You've been an evangelist for 25 years. Many evangelists drop out, they lose their faith or they lose their fervour - how come you're going strong?
It's God's grace, goodness and favour. I'm always encouraged that if God can speak through a donkey, then He can speak through anyone. As I've journeyed in my Christian life, I've realised there is awesome treasure in each of us who are Christians - it's Gods treasure in an earthen vessel. The earthen vessel is fractured, but the really positive thing about a fractured broken vessel is that the treasure can permeate through. God ransomed, healed, restored and forgave me in 1975 and I regularly see lives transformed. That is a motivating factor, in me keeping going.
Yet the track record for evangelists in holding onto their integrity and completing the course is not that high – particularly in the US. Have the high profile US evangelists who have fallen damaged the reputation of other evangelists including you?
The high profile of evangelists produces high profile casualties. But the percentage is no greater than say, a clergyman or a pastor, where there is infidelity and adultery. When evangelists fall they get more coverage because they are often influencing more people than a local Church pastor. And to paraphrase Paul, 'those of us who teach and influence more people will be judged more severely'.
A very sobering verse…
Absolutely - it's a reminder not to get proud about what we do. Whenever I have heard of a casualty, it has reminded me how easy it is to slip and therefore important to be accountable to God. But the danger of just saying 'I'm accountable to God' is that you are not always accountable to people. So the evangelist has to be accountable to God and to the church. Every casualty story I hear about is an alarm bell to review my life and the lives of those evangelists who I mentor.
Andy Economides who brought me to the Lord, and I host a retreat for 12 evangelists every year. We spend three days talking and praying about issues like this. It is sad when people fall and it's sad that we don't show compassion and mercy and help people to get restored.
Why are there so few recognised evangelists in Britain?
There are very few preaching evangelists in Britain. There are of course other types who specialise with evangelism into schools, prisons, door-to-door etc. One factor is the popularity of enquirer's courses. We use Alpha as a follow-up course after all our missions and this has borne much fruit. But the emphasis in many churches now, is 'just' to have an enquirer's course and not offer other connection points for evangelism. Evangelism needs to be both a process and a crisis.
I was a student in London, an agnostic, Andy Economides gave me a Bible, told me about Jesus, and I became a Christian. Now I see that happen frequently today.
An evangelist is a communicator, who brings good news, makes it relevant and is basically a 'midwife'. I think of the church like a hospital. There are billions of patients and in order for the hospital to run efficiently it needs managers. But managers alone will not run the hospital; you need maintenance staff, doctors, nurses, paediatricians, psychiatrists, surgeons etc. I'm an obstetrician; I deal in the area of obstetrics. Most pastors in Britain are more like GPs – they have to know a little about a lot. When I first started as an obstetrician there were very few obstetricians who specialised in the department of obstetrics – or spiritual birth. Around 90% of the entire work force and resources in the church hospital are used for maintenance. Less than 10% is used for mission – my department.
The church is about three aspects; Look Up – Worship, Look In - Welfare and Look Out – Witness. Sadly, worship, welfare and witness are not kept in balance - many churches focus on worship and welfare and forget the witness.
So having resisted becoming a GP you have developed into the equivalent of a consultant obstetrician?
Using the medicine analogy… to have been a consultant, you have to have been a senior registrar – that in turn requires you to have been a registrar, and before that to have qualified to be a doctor, which involves years in medical school, which required good grades in GCSE and A levels.
We don't have anything like the equivalent of enabling, equipping, and training for emerging evangelists in order to help them develop. I receive numerous letters from evangelists writing seeking my advice as to how they can do what I do. I often say to them:, "What do you think I do?" They say, "You do these big things…" in footballing terms they think that I am playing in the Premier League. I don't think God sees it like that and it may be a bad analogy, but let's say you have the Premier League and then the Championship and Division One and Division Two. Many evangelists I meet play football at the local park and they love football. They are saying, "I want to play at a top club in Premier League". I tell them, "You have to join a non-league club" - they look at me as though I could offer them some alternative advice. They say, "Isn't there a way I can bypass non-league football and the lower divisions? I want to join Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester United now!" And I say, "No".
Many people are discouraged because not many churches employ evangelists so these developing evangelists end up becoming GPs - pastors. I don't know why there is a stigma about employing evangelists because they are the people who are anointed by God to bring in the harvest. Evangelists shouldn't be perceived as mavericks, we're not - not the evangelists I know, and I probably know most of the ones in Britain, certainly not the 12 I mentor and about 70 around the world who I have endeavoured to personally encourage over the years.
What's at the heart of your ministry?
I'm a preaching and teaching evangelist. I do four things: preach the gospel (that is communicate the good news), equip Christians to evangelise, mentor evangelists, and produce resources for evangelism.
I received a letter recently from a woman asking if I could write a book about single people. I thanked her for thinking of me and certainly singleness is an important subject and someone needs to write that book if it hasn't already been done, but I am not the person. I focus on four things and I'm not going to be distracted. Over the 25 years I've been doing this, I have focussed 50% of my time preaching the gospel. I never want to do less than that. But I'm now realising I have to increase the amount of time I help other evangelists. When I began as an evangelist, the evangelists Eric Delve, Michael Green, and Leighton Ford influenced and encouraged me enormously and I am grateful to them and to the Lord.
The great American evangelist D.L. Moody once said, "I'd rather put ten men to work than do the work of ten men'" That makes sense doesn't it? To put ten people to work, rather than do the work ourselves. At the heart of what we do is reaching lost people with the Good News of Jesus Christ and releasing more people to preach, because 'the harvest is ripe and the labourers are few.' Jesus preached to 5000 men plus their families so that's about 20,000 but he also went to Levi's home and he spoke to Levi's ex-colleagues. Then he also stopped at the well and spoke to one woman and I seek to do all three.?
After 25 years, how has the way you express the gospel changed?
I've taken nearly 400 missions in 49 countries - all types of missions, three-day, five-day, ten-day, ten week. I've tried every approach I've heard and I've realised the more simple I am, the more fruitful mission is. Sometimes we think we need a big bureaucracy, but the less clever and cluttered is best. Simplicity is the key. With less baggage you can accomplish more.
It's important to keep listening to God, asking what does He want? How does He want me to do it? In 1999 God clearly spoke to me: 'Preach the 10 commandments'. I know it was God because I never would have thought of it myself. I had never preached on the Ten Commandments or heard anyone else preach on them. I've done it now 15 times and I'm happy to stop, but I think it is appropriate for a few more years. I keep asking God if he wants me to do it in a different way, but I've seen lives transformed through this approach. Once a week for 10 weeks works in our culture, the subject titles such as 'How to find true contentment; How to hold to the truth; How to prosper with a clear conscience; How to affair proof your relationships have a contemporary appeal. Preaching the gospel that involves restitution and repentance is quite unique in evangelism.
Are there particular elements that need to be in place locally so that your 10 Commandments series, which you title 'Life values', goes really well?
Yes, a lot of churches that are evangelical are not always evangelistic. So I tend to start with churches that are eager, but not necessarily evangelistic. The journey of trying to get churches evangelistic is hard work. If there's no heart, no passion, people don't pray for people who are unchurched; people are not cultivating the web of relationships they've already got. Most Christians are fishing in ponds where aren't any fish and the infrastructure of the church doesn't exist to help people find Christ.
William Temple, when he was Archbishop of Canterbury, said that the church is the only society that exists for its non-members, but when you look at most churches today, the opposite is true. We're back to this maintenance mentality. So in most of our missions the churches that will reap the most fruit are the ones that are already sowing seed. So we are trying to equip the churches to be outward focused.
You travel around the UK have you noticed any spiritual hot spots?
Yes, I sense that Britain is fertile ground right now, more fertile than I've known it at any time in the last 25 years. The majority of the 93% non-churchgoers in UK are actually 'spiritual', it may be pick and mix spiritually, but there is spiritual interest, there is openness. I don't find people hard and defensive. I held an evangelistic carol service in the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham in December and 10,000 attended, and many people couldn't get in. Something is happening, there's a sense of expectancy among many churches and wherever we've been going in the last couple of years, I see the spiritual temperature is rising.
I use the word fertile because our job is to go into God's orchard. We are fruit checkers and if the fruit is ripe for picking, you pick it, because if you don't one of two things happen: it over-ripens falls to the ground and dies, or the Jehovah's Witnesses pick it. If the fruit is not ripe then we don't pick it - you shine the sun of righteousness on it. My sense is that there's plenty of ripe fruit out there.
At the risk of sounding cynical J. John, many people have claimed that we are on the verge of revival in the UK over the past 20 years, but it hasn't happened. Are you saying revival is just around the corner?
The phrase I like to use is 'a spiritual awakening'. The 10 commandments series is evangelistic teaching, a bit like what David Watson use to do. People either need a new heart or they have got a new heart, but they've got blocked arteries. Blocked arteries means poor circulation - that's been a problem in the UK church. What does revival actually mean? We think it's the 93% that need to wake up, but actually it's the 7% who do attend church that need to wake up. The church is a sleeping giant. It needs spiritual vitality that overflows to others – the arteries need to be unblocked. We need have a passion for lost people.
A lot more Christians are eager now to be equipped, more than I've ever known. My evangelism training course 'Calling Out', equips Christians. I am aware of thousands of people who have completed this course, and that can only be good. I am seeing those arteries being unblocked. I know that the 10 commandments series was a gift from God to bring some transformation in Britain – both in the church and outside it. After the week on stealing I ask people to return their stolen goods and we have amnesty dustbins. So far from the 15 series we have done, a quarter of a million pounds of goods have been put into those dustbins, which has all gone to hospitals, hospices, and homeless shelters. When I speak about murder we have an amnesty for guns, knives and ammunition. In one town we had so much ammunition handed over that we needed a police armoured vehicle to come and take it away. The week we consider 'idols' people return actual idols - I have never seen that before. The Old Testament says that a thief must make restitution. Sometimes we compromise, but if we make it harder for people, and say repent first, give back your stolen goods and then come to Christ... it is no less effective.
Zachaeus met Jesus and the encounter was so transforming that he restored four times the amount he had stolen. Maybe that's a message for now. I've seen people and marriages transformed, families reunited, abuse sorted out. These are signs – but we are longing for more
Some people would say that a proclamation style of preaching is out of touch for a post-modern audience.
I don't agree. Is Jesus the answer, the way the truth and the life? Is he the one who can change people's hearts? If the answer is yes, then how best do we communicate that?
The challenge of an evangelist is if Christians get to the point that they can bring unchurched people to church, then we have a responsibility to speak to people in a language they can understand. Are we being understood?
We are all vehicles and channels of God's grace. Some people leave God out of the equation – they become sociologists. You can't dethrone God. God is God – He's not applying for the job. The church needs to communicate through prayer, presence, proclamation, persuasion, the prophetic, and power. It's cultivating all of these and being aware that it is God and we sow the seed. God makes it grow. There have been a few decades when we haven't been sowing the seed.
For example, neither Mike Pilavachi nor I would have said before it started that Soul in the City was the answer for London. It can be a significant link. And if you look back now we are hearing that thousands of lives were touched.
People ask how I can monitor my success and the answer is that it's difficult. The test is – do we sow seed faithfully? Did we see lives transformed?
We as Christians, fish with a fishing rod or fishing net. I fish both with a rod and with a net. I am working with hundreds of Churches in my next three missions in Bangor Northern Ireland, Lincoln and Birmingham, to throw a net over each region. The success of that fishing expedition is all dependent on how many people are fishing with rods too. Many people think 'get one of these evangelists in' and think that the net is their answer, but I know that if Birmingham has thousands of people fishing with rods then the net is going to get full. When you pull it in you are going to get loads of fish.
What's the most widely held misunderstanding that you think British Christians have about you and your ministry?
If there was one it would be – 'J John is funny'. What I want to do is to make people laugh so that they will see things seriously. A good percentage of funny things in my talks come to me while I'm talking.
Also, because I work hard at trying to make things simple, although may I stress not simplistic, some people think, that I don't think. A minister who had read my book on The Life – A Portrait of Jesus remarked 'It was surprisingly intelligent.'
That's so rude!
Yes, I think some people think I am shallow, but I'm not. I'm just trying to do one particular thing. People think I am not offering them a meal when I speak – but I only have 25 minutes at a time, sometimes its only ten minutes to get a message across, so I may not be giving them a complete meal, but I'm giving them a great starter, an amazing pudding, a fantastic cup of coffee and maybe an after-dinner mint. It may not include the main course, but for lots of people that's just what they need.
What about the next 25 years?
My primary focus is Britain and I would love to be part of seeing a spiritual awakening. I was speaking at a Ravi Zacharias conference in November last year and during that time I was walking along a beach and the Lord reminded me of what He had called me to do, and not to be distracted. There are many other good things to do – but He reminded me that I'm an obstetrician.
This experience has helped to re-envision me and my team at the Philo Trust. I want to communicate the gospel to more people but do less – to work sharper, rather than harder. And I want to train more preaching evangelists.
When I began as an evangelist 25 years ago I was enthusiastic and zealous, now I am passionate in reaching lost people. I've got the silver, but I'm going for gold.