In conversations between Christians and non-Christians alike, “evangelism” can be a bit of a buzzword.
For some, it is a call to action—to fulfill the Great Commission to “go and make disciples among all nations…” (Matt. 28:19-20). Evangelism is an integral and crucial component to God’s plan to redeem creation and reconcile humanity into relationship with him (what we call in missiology the missio dei or “mission of God”).
But for many, the word evangelism conjures other, more distasteful images. Some think of charlatans shaking people down for money. Others think of hell, fire, and brimstone preachers that showed up at church for a revival service. Still others associate evangelism with getting everyone to behave a certain way or winning an argument to rationally prove the existence of God. Some people have abandoned the term altogether.
In other words, there’s a lot of confusion about this call to tell people about Jesus and what it exactly entails.
I wanted to offer up five ways we often get evangelism wrong (either in our assumptions about it or in how we actually do it). I also wanted to include five ways I believe we can right our perspective on this misunderstood, yet crucially important, practice.
1. Apologetics Evangelism
Apologetics has its place in Christian history and in the church, but it isn’t evangelism. Since the Enlightenment, our forms of apologetics often include scientific arguments for the existence of God, the astronomical probability of Jesus fulfilling all of the First Testament prophecies, and more. Don’t get me wrong, these are important things we should discuss. But in an increasingly post-modern culture that values experiential transformation over rational argumentation, these arguments usually make for a poor approach to evangelism.
What’s more apologetics evangelism is often done at a distance. It can be done with a fact sheet or a link to a blog or a recommendation for a book. Often apologetics evangelism even devolves into arguing with people one the internet…“to glory of God.”
The Solution: A Trustworthy Evangelism
In their book I Once Was Lost (IVP 2008), Don Everts and Doug Schaupp identify that the first step a person generally takes in their journey toward Jesus is learning to trust a Christian. This means that the first thing that you and I can do—the very frontlines of reaching people far from God—is being trustworthy Christians.
Trustworthy evangelism has a couple important characteristics. First, it requires a consistency of moral character. We need to possess a cohesive integrity of how we apply and live out our Christian morality. Second, it requires that we seek to understand before we seek to be understood. We need to develop a listening posture, willing to steward peoples’ experiences, opinions, pain, and struggles with dignity and respect. We need to learn to be a safe place for people to be honest about where they are at, without fear of reprisal. Third, it requires presence. Relationships are the sum of time plus attentiveness. That means if you desire to build a trusting relationship with someone you need to spend time with them, giving your undivided attention.
2. Legislative Evangelism
We live in a time where people will vehemently fight for their religious rights yet seldomly actually use them to share the gospel. Legislative evangelism seeks to codify a particular vision of Christian moral and ethical beliefs onto a society by leveraging the power of government. The underlying assumption is that if we outlaw this or enforce that, our nation will “turn back to God.”
But there is barely a shred of evidence from all of Church history that implies that legislative evangelism works, regardless of the system of government. You simply cannot legislate the transformation of the heart. Paul Hiebert once noted that while conversion necessarily includes changes of behavior and beliefs, when these are forced upon people, people retain their old belief systems and simply put a Christian veneer over them to make life easier. But in the long wrong, Hiebert says, such a situation results in a subversion to the gospel and a “syncretistic Christo-paganism” (Transforming Worldviews, 10-11).
The Solution: A Grassroots Evangelism
An evangelism that is focused on touching people’s lives with mercy, love, service, and understanding is more faithful to the missional heart of God than one that seeks to leverage earthly power to force people to conform to moral and ethical standards and calling it “holy.” We need a grassroots approach to evangelism—one that doesn’t depend on earthly powers but is dependent upon each of us doing our part as the priesthood of all believers. True transformation—whether individual or societal—happens through the slow, patient process of personal encounter.