Evangelism: sharing the faith, spreading the gospel. What does evangelism really mean?
I have a confession: I am quite possibly the world’s most timid evangelist. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking, Maybe I'll get to share the gospel today! I know a few people like that—which is great—but that’s just not me. Not even a little.
When I really sit down and think about my hesitancy, though, I realize I'm being silly. Why should I be afraid to tell someone about the gospel? This is the “good news”—the greatest news anyone could ever hear, actually! Why wouldn’t I want to share all that I believe is offered—forgiveness, a relationship with God, eternal life—through Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection from the grave? After all, as a Christian, I believe this is of “first importance.”1
Some of my nervousness about sharing my faith comes from bad experiences I’ve had. I’ve tried telling non-Christian family members about Jesus. But rather than engage in the conversation, they simply nod and then ignore me. I’ve had people dismiss everything I say. I’ve been told that if I don’t lead at least five people to Christ every year, I'm not doing my duty as a Christian. I've even tested out the idea that we can share the gospel just by the way we live our lives—to no avail. In the end, I had neighbors who thought I was really nice, but they didn't learn about Jesus at all.
And yet, I don't use my timidity as an excuse for not sharing my faith. I can’t ignore that the Bible clearly says that we all are called to evangelize.2 In fact, I'm more confident than ever that I not only can but must share the good news with those around me.
So what’s changed? Why am I, a spectacular "failure" as an evangelist (to date, I don’t know if I’ve ever actually led a single person to Christ), not discouraged?
Because I finally learned what evangelism truly is—and the good news about its results.
Evangelism Is Aiming to Persuade
In recent years, it's grown increasingly common for corporations to retain what they call “brand evangelists”—men and women who passionately advocate for a certain product, service, or platform. Their goal is to persuade you that the thing they're passionate about is something you should be passionate about, too.
Really, Christians are not so different when it comes to talking about Jesus. It's no wonder Mack Stiles defines evangelism as “teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade.”3 With their words, Christians seek to convince nonbelievers of the truth of the gospel. They hope that through this process, friends and family members will come to new life in Christ, discovering a renewed sense of joy and purpose.4
Evangelism Is Not a Sales Pitch
At the same time, evangelism is not a sales pitch—despite many Christians’ well-intentioned but misguided attempts to treat it as such. No Christian should present their faith as a guarantee of health, wealth, and great relationships. We are never to make shallow claims about the gospel.
If we think of evangelism as “nothing more than a sales job where the prospect is to be won over to sign on the dotted line by praying a prayer, followed by an assurance that he is the proud owner of salvation,” then we've missed the point.5 And although the promise of a better life sounds nice, it’s a promise we simply can’t keep.
When I came to faith, my life didn't get "better"—it got harder. Right away, I was thrown into a giant storm of family strife. I was forced to stand by my convictions and contend for a faith that, at the time, I barely understood.
That, friends, is not an easy life. But it is a far more common experience than many of us like to admit. When we are saved by Christ, we are saved into a life like his—one that, inevitably, will be marked by both blessings and hardships.
Christianity is not a free pass out of difficult times, and it is misleading and destructive to present it as such.
Evangelism Is Telling People the Truth
Though a bit cliché, it’s still true: what we win them with, we win them to. Thus, our aim in evangelism is not to entice others with tales of earthly delight or even with a trite promise of eternity in heaven. Our aim is to tell the truth.
And what is the truth we’re telling?
- People are estranged from God by sin.6
- Our sins demand judgment from a holy God.7
- There is no way for us to earn forgiveness through our own efforts.8
- God, in his mercy, sent his one and only son to live a perfect life on our behalf, to die in our place, and to rise again in victory over sin and death.9
- Jesus’ sacrifice offers us forgiveness for our sins and redeemed standing before God. After accepting this offer, we must turn away from (or repent of) our sins and pursue our relationship with God.10
- As Christians, we are no longer our own but Christ’s. More than that, we are being transformed to be like him.11
- Someday, Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead. On that day, all who believe in him will join God in the new creation—a creation forever free from sin, sadness, and death.12
You can see why Christians don’t win too many popularity contests, huh? But as Mark Dever writes:
When we tell the gospel to people, we need to do it with honesty. To hold back important and unpalatable parts of the truth is to begin to manipulate and to try to sell a false bill of goods to the person with whom we are sharing. So however we evangelize, we aren’t to hide problems, to ignore our own shortcomings, or to deny difficulties. And we are not to put forward only positives that we imagine our non-Christian friends presently value and present God as simply the means by which they can meet or achieve their own ends. We must be honest.13
Evangelism Is an Act of Love
Maybe you’re familiar with a video that’s been floating around for a couple of years now.14 In it, Penn Jillette, a committed atheist, shares how a man came up to him after one of his shows and shared the gospel with him. While Jillette was not convinced, he was touched.
While he could have ridiculed the man, Jillette instead saw in this exchange an act of love—and even offered a stern rebuke to Christians who don’t evangelize: “How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?” he asked.
This is an important reminder for us: evangelism is an act of love. In fact, as J. I. Packer wrote, “evangelism is the enterprise of love.”15
We tell people about Jesus because we want them to know him. We tell people how their relationship with God can be restored because we want it to be restored. We warn people about wrath, judgment, and hell because we don't want anyone to experience those things.
And hopefully, we do it clearly, helpfully, truthfully, and kindly—not with condescension, arrogance, or cruelty, but with love.
Evangelism Is Not to Be Feared
Some time ago, my wife and I were watching a documentary that featured some pretty unusual ideas about evangelism. A so-called evangelist was interviewed and boldly proclaimed that she could get anyone to come to Christ. Her attitude was smug and self-serving—unfortunately she seemed far more concerned about getting notches in her evangelism belt than with properly proclaiming the gospel.
I have to fight various wrong mind-sets like this nearly every time I say anything about Jesus to anyone. I worry. What if I do it wrong? What if people don’t respond? What if, what if, what if?
But here’s the truth. The what-ifs don’t matter.
- We don’t need to fear men.16
- We don’t need to be concerned about what to say because the Holy Spirit will guide us and prompt us with what we ought to say when we ought to say it.17
- We don’t need to get caught up in results. We are responsible for sowing the “seed” of the gospel, not making it grow.18
- We shouldn’t be surprised when things get difficult. Jesus has promised that these times will come and we will be rewarded as we persevere through trial.19
When we understand this—when we realize that the results don’t depend on us and we don’t need to worry about messing it up—evangelism suddenly gets a whole lot less scary.