For those who follow Christ. there are probably very few things that strike fear and guilt into our hearts quicker than hearing the word evangelism. In fact, take a second and think about that word, “Evangelism”, what images come to your mind? We probably begin to think about telling others about Jesus. Evangelism is a nice church word. It means to bring good news. We have others churchy words that we also use to describe it as well. Witnessing. Sharing the faith. Proselytizing. And if you are a follower of Jesus and you hear that word, it is very likely that you, right now are thinking, GREAT! Another message to make me feel guilty. And he is going to ask, “So how many people have you evangelized lately? How many people have you witnessed to this week?” If that is what you are thinking, stay with me. Don’t jump there just yet.
Maybe you’re reading this and you aren’t following Jesus. Maybe you are here because you are curious, a friend invited you, or something has happened in your life to cause you to seek God and so you are searching, I am glad you are reading this because when you think of evangelism, you probably also immediately have negative thoughts as well.
Regardless of where you are with Christ, the chances that you think good thoughts about evangelism are slim and none. That word has such a negative connotation. Thoughts of guilt and shame for the Christian. And thoughts of a slick, manipulative, high pressure, uncaring, obnoxious door-to-door salesman for the rest. It is not a positive image.
And the problem with most Christians when it comes to evangelism is that we want to be free of those feelings of guilt so we do find ways to “share Christ” with others. We find ways to placate our emotions. We put a Jesus fish or bumper sticker on our cars. We pass out tracts. Not so that someone might find Christ. Not so that they will know the love, freedom and salvation that Jesus came to bring to the world, we do it so we won’t feel guilty. And if most of us are honest, me included, when we hear that word, the emotional response many have is, “I hate evangelism.” And when we feel this way, we do evangelism poorly. In a cold, uncaring way. As if the people we are sharing Jesus with aren’t people, but a project. And once we have met that obligation, so I can raise my hand and say, “Yes I have witnessed to people this week, NOW GET OFF MY BACK ABOUT IT!” It becomes nothing more than something to check off our list of things we do to be a good person.
I will say, it is not that these feelings we all have are unfounded. I grew up in the south. I sat under the evangelists and preachers who would paint pictures like this: Are you ready? because if you didn’t feel guilty before, you will after I paint this picture for you. Evangelists would says things like this: “Do you want the blood of your friends and families on your hands? What will you say to them when you see them when you die and you are in the line for heaven and they are in the line for hell? What will you say on that day when they look at you and with tears running down their faces they ask you, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
That will certainly produce some guilt, let me tell you. But is a preacher saying things like this the most effective way to encourage us to share with others what Christ has done in our lives? Probably not. So with all the baggage that surrounds the word evangelism, we need to find some way to rethink, to reimagine evangelism. And that is our goal over the next few weeks. Rethinking evangelism. Because what we know, what we have experienced in Christ is something worth talking about.
What Holds Us Back
But if we hope to do this, we have to start by addressing what holds us back. The things that keep us from talking about Christ, our faith, at all. But as we look at these fears, I want you to see the recurring theme that can dispel the fears. The theme of relationship.
I think the first thing that holds us back is with fear. We are afraid to do it. We are afraid of what people might think of us. Will they think less of me? Or they might think I’m a weirdo. Let me just put your mind at ease on this one. You are a weirdo. We all are. But so is everyone else, even the people you are talking to. Everyone is quirky. Everyone has their stuff. And this might be a rational fear based on how we thought of evangelism before, but what if we redefined it in the context of relationship. What if we stopped thinking we had to go up to every stranger on the street and ask them “If you were to die tonight, and God were to say why should I let you into my heaven, what would you say?” Some of you may know that question from an old evangelism program a lot of churches used. But what if we reframed this to say focus on people you know. People you have a relationship with. Will they think you’re weird. Sure. But they already do anyway and they love you just the same.
Another fear we have is that we are afraid we will offend. Sure, if you go up to a complete stranger and start asking them questions like the one mentioned earlier, they might get offended. They will probably think, “Who are you? You don’t know me. You don’t even care enough about me to get to know me and you expect me to spill my spiritual guts out to you.” It can be offensive.
A few weeks ago, one of our Ashworth Road folks shared with me that in their job, they were waiting on a couple. The appointment took several minutes to complete. They had a nice conversation. About their kids. About life in general. And right as the couple was leaving, the man turned around and said, “Here, I’d like to give you this.” It was a gospel tract. The guy from Ashworth Road is a Christian and took it, but he shared with me how that offended him, as a Christian. They had all that time to talk. And instead of finding natural ways to bring Jesus into the conversation, or even taking the time to get to know him, and asking him he had a relationship with Christ, he shoves a piece of paper in his face and walks away.
But imagine how different that would have been had they developed a relationship. No offense. Sometimes we can offend. But if we are more concerned about the person than checking the “I shared Christ today” box on our christian card, maybe it wouldn’t be much of an issue at all.
Another fear we see is that we are afraid of not knowing the answers to their questions. Again, with people we know, we can use this great phrase, I don’t know. We don’t have to have all the answers. What we need to know is Jesus and what he has done for me.
We fear of being preachy. But doesn’t most of the world have this idea anyway. I still remember going to the Des Moines farmers market and seeing the guy on the box speaking at the top of his lungs. That’s preachy. People holding signs, shouting judgment and condemnation thinking that is going to motivate anyone to Christ. But what better way to help others get past their preachy images than someone “preaching” a message of grace to them. A message of hope, and healing and restoration.
And we think what if I do it wrong. Do I one get one shot? In a book called Slow Evangelism, author Michael Frost writes, “Part of the problem with evangelism is many Christians feel they need to get the whole gospel out in one conversation. The reason for this is many Christians are only ever in a position to “evangelize” strangers, because all their friends are Christians . . . Evangelizing friends and neighbors, gradually, relationally, over an extended time, means that the breadth and beauty of the gospel can be expressed slowly without the urgency of the one-off pitch.”
What a difference a relationship can make.
Paul in Romans 10:9-15 highlights for us something very important when we think about evangelism. There is a progression in how this should work. It begins by understanding the goal. We aren’t looking to get people to heaven. We aren’t looking to proselytize them into our organization. The goal is Jesus. So that those who do not yet know him, can hear about who he is, and see what he’s done in your life, see what he means to you.
And when you look at the progression Paul lays out, it goes like this: The end result is a relationship with Jesus, Calling on his name. But before that happens they must believe in him.
And the way they come to belief if by hearing about him. And they only way they can hear is if someone tells them. And someone tells them once they have been sent.
Sometimes, however, we put an assumption right here. We think “Whew, I’m off the hook.” Being sent is something we do for missionaries. And since I an NOT an missionary, Paul isn’t to talking to me. Well, not so fast. Paul’s writing here isn’t a transcript from the first pastor’s conference in Jerusalem in the first century. It was a letter written to a church, a church just like Ashworth Road, made up of people, just like you and me. We have all been sent. Jesus command to go into the world applies not to a select few, not the professional ministers, it applies to all. We’ve been sent. You are sent. To your job. To your neighborhood. To your school. To your child’s sports team. The sending is not the issue.
The telling is. But not in the way we may have defined it before. A pre-packaged presentation. A memorized sales pitch. Instead, can we show the world what the death and resurrection of a first-century Jewish messiah has to do with twenty-first century people? The problem is not the message. It may be in how we are trying communicating it.
The message of Jesus, born of a virgin, in very humble conditions, growing up, working as a carpenter, ministering to others, healing the sick, forgiving sin, touching people physically, caring for them, offering his life for the world, and rising from the dead…that’s a compelling message. That is a message of good news to everyone. It is an unending feast to fill the heart and souls of an always hungry never satisfied world. But far too often, we don’t envision it that way.
Too often, though, we see salvation as the opposite of what it actually is. We see it as bondage when it is freedom. We see it as sin management instead of grace and mercy. We see it as keeping us from living when it is instead life giving. And because we have a distorted view of the gospel, we don’t believe it is worth sharing.
So we create systems and methods, programs of “Evangelism”, instead of just sharing what it really is. Why do I think we view the message of Jesus this way? Because of our reluctance to share it. We are not a culture that is reluctant to share anything. We share restaurants reviews with friends. When we eat someone good, we tell our friends. When we go somewhere with good service, we tell people. We blog about it. We write a review on yelp or trip advisor. I know I have. I’ve posted seven reviews on Yelp. Want to know my thoughts on some restaurants around town? Head over to Yelp. You will find them there.
This message is convicting to me, so please don’t think I am preaching only to you. I am so ready to post a review about a place I’ve eaten. But I am reluctant to share how Jesus has changed my life. I wonder, do I really believe it is as good as I tell you it is every week. I think so. Then why do I struggle to share it? Our message is compelling. Life-changing even. We might need to rethink our views of evangelism to find better, more relational ways to tell it.
The Pendulum Has Swung Too Far
I don’t think I have answered every question you may have about evangelism. In fact, I may not have even given you enough to say we have redefined it. And that’s ok. We are going to rest here for a few weeks and build on this idea each week. Today, I want you to know that we may not have always been doing evangelism the most effective way. But as I heard a pastor say this week, the right response to the wrong way in not to say nothing but to do it the right way.
But I think the pendulum has swung too far the other way in this. For years, it was all about evangelism programs, memorizing systems like the Bridge, or the Four Spiritual Laws. It was cold calling, showing up at people’s houses unannounced, all in an effort to say look at how many converts he have made.
But the pendulum began to swing. We realized that evangelism without love is wrong. We began to see that if we could show people love and care, that they might be more open and receptive to our message. So we turned our attention to social justice causes. We began to feed to poor. We began to care for the widow and the orphan. We went to the far reaches of the world to dig wells, and build latrines. And in our own neighborhoods, we began working with kids, and helping refugees with english, and helping with job skills and job placement.
What happened somewhere along the way, is we dropped the message all together. We started doing good things, but we stopped telling people why we were doing it. What motivated us to love.
There is a quote that is often used. In fact, I think I have even used it before. Preachers love quotes like this in sermons. You might have heard, Augustine said, “Preach the gospel at all times. And when necessary, use words.” There are a couple of things wrong with this statement. First, Augustine never said it. None of his disciples, early or later biographers have these words coming from his mouth. The closest thing we find that he said was , “No brother should preach contrary to the form and regulations of the holy Church nor unless he has been permitted by his minister … All the Friars … should preach by their deeds.” Essentially what he was saying was make sure your deeds match you words.
Today, social justice is the in thing. Sharing Christ, not os much. Andy Crouch in his book Playing God says this, “These days I do not often meet Christians so passionate about evangelism that they question the need for doing justice. I am much more likely to meet Christians so passionate about justice that they question the need for evangelism. . . . In short, working for justice is cool. Proclaiming the gospel is not.” But we cannot miss this point, we cannot tell others the gospel without words. That is what Paul is reminding us today.
Yes, I want us to be involved in as many social justice causes as we can be. We need to care for others. But what have we done for them if all we have done is given them food to eat without telling them about the Jesus, bread of life? What have we done if we have helped provide them clean drinking water but have not shared with them the living water of Jesus?
I want us to redefine evangelism. I want us to bring the pendulum back from either extreme and realize we can do both. We can care for others AND also tell them the good news of Jesus.
And ultimately I want us to recognize that evangelism is not something we are called to do, but something we are called to be. Telling and doing together to show the world the why the gospel, the story of Jesus, is just so good. To move beyond fear to relationships where there can be a natural sharing of something worth talking about.
So this week, would you begin to pray? I’m not asking you to write down names of people you need to talk to this week about Jesus. I am simply asking, would you talk to God about telling? Would you share with him your fears? Would you share with him what is holding you back?
And then, would you begin to pray for opportunities, God-moments, so that you can naturally share with others the story of Jesus, his love for the world, and just how much he means to you?
Let’s redefine evangelism and what the life transforming power of God do amazing things.