For SBTS students at Crossover, evangelism is ‘sowing a seed’
Jim Hudson’s small group was trying to meet up with another team when he misread the directions on his phone. It was a scorching June day in Ft. Worth, Texas, and the group had been walking around the block for hours as part of the delegation from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary at Crossover 2018, a week-long evangelism ministry before the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting on June 12-13.
Like many others in the Ft. Worth/Dallas area experienced during the week of SBC, Hudson’s phone took an extra second or two to get its bearings. So instead of going right, the group went left. They hadn’t walked more than 50 yards when they saw a man walking down the sidewalk — aimless and alone. Although he didn’t look like it, once they began talking to him they learned he was homeless.
Hudson, a licensed attorney and Master of Divinity student at SBTS, had occasionally ministered to the homeless in his hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas. In his experience, homeless people typically fit a certain profile.
But this man, probably in his 40s, seemed fairly “put together,” as Hudson put it. Maybe he hadn’t been on the streets very long, Hudson speculated. The man also said he was headed somewhere else because there was “a lot of silly stuff going on” where he had just been, indicating that the man had some awareness about his surroundings and a sense of morality. And he said he had never heard of Jesus.
“That kind of shocked me,” Hudson said. “To say he didn’t believe — I understand that. But he had never heard of him.”
They began talking. The man’s name was Josephus, though he was unaware of the historical coincidence. Hudson asked the man what his plan for that night was. He said he didn’t know. Sensing a bridge to the gospel, Hudson quoted Matthew 8:20: “Foxes have dens and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
“I can’t identify with what this man was going through, and it would not be polite or loving to him to pretend like I could,” Hudson said. “But we have a sympathetic Savior who does understand and who has experienced all the sufferings we’ve experienced and then some. So, I was able to share with him that although he doesn’t have a home, this man Jesus Christ didn’t have a home either — yet he owns everything. He never claimed a place as his place, at least on earth with us. I let him know that there is someone who gets him and understands him and has experienced what he’s experienced — his Savior.”
Hudson moved from there into a traditional gospel presentation — God is the creator of all things, humankind has rebelled against him, Jesus lived a perfect life and died an atoning death that restores everyone who believes in him to a right relationship with the Father.
Josephus responded with a profession of faith. Hudson knows it is impossible to be certain how real his profession was, but he hopes that they were able to plant a seed of faith that would get watered by the local church and blossom into fruit of genuine repentance.
For Hudson and the other SBTS students at Crossover, there was little they could control about a person’s response to their evangelism. Students can knock on a door, have a conversation about Christianity, or give someone a Bible — but that’s about the extent of their capabilities. There is no guarantee that anyone will repent and believe.
But even those acts of outreach are unusual: according to a 2014 LifeWay study, 85 percent of Christians between the ages of 18 and 29 agree that they have a responsibility to share their faith with others, but only 25 percent of them actively seek opportunities to do so. For these students, Crossover represented a significant step toward fulfilling the Great Commission mandate to “go and make disciples” (Matt 28:19). And that starts with going.
Evangelizing at a ‘deeper level’
Each day of Crossover began on the campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary before students from five different Southern Baptist seminaries split up and partnered with local churches to evangelize surrounding neighborhoods.
The eight Southern Seminary students arrived on Thursday during the week of Crossover and began walking around the financially and racially diverse neighborhoods of Ft. Worth. Timothy K. Beougher, Billy Graham Professor of Evangelism and Church Growth at Southern Seminary, led the team and teaches the SBTS Personal Evangelism course that coincided with the event.
Evangelism is central to Christian life and theology, Beougher said, making events like Crossover crucial components in a seminary student’s education.
“Evangelism brings to fulfillment the main message of the Bible,” he said. “It’s often called the ‘scarlet thread’ throughout Scripture — God is the holy and loving creator, man has rebelled against God and gone his own way, God shows his immense love in the sending of his Son, and the Lord Jesus Christ lives the perfect life we failed to live and dies for sinners. Now he offers a gracious invitation to come to him and live. All the study of theology culminates in the doctrine of salvation, and that points us forward to a ministry of evangelism. Scripture makes clear that no one can be saved unless they hear about Christ and call on him. So, evangelism really is the heartbeat of theology.”
When Hudson was called to ministry, he had a law degree and was still practicing as an attorney. He earned a master’s degree in ministry from John Brown University in Arkansas and felt competent to be a pastor who could serve the church. For the last 11 years, Hudson has served as an executive pastor at Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. During that time, Hudson’s responsibilities grew. As he started shephering and teaching more, Hudson felt poorly equipped and decided to go to seminary. He’s currently transitioning off pastoral staff and had a month in June to focus on schoolwork, which included the intensive door-to-door component of the Personal Evangelism class — something he knew he would benefit from.
Hudson had been on some short-term mission trips and crusades, but most of his evangelism opportunities have been in the context of pastoral counseling, which he believes equipped him in a unique way for outreaches like this.
“People come to the office and connect with a pastor about something they perceive as a felt need. Typically there’s some suffering going on in their lives and they’re looking for answers. For them, the church is their help desk. As a pastor, I then have the opportunity to talk about their situation at a deeper level and help them see what the real problem is.
“You can speak to the cosmic brokenness that exists because of the Fall, and then connect somebody’s personal suffering with the root cause of suffering going back to Genesis 3. The hard part in those conversations is to transition to personal offense. They’re really dialed into what is happening to them. But it can be challenging to bridge that into their own personal brokenness expressed in sinful behavior that is an offense to God and requires the death of their Savior.”
Hudson believes one of the biggest cultural challenges to evangelism is partly a prevalent “caricature” of what Christianity is and partly personal wounds people carry from previous interactions with religious belief. At one point during the week, Hudson spoke to a wheelchair-bound man sitting alone in his garage. When he tried to share the gospel with him, the man immediately shut down the conversation, strongly insisting that he had no interest in talking about Jesus.
As Hudson walked away from the man’s house, he wondered what had happened to the man to make him so bitter. He knew the wheelchair could be a reason, but Hudson knew “there was something else there too. There’s an antagonism to God.” Such attitudes are common, especially in this part of the United States, Hudson said.
“Here in Texas, there are people who are just de-churched. And the de-churched people have some baggage. And that baggage has nothing to do with me — I didn’t give them that baggage. But they bring the baggage to the conversation.”
Sometimes, it is very apparent there is something lingering in someone’s heart that keeps them from hearing the gospel. One group asked a woman what gave her hope in life. “My boyfriend,” she immediately said, explaining that she had been married twice before but her husbands never treated her very well. But with her new boyfriend, things were going to be different. “He treats me like a queen!” she said. Her response indicates she is already accustomed to the idea of salvation, Hudson said, but looks for it in the wrong places.
“In some ways, you’re working with a worldview that is not far off from Christianity, but it’s off just enough to be no Christianity at all,” he said. “That woman was looking for something that would make her feel whole. At some point, this new boyfriend is going to be an old boyfriend, too.”
‘A stone in somebody’s shoe’
Hudson is more familiar with the practice of evangelism than he is with the method his team used during Crossover — focused door-to-door outreach. He admits evangelistic conversations can be especially hard for him because of his introverted personality, and he is rarely motivated to approach a stranger and make conversation. Doing so will wear him out.
“I’d be one of those guys who would say, ‘Sure, when the opportunity comes to me, I want to be ready to give account for the hope that is in me.’ But I don’t often lean into the idea of going out and actively sharing my faith,” he said. “It’s been encouraging for me to discipline myself to go out and share the gospel.”
There are other — probably better — ways of evangelizing than knocking on a stranger’s door in a city hundreds of miles from home. Approximately 10 percent of people contacted will be open to some sort of gospel conversation, according to anecdotal data referenced several times during the week by Crossover leaders. Ten percent of those conversations lead to some sort of response. In other words, one out of every 100 contacts makes a profession of faith. That’s not exactly a high return on investment. But the gospel is not a brand, and the kingdom does not spread like a marketing campaign.
While the numbers from the week for Southern students were lower than that rate would suggest — 741 contacts, 205 gospel conversations, and five faith commitments — the students shouldn’t be discouraged, Beougher said. Christians are not supposed to coerce conversions. They are called to faithfully explain the gospel to as many people as possible and call them to repentance and faith. The fruit is up to God.
“I would love to see every single person I share the gospel with come to faith; most don’t,” Beougher said. “But I have seen some of them come to faith later on. There were seeds planted that came to fruition months or even years later. We love when we have the opportunity to reap, but as Jesus said in John 4, ‘One sows and another reaps that they may rejoice together.’ So, I always rejoice that I’ve been able to sow, even if I’m not able to reap.”
There is no guarantee that anyone will respond to a gospel presentation. Sometimes it takes years to take root. Decades maybe. But sometimes mere polite conversations morph years later into life-altering moments, and sometimes — for messengers like Hudson — wrong turns become divine appointments.
“They may not be receptive to your message,” Hudson said. “It might just be a little stone in somebody’s shoe that forces them to think about it until something significant happens later. Who knows who might be coming two or three steps later who may actually experience the harvest?”