John Teter: The Myth of the Perfect Evangelist—Part 1

How the story of Jesus’ anonymous 72 reinvigorates our call to the gospel

John Teter is senior pastor of Fountain of Life Covenant Church in Long Beach, California, and executive director of Fountain of Life Antioch, the church-planting wing of that ministry. Teter is a man with a mission: to reawaken the church to our universal calling to share the good news of Jesus.

Teter has found inspiration for ministry in an unusual source: the story of the 72 found in Luke 10. That group of itinerant evangelists—drawn apparently from the everyday disciples of Jesus—highlights a truth with potent implications for ministry today. In his book, The Power of the 72: Ordinary Disciples in Extraordinary Evangelism (IVP, 2017), Teter unpacks hard-earned lessons from the 72, plus his own life and ministry, that illustrate how powerful witnessing to Christ’s good news can be.

Outreach caught up with Teter to connect the dots between those joyfully anonymous evangelists for Jesus and ministry life today.

Let’s start at the beginning. Why did the story of the 72 capture your imagination?

As a pastor and leader, I’ve seen too many people “self-delete” themselves from the evangelism mission. They feel like, I’m not Billy Graham. I’m not Luis Palau. I’m not Becky Pippert—or name the public evangelist. They don’t fit the image of the stadium-filling public evangelists, so they dismiss their ability or call to evangelism. But the story of the 72 in the Gospel of Luke is the antidote to that myth.

Intriguing! Tell us more.

I love seeing the gospel work in someone’s life. What really energizes me is when they don’t just hear a story that encourages them, but they get to become part of that story. Just look at the 72: They are absolutely anonymous in every single way. But they became part of the story. I think Luke kept them anonymous on purpose, highlighting that detail because he himself was such an outsider to many in the early Christian community. Who would have ever guessed that a physician from Antioch would become an apostle? I think he saw himself in their anonymity, thinking, We don’t have to be Peter, James, John or Andrew to see the gospel work powerfully through our ministry.

Not too long ago, I was talking with one of our congregants. I always have a story about evangelism, and the person mentioned that, then said, “I want my own stories.” I think that’s the deeper need every Christian has. We all want to do evangelism, to make a difference and see our friends have an eternal future. We want to be part of it, but then I think people run into the Billy Graham expectation. They know they aren’t him, rest his soul. And that locks them up instead of giving them permission to be themselves.

Tell me how those themes connect to your story. Did you struggle as a young Christian with how you fit into that story?

Honestly, my story is a little different, but it totally connects. I’m the son of a Korean mother and a Dutch-American father. They met and fell in love on a three-week steamship journey from Seattle to Seoul—my dad was a mariner, and my mom was bound for Korea to tell her parents she’d landed a great job in California. I was born in Los Angeles. My family wasn’t Christian, though. I became a believer through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at UCLA when I was 22.

I converted after a nine-month process of knowing a Christian, being in a dorm Bible study. I didn’t know anything about ministry, but one month after becoming a Christian, I had a 25-person Bible study with insanely worldly non-Christians. It was great. And I couldn’t understand why everyone wasn’t doing it. It took a while, but eventually I realized, “Oh, I have a spiritual gift”—a combination, actually—of teaching and evangelism. I loved teaching the Bible to non-Christians, and through it, people would come to faith in Jesus. That early experience of teaching the Bible, coupled with the audience being non-Christian, convinced me early on that you don’t need a showy evangelism gift to be a fruitful evangelist. So my conversion is really the prototype for all the stuff we’re doing. I see myself as one of the 72.

I spent two years studying Luke’s Gospel when we started our inner city urban church plant 10 years ago. I knew I needed to learn about urban church planting and found Luke’s Gospel particularly relevant. Especially in the framework of the entire 24 chapters, Luke 10 plays an enormously important role in outlining what it looks like to develop a new church, especially in the inner city.

I think today of Paul’s charge to Timothy, “Do the hard work of evangelism.” Timothy clearly wasn’t gifted for it. I suspect Timothy’s gifting was as a pastoral teacher. “Do the hard work,” Paul says, essentially acknowledging that “it’s really hard, it’s really challenging, but you have to fulfill your ministry.” For most Christians, evangelism is exactly that: hard work. The 72 get that, and give us hope.

So even though some of us are specially gifted for it, we’re all called to the ministry of evangelism. For someone feeling lost facing that hard work, where do we start?

We need to be able to teach Scripture to people. In my early years of ministry I was a campus minister. I worked hard to train people how to teach Scripture to non-Christians. It’s been my theory for a long time that it’s a strategy that works really well in our culture. But to really start? Watch the 72 actually live out their call in Luke. In their total anonymity, no one can discount themselves.

I gradually realized we can train local congregations so that everyone is doing the “hard work” of evangelism. That’s a major game changer.

How did we lose big vision for that kind evangelism?

That’s a great question. I think it all rests on leadership. Three points build on each other here:

1. Leaders of local congregations largely lead out of their gifts.
2. The difference between a leader and a follower is perspective.
3. The difference between a good leader and a great leader is better perspective.

If a leader is leading out of their gifts, it will shape their ministry. Seventeen to 20 percent of Christians have the gift of evangelism, according to Dr. Bobby Clinton. Those who are super gifted in it often start their own ministries, which can unintentionally exclude the local church a bit, as well as making congregations feel like evangelism is all taken care of. But, of course, it’s not.

Why so many hang-ups when it comes to sharing the gospel?

Lots of reasons, for sure. But the big one? Evangelism can be hard. People struggle. It’s one of the first gifts Christians experience, but also the quickest gift to atrophy. Couple that with the fact that we tend to devalue evangelism over time, and it’s a recipe for apathy. Many pastors begin to feel that they need to “graduate” from an evangelism emphasis to a discipleship emphasis, as if evangelism is the minor leagues, but the majors is taking care of the sheep. A lot of the time we leaders even remove people from their giftedness or calling, moving people away from an evangelistic ministry in which they are fruitful. Perspective!

What shifts in perspective do leaders need to make, then?

Three things. First, keep the perspective of eternity. Do we really communicate the enormity of the gospel? Do we effectively share the incredible nature of eternity? Do we really stress that our response to Jesus will literally determine a billion years of our future—and infinitely more? If we really understood and felt what’s at stake, we would work way harder to figure this out.

Add to that the perspective of history. C.S. Lewis said that for every new book we read, we should read an old book. I try to read a good evangelism book every year. But I always go back to David Brainerd’s journal.

Brainerd was a missionary to the Crossweeksung native people in 1700s New Jersey. There was every reason he should have given up. He was totally alone, without community. He had tuberculosis. He would have been diagnosed, I believe, with bipolar depression disorder today. He would spit up blood, living in the freezing winters in a teepee full of smoke. Finally, he died at 29. I read accounts in his journal of him literally going every single day to minister, pray, preach the gospel and to be among those people. That’s commitment! And it wasn’t until after seven years of suffering and apparently wasted time that all the fruit came. Three hundred people entered the kingdom of God because of his ministry, not counting the wide impact of Christians inspired for service through his story. Historical perspective like that challenges and encourages us.

But as leaders we also need congregational perspective. Who are we responsible for? Is your parish the people already inside your sanctuary? Or is your parish your neighborhood? I think it’s the latter. But if that’s the case, you need to know them, to figure out what’s good news and what it takes to win them. That’s one of the lessons of the 72. We’re sent by God, and that sent-ness carries a burden with it.

What kinds of burdens can leaders expect to carry?

As I see it, the burdens are mostly relational. This isn’t to say that people are burdens, or that we’re solely responsible for carrying them. But there is a burden of relationship that’s very real. Who is in your life? Family, co-workers, friends, community members, people in digital spaces. They are all your neighbors. Interesting, isn’t it, that Luke 10 starts with the story of the 72 and ends with the story of the good Samaritan?

I think of this burden as a bit like an Amazon delivery …

Ha! How so?

Well, the major burden is to deliver the package. After all, what would Amazon be without UPS? You would have incredible warehouses. But without the person in the brown shorts bringing you the package, it will never get to the one who needs it.

Jesus teaches his disciples to pray that God will send workers into the harvest. We act like it says, “Pray to the Lord of the harvest that the people will be open.” But Jesus assumes that they are—that the fruit is ready. What’s lacking are the workers: Us.

In Part 2 of this interview, John Teter challenges our idea of what an evangelist should look like and discusses the role of the Spirit in evangelism and why you should say “yes” to every opportunity in your 20s.

Learn more about The Power of the 72 »
Read an excerpt from The Power of the 72 »

John Teter senior pastor of Fountain of Life Covenant Church in Long Beach, California, and executive director of Fountain of Life Antioch. He is the author of The Power of the 72: Ordinary Disciples in Extraordinary Evangelism (IVP, 2017).

Paul J. Pastor is editor-at-large of Outreach, and author of multiple books on spiritual formation, including The Listening Day series of devotionals (Zeal Books). Instagram: @PaulJPastor. Website: PaulJPastor.com.