God is Confirming; our main task is to pray.
People at this stage have no place in their mental picture of the universe for God to fit into: they live in a world totally devoid of any supernatural element. They cannot even ask the question 'Is there a God?' because their belief about the nature of the universe makes such a question meaningless. For them, not only is there not a God, but it is not possible that He can exist.
They may talk - often very intelligently - about God, His Nature and Attributes. But such talk is very misleading: when they say 'God' they mean a myth, a construct of subconscious desires, or a tool of political manipulation. In the same way, I can talk about dragons: they form part of my cultural heritage, I have read stories in which they feature and so on. For people at this stage, God and dragons both exist, but only as myths and characters in stories made up by people. They may even enjoy such stories, but 'know' that they are simply fantasies which have nothing to do with the 'real' world.
This is regarded as the 'scientific' position by most people today. It is the modern orthodoxy. As with most orthodoxies down the centuries, far fewer people actually believe it than claim to.
God's activity at this stage consists largely in confirming and clarifying the implications of such a position. He faces them, in essence, with the issue of personal integrity: if you choose to believe this, are you prepared to live with the consequences?
People at this stage see themselves as living 'in touch with reality' or some similar phrase. This is the way the universe is, that is all. Other people may choose to believe all kinds of things, but they do not see themselves as having chosen a set of beliefs, or even (very often) having any beliefs of any significance. If they can see they have chosen to believe this, there is opened up the possibility they can choose to believe something different if the facts appear to support a change.
While our main task is to pray for these people, it would be very unscriptural to suggest this is all we should do. There is no harm in talking about God as a living presence in your life - it may do little to help at this stage, but the Holy Spirit can bring such testimony to mind later, when it is more relevant. And it is always right to communicate Jesus' love in practical ways: again, it may be more directly relevant in an evangelistic sense later on, but it is always our Father's desire to bless people. 'Doing good' as an expression of God's love is always valid, whether it directly contributes to some evangelistic effort or not.
God is Revealing; our task is to pray and communicate His presence.
People often hold the position of 'No God framework' in their heads, but do not allow it to connect with them personally. At this next stage, that connection has taken place. Our first prayers for them have been answered. Understanding this point is vitally important, as it is one of the defining characteristics of the twentieth century.
If there is no room in your universe for a God, for any transcendent reality you care to put a name to, nothing more than the bare molecules, then life has no meaning, no purpose. Things like 'purpose' and 'values' only exist in our minds: we can pretend our life has meaning, that the human race is more than a cosmic accident, but this is mere sham. Life is totally empty and futile. Your life is pointless; all human life is pointless; the universe itself is pointless.
This is the position of 'modern man' as described graphically by the Existentialists: Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and their followers. This is the source of the angst described in so much modern literature.
On a more popular and accessible level, Douglas Adams described this experience of emptiness in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. According to this work, the 'Total Perspective Vortex' is the worst torture any sentient being can possibly experience. That is a singularly profound observation, and remarkably close to the truth. Very few people can linger at this stage for long.
If a universe without God is such a barren, meaningless place, people start to consider the possibility that there may be a God after all. Perhaps they were being too hasty and dogmatic to rule out the possibility so quickly?
Some people object that we cannot communicate God's presence to someone who does not recognise the possibility that God exists. That is only partly true.
Firstly, the experience of emptiness makes them open to more than they currently allow to be possible.
Secondly, they can experience something of God's presence through you even if they don't believe in Him.
And thirdly, they know in their heads that other people have a space for God in their heads. What they do not appreciate is that other people have the reality of God's presence in their lives. They do not need arguments for His existence - something the Bible never offers or suggests - they need the assurance that for other people God is not just a theory, but is actually real in their experience. Without this - and the possibility that these people may not be completely deluded - they see no escape from the dreadful emptiness within.
God is Revealing; our task is to pray and communicate His presence.
Most people, once they are faced with the reality of a universe without God, rapidly move to the point when they are willing to accept the possibility that there may be a God. It is hard to be totally dogmatic that the universe is meaningless, especially when so few people around you really believe it. So don't be dogmatic: leave the door open a crack. Allow the logical possibility that you may be mistaken, that there may be room in this universe for a God. After all, how can you be sure about such things?
Once God becomes a real possibility, you have a 'God framework'. Once people have a God framework, you can start to communicate not only His presence to them, but also something of His character. This can be very low-key: perhaps just let them know that you are sure He cares about them. And, as you tell them something of His character, God is usually revealing Himself to them in a very gentle and unhurried way.
God is Revealing; our task is to pray and communicate His presence.
Once you believe in the possibility of a God 'somewhere out there' it is very difficult not to take the next step and believe in a vague way that He does exist. We find it hard to hold a position of simple 'not knowing' - the typical agnostic is deciding not to face up to these questions. Very few people can really hold to a position of 'I do not know' or even 'We cannot know' and leave it there.
So, for most people, 'perhaps there is a God' becomes 'I believe there might be a God' and for many this moves on to 'I believe there probably is a God - out there - somewhere.'
Many people we talk to are here. Very few set out on a quest for God - they are too afraid of what they will find. This is about as far as people get 'on their own' (they are never really on their own, but of course to them it often seems that way) and it usually takes God to step in and do something, either directly or through His people, to encourage someone to move on from here.
As you continue to communicate His presence in your life, through what you say and do, they begin to appreciate that you not only seem to know about God, you seem to know Him personally. This prepares the ground for the next step.
God is Revealing; our task is to pray, communicate His presence and prepare them.
This is in some ways the most risky step anyone takes. The possibility that there may be a God becomes personal. This is not an intellectual game: it now involves real risk. If I allow myself to wonder, I start to hope; if I start to hope that God can be known, if I try to do things to find Him, I risk deep disappointment if it turns out there is no God after all or I cannot find Him, or He turns out to be vengeful and unpleasant after all.
Most of us have encountered the deep bitterness and disappointment of someone who has fallen away from following a formal religion. This is the risk people are taking when they start to wonder if God can be known - can be known by them. It is a very fragile position, and people here need very careful handling.
God is revealing to them that He can be known, and there are ways to get to know Him. Our job here is to prepare people. Prepare them for what? Prepare them for the Gospel. And, for many people, the essential preparation at this stage is to help them overcome what is known in the trade as the 'scandal of particularity.'
This is a dreadful phrase, but it describes the problem nicely. Up to this point, God is a sort of universal concept. He is probably understood to be 'everywhere' - but if He is everywhere, there is no point in going anywhere to meet Him, is there?
Many people will have been aware of Jesus, or the Christian faith, long before this stage, but up to this point Christianity has always been thought irrelevant. This is a hard point for many Christians to grasp: there are people who are actively looking for God but it simply does not occur to them to try the Church. They may live next door to a Church building, they may have gone to Sunday School, but they simply do not make the connection between Church and God.
Once people start wondering if God can be known, they are then in a position to consider the possibility that the Christian faith may have something to offer. The church, for these folk, does not necessarily have the complete answer, but at least it contains people who have some interest in - and maybe a knowledge of - God.
People at this stage do not need to be told that 'Jesus has all the answers' or 'Jesus is the only way to God.' Such things appear to be dogmatic, to come from a closed mind. They were (perhaps until very recently) dogmatic themselves, they had a closed mind against God: they do not want to retreat to that position of safety right away. They want to risk, they want to explore, they want to open up to the possibilities the world contains.
What they need to hear is that Jesus can offer them a way to get to know God better. He is willing to take them just as they are, just where they are, that He welcomes people with doubts and fears and uncertainties. They need to hear they do not need to be saints. They are allowed to start exploring the Christian Faith right now.
Once there is a desire to know God, and the recognition that Christianity, or perhaps that strange historic character called 'Jesus,' may be able to offer some help, the person can then decide to do something about it and show an interest. The door to God is opened in a new way.
The danger for some people is that they stay here. They start coming to church out of interest, as a way of looking for God, and get taken up into the activities, the social events and the rituals of church life.
The church, as a human institution, relies on volunteers, and these people are often willing to volunteer, and they often have the time and capacity to contribute in various ways. It seems churlish to refuse their offers, and it can be very hurtful. To refuse their help is generally seen as a way of rejecting them as people, which of course we do not want to do. So they start to contribute to the life of the church.
They may well have a vague idea that they are doing 'their bit for God' in this way, and settle down with the idea that, having become a part of God's people, they have 'found God' as much as they are likely to. They learn to say their prayers along with the rest, and are accepted as part of the church. People at this stage can form the respected backbone of the local church.
That is what can happen when people get stuck at this stage. For many, spending a while here seems to be necessary. The person who is interested is not only gathering information about the Christian faith, but is very often discovering Christian culture. A lively church, to an outsider, is a weird group of people. It takes some getting used to. Many people (understandably) find it very difficult to commit themselves to a faith, and hence a group of people, if they do not feel they understand it well enough to believe they will 'fit'.
On the outside, almost all that Christians do and say can be understood in human terms. Church Prayer Meetings and ballroom dancing are both social activities, and going to church provides you with a bunch of friends and a structure to your social life in much the same way as joining the local pub darts team.
Many people think that what they see on the outside is all there is to the Christian faith. They can know all about what goes on, on the outside, yet have no idea of what is happening on the inside. And they do not know that they do not know, if you get the meaning.
Something must happen to step into their experience, to make them realise that there is more to the Christian faith than the outward activities. There is something real at the centre of it, something different, something which they do not share.
What often happens is they experience Christian love. It touches them on the inside, and they realise that there is something here they cannot explain, something beyond their experience. People are not capable of that kind of love, not ordinary people like this. There is something - and this can be a vital point of revelation - divine about that love.
So God is really there for these people, present in some way in their experience. He is a reality in their lives in a way I do not know or understand. Their talk about God is not just talk: it expresses something deeper. I am beginning to realise I want what they have got. I begin to thirst for God.
Of course, it is not always love which prompts this step - or perhaps, it is not always seen as love at the time. It can be a simple answer to prayer, or a direct revelation. The effect is the same: God is real, and I want Him.
Up to now, the Christian message for most people has been a mixture of sound ethical advice and a comforting mythology. Adam and Eve in the garden, Jesus being born at Christmas, the events of Easter: they are all powerful stories which resonate deep within and move people, Christian or not.
But if God is real, then - wait for it - these stories must be true, in some sense, at least. A real God became a real human being to die on a real cross, outside a real town in the Middle East. Real people, like me, killed Him in a horrible way. This can be quite a shock. What were just stories become frighteningly different when you realise they really happened.
At this point, someone who a few weeks earlier could have described the gospel message very well, might need to hear it for the first time. They do not need to be convinced, they simply need to hear the words said by someone who believes them to be true. This is the point where 'Tell me the old, old story' ceases to be sentimentality and becomes a vital necessity. Now they can hear - really hear - the basic facts of the gospel for the first time.
This is in some ways the real crux of the issue. If someone does not feel their personal need of a saviour, they will never come to the foot of the cross. Many evangelists put most of their effort into convincing people of their personal need, and most of this effort is completely wasted.
If a person knows within themselves they are a miserable sinner and they deserve to go to Hell, you can tell them, they will respond and agree with you. If they do not know it within, you might be able to convince their head that 'all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,' but any profession of faith will be nothing more than a response to human pressure.
You are entirely dependant upon God's Spirit working at this point. You can pray for them, and you can tell them they need a saviour, but until they know they need a saviour you can go no further.
It is a dreadful thing to be in fear of Hell. If they have spent more than a few minutes aware of their personal need, there will often be some strong emotions churning around inside.
A person at this stage wants to hear the gospel. The difficulty here is to keep it simple. They want to hear, and the temptation sometimes is to keep on explaining things you think they need to understand. You do not need to ensure their theological soundness at this point. Depending on how much they have gained at the earlier stages, you may need to say very little more than: 'Yes, you are in a hole. That is why Jesus died: to provide you with a way out of this hole.'
The main point to check is that they understand the Lordship of Christ. The core gospel message is: Jesus Christ is Lord, and if you give your life to Him and submit to His Lordship, He will give His life to you, save you and keep you.
The gospel message is a very costly one. That is why people will only respond to it if they know the cost of ignoring it is even greater. Jesus emphasised the need for people to count the cost before they sign up, and we dare not presume to know better.
This is the classic 'invitation'. The previous stage was 'Jesus died so that you may have eternal life', this stage is 'What are you going to do about it?' Of course, you do not have to put it as bluntly as that. In sales jargon, this is the 'close', but evangelism is not about selling Jesus to someone, and we can be mislead by the similarities.
This stage and the previous one often go together, but this is not essential. We easily make several mistakes at this point.
The first mistake is to give the invitation too soon. You are 'so near, and yet so far' - the temptation is to listen to your own enthusiasm or impatience rather than to the Holy Spirit for His timing. There is no rush. If God is at work in someone's life, you will not 'lose them' if they go off and sleep on it.
A variation on the 'too soon' mistake is to pressurise people to respond. The only way to come to Jesus is freely. A person can only be saved if they want to be. Just saying the words of the 'sinner's prayer' without meaning them is worse than useless. If someone is pushed into 'accepting Jesus' before they are ready, it is sometimes hard to tell later if they are really saved. It certainly causes problems. Giving your life to Jesus is a major step, and some people need time before they are ready to do it, even when they are sure they have to do it.
Of course, some people will try to put off the commitment as a way of avoiding it altogether. Every now and then you have to present the stark choice: either accept Jesus or reject Him. Choose Heaven or Hell. Sitting on the fence for ever is not an alternative: if you fail to choose God, you choose Satan. However you put it, sometimes the choice has to be presented as bluntly as this
The second mistake is to put off the invitation, or fail to give it altogether. You have been talking to someone for a while, and it is perfectly clear they know what to do. The strange thing is that many people know what to do, and yet do nothing until they are asked. So maybe all you have to do is ask. It doesn't matter if they want time to think about it, to 'count the cost'. If you ask politely and sensitively, you can keep on coming back and asking, so you have lost nothing in the attempt.
Repentance is turning around, turning to God. It is agreeing with Him that you have got it wrong up to now, and you want to go His way from now on. For some people, it is clearly a turning away from something which they have tried to put in the place of God, while for others it is more like coming home at long last.
Faith is sometimes made into something more difficult and complicated than it really is. You switch the kettle on because you have faith it will boil the water for your tea. You use a taxi because you have faith the taxi driver will take you where you want to go. Everything in life operates through faith.
Faith in Jesus works in exactly the same way. You ask Jesus to save you because you have faith that He is able to save. You want what He offers, you believe that He can supply it, and so you turn to Him. On this level, the only difference between Jesus and a kettle is that there are many ways of getting water boiled, but only one way to get eternal life.
Of course, there is the mystery of God at work in the life of the individual coming to faith, the mystery of regeneration. Spiritual forces and powers are at work, angels and demons watch in awe as the wonder of re-birth takes place. But you don't have to worry about all that. God does His bit, and we do not need to understand it.
What is the evangelist called to do at this point? As little as possible! Some people need no help at this point, so don't get in their way. Some people just need to be encouraged to pray, to talk with Jesus, and it all spills out.
Others are less clear. 'Yes, I want to be saved. What do I do?' For them, you explain as simply as possible that God wants them to repent and believe. Now is not the time for detailed theology - just offer the bare minimum to enable them to understand what they need to do, and let them get on with it.
For those who needed no help, it may be appropriate - after they have finished praying and calmed down a little - to check that they do understand about both repentance and faith. But that is all.
There is an optional short talk to give at this point, and 97% of the time it is given faultlessly. Most of us remember it very well because we were given the same talk when we became Christians. It goes like this. "Okay. You have been saved by grace. That's great, but don't imagine it will always be this easy. You have to keep the rules. You have to go to Church every Sunday. You have to get up early in the morning to read your Bible and pray. You have to join a Housegroup. You have to..."
All right, I lie. It is probably more like 98%. I realise this is a vital message, that your new convert has to learn that most Churches operate on works rather than grace, and that the best way to motivate Christians is through guilt rather than forgiveness. But do you have to hit your new convert with this right now? Why not allow them a few days to enjoy the experience of praying and reading their Bible because they want to? Why not let someone else have the job of turning this into a miserable duty? It's just a suggestion.
We all need to be brought to the foot of the cross, and in a sense our journey finishes there. Certainly, we never 'move on' from there. There is no deeper teaching, no further revelation than that of the cross. The Christian faith contains no secret or hidden truth, despite the thousands of teachers who will promise to reveal it to you. Any attempt to leave the cross behind is not moving on but falling back, not deeper fellowship with Jesus but turning away from Him. All we have, all we could ever hope for, is present in the cross.
But in another sense, the foot of the cross is just the start of our life's journey. We cease the finite journey to God, and start the infinite journey into God. Salvation from the guilt of sin is complete, and salvation from the power of sin begins. We have been given a place in Heaven: now the work begins to make us fit for Heaven. In traditional terms, we have been justified, and we start to become sanctified.
We would never imagine that physical growth stops when a child is born: birth is just the starting point for life. Spiritual growth is the same: the New Birth is the starting point for the New Life. All the lengthy journey to the foot of the cross is just a preparation: it brings us to the point where we can get started, where we can start to discover what real living is about.
The writings of Christian saints and mystics are useful to us as Christian autobiography. They tell us "This is my experience of God," and we can learn from them. What we must not do is treat their writings as a road map.