christian culture of our day, the comfortable living that when we’re told to go and evangelize, I don’t even know if we’re going to be motivated. We’re not even – why would we want to tell someone about the gospel that maybe we’re not taking advantage of every single day and relying on?
I don’t know if you have thoughts on that?
Absolutely. I always say, we all, everyone of us, are an evangelist today, even secular corporate businesses use the word “evangelist.” Why? The word evangelism is the “good news,” the word evangelion – where we get the word “good news.” So we’re hear to announce the good news. And today everybody’s announcing something. Whether you’re going to a nice restaurant and you have this wonderful meal, one of the first things you do is that you announce it. You announce it to your friends, you announce it to your people, we announce it in our social media, “Hey man, check out this great restaurant here,” we’re all announcing.
And you’re right, today one of the reasons why we’re not announcing is because we’re not enjoying the presence of God and God’s Word ourselves. We haven’t really tasted the love – and the Bible says, “Come and taste the Lord, He is good!” We have not really enjoyed His goodness through His Word, through His fellowship, through prayer, we have not enjoyed it. So therefore, what happens is that there’s no motivation to share. So one of the things that I tell people, “Before you could actually tell someone else about the good news, have you experienced Jesus and His good news for yourself?”
Every day when I wake up, I need to hear the gospel over again!
It’s not like, “I heard the gospel ten years ago,” no. Even right now, this second, I need to hear the gospel, because it is what transforms me, it is what gives my joy, it is what gives me pleasure, it is what gives me motivation. I think that’s what the early church had. They had that constant awareness that they were with Jesus. And when people have that, when people encounter that, I think we will see more and more people going out and sharing boldly their faith.
Yeah, so John, what does it look like, because you briefly said that every single morning you need to enjoy the gospel for yourself, what does it look like to evangelize to yourself? Because if people are missing that key, treasuring the gospel and Jesus, and enjoying the gospel, what does it look like to evangelize to yourself?
Well for me personally, basically with sermons, I think there are times when I’m always driving and always listening to Dr. John Neufeld (Back to the Bible Canada) – he always has some amazing illustration that simplifies the Word. Just those messages, hearing sermons.
And spending time in prayer. Having that quiet time. And there are times when I would just have everything shut off and I will just go through the book of Psalms. And I think we can relate so much deeper through the book of Psalms. Just reading it, and then making it personal.
I think that today when I personally read something or when I hear something, for example, when I hear a sermon, one of the first things I want to do is go and share that with someone. Why not, because you share it, why not really take it for yourself?
We’re always thinking about how this message could benefit someone else, or how this book could benefit someone, or this portion of Scripture, or this quote, it’s going to benefit someone – no, is it really benefiting you? Are you being impacted by it?
So those are things that help me evangelize. And, therefore, I can take it to others and share that goodness.
Yeah, that’s good. Okay, so, in addition to that then John, as we finish up, what are some other practices and disciplines that we as Christians can grow in when it comes to our evangelistic zeal? What are some other things that we can do?
Yeah, first of all I would say prayer. Prayer is such an important factor in our day-to-day life. And I think today we have lost the art of prayer.
And the second thing is the Word of God. Just having a personal conversation with God through His Word. Let Him speak to you, let God speak to you. This is a time when you sit down and let God speak to you.
And thirdly, find someone who is actually passionate. One of the things that really changed me – I had a very rough teenage life – but one of the things that really changed me, and today I say this to a lot of people, a lot of times when people ask me, “How did you make this radical change?” it’s when I changed the people that I hung around with.
Find people who are zealous for God, and hang around them.
Listen to people. Connect with ministries who are doing things, like indoubt. Ministries who are challenging people. Connect and fellowship. Having that will once again create zeal for the world. And what happens is that we are taken away from that most of the times and we are brought into a place very secular, and then it’s all that we hear. Everyone’s trying to get our attention and the more we are surrounding ourselves in the wrong environment we will be shaped by it. And so it’s very important, that’s why Romans is very clear, “Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of you mind,” by the Word of God.
The only way that you can be renewed and have a renewed perspective on culture and society and even on the church, is when we are renewed by the Word of God. So these things have really helped me, and it’s something that I do and practice.
Yeah, well I love that you give those three – prayer, reading the Word, and then surrounding yourself with other Christians. You’re not saying that you have some “new” ultra-spiritual way.
No, these are the basics!
Yeah, the basics! And that’s good. When you say that, I’m like, “Good, that’s perfect. Dead on.”
John, what does Gideons offer when it comes to people wanting to get involved with evangelism and things?
Yeah, we actually have an app called New Life App. Basically you can download it from any app store. The idea behind it is to encourage and inform people what some of the toughest and difficult questions are that people tend to ask. We use it more as a conversational style tool. We encourage people to download it on their smartphone, have their friend who is a skeptic download it also, and start with the basics: does God exist? And then go over it.
And we believe that we can define things for people, and today, before you can even introduce Jesus you need to introduce God. So that’s one way in which we’re encouraging people in evangelism.
And of course our Scriptures are something that we use, God’s Word, as a tool to get people connected.
You can download the New Life App at www.newlifeapp.ca.
Awesome. And to our listeners, I’ll have all the links to Gideons and the New Life App and all that on the episode show page. John, it’s been such a pleasure to be able to talk to you again. I’m glad we met up a little while ago and said, “We need to have a conversation on evangelism in the 21st Century in the West!” So, I’m glad we got to do that, and I hope and pray that people are impacted. I am, and I’m looking forward to just receiving from the Holy Spirit to get the boldness to tell people about Jesus and the gospel. So, thank you so much John for coming on. I hope I talk to you soon!
Yeah, pleasure Isaac. Thanks for having me on the show today.