The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
Michael Green started where people were, but always took people to Jesus.
It seemed appropriate that I should hear the news of Michael Green’s death just after preaching at a student mission event.
I have had the privilege of leading more than ten such missions with Michael over the last ten years, around both the UK and Europe, and it was through leading these events that our friendship grew.
As a mentor, and a friend, Michael has probably had the greatest influence on my ministry of anyone I have known. So many aspects of the way I lead missions and preach the gospel today have been shaped by his teaching and, even more so, by his example.
On most missions we led together I would lead the time each morning with the team of CUGs (Christian Union Guests), while Michael would share teaching and encouragement from the Bible.
One of this favourite go to passages was the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-40). He must have preached it many times to church congregations too – in fact, aptly, it was this passage on which the last sermon I ever heard him preach was based.
Michael would share seven marks of the evangelist from the life of Philip:
1. Humility – Philip was originally selected to do the background job of waiting on tables (Acts 6) before the Lord called him to be a preacher. He was also willing to obediently leave a revival in Samaria, and go and speak to one lone man in the desert, without a word of complaint. For Philip it didn’t matter if he was in the background or in the forefront; preaching to many or chatting with one; he had humility, and the Lord honoured it.
2. Sensitivity to the Holy Spirit – Three times in the passage Philip is directed by the Lord. He is a man in touch with God and open to his prompting.
3. He made use of questions – he started by asking the Ethiopian what he was reading. He takes time to ask, and listen, before he speaks.
4. He knew and made use of the Bible – he preached the gospel from Isaiah 53.
5. He started where the person was, but was focused on Jesus – Philip began with Isaiah, but he used it to point to Jesus. This was the model of the apostolic sermons:– start where people are at, but always take them to Jesus.
7 He was ready to lead the man to Christ… there and then.
8. He was enthusiastic – he ran to the chariot, despite being in the hot desert environment– this showed that he was excited about his message, and excited to share it! Enthusiasm is infectious.
I have often ‘stolen’ his outline in my own teaching on evangelism, and had last shared it just two days before Michael’s death, with the team that I was working with in Leeds.
On hearing of his death two days later, I lay awake into the night, reflecting on my many memories of Michael. At about two o’clock in the morning it struck me that Michael had not only taught this, but had also powerfully modeled it in his own life by example.
Many memories of each of the above seven marks flooded my mind as I drifted off to sleep.
Michael’s humility was all the more remarkable considering there were many reasons why he could have grown to be proud, or have felt entitled. Here was arguably the UK’s greatest evangelist of the 20 Century.
He was certainly one of the ‘greats’ of the evangelical world. I will never forget, during one of our early missions together, he volunteered (without me asking) to write to some of his friends and ask if they would support me financially.
‘I’ll write to George and Billy’, he explained. ‘Who?’ I enquired, not exactly sure who these mates were! It turned out that these friends were George Carey (the former Archbishop of Canterbury) and Billy Graham!
I am not sure that his letters ever procured any funding, but I have a hunch that one of them may have led to the invitation I received to attend the funeral of the latter, and I did hear back at the time that Billy Graham was praying for me! (I felt this was the Protestant equivalent of being prayed for by the Pope!).
Although my friendship with Michael covered only the final ten years of his life, he had achieved so much before I ever met him. Among other achievements he has led one of the largest churches in Oxford, planted churches in America, was principal of a theological college and taught in several others.
As an evangelist he had preached to hundreds of thousands in every continent. He held numerous academic qualifications and was the author of over fifty books. He was still producing books right up to the time of his death.
One of his last, Jesus for Sceptics’ has been used widely in missions all over Europe, and is one of the best evangelistic books I have ever read.
However, for all Michael’s achievements, he remained an incredibly humble man with a servant heart. This was demonstrated by so many small gestures that seemed to come so instinctively.
During a mission planning meeting in the UCCF Forum campsite he would think nothing of jumping off his chair for someone four times his junior, and would sit down sportily on the grass.
Michael would be the first to volunteer for washing up after a meal at a student house party.
I remember seeing him lugging boxes of books across the snow, wearing his characteristic woollen jumper; or packing away chairs at the end of an event at which he had been the speaker.
I remember one episode in Belarus. We were being driven to an event and had to pick up some extra people, meaning there would now be more in the car than it was designed for. Before I could stop him, Michael (at this time 85 years old) had climbed over the back seat and was sitting cheerily in the boot!..
The funniest memory comes from the one time Michael came to stay at my own flat when he was preaching in Bournemouth. I had moved out of my bedroom to give him the double bed, while I slept on the couch.
The following morning Michael came in and found me, and was horrified when he realised that I had moved out of my bed for him. ‘Let me sleep on the couch tonight!’ he repeatedly pleaded, anticipating the second night.
When he realised that I wasn’t going to back down he then responded ‘Well we can both sleep in the bed then!’ (I happily declined his kind offer!)
Like Philip, Michael was interested in individuals, as much as he was in preaching to crowds. Two years ago, in Manchester, he arrived a little late to the evening event at which he was speaking.
It transpired that he had sacrificially been round at a student’s house, to have dinner with their flatmates, and to attempt to answer their questions.
Michael often struggled with chest infections, so we tried, and failed, to keep him in the warm when on missions. Michael felt that he couldn’t sit inside, when others were outside, handing out flyers, sometimes in the snow, and would often be seen running along a concourse after a group of students, flyers in hand.
When I tried to stop him he simply said, ‘I don’t much like flyering but I can’t ask the students to do it if I am not willing to do it myself!’
Another mark of his humility was his desire to keep learning. I was astonished on the first mission we did together ten years ago that he sat in the audience and made notes on all my talks – often asking if he could borrow quotes I had used.
He never stopped learning and was reading new books and coming up with fresh material right up to the end of his life.
2. SENSITIVITY TO THE HOLY SPIRIT
Michael was charismatic – both in temperament and theology. Coming from a more conservative background, I found him so helpful in this area.
I was wary of some of the excesses within the Charismatic Movement and was in danger of becoming cynical of it all. Michael was not naïve (he too could be critical of some aspects of the Charismatic Movement) but he hadn’t become cynical, and could reject the bad while holding on to what was good.
I remember asking him in a public interview what he thought was the role of ‘signs and wonders’ in evangelism? He replied, in his well educated tone, ‘My dear boy, we can’t lay them on… but they do help!’.
Michael was open to the Lord doing such things, but didn’t depend on them, and faithfully preached the gospel whether or not signs and wonders accompanied this.
One of the things that stood out to me was the way in which Michael would spontaneously break into prayer at any moment, like when walking down the road or talking in the car.
He would rarely say, ‘Let’s pray about that’ – he just did it! It was as if he was so conscious of the presence of God with him that it was just natural for him to include the Lord in any conversation he was having.
His prayers were rarely long, but always meaningful – with real sincerity and love. He once encouragingly said, ‘I struggle to pray for long… but I don’t want to let too long go without praying!’
Michael relied upon the Holy Spirit in his preaching. His often repeated motto was ‘I can’t. He can. I can through him’. Despite having years of experience which could have left him feeling self confident, he always prayed over each talk, and would often change and adapt it in the circumstance.
I remember, on more than one occasion, on a mission week, discovering that he was quietly fasting and praying before the final meeting of the week.
3. HE MADE USE OF QUESTIONS
We often led student weekends where the main aim was to train Christian students in evangelism. Michael had once heard me deliver a seminar on the use of questions in evangelism.
Wherever we went he would encourage me to give it again, as he saw the way a well asked question could really help in sharing the gospel.
I was struck by how Michael always took time to get to know people, and listen to them, rather than just launching in with the gospel. His favorite question to ask those who had already heard something of the gospel was,
‘What is stopping you from following Jesus? Is it something you don’t understand?... or is it something you don’t want to give up?’
4. HE KNEW AND MADE USE OF THE BIBLE
At a time when many people preach from an iPad, Michael continued to speak holding on to his small, red New Testament, his note cards neatly tucked inside. This very visibly demonstrated where his authority came from.
While not all his sermons were expositions of a passage, they were all thoroughly Biblical, after the model of Paul in Acts 17. Being a theologian, Michael had a deep and rich understanding of Scripture – his sermons were never shallow.
However, he did have a way of bringing the Bible alive and explaining things in fresh and vivid language. He would often retell the story of Thomas doubting the resurrection ‘When Thomas heard of the resurrection, he said, ‘Rhubarb!’’
He also applied a certain creativity to his preaching. I will never forget his sermon on 2 Corinthians 4. He would begin:
‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could have the Apostle Paul himself with us this morning, and interview him? Well, we can!’; he would exclaim, with a beaming smile.
He would then pretend to interview Paul – stepping from side to side, playing both the part of the interviewer and the interviewee: ‘Well Paul, good of you to come this morning. Do you mind me asking you what it is that keeps you going in your ministry?’
‘Well Michael, thank you for asking! I would say it is because of God’s mercy…’and so he continued, for the rest of the sermon!
5. HE STARTED WHERE PEOPLE ARE, BUT ALWAYS TOOK PEOPLE TO JESUS
I have noticed that there can be a tendency for there to be two very different approaches to evangelism. The first is academic and makes use of apologetics – it starts where people are at, but often fails to ever get to Jesus.
The second makes much of Jesus, but often is disconnected from where people are at, and has the danger of being superficial and overly emotional. Michael modeled a holistic approach that managed to connect well with people and their questions, but it never stopped there – his aim was always to introduce people to Jesus.
When he spoke of Christ he always did so with such personal thrill, excitement and freshness.
I remember well one of his lovely turns of phrase while making the appeal at the end of the talk: ‘You may be fearful of what you would have to give up to follow Jesus’, he explained well , you do not need to worry! Jesus is the man with the Hoover – he has come to ‘suck up the rubbish in your life’ but not the good stuff!’
Particularly noticeable was that Michael would speak often of the resurrection. He had good Biblical warrant for this – every sermon in the book of Acts mentions the resurrection (more so than the cross even).
He also had personal conviction reasons for doing so – it was on hearing the claim of the resurrection back at school (in an unofficial, underground meeting!) that he first began his journey to faith.
He would often start his final talk of the week by recounting this story, before then unpacking the evidence for it from 1 Corinthians 15.
6. HE WAS READY TO INTRODUCE PEOPLE TO CHRIST
Michael would often say, ‘The job of the evangelist is to electrify the fence upon which people sit’! As a cartoon in one of his earlier books so humourously illustrated – our job is not just to influence fish – it’s to catch them!
Michael loved to catch fish – real fish as well as metaphorical fish! I once asked him how he could stand fishing, which seemed so passive and dull, when he was such an activist at heart? I could never imagine him sitting by a riverbank all day.
He proceeded to explain to me that there are different types of fishing – he certainly wasn’t interested in the sitting around type – but rather – in fly fishing where he would actively pursue the fish – always moving, and never standingstill.
He deployed the same method in evangelism. He wasn’t content to wait for people to come to him – he wanted to go after them!
I rarely, if ever, heard Michael speak without giving people an opportunity to respond. This wasn’t pressurised, manipulative or emotional, as can sadly be the case with some evangelists.
Michael would often remind us that conversion is primarily an act of the will, not of the emotions. However, he would deliberately give significant space within his talks for the response, and hated talks that had a rushed ending.
He often used a clear metaphor to explain the need for response. One he used, that I have frequently borrowed, is of a marriage being a commitment from two sides, so too our relationship with God.
God has made his commitment to us in the cross of Jesus. Have we made a commitment to Him? After all, it takes two to tango!’, he would exclaim with a smile! We didn’t always think that some of his metaphors worked so well.
I remember the outbreaks of laughter at a cheese and wine evening, when Michael illustrated conversion being like ‘the moment the sperm meets the egg’! Michael’s favorite talk ending was the metaphor of ‘opening the door to Jesus’, from Revelation 3:20.
There was good reason for this it was through hearing this verse that he himself had been led to Christ on the dusty floor of a school cricket pavilion, as a teenager.
Once he had finished speaking, Michael wouldn’t sit down. He would then be, in his own words, ‘cruising around the assembled multitude’ in the room, with a wad of his own booklets entitled ‘Yes!’ These explained how to respond and take a step of faith in Jesus.
Through this ‘cruising’ he could find those who were on the verge of response, and he would then be involved in talking and praying with them on a personal level.
Michael was desperate for people to respond to the gospel he loved! Sometimes this may have caused him to be a little too eager! On one occasion he was preaching at a church service in Cardiff.
After the service he spoke to Peter Baker, the minister, and told him of the people that he had just prayed with to trust Christ. Peter looked somewhat surprised – three of them were his church Elders!
7. HE WAS ENTHUSIASTIC!
The first time I met Michael he was already into his late 70s. After our first mission week he said it would probably have been his last, as he was by then too old. In the event, we went on to do ten more years of them!
During all this time Michael’s beating heart was only functioning at about one third its intended capacity! …not that this stopped him – he had a relentless energy! He and I were often introduced in universities as ‘the old Michael and the young Michael’.
Although I was fifty years his junior, he often left me feeling that I was the ‘old’ one!
Almost everyone I know who met this sparkly eyed man during those last years remarked how youthful and energetic he was. I remember him acting out anillustration during one sermon that required him to run fast, back and forth across the stage, and repeatedly drop down onto his knees, before springing up again. The student audience watched, aghast at his boundless agility!
Lindsay Brown recounts a time when he passed Michael in the corridor at a large conference. Michael was walking with some speed, and, when Lindsay greeted him, Michael explained he was off to lead his third seminar of the day. (It wasn’t yet lunch time!).
When Lindsay remarked that he was already tired after leading just one, Michael straightened up and simply responded, ‘Lindsay, I want to die with my boots on!’
He almost achieved his wish – he was still speaking in this way just a week before his death.
There were times when I was soberingly reminded that Michael was, in fact, in his eighties… On one occasion he suddenly fell asleep mid sentence while we were driving through Poland.
I thought, for a moment, as his head nodded forwards, that he had died! He actually woke up half an hour later and continued talking, as if nothing had happened! More recently, on a hot summer’s day, he was taken ill between the two morning services, having been invited to preach at my home church.
I quietly received notification of this while leading the second service, and I had to be prepared to preach in his place. Despite the paramedics wanting to take him into hospital locally,
Michael insisted on going back to Oxford – he was due to baptise one of his grandsons and preach at the service that evening. After a good nap in the car… that is exactly what he went on to do!...
His high energy was partly attributed to his diligence in making every effort to stay healthy. He frequented a gym until fairly recently, and he made sure he ate healthily – taking great pride in growing his own fruit and veg in their garden.
In an early mission week I was caught enjoying a can of Coke after a lunch talk, when Michael came over. He looked down at the can and lovingly berated me, ‘You don’t want to drink that – it’ll rot your insides, boy!’ I have hardly touched a can since – his words still ring in my ears!
However, his enthusiasm came from more than just natural energy. Over the last few years his health was often poor, and he was, at times, in considerable pain.
Yet this didn’t seem to diminish his joy. His motivation was Jesus! Like Paul in 2 Corinthians 4 it was ‘the mercy of God and the love of Christ that compelled him’.
I remember well the first time I had ever heard Michael speak. It was on a student leaders’ training weekend in Southampton. I remember remarking to a friend afterwards about what had struck me in the talk.
It was that Michael wasn’t so much excited about an activity called evangelism, but that it was Jesus who he was obviously most excited about.
After the final night of a mission week in Liverpool we chatted by our cars as we prepared to drive to our respective homes. As we said goodbye to each other he remarked that this might be his final mission week, and that he would either see me soon, or else, in glory. (As it turned out, it wasn’t his final mission week – we worked together for another eight years!)
I replied ‘Yes heaven will be great, but it’s just a pity we won’t be able to go ‘on mission’ again when we’re there!’ I have never forgotten his response: ‘No,’ he replied, ‘we won’t be able to go ‘on mission’ – but we will enjoy the Lord forever!’
Michael loved the excitement of evangelism, but that is because he loved Jesus even more!
I am so thankful that my own life and ministry overlapped with Michael Green’s for this last decade. He often said that the Biblical model of training, as exemplified by Jesus, was ‘on the job’ and not in a classroom.
Although I did hear Michael lecture, I learned far more from watching him in action. In fact, I have spent more time doing ministry with him than I have with anyone else – sharing numerous missions and conferences across the UK and Europe.
In the last two months before his death I had been reading and studying 2 Timothy, in preparation for some upcoming talks. I hadn’t realised how appropriate this would be. I feel like I have been a ‘Timothy’ to a ‘Paul’.
Like Timothy, I feel massively inadequate to continue in the task that Michael devoted his life to. However, reflecting with gratitude on Michael’s life and example makes me keener than ever to ‘keep doing the work of an evangelist’. (2 Timothy 4:5).
Michael Ots, evangelist.