An Empty Chair and Evangelism by Rob Haynes
Let me tell you the story of a young man whom we will call “Victor.” This story catches up with Victor in his early twenties. He had a difficult childhood, and both of his parents had passed by the time he was twenty years old. He had fallen into several destructive habits in his late teens, habits that he continued to practice with gusto.
Some friends invited him to church, and he decided to go along a few times. On one particular occasion, he became aware of his need for Jesus and responded to an altar call at the end of the service. The lay leader who prayed with him up front was nice and offered “to help him in anyway,” but Victor never saw him again. At his own initiative, Victor later reached out to the youth pastor at the church for direction.
Victor explained to the youth pastor what had happened in that church service. He told him of a sense that God was calling him to work with teenagers, but he knew he needed to grow in his own faith first. Victor said he needed to put these destructive habits away, but he had no idea where to begin. Could the youth pastor help him?
The youth pastor said he understood. He gave Victor a thick book to read and told him, when he finished it, to come back and they would talk about it. Victor was still confused. He wanted someone to show him how to live out this new calling that he sensed and wasn’t sure how a book was going to help. He felt intimidated by the book and was too embarrassed to tell the youth pastor about it. He still felt certain of his need for God but was more confused about how to go about it than before.
This true story illustrates an all too common tale in the church today. However, our spiritual ancestor, Mr. John Wesley, was keenly aware of the need to work to prevent this scenario.
He cautioned the Methodist preachers that to make people aware of their need for God, but not give them the means to work out that awareness, was a travesty. This is a key reason he developed the Class Meeting. As I have written in this space before, a re-engagement with the Wesleyan pattern of the Class Meeting is key for the future of the Wesleyan/Methodist movement. These weekly small group meetings have produced great fruit for spiritual growth for centuries. While it is easy to think about such groups as a way to disciple those who are already deeply committed to Jesus, they can be excellent tools for evangelism as well.
By some accounts, around half of all the people who came to follow Jesus in the Methodist Revival of the 1700s in England did so in a Class Meeting. There are some advantages to a Class Meeting for evangelism:
- Imagine a scenario where Victor had made his need for Jesus known in a church with Class Meetings. The pastor or lay leader could have put him into a group of believers who could answer his questions about faith, spiritual practices, and the need for Jesus.
- People who may be skeptical about faith can see a small group of Jesus followers embodying lives that want more of the Risen Christ in their hearts every day. This sort of living is infectious.
- The power of community is paramount, especially these days. Many who become followers of Jesus will lose friends, family connections, and face ridicule and scorn. They need a community which will accept them and their questions as they grow in the Love of Jesus.
These are, of course, just a starting point. The reality is that lines between evangelism and discipleship are often blurry. Many people are discipled in the journey of evangelism, and evangelism takes place during the discipleship process. While the Class Meeting is an important tool for spiritual growth for those who have already made a decision to follow Jesus, it can also be an excellent way to welcome those who are exploring what it means to make a decision to say “yes” to God’s offer of hope and salvation.
One way that members of Class Meetings can remember this intertwined reality of discipleship evangelism is by intentionally leaving an empty chair in the room where they meet each week. An open seat can serve as a prompt to pray for and invite others to join them on the journey of Christian faith.
Though he struggled for a while longer, Victor eventually found a community of faith at a different church. He was baptized and now serves as a pastor. However, these stories don’t always turn out with such a positive ending. Only when the local Christian community answers the call can the narrative turn. Will you look for people like him to show and share the love of Jesus? Will you make room for the people whom God will bring to you? What are the ways, both literally and figuratively, in which you can leave an open seat for conversations about faith?