There’s an old story about two shoe salesmen who travelled to a third world country in the early 1950’s, in search of new business opportunities. One man called his head office the moment he landed, telling them, “I’m coming back home. There’s no hope here. Nobody here is wearing shoes, so there’s no one to sell to.” He boarded the next flight home. But the second man called head office saying, “You wouldn’t believe what I found here. There is so much opportunity. No one here is wearing shoes. I can sell to the whole country!”

A 2012 poll indicated that the number of South Africans who “consider themselves religious” decreased from 83% of the population in 2005, to 64% of the population in 2012. Given that, in 2001, 80% of our population claimed to be Christian, we can assume that the 2012 stats represent a significant decline in the number of professing Christians in South Africa.

No doubt, there are plenty of flaws and superficialities with these kinds of statistics, but I wasn’t surprised by the overall trend. We can even assume that the percentage of genuine believers is far lower. Our country and our community has changed. Fewer and fewer people are being exposed to the gospel and to Bible teaching as they grow up. Fewer and fewer people are becoming Christians. Other societies (especially in the West) have been through very similar changes over the last fifty years.

So, how should we respond as Christians? Historically, churches have responded by being, at times, pessimistic about the power of the gospel; at times unwilling to assess their own culpability in the decline and, at times, downright apathetic about trying to reverse the trend.

We could, instead, learn a thing or two from the attitude of the second shoe salesman, above: there is a massive opportunity to take the gospel to people who desperately need to hear it!

But, even better, lets consider the attitude of Jesus Christ when he was confronted by thousands of unsaved people: “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:35-36)

When Jesus saw the crowds he had compassion on them. The original word means: to have a very deep, emotional response. We might say that when he saw the crowds he was gutted for them. Why? Because they were “like sheep without a shepherd”.

That’s how Jesus felt. How do you feel when confronted by people who are critical of the church, mocking of the Bible and apathetic about anything Christian? Hurtful as these attitudes are we need to remember that they come from those who are lost, like sheep without a shepherd. And so, our underlying emotional response should be one of compassion. Heaven forbid, we ever feel self-righteousness or bitterness, for we know that we too were once lost and that it was only by grace that the Shepherd brought us into his fold.

In Matthew 9:37-8 we see that Jesus moved beyond feelings to action, and his first action, importantly, was a call to prayer:  “Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

We have a massive and wonderful opportunity for harvest and we need to be depending on God to provide all we need for that. As a church, lets always be praying for the lost, asking God to keep on drawing people into his Kingdom through the work Gospel-teaching churches throughout our country.

Jesus felt a deep compassion for the lost, he prayed for God’s provision in reaching the lost, and then he actually sent the disciples out. Their first mission (Matt 10:1ff) is a foreshadowing of what would happen on a far larger scale once Jesus had ascended and the Holy Spirit had been sent (see Acts 1:8). As Jesus’ disciples today, we are called to the same mission. We too have the Holy Spirit to sustain and guide us. We too are sent out into our community, country and world to spread the good news of a compassionate, saving God.

Some of us do that as full-time church workers, some of us do that as missionaries in the field, but the great thing is that everyone can be involved in this mission, regardless of their careers, stage of life or family situation. This mission can be on our minds in all the day-to-day interactions we have with people in our lives. Consider Paul’s words to the Colossians: “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”(Colossians 4:5-6)

Paul called on Christians to be wise in their conduct towards unbelievers and to be alert to any kind of opportunity for gospel witness or gospel explanation.

Consider this perspective, from CS Lewis, on the importance of every contact we have with unbelievers: “The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”[1]

So, as we survey our changing society and all the challenges posed, lets respond with compassion, expressed in humble prayer and godly evangelism.

Written by Murray Anderson, St Peters Fish Hoek

[1] From “The Weight of Glory” (1949)