I have had the privilege of teaching evangelism for many years. The topic is complex for at least four reasons. First, it is central in the biblical narrative. Second, it is fed by two thousand years of Church history and tradition. Third, there are a variety of ways the good news in Christ can be made known (personal evangelism, proclamation evangelism, mass communication, etc). And fourth, every encounter where the gospel is presented is unique. Nevertheless, there are at least four basic elements that are as structurally necessary to the evangelistic enterprise of the Church as a foundation is to a house, or roots are to trees, or pylons are to a bridge.
1. Evangelism is a necessary feature in personal spiritual growth.
It could be said that nobody reaches spiritual maturity if sharing the good news is not part of his or her character. One may be wise, one may be a brilliant biblical exegete, one may be a leader in prayer and worship, but one is still underdeveloped spiritually if telling lost people about Jesus is not part of the individual’s life.
Luke’s Gospel contains the account of Jesus coming to the country of the Gerasenes (Luke 8:26-39) where he meets a demon-possessed man who is living like a madman among the tombs. Jesus speaks a word and immediately the man is delivered. The restored man wants desperately to follow Jesus. However, instead of inviting the man to join him in his travels, Jesus says, “Return to your house and describe what great things God has done for you” (v. 39). Jesus’ follow-up method was to encourage this healed man to start sharing his new-found faith with others. It appears that Jesus believed evangelism is vital if a person is to grow in their faith.
Similarly, Paul also argues that telling others about Christ Jesus is necessary for spiritual development. In a letter to his friend Philemon Paul writes, “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you may have a full understanding of every good thing you have in Christ” (Philemon 6). According to Paul, the person who puts his or her trust in the Lord and then begins to share Jesus with others will grow. Such advice is still true today; anyone who tells another person about Jesus will be asked many questions by seekers. As the evangelist studies and searches for answers, his or her faith will certainly grow. The questions that other people ask can lead to growth in our own faith.
Furthermore, people will scrutinize the life of the evangelist. Have you ever had a perfectly pure motive for anything you have ever done? My guess is that nobody has had a perfectly pure motive; indeed, if we wait until our motives are pure, nobody will ever do anything which is kingdom worthy. Our best efforts are like Andrew’s five loaves and two fish for the feeding of the five thousand (John 6:8-10). Andrew’s efforts appeared miniscule in light of the large nature of the task at hand. And though the need was great, God took Andrew’s feeble offering and did something great with it. So too, our efforts may seem very small in light of the work that needs to be done; however, God will use us—flaws and all—to do his work. Indeed, in the very act of sharing the gospel with others we will learn about our own failures and deficiencies, as well as those of the Church throughout history. People will scrutinize our lives whenever we share the gospel, but in the midst of criticism we can grow. We can correct our failures, confess our sins and thereby adore the gospel with authenticity. Such growth often eludes those who neglect to share the gospel with others. Every student of evangelism can benefit by remembering these things.
2. Evangelism is sacramental.
Throughout Church history there have been some who believed that the sacraments are those practices of the Church in which it is believed God exhibits his presence in a unique way and thereby ministers grace to the participants. In light of this, evangelism can also be viewed as a sacrament. We do not take Jesus to anyone; he is already there. We go to make known what he is already doing in a person’s life. Evangelism is participating with Jesus in a work he is already doing, much as we find the disciples doing in John 4. After Jesus ministers to the woman at the well, she returns to her village to tell others about what she has experienced. As people stream out of the village to meet Jesus, he says to his disciples, “Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields, that they are white unto harvest…in this case the saying is true, ‘One sows, and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored and you have entered into their labor” (vv. 35-38).
If Christ is already present and at work in the life of those we seek to lead to faith, then it is necessary for the evangelist to discover what God is already doing. God woos others to himself in a variety of ways. Ask questions and prayerfully listen to the answers seeking to discern how God is wooing uniquely in each person’s life. Begin with basic questions. What is the person’s name? Where is the person from? Perhaps ask about a shared experience (Jesus asked the woman at the well for water). Listen; let the answers given provide the direction for asking deeper questions. Often enough, an individual will take you to the very places where God has been speaking into his or her life. The felt needs of individuals are places where the gospel naturally attaches itself to a person’s life. God made that person; he made him or her with needs. Work confidently with the elements God has built in to the person as you prepare to make the gospel explicit.
3. Evangelism is strategic.
God sent his son into our world that he might reconcile us to himself through Christ. John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The incarnation was strategic; God invaded our world. So too, we must be strategic about entering into the world around us to cultivate relationships with others. One well known preacher used to say, “God told us to be fishers of men, not keepers of the aquarium.” Another person put it this way:“If God made us to be salt in the world, then we must get out of the salt shaker and into the world.” Just as God is already present in the lives of the lost and we go to make his word explicit to them, God is at work in us as well.
Part of God’s strategy in determining where we should work in the world relates to the passions he has placed in us. All are called to evangelize and make disciples; however, the venue for this work is unique for each believer. How has God made you? What are your unique passions, gifts and aptitudes? Go do those things in the world, and as you do, notice the people who are in the same environment. This is the specific and strategic world he has called you to. Let God love those in your world to himself. Jesus came in the days of the historic Incarnation. Before he ascended into heaven, he said he would send the Holy Spirit to guide us. There is a new kind of Incarnation in our world; it is the incarnation of the Holy Spirit in the Church, the body of Christ. He is seeking to win others to himself and he is doing it strategically right where you live. All of us are strategically placed for kingdom purposes.
4. Evangelism is full of significance.
Few activities connect us more with a sense of significance and purpose than evangelism. We will only do two things that will last forever: have children and lead others to Christ. Paul proclaimed in Philippians 1:22, “If I am to live on in the flesh this will mean fruitful labor for me.” In essence he was praying, “God give me fruit or take me home to heaven.” Breath in one’s lungs should be seen as a synonym for fruitful labor; it is a sign that God has purposes for your life. Commitment to evangelism brings a sense of eternal significance and purpose to a person’s life.
Dawson Trotman once observed that a person is physiologically mature when he or she can reproduce biologically and that a person is spiritually mature when he or she can reproduce spiritually. Evangelism is evidence of spiritual maturity. Furthermore, it is sacramental, strategic and full of significance. Whatever heartaches might be in store, there is real joy in participating in Christ’s evangelistic ministry to the world.