This past month, I thoroughly enjoyed reading “Amazing Grace,” by Eric Metaxas. The book is a biography of William Wilberforce, well known as a driving force behind the abolitionist movement in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century England. As a member of the British parliament, Wilberforce exerted tremendous energy and influence to end the brutally inhuman slave trade in the East Indies.
Wilberforce’s story is tremendously inspiring and relevant for those who would follow Jesus today.
This godly man endured vicious opposition in the form of attacks on both his personal and professional life. He was abused, excoriated, mocked, threatened and even double-crossed by some he thought were his friends. It is no wonder that his health suffered under this tremendous stress. Still, Wilberforce lived to see his government outlaw the slave trade.
In addition to his battle against human trafficking, Wilberforce focused his laser-like conscience on a host of societal ills, including public torture and executions for such crimes as stealing a loaf of bread. And his compassion extended beyond the human race as Wilberforce helped to found the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He abhorred cruelty of all kinds.
“Social justice” was barely on the radar screen for many who called themselves Christians when Wilberforce made concern for the poor and justice for the oppressed a centerpiece of the burgeoning Evangelical movement. His spiritual fathers and contemporaries were people like John Wesley, John Newton and Charles Simeon, faithful Christians whose love for Jesus led them to love people.
Today many in America inaccurately identify the word “evangelical” with a zeal that does not concern itself with the temporal issues of the poor and oppressed. Yet our modern roots are really found in the spiritually and socially sensitive consciences of evangelical Christians like William Wilberforce.
It was not his political views but his faith in Jesus that shaped William Wilberforce and drove his activism. As a young man, he became truly born again. He referred to this experience as “the great change,” because it made a very obvious difference in his attitude and actions. Nor were his endeavors restricted to social issues. Yeshua cared deeply for the poor and oppressed and ministered to them, yet He also observed, “You will always have the poor with you” (Matt. 26:11). He indicated that ministry includes relief for those in physical need, but that these needs do not supersede all else. Even so, Wilberforce’s commitment to missions and evangelism was very important to him, though not nearly as well known as his heroic efforts for social justice and reforms.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen a growing trend in the church to slip into an either/or approach concerning commitment to evangelism and missions in contrast to caring for the poor and seeking justice for the oppressed. It would be shameful to lose sight of people’s current needs by focusing only on the afterlife, but it would be damning to lose sight of eternity by focusing exclusively on temporal needs. People all around us are dying and going to hell for all eternity, and that ought to be an incredibly compelling need as well.
In the last few weeks there have been a couple of amazing conferences attended by tens of thousands of college age evangelical Christians. It’s so encouraging to see the passion young people have for worshiping God, for mercy ministry to the poor and oppressed and for fighting the horrors of human trafficking. Wouldn’t it be great to see just as much passion focused on evangelism and missions?
William Wilberforce set a wonderful example of that balance. At a time when Christian missionaries were prevented from evangelizing in India (primarily because of the business interests of the British East India Company), Wilberforce took a stand. He introduced British legislation that ensured missionary educators and chaplains would be permitted to enter India. Wilberforce believed with all his heart that India needed Christ and he also believed the gospel would dispel many evil practices, such as “sati” (burning women alive on their husbands’ funeral pyres).
Although it wasn’t mentioned in the book, Wilberforce also championed Jewish evangelism. In 1809 he helped establish the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews, an organization that still exists today. That alone would win my heart to William Wilberforce. But what impressed me the most about this man and his amazing grace was his personal commitment to evangelism. He made it his business to share the gospel with each and every person he could, every single day of his Christian life. He was so intentional in this that he listed the names of every person he knew that needed Jesus. Next to their names he wrote a series of what he called “launchers.”
“Launchers” were Wilberforce’s ideas for conversation starters, opening lines that he thought might effectively lead to a gospel conversation with that particular person. For example, sometimes he would ask a person what he or she had been reading lately, and use the ensuing conversation to suggest a look at a particular message or sermon. Wilberforce’s commitment to personal evangelism both amazes and challenges me, and I hope it will do the same for you.
As we “launch” into a new year, wouldn’t it be great for us to renew our efforts at personal evangelism? Thinking strategically about how to open a conversation about Jesus is a good way to begin to put feet to that aspiration. In Jews for Jesus we have consistently used “launchers,” though we did not know them by that name. We hand people gospel broadsides that are designed to engage them with current interests that can transition to an interest in the gospel message. We also have verbal launchers, such as our proposal statement. We engage people by saying, “Can I ask you a question?” If they agree, the question is, “Who do you think Jesus is?” This is obviously a very direct “launch” into a conversation about Jesus, and you might want to give it a try.
More recently, our missionaries have experimented with some other launchers. Last month as part of their Hanukkah outreach, our New York branch asked people on the street, “What miracle are you hoping for?” They made a brief video (click on the right to view).
In London our missionaries began filming a video to be ready in time for Passover, asking people how and why they celebrate this holiday, and whether it has spiritual meaning to them. A wide array of launchers gives us many opportunities to talk with people. The proposal statement in particular has even provided opportunities to pray with those who were prompted to consider the question of who Jesus is and what He did for them.
Of course, many other ministries have developed launchers as well. One of the most well known comes from “Evangelism Explosion.” “If you were to die tonight and God were to ask you, ‘Why should I let you into heaven?’ how would you answer?” Ray Comfort famously engages individuals by asking the simple question, “Are you a good person?” He then goes on to ask questions designed to challenge whether or not we actually are good in God’s eyes and what can be done if we are willing to admit that we are not. Various launchers have worked for a variety of people over the years. Maybe you have a launcher you’d like to share with our readers in the comments box.
What impresses me most about Wilberforce is that he thought personally about each person he knew and tailored his launchers specifically to those individuals. That takes a lot of effort and creative commitment. No doubt it led him to pray specifically for his conversations with all these people as well.
Caring commitment to evangelism does not necessarily make a person what might be called a gifted soul winner. I really don’t know how successful William Wilberforce was in leading many people to Christ. But I know that God uses each effort, whether we see it or not, to offer the amazing grace that comes through trusting Jesus.
This year I want to redouble my efforts first to be more like Jesus, but also more like William Wilberforce; to be the type of person who cares enough and is thoughtful and creative and consistently prayerful in my efforts to make Jesus known, trusting the Holy Spirit to “launch” me into many gospel conversations with others who need to know Him. How about you?