In part 1 of the interview, John Teter talks about how the story of the 72 anonymous disciples Jesus sent out can inspire our own efforts in evangelism, how leaders can develop a culture of evangelism among those they lead and how the task of evangelism is like an Amazon delivery.
A huge theme of your book is anonymity. What about ministry culture are you counteracting by focusing on the anonymous nature of the 72?
I’m trying to counteract our stereotype of what an evangelist looks like. We operate like an evangelist has to be a man, tall, funny, with incredible public speaking gifts, magnetic personality, an extrovert …
Has to have a “testimony,” too!
Ha! Totally. It’s like unless you’ve actually lived Pulp Fiction, you can’t be an effective evangelist. What the heck is that? Where does that come from? Not the Bible.
We look at that stereotype and think, That’s not me. So we dismiss our gifting for evangelism. But the power of anonymity is that the 72’s story of remarkable ministry could be your story.
In endorsing your book, missiologist Michael Frost says (of the mission of the 72): “It was a kind of beautiful, organized chaos.” Walk me through what it looks like to walk into gospel chaos as a leader.
Well, that chaos must be counterbalanced by a sense of order, for sure. You need both for health. If your church life is always unorganized chaos, I think that’s crazy. It’s unsustainable.
Each church has a life cycle. It starts with a dream, goes to birth, becomes adolescent, moves into its prime and then—once you get to the other side—it enters dying and death. If you’re the pastor, you need to know where you are. “We’re in this early stage,” maybe, or “We’re a teenager and have to get braces.” So if you’re on the younger side as a church, you need to make sure you have structure to bring sustainability and efficiency. But if you’re on the older side, meeting your leaders in a boardroom instead of a garage, you have to ask if the Holy Spirit is still running your church. If you’re a leader of a church on the older side, you need to say, “My goodness, we need some chaos!” You need to loop your life back to the original dream.
When was the last time your church had a real conversion? That tells you a lot about your church. You need to look at the church and say, “Conversions are not optional.” If they’re not happening, you probably need more organized chaos.
I was recently with a friend in his mid-30s. He said it had taken almost 20 years to unlearn the Christian narrative he’d been given—that his life mission was to “transform the world.” It had set up a false expectation of what Christian life would be. Anonymity equals failure if you’re coming from that perspective. Is that something we have to help people unlearn?
Great question. Absolutely. That’s a well-meaning phrase that can set up all kinds of problems, and ironically, keep us back from the true work of transformation.
We have to redefine what the goal is. What we need to remember is that transforming the world comes through faithfulness to God. Be faithful in little and you’ll be faithful in much. That’s Luke 16:10. Best example of that in the whole Scripture. There’s a lot of things we can control, but we can’t control the fruit of our ministry. So to focus too much on results is crazy. It sets us up for failure.
It’s interesting to think about what Jesus considered to be transforming the world, isn’t it? Just look at Palm Sunday—he rejected our idea of change and gave us a better one.
Faithfulness is imperative. But there are seasons and times of fruitfulness in a healthy ministry. Our call is to be faithful to God and our gifts. If you’ve been given a church-planting gift, be absolutely faithful to be an apostle and to plant churches and to develop leaders. If you’ve been given a prayer ministry gift, be faithful and deliver people, and help heal them with the Spirit. If you’ve been given a giving gift, give your brains out.
In Acts, after Stephen’s martyrdom, the church was 5,000 people. They could have protested all day. They could have turned on their Roman occupiers. They could have done a hundred things to “transform” their world. But one of my favorite verses in that whole text—Acts 8:4—says that after they lamented and they mourned Stephen, then (because of the persecution) every single person went out preaching the gospel. That’s insane! Stephen is martyred, and what action do they take? Going and doing more of what he did.
Let’s focus for a moment on how listening to the Spirit relates to our work of evangelism. Unpack how we listen in this context.
It is so important. But there are so many voices. Who can be certain they’re hearing the voice of the Shepherd? Learning his voice is the work of a lifetime, but the first thing we need to do is create life rhythms where we are listening. I believe that God cares about our development. I believe he has a plan. I assume he is thoughtful about every single day in every detail, and that I can partner with him, for decisions in my own life and to help in the lives of others. Lots of freedom, but he has created us to walk in good works.
But a lot of times we won’t really listen to God about a big decision, about a call to ministry or some other vital step. We’ll go so fast, thinking Oh yeah, I think I should do this, and that’s the end of the “listening.” Now, Jesus doesn’t like to argue—he’ll be sarcastic, but he doesn’t like to argue. He won’t usually fight you if you get stubborn. But we all lose out if that happens—including those we’re meant to witness to.
So I think we need to create avenues for listening and have a thoughtful, balanced approach. We need to weigh Scripture, the Spirit, our own desires and the wisdom of others.
It’s also important to ask where you are on your timeline. When you’re a young leader in your 20s, you should do everything you can to get as much on-the-field ministry experience as possible. At Fountain of Life, we like to say that the 20s is your “yes” decade. Say yes to everything.
Hmm. Convince me?
I remember when I was 27 there was an issue that came up with the worship leader at a conference. I was basically the guy from the U2 cover of All Along the Watchtower: “All I got is a red guitar, three chords and the truth.” But they asked me to lead worship for the next three days. I knew nothing. But I said yes. And every person looked at me, wondering, Why did you say yes?
Three weeks after that, I was invited to preach at my first youth conference to 300 youth. Up to that point, I’d done maybe four sermons in my entire life. And now I had to do five, over one President’s Day weekend. So I preached on the life of Paul. I had never done that before. By the end of the week, we had 30 conversions of youth, plus all these recommitments to mission. And I’ll never forget—this one young Asian woman came up and brought me her drugs that she took to the Christian conference and said, “Will you flush these down the toilet with me, in faith?” And all these people were like, “Man, have you done this all your life?” And I’m like, ”I’ve never done this before.” Wow, OK, God’s got my attention. I tried two things that were new to me, and learned about my gifting.
Conversely, when you’re in your 50s and 60s you should probably say “no” to almost everything, because you’ve really focused your ministry. You know who you are and what you need to be doing.
This ties back, with particular strength, to evangelism. You have to try it. We all have to return to the original thing: introducing people to Jesus with bold, compassionate witness.
Evangelism doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and I love that you consistently acknowledge the difficulty of this kind of work. Let’s focus on the “bears and wolves,” as you say in the book. How do pressures and persecution fit into our mission to witness?
What I love in Luke 10 is that there’s an equal number of verses for what Jesus tells the 72 to do and how he tells them to do it; then an equal number of verses for how to deal with the persecution that will come as they do it.
We take our Bible stained-glass-window glasses to the Scripture and we read that, and think, Oh yeah, we’ll be like sheep among wolves. Oh man, someone might tweet something bad about me! But I think that to be an effective evangelist today, you have to embrace the reality that worship comes through the process of witness.
Yes, it’s absolutely for the non-Christian on his way to hell. Yes, it’s absolutely for the eternal salvation of your friends and family and co-workers. But it is also for you. It is how God weans you from the world. It is how God weans you from being addicted to the praise of men and women. And unless you turn that corner, you’re just going to be afraid. You’re going to be scared. And you’re not going to open your mouth because of the “bears and the wolves.”
You can do all the good work of healing your city—everyone loves that kind of enterprise. Start a nonprofit. It’s great. But for goodness sake, even Marriott Hotels use the Golden Rule as its guiding principle: “Do unto others as others would do unto you.” I just saw that ad on a plane. And I looked at my wife and said, “I wonder how many Marriott employees are telling people that Jesus is real? That Jesus will return to end human history, that the skies will open and CNN and MSNBC and The New York Times and every media outlet will report on his return? How many people are saying that?” We need to commit, to bank on his reality and goodness.
When Jesus called the 72, they were faithful. That’s all we know about them. They showed up, and they did it. The pain of pressure and persecution is real. But even the hate of others makes us stronger. Persecution has never been a threat to the church; it’s always been gasoline on the mission fire. The real threat is internal.
As a leader, the most loving thing you can do is to throw your new leaders into environments where they will have to grow in their faith because of hate. We protect them too much. If we are developing them as leaders, we don’t want them to get hurt; we want them to pray more and have better fellowship. That is wonderful. But not enough. They need to feel the pressures of real ministry and grow stronger.
That highlights a key point: Evangelism isn’t just for nonbelievers, it’s meant to grow us as Christians and as leaders. How have you been shaped and grown as a result of this kind of work?
Three things this has built in me: humility, worship and joy.
It’s amazing the level of detail that God has as he leads us. I think of Ephesians 2:10 here, the most humbling verse in the New Testament maybe: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
We were created to walk in the good works that were created before the foundation of the world. So yes, we’re called to steward our gifts and develop them, not just identify our spiritual gifts but actually make them more fruitful every year.
It’s stunning to look back. I feel like, “Hold it—God designed before creation that I would be converted at age 22. God designed before creation that I would be gifted the way I was. God in his incredible sovereign manner put us here in this city at this time with all these wonderful people. And as we’re faithful, we get to see his plans.”
So the way that I’m changed is that I look at evangelism and I’ll often say to the church, “What would our church be like if we just deleted evangelism and all its ministry?” So I’d say, “If you’ve been converted in the church, in the last season, stand up.” People stand up. And you’re like, “Can you imagine our life at Fountain of Life without these amazing people?” It brings remarkable depth to our worship.
Another way I’m changed: I’m a more joyful Christian. I think that’s one of the greatest parts of the text in Luke. All 72 returned with joy. That’s incredible. If 40 had returned, I’d be happy. [Laughs] Hey, we’ve got 55 percent on our return. But it said that all 72 came with joy. God used them to bring down the works of Satan. Isn’t that what we want? Isn’t that why we signed up with Jesus? I don’t think we signed up just to make bulletins or balance budgets. We want our lives to count for the kingdom. It fills my heart with joy when I think not only about living the life of the 72, but calling and training the next generation to live the life of the 72.
This is connected to Ephesians 2—the works that have been planned before the foundation of the world. But they are linked to our own experience and ability. I think that’s like Paul’s conversion—the very first thing he did in ministry was he blinded a guy (Acts 13:1-12). Why? Because he had been blinded, and it led him to Jesus.
Evangelism leaders need to live out of their own experience, in the sovereignty of God. The younger people might not understand this at first—in a world that’s so divided and so hateful.
You know, I converted the week of the Rodney King riots. My city was literally on fire. That’s when I accepted the call to be a minister. I knew when I converted there’d be no turning back, but I had a deep sense even then, “God, use me to heal, use me in this race-class problem that’s literally burning our city to the ground.” And still—in some really small way, in our little neck of the woods in west Long Beach—I am living my destiny. To circle back to what we discussed earlier: Forget transforming the world. I want to be faithful to the end.
Forget transforming the world. Are we even going to be able to say, “I finished the race”? I want to run well. Who cares if anyone knows our names?
Find resources from Fountain of Life at FOLAntioch.org/resources.
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.