The downstairs banquet hall at Emmett’s restaurant was gloomily vacant and quiet. We had spent six months planning for a room packed with spiritually curious seekers or even hecklers. Bring on the unconvinced, the doubters, and the cynics, we said. But our group of church leaders managed to draw only one unbeliever that first night—a team member’s spiritually apathetic mom. It felt like a colossal evangelism fail.
In August 2018 I started working on my biggest, broadest, boldest evangelistic outreach ever.
It didn’t begin that way. In August 2018 I started working on my biggest, broadest, boldest evangelistic outreach ever. We joined more than 900 churches across Chicagoland for a creative one-city-at-a-time seven-week initiative called Explore God. Many of our church members struggle to share their faith, but Explore God’s seeker-focused combo of small groups and sermon series looked like the perfect recipe to share the gospel with our skeptical friends. So when an invitation to join the citywide effort came my way, I jumped in.
Before launching Explore God in late January 2019, we painstakingly rolled out the vision and strategy. We trained leaders, found creative venues for the small groups, mapped out the sermon series, and then called the entire church together for a day of prayer and fasting. Over 250 very hungry people showed up in the evening to pray for two hours, pleading with God for the gospel to go forth.
I kept thinking, God is in this! We were on the cusp of something special. We sensed the Lord’s favor in forming small groups for almost every night of the week. I awaited “success,” as defined by statistically impressive “results”—small groups swelling with attendees, leading to amazing spiritual conversations, producing numerous heartfelt conversions to Christ. I told Dan, the night manager at Emmett’s, “Let’s have a Plan B in case we bust out of your basement dining hall.”
Then my plans collapsed.
A treacherous citywide ice storm shut down our small groups for week one. It got worse in week two—a polar vortex on Wednesday, January 30th made Chicago colder than parts of the North Pole. The Chicago River was so cold that it actually smoked as if on fire. Week three? Well, surprise, surprise, another ice storm in Chi-town.
There’s nothing quite like sheets of ice and a polar vortex to suck all the fun out of well-laid evangelism plans. The impressive “stats” for week one? Zilch. Small group invitees lost interest. The Monday night group was on life support. The Tuesday night group withered and died. The Friday group never came alive. So for the first three weeks we had a flop, followed by a dud, topped off with a fiasco.
I became the gloomiest, angriest evangelist in Chicago. I could relate to the 16th-century woman of prayer, Teresa of Ávila, who after slipping in the rain and getting caked in mud allegedly told God, “If this is how You treat Your friends, Lord, no wonder You have so few of them.” Sure, sometimes the weather goes bad. But three weeks in a row? Based purely on the evidence I could see, it felt as if I cared more about evangelism than Jesus did.
Based purely on the evidence I could see, it felt as if I cared more about evangelism than Jesus did.
Then, slowly and quietly, I saw glimmers of God’s presence. It started with a gospel passage assigned as part of my Bible reading plan. For about the hundredth time in my life, I read the story about Jesus asleep in the boat (snugly “asleep on the cushion,” Mark notes) while the panicky disciples scream, “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38). Of course, we know how it ends: Jesus stands up, rebukes the storm, and all is well. As I read that familiar story, I heard the Lord whisper, “I got this, Matt. I’m Lord of your evangelism bomb as well. And all those unknown people you thought you’d reach with the gospel? I know them all by name. I saw them being formed in their mother’s womb. I love them more than you could ever fathom.”
After that gentle rebuke, we steadily saw what one theologian calls “a conspiracy of coincidences”—“lucky breaks” that kept adding up. For instance, a completely unchurched older couple spotted an "Explore God" sign in a neighbor’s yard. They contacted one of our church members named Chris, asking if he knew anything about Explore God. When Chris offhandedly mentioned our church’s involvement and our upcoming prayer night, they fasted all day and showed up for the entire service. They’re still sincerely exploring Christianity.
Evidently, the Tuesday night group wasn’t dead yet. Michael, the group’s co-leader, described his group’s unexpected resurrection: “After the Chi-town weather calamity, five people showed up for our first meeting (technically on the fifth week of Explore God). The group stayed small, but the sharing went deep. Homelessness, debilitating disease, single motherhood, divorce—our ragtag bunch of believers and seekers brought our brokenness to each other and the Lord.” Michael told me that the group is still meeting.
“I love them more than you could ever fathom.”
The Monday night group added a few seekers, including two Mormon missionaries who honestly wrestled with orthodox Christian doctrine. The Emmett’s group suddenly surged with a hodge-podge of eager conversationalists, including a Hindu, a young tech guy who called himself an “ex-Hindu,” some agnostics, an atheist, and a complete stranger a church member had met on the train and invited to come check it out. The discussions never went according to plan, but the participants were always disarmingly open and honest, sincerely engaging with the claims of Christ.
I’m still not sure how to interpret this flop turned semi-success. We didn’t get massive conversions. But something powerful happened. God moved. He seemed to say, “I’m reaching people, but I’ll do it with My methods and on My timetable.” Yes, I had a big, broad, bold evangelism strategy. But apparently God didn’t want that—He wanted my faithfulness, even if the results seemed meager and riddled with failure.
There is a place for big evangelism plans, but I wonder if true success hinges on what the farmer-author Wendell Berry called “millions of small acts … conditioned by small fidelities.” Every Christian can witness like that. We can all ask, What is my next small act to show someone Christ’s love?
Illustration by R. Fresson