My mom, who went to heaven in July 2010, was the most effective personal evangelist I have ever known. It was extremely common during my childhood to see my mother sitting at the kitchen table with her Bible open in earnest conversation with another mom who lived on our street. Some of these were friends, some became friends, and some remained friends though they did not respond to the gospel. I have never sensed my mother’s friendship was a bargaining chip in evangelism. She found the biblical balance between influence and boldness. My mom led to Christ a woman named Shirley, who lived to the north of our house and now resides in heaven; in the two houses directly across the street, she reached Judy and Marg and a fourth woman (whose name escapes me) who lived behind us. What’s more incredible is that even after moving three times since those days in the 1970s, she continued to influence each of these women for Christ. They remained friends until my mom died, and the three still living were all at her memorial service. But what of the woman to the south and the other neighbor women who had equal opportunity to hear my mother’s bold witness but refused it?
When Harvest started, I wanted our people to experience success in personal evangelism and thought a lot about the women my mother reached versus those who refused the very same messenger with the very same message using the very same bold method. Hidden inside the stories of the women who responded to her compelling witness for Christ are stories that shatter their apparent similarity, revealing what God was doing to ready their hearts. In each instance where my mom was able to win and disciple a woman for Christ, there was an overarching life issue that ripened that woman’s heart to the good news of Jesus. Understanding that difference is the key to effective evangelistic ministry in a Vertical Church.
Same Lesson, Different Location and Time
In Vertical Church, we seek to adopt the most biblical language possible. In evangelism, we refer to people ready to respond to the gospel now as red apples; they are ripe to the gospel. For that reason we refer to people not yet ready as green apples. If you take that thinking out of John 4:34–38 and into Jesus’s interactions with people, it changes the way you see the Gospels and gospel work today. Jesus Christ constantly cut through the crowd filled with green apples to focus His energy on the red ones already ripe for His message. He left a crowd of green apples to talk with Zacchaeus, the lone red one. He turned to the desperate woman with the issue of blood even though surrounded by masses. He stopped for the centurion determined to see his daughter healed, He embraced the woman shamed by her sin whom the crowds despised, He talked at great length with Nicodemus who longed for more than his formulaic religiosity. In every instance Jesus invested in the ripe red apples, those with strong readiness abandon the life they knew for something better. Repeatedly Christ even explained His rationale: “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10), “Those who are well have no need of a physician” (Matthew 9:12), and there is “more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). Jesus gave time without limit to the red apples He met, but would hardly give the time of day to the green apples. Without insulting those not yet ripe, Christ did refuse them. When the rich, young ruler came to Jesus, he asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18). How many churches in our day would have that guy’s name on a card or serving as an usher in a matter of minutes? “He seems so interested, so passionate, so hungry for the things of God.” But Jesus used the law to elicit his prideful assertion that he was not sinful: “All these things I have kept from my youth up; what do I lack?” Christ responded to him, “Go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor” (Luke 18:21-22). Why did Jesus say this? Not because divesting his wealth would gain him eternal life, but because his refusal to do so revealed his unreadiness for a God other than the god of his possessions.
This revealing of a green apple’s unripeness was common with Christ. In the closing verses of Luke 9, Jesus had three quick encounters with green apples as He walked down a road. Two expressed a desire to follow Christ; the third He invited. In each instance Christ responded in a way that revealed the person’s unripeness: “You’re not ready to follow me, I don’t have a place to lay my head down,” “Leave the dead to bury their own dead,” “Followers don’t look back; you’re unfit” (Luke 9:57-62). Too shallow, too superficial, too slow, in each instance Christ turned the green apple away. But when people become aware of personal sin, open to complete life change, humbled enough to see their needs, they are ripe, red, and ready for a gospel witness. Those are the ones Christ sought out.
Excerpted from Vertical Church.