Hundreds of pastors gathered in downtown Minneapolis were encouraged to take up evangelism as a joyful privilege rather than a guilt-driven burden.
While sharing the Gospel is a major challenge for Christians, many pastors themselves admit to struggling with some of the same challenges people in their congregations face when it comes to evangelism.
Culture tells people that evangelism is manipulative and that anyone who shares the message of Jesus Christ is imposing their beliefs on others, notes one prominent pastor. And many Christians buy into that idea.
But Mark Dever, who is known for his efforts to build biblically faithful churches, says evangelism is not manipulation.
"We're not trying to impose our beliefs on anybody," said Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., during the Feb. 2-4 pastors conference at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
"In biblical evangelism, we don't impose anything. In fact, we can't impose anything," he emphasized.
Force and coercion, he explained, cannot finally bring about the change in a person that God demands. And to believe that something is true and to share that with others is not coercion, Dever added.
Dever was one of four speakers at the conference organized by Desiring God Ministries. This year's theme was "Commending Christ: The Pastor, the Church, and the Perishing."
John Piper, who heads Desiring God Ministries, did not invite pastors to learn techniques or methods in pastoring or evangelizing but his aim was for the pastors to become a "God-besotted lover of lost people."
"Frankly, my desires are not for learning but for being changed," Piper said ahead of the conference. "I think I know what I need to know – I know the Gospel, I know my weaknesses ... but what I want is to be around men in prayer and in worship and hear some speaking that will get some breakthroughs here (the heart)."
Admitting his own cowardice when it comes to evangelism, Piper said, "I think I'm as normal as the day is long when it comes to sin in not talking to sophisticated unbelievers about their need for Jesus ... whether it's on the plane or on the street or in a business setting."
"I hate the inconsistencies of my own life," he continued. "So I'm looking for sanctification, I'm looking for courage ... [and] boldness."
Recognizing the struggles of pastors, Dever told participants plainly at the three-day conference that "the heart that doesn't want to share the Gospel can use pretty much anything for an excuse."
Plus, sharing a personal testimony, compassion works or social action, and pure intellectual talk or apologetics, doesn't count as evangelism unless the believer talks explicitly about Jesus Christ, Dever cautioned.
Painting the image of how pastors should be as evangelists, Dever said they must first understand the call for evangelism is not a call simply to persuade others but rather a call to proclaim the news of salvation in Christ.
"Then we realize we don't fail in our evangelism if we faithfully tell the Gospel and the person is not converted," he said. "We fail in our evangelism if we don't faithfully tell the Gospel at all."
"Evangelism itself isn't converting people," Dever stressed. "It's telling them that they need to be converted and telling them how they can be."
"I don't go out hoping I can evangelize. I go out knowing I am going to tell somebody what He (God) has done."
Pastors not only need to understand evangelism for their own efforts, but also to impart that to their congregations. They must understand the congregation's responsibility for evangelism as well, Dever said. "I think an essential step toward engaging our local congregation toward evangelism is this – teaching them that every Christian should evangelize," he highlighted.
"Do they think evangelizing is just something for professional Christians like you and me? For those who have the gift of evangelism? Or do they understand evangelism to be something for all Christians."
Desiring God Ministries has been holding pastors conferences every year since 1988. Each year the ministry aims to encourage church leaders; promote earnest and powerful preaching as well as God-centered, Bible-based worship in churches; stir up consideration of biblical truths; and advance the cause of missions.