The Word Among Us

September 2009 Issue

Ripple Effect Evangelism

A word from the heart can travel farther than you think.

By: Gary Gibson

Ripple Effect Evangelism: A word from the heart can travel farther than you think. by Gary Gibson

Twenty-five years ago, while making a long drive to my grandmother’s funeral in Massachusetts, I stopped for the night to visit my brother.

He was living with a young woman named Margaret and their one-year-old son, Matthew.

As we lingered at table after the evening meal, the three of us got into a long discussion about God and the way he works in people’s lives.

It was a subject that interested me deeply. Just a decade earlier, I had experienced God’s love for me in a profound way that drew me back to the church. I wanted other people to discover that love for themselves. Margaret was not a believer, but she was interested in the faith and very open to it. However, she wrestled with the problem of evil.

I had taken an excellent college class in Christian apologetics and was drawing from it as we plumbed the depths of why God allows the innocent to suffer. Still, it did not seem that I was making any progress in our discussion. I was wondering where to go with it, when suddenly we heard a terrible crash.

A Talk Turns Tragic. We rushed to the door to learn that two cars had collided just outside the house. A drunken teen had plowed his car into a middle-aged couple’s car. They both died at the scene. We all were badly shaken at the scene of such a tragedy and took refuge back inside the house.

Margaret was furious now and turned on me with all her anger: “So this is how God works! How will he bring good out of this?”

How can you possibly explain the inscrutable will of God? I did my best, summoning up the most persuasive philosophical arguments I had studied. But reason and logic can only go so far in illuminating what is essentially a deep mystery. And someone who is raging with emotion is not always capable of rational thinking.

Feeling inadequate and somewhat frustrated by this tragic turn of events, I finally blurted out, “God is all powerful. He can do whatever he wants!” There may have been a twinge of irritation in my voice, but because I had come to know God as both loving and powerful, my conviction was strong.

The conversation ended, and we went to bed. I left the next day and forgot all about those events.

First Ripple. Years later I received a call from Margaret. She and my brother had separated long before, and I had forgotten her so thoroughly that she had to re-introduce herself. Then she asked, “Do you remember what you said that night after the accident?” I had to admit I didn’t.

Margaret replayed the whole conversation from memory. She recalled how convinced I was of God’s goodness and power—even in the face of such a tragedy, even when confronted by her unrelenting barrage of hostility. More than my words, it was my conviction and faith in God that had impressed her and stayed with her.

Margaret told me that she had been very bitter at first—and even more so when she discovered that the drunken teen driver was a high school acquaintance of hers. But some time later, she discovered what happened to that young man in prison.

Through a prison ministry begun by a group of local Christians, he found God! In deep remorse, he wrote to the five children of the couple he had killed to ask their forgiveness. Not only did all five forgive him—they even joined him at the prison prayer meetings! The story spread like wildfire, prompting many inmates to give their lives to God—even in other prisons where the young man was permitted to speak.

Hearing about all this, Margaret had a change of heart: “If God can bring so much good out of something so wrong, then I wanted him in my life too.” She had called me to share the good news that she had given her life to the Lord and begun going to church.

Second Ripple. My family and I kept in touch with Margaret and often made the four hundred-mile trip to spend time with her and her son. Raising Matthew as a single mom was not easy, but she found strength and support in her relationship with God and her church community.

As time passed, Margaret opened her house to Matthew’s friends and began her own little ministry of sharing her faith with them. Like me, she wanted to be a channel for God’s work and tell others about his goodness. Seeing that the kids were spiritually hungry, she passed on her own lessons about prayer and trust—often in conversations that went late into the night.

We rejoiced with Margaret when Matthew himself announced to everyone that he was giving his life completely to Christ. To the amazement of his friends on the football team, he even had this written under his picture in the high school yearbook.

“Why, God?” On October 1, 2001, tragedy struck: Matthew was found dead at his computer. He had been e-mailing friends, when something went wrong with his heart.

Hearing the news, I wondered how Margaret would withstand the blow. Here again was the very question she had struggled with in our first conversation so many years ago: Why does God allow suffering?

Naturally, she was devastated. “He was just getting started in life,” she told me through her tears. “I don’t understand why this happened.”

But Margaret really had come to know her Redeemer, and so she held fast to her faith despite her grief and incomprehension. At Matthew’s funeral, which my entire family attended, I watched her reach out to comfort her son’s many friends and to share her faith in Christ.

She went even further. After months of sorrow and grieving, Margaret decided to do something evangelistic with some of the life insurance money she received at Matthew’s death. She had Bibles inscribed with his name and began giving them out to the poor and homeless people in her town—more than a thousand recipients so far.

Now, some three decades after our initial conversation, Margaret is known there as “the Bible lady” and is still finding new ways to share the love of Jesus. I am continually inspired by her contagious faith and zeal for God.

From the Heart. God calls each of us to be evangelists who draw others to him. We may feel unworthy, inadequate, or just plain scared at the idea. But as I learned through my experience with Margaret, you don’t have to have all the answers before you reach out.

The truly essential element is your own knowledge and love of Jesus. A convinced believer is convincing. Through him or her, the life of God and the power of the Holy Spirit flow out and open hearts.

So think about the people in your life who need the good news. If you’re willing to tell them what God has done for you, simply and naturally, he will make your words fruitful in powerful, unexpected ways. n

Gary Gibson lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.