Does evangelism fit in your life like the sections in Time magazine? Time has a section for economics, for the world, for sports, for education, and for religion. Nothing actually ties or integrates these different sections with each other, except the cover and the staples.
A Christian’s life can be like that, consisting of different sections to put things into with little integration between the sections.
We often think about evangelism as a section of life that doesn’t fit in too well with other sections such as our education or job. Unless it fits into the religion pages of a Christian’s life, it’s not appropriate. Evangelism becomes something done at a particular time, but not at a time set aside for something else. We try to turn it on and off like a light bulb. Jesus says, “You are the light of the world,” and the answer we give is, “Yes, if and when I decide to be. I’ll be the salt of the earth every Friday because that’s InterVarsity day.” That is nonsense. Evangelism, if it’s to be Biblical, must be a lifestyle.
In 2 Corinthians 4-6, Paul defines evangelism. In short, evangelism is an honest, open statement of the truth that Jesus is Lord, given in the power of God, to please him, controlled by the love of Christ, to persuade people, through love, to be reconciled to God. The word evangelize means to proclaim the gospel, or to spread the good news.
What Evangelism Is Not
There are four things that evangelism is not. First of all, evangelism is not defined by positive response. The essence of our role in evangelism is not to make converts - that’s God’s work. Our job is to faithfully proclaim the message. God’s job is to do convicting and regeneration, to bring those spiritually dead into new life. Christians are to spread God’s commandment to repent, to warn of judgment, and to tell of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection (Acts 17:30-31).
When Paul preached in Athens he received many responses. Some mocked, saying, “This guy is crazy.” Others said, “Very interesting, we’ll hear you again sometime.” A third group joined themselves to Paul - they believed.
When evangelizing, we should expect different responses. It cannot be said that Paul was not evangelizing because some mocked him or because some didn’t believe. If people laugh at us and say, “You’re really weird,” we dare not say that we therefore haven’t been doing evangelism. It may be fair to ask whether our evangelism is biblical if we see no fruit. But evangelism is not defined in terms of converts.
Second, evangelism is not deceitful. Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 2:3, “Our appeal does not spring from error or uncleanness, nor is it made with guile.” And he also says, “We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning” (2 Corinthians 4:2).
I wonder how many Christians, myself included, are guilty of inviting non-Christian friends to a Christian meeting where the gospel is going to be preached, but conveniently forget to tell them that. Then once they’re there and a captive audience the gospel is dumped on them.
Are we guilty of tricking people by sponsoring a lecture and giving it such a vague name that nobody is ever going to figure out that it’s Christian until he has been sucked into it? Or do we approach people under some other pretense when our real intention is to confront them with a holy God who loves them? God doesn’t need these little tricks. He doesn’t need anyone to lure people and then grab them when they can’t get away. God works in people’s hearts. When we are honest, when we are open, God will draw people to Himself.
Third, evangelism is not distorted. We need to share the whole truth. Do we tamper with God’s Word to make it more attractive, more palatable, leaving out “little things” such as turning and forsaking sin, repentance? Individuals need to repent. We soft sell or perhaps don’t even mention that Jesus is Lord and that He demands to be followed as master, as Lord, as king. To tell people that becoming a Christian means all your troubles will evaporate is a lie. (If it is true, there weren’t any Christians in the New Testament.)
I heard of a girl who believed that in order to present a clear picture of being a Christian she had to live a perfect, sparkling life before her roommate. She did it. She never let her roommate know that she had any problems or was struggling with anything. Her roommate eventually became a Christian and two weeks later committed suicide. She couldn’t manage it. Her life still had problems which didn’t evaporate at conversion.
Fourth, evangelism is not optional. It is not for some spiritual elite. True, God has selected certain people in the church and given them gifts in evangelism. Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations...teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20). One of his commandments is to “Go and make disciples” and so that applies to all Christians. Failure to tell people is not just being lazy, it is being disobedient to Jesus’ clear command.
A look at Jesus’ life reveals that everything He did had something to do with pleasing God in evangelism. For Peter, Paul, and all the other disciples, evangelism was a way of life. It wasn’t something they did for a couple of hours some afternoon. Why is it not a way of life for us as it should be?
Let's consider four things a person needs to do in order to be useful to God in evangelism.
What it is About
First, the believer needs to learn to love God. Building a love relationship with God is similar to building a love relationship with anyone else. When introduced to a person, you get to know him or her by spending time talking and sharing. You find out his or her likes and dislikes. As love grows, it includes doing things for the other person to please that person.
This is also true with our relationship with God. After the introduction comes time to learn to love Him by spending time with Him, talking with Him, and letting Him talk with us. Prayer and Bible study accomplish this. As we discover how God loves us and what He wants from us and for us, the love relationship will grow deeper. Believers can show an appropriate love response by obeying his commandments - doing the things that please Him. Jesus says, “He who has my commands and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” (John 14:21).
Second, the believer needs to learn to love people. Some people are less lovable than others. How do we learn to love the ugly people we work with, the unlikable people, people who are annoying or take our time? We need to realize their condition, their need. They are hopelessly lost, spiritually dead, separated from the source of life. “How shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:14, 17). Another Scripture teaches, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12).
We are given no assurance to believe that a person who dies without hearing of Christ has any hope of salvation. That’s a hard thought, but God said to Ezekiel, “I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; give them warning from me. (If) you give him no warning, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; (but) his blood I will require at your hand” (Ezekiel 3:17-18). We speak to those who are perishing. As Christians get hold of this fact, it will help us understand what it means to love other people.
We also need to be where people are. Christians easily disengage themselves from much of non-Christian society. We dig our foxholes of fellowship so deep that we become like soldiers who have lost contact with the enemy. People have needs to be listened to, to be spoken to. Beneath the veneer of party, self-confidence, brains, kindness, happy-all-the-time, there’s a real person: morally confused, socially dependent, religiously ignorant, and spiritually dead. Someone who comes to him in openness, in love and in understanding is welcome.
Listen to people. When someone shares a problem, a glib “I’ll pray for you” won’t do. Dropping a little spiritual bombshell that hints of Christian commitment and hoping the person will think about it isn’t realistic. Ask that person, “How can I help you in this?” He or she needs prayer and we need to get involved in his or her life.
This is love. Love is not gooey sentiment; love is godly service. Jesus says, “As the Father sent me, so send I you.” Jesus left his home in heaven and came to rub shoulders with publicans and sinners like us. Christians too have been sent by Him, and we need to rub shoulders with people around us.
Third, the believer needs to get the message clear. It’s great to know God and be where the people are. But something else is needed to do evangelism - a message. What are we supposed to tell people anyway? If a Christian spends all his time knowing God, he may know God’s truth but miss the target when attempting to apply it. If a Christian spends all his time with people, he won’t have any truth to tell them. We need to know God and we need to know people - then we need to learn how to apply God’s truth to people’s lives.
A study of the sermons in Acts or of Jesus’ encounters with people reveals much. Diagram them and write down the facts they cover and the way Jesus and the apostles worked. These sermons explain truth about God’s character, how people willfully disobeyed God, and how the apostles or Jesus helped them see that. The facts about the person of Christ, his life, his death, his resurrection, need to be told. People must know that they need to respond to these facts by turning and forsaking their sin, and by placing confidence in the Lord.
As we grow in loving God, in loving people, and in knowing the message, there is one more thing. The Christian has to expect to be used by God in evangelism. Plan for evangelism to happen in your life.
How do you plan? Pray, and in your prayers ask God for opportunities. God will open doors and give you conversations.
Someone who gets engaged is excited about it, and eagerly tells others about the new commitment to the beloved one. No one suddenly says to himself, “I have decided that I am going to be excited about my fiancee.” But I’ve known people who have done that same thing in evangelism.
It may happen at a conference. A speaker challenges the group about evangelism and each enthusiastically says, “From now on, I’m going to be an excited evangelist. I’m going to go out and win the world!” It doesn’t last. It’s like the time when as a little kid you got a helium balloon. You brought it home and let it go. It floated up to the ceiling and stayed there for a couple of days. Then one day it was lying on the floor all wrinkled. That’s what happens to Christians who inflate themselves with evangelistic zeal. It doesn’t work long and soon all the zeal seeps out. Excitement grows as love for God and love for people grow.
It’s easier to have opportunities to evangelize when you’re visibly Christian. Little things count, like wearing a symbol or button, or placing a small New Testament on your desk in the dorm or at work. You might ask others to join you in a Bible study over your lunch break. Also, associating with other Christians and caring for their needs shows the love of believers for each other. Jesus says, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another” (John 13:35). Something draws people to Jesus Christ when they see His heavenly love between Christians.
Opportunities will appear if you're ready for them. For instance, when my roommate went to interview for a job at a food store he mentioned to the interviewer that he was a Christian. The interviewer then told others who worked there. The door was opened for him even before he began the job.
With a little thought and prayer, witnessing situations can be created. In a conversation ask questions like, “What are your goals in life?” instead of just “What’s your major?” There are many questions which can lead to a discussion of spiritual things. It might be helpful to share different things from your own life which can include your faith in Jesus Christ. In class Monday you might say to someone, “Last Friday I had an interesting experience; I was at the InterVarsity Grad meeting.” And that might get a discussion going. If people know you are a Christian, they’ll be watching you, and opportunities will open.
Sometimes Christians think they can witness without saying anything. On a summer job, I decided to witness silently. While the other guys were telling dirty jokes during lunch hour I went off and read my Bible. As a consequence, I never had one significant conversation with anyone. I never let the other guys know why it was that I acted differently.
At times Christians must be silent verbally, but in order for witness to be effective, people must know that we are Christians. Otherwise, a Christian might live this great, good life and no one would know why.
I have a friend who is not a Christian but his wife is. She can’t say too much to him because he gets angry, but he knows that she is a Christian. And so by her life she can be visible. Though silent verbally, her life speaks loudly.
On the first day of my freshman year at the university, as I was unpacking my books a great opportunity appeared. I laid my Bible down on my desk. My new roommate saw it and said, “Oh no! You’re not some kind of a _______ Christian, are you?” I wasn’t sure how to answer because of the strong words he used. But just because I took my Bible out and laid it there I was visible. And because he knew that I was a Christian he was able to watch me.
Amazingly, he talked to many of the 200 guys in my dorm about me. Guys I had never met before would stop me and say, “Hey, I hear you’re some kind of religious person. Tell me about it.” My non-Christian roommate opened many doors for me just because of that Bible I unpacked.
Eloquence should not be a concern. Einstein once remarked that if you’re out to describe the truth, you should leave the eloquence to the tailor. Very often a shy person, an uneducated person or someone who just doesn’t know how to say things with the right grammar or syntax can be very convincing because he or she speaks from the heart. Even though it’s not told gracefully, he or she speaks with such naturalness that everyone knows it’s the truth.
This is not a simple method to make evangelism become a way of life because there isn’t one. For evangelism to become a way of life, a Christian needs to grow. Healthy evangelism comes out of healthy relationships with God and with people. We are Christians today because the church of the first century was obedient to the Holy Spirit’s prompting and went into the world, making disciples of the nations. It’s over nineteen hundred years ago that Jesus gave the Great Commission. The task He set before us is not yet completed. Will evangelism be just a moment for you? Or a lifestyle?
Terrell Smith is an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship staff member in Wisconsin.