By Brett McCracken
These days, the word “evangelical” is more likely to bring to mind images of political rallies and music festivals than it does images of preaching the gospel and evangelizing the lost.
A recent LifeWay Research study found that while 80 percent of churchgoers believe they have a personal responsibility to share their faith, 61 percent of them had not told another person about how to become a Christian in the previous six months. What gives? How did evangelicalism lose its heart for spreading, sharing and proclaiming the very thing which gave it its name: euangelion, the “good news”?
A few things have contributed to evangelism’s falling on hard times. For the last century in the West, modernism, secularism, pluralism and postmodernism have all eroded the confidence of evangelicals and led to the privatizing of faith, says Freddy Cardoza, chair of the department of Christian Education at Biola’s Talbot School of Theology.
Additionally, society’s relativistic elevating of personal experience and rejection of exclusivity have put Christians in the position of being scorned and berated for publicly sharing their faith, he said.
But there are also internal factors at play, said Cardoza.
“Some formerly staunch evangelical groups have changed theological course, moving away from the orthodox understanding of Jesus and his gospel,” thus compromising the effectiveness of their witness and call to evangelize.
Many evangelicals have also been prone to complicate or erroneously expand their understanding of the church’s mission — playing down proclamation of the gospel in favor of church programs, social justice causes and other endeavors.
This is what Biola alumnus Michael Horton (’87) refers to as “mission creep” in his recent book, The Gospel Commission: Recovering God’s Strategy for Making Disciples. Horton argues that the church’s mission should be grounded in God’s mission, which is “an urgent imperative to proclaim the gospel to everyone, to make disciples of all nations.”
Horton’s book calls evangelicals to return to the mandate of the Great Commission, recognizing that Christianity is nothing without an evangelistic impulse.
“There is not something called Christianity and then missionaries who spread it,” he writes. “Christianity in its very essence is a mission to the world. If it is not reaching, teaching, baptizing, and multiplying disciples, it is not Christianity.”
But amidst all the external pressures, internal “drift” and everyday jitters about proselytizing, how can the modern evangelical church recover a passion for evangelism?
Evangelism is a Sacrament, Not a Craft
One of the things that inhibits Christians from participating in evangelism is fear. Fear of ruining a friendship; fear of saying the wrong thing; fear of being outed as a Bible-thumping Jesus Freak. But evangelism isn’t something that succeeds or fails because of our skill level. Evangelism is God’s work, and it will go on with or without us. If we avoid it, it’s not God’s loss. It’s ours.
This is one of the arguments of The Sacrament of Evangelism, a new book co-authored by Stan Guthrie and Jerry Root (M.Div. ’78), associate director of the Billy Graham Institute for Strategic Evangelism at Wheaton College and a visiting professor at Biola. In the book, Root and Guthrie argue that the sacrament of evangelism “is not about getting a few more notches in our outreach belts, about follow- ing a formula. It’s about working with Him, worshiping Him, and knowing Him as we participate with Him in bringing lost, sinful, and hurting people to Himself.”
God and his purposes are too big to be thwarted by our inactivity, they note. “He can use anyone and He certainly doesn’t need us. But we will miss out on the wonder of participating with Him in His workplace.”
Fretting about our insufficiencies as evangelists and stressing about the baggage we carry as imperfect Christians shouldn’t keep us from evangelism, argues former Wheaton College president Duane Litfin in his newbook Word vs. Deed.
“It is the height of human presumption to conclude that the power of the gospel lies somehow in us, so much so that if we fail, the gospel itself is disabled and rendered impotent,” notes Litfin. “The sobering and liberating truth is that even at our best the gospel is powerful in spite of us, not because of us. Thanks be to God.”
The Great Commission and Great Commandment are Both Essential
Where should Christians focus their energies? On evangelism (word) or acts of service and compassion (deed)? This kind of either-or thinking — pitting the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) to make disciples against the Great Commandment (Matt. 22: 35-40) to love — has unfortunately created a false dichotomy within the church, going back nearly a century when “fundamentalist” and “mainline” Protestants diverged in their emphases, with the former focusing on the “soul” gospel and the latter on the “social.”
In recent years, some Christians and churches have become focused on “living out” the gospel through acts of charity and kindness, notes author/apologist and Biola parent Lee Strobel, “which is fine and good — but sometimes they neglect the need to actually communicate what the gospel is about.”
Strobel, whose Becoming a Contagious Christian evangelism course has trained more than 1 million Christians on how to naturally and effectively talk with others about Jesus, describes one church that shifted its focus from evangelism to service in their city:
“They did a lot of great things for the community,” he says, “but they didn’t baptize one new convert in four years! If we’re merely nice folks who do good deeds for others, then we’re nothing more than the Kiwanis Club. ... Yes, we need to be the gospel, but we’ve also got to say it — with clarity, conciseness and compassion.”
In the mission of God’s people, then, both words and deeds are necessary. The Great Commission and Great Commandment are distinct, but should not be separated.
“Christians are responsible to both,” writes Horton. “If we confuse these mandates, then the Great Commission becomes the Great Society: another try at ‘Christendom.’”
The Gospel Must be Proclaimed
A pithy quote often heard in the “word vs. deed” debates is attributed to (but likely never stated by) St. Francis: “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” But can the gospel be preached in any other way but with words?
“Neither Jesus nor any of his disciples ever ‘preached the gospel’ by their actions, nor could they,” writes Litfin in Word vs. Deed. “There is both a carelessness of thought and sloppiness of language inherent in the claim that we can preach the gospel without words.”
Horton agrees, noting that Christ commanded the proclamation of the gospel.
“To be sure, our hypocrisy repels and our love attracts, but the Spirit’s work is inseparable from the word — specifically, the word of the gospel concerning Christ. This is why the central mandate of the Great Commission is to ‘proclaim the gospel to the whole creation’ (Mark 16:15). ‘So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ’ (Rom. 10:17). Faith is expressed through our love and good works, but it does not come from them.”
Emphasis on the gospel preached can also be found in the writings of Paul, who explicitly equates the gospel with the “word of truth” (Eph. 1:13), indicating the important link between the gospel and “words,” says Cardoza.
“In 1 Corinthians 15:1–4 Paul takes two opportunities to mention the fact that the gospel was a series of truths that he had ‘preached’ to the people, followed by the propositional elements of the Good News,” he adds. “As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 1, he was sent to ‘preach the gospel’ even though ‘the message of the cross is foolishness to those are perishing’ (vv. 17–18). That same gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.”
Six Ways to Get the Conversation Started
It’s one thing to recognize that, as Christians, evangelism is an essential mandate, that preaching the gospel is something we should do. It’s another thing to do it. For many Christians, evangelism remains a scary, daunting thing. But it doesn’t have to be. The following are some simple ways that everyday Christians can get in the evangelism game:
1. Pray. This is where one should begin. Start by praying for the unsaved people in your own sphere of relationships: your friends, family, coworkers. Pray for their salvation, for the Holy Spirit to work on their hearts. Pray for the opportunity to start an evangelistic conversation, and that God would enable you to speak his word “with great boldness” (Acts 4:29).
“When we pray for the courage to initiate spiritual conversations, for opportunities and receptivity for spiritual discussions, for the right words and attitude toward others — well, God seems to delight in answering!” says Strobel.
“As Mother Teresa said, ‘When I pray, coincidences happen. When I stop, they don’t.’ Personally, I want more ‘holy coincidences’ in my life and ministry!”
2. Get Outside the Bubble. For many Biolans who live, work and study within the evangelical “ bubble,” evangelism can be difficult simply because interactions with unbelievers are hard to come by.
That’s why it’s essential to make sure you’re involved in some way with peo ple outside the “bubble,” notes Mark Mittelberg, bestselling co-author of Becoming a Contagious Christian and former evangelism director at Willow Creek Community Church. For Christian college students, part-time work in a secular environment can offer solid opportunities for outreach, for example.
“If you live off campus, reach out to neighbors and invite them over for a barbecue or dessert. Simple actions like that can open great doors of conversation,” suggests Mittleberg, who has taught doctoral classes at Talbot as well as for Biola’s master’s program in Christian apologetics.
3. Connect Over Shared Longings. Sharing the gospel shouldn’t feel like communicating something alien, abstract and remote to one’s humanity. On the contrary, successful gospel conversations often start when we connect with someone on a human level and acknowledge our common existential longings.
In The Sacrament of Evangelism, Root and Guthrie suggest three “deep human cravings” — identified by English Christian writer Evelyn Underhill — that can be points of connection in gospel conversations. The first is “Pilgrim,” the deep feeling of home-sickness in our lives and realization that we are strangers in this world.
“The sacramental evangelist knows that these longings provide openings to people’s souls, that ultimately our hearts are restless without God,” note Root and Guthrie. “So there is no need to force the issue — God is already calling.”
The second shared human longing is “Lover,” stirred up by the heart’s disappointments in love and relationship wounds. “The sacramental evangelist knows that God draws people through this longing, because only He can satisfy it,” they write. Third is the “Ascetic/Saint” longing — the deep recognition of one’s own brokenness and desire to be mended. By tapping into these universal desires in our conversations and suggesting that the “longings” are really God wooing people to himself, Christians can plant seeds and perhaps soften hard hearts toward the reception of the gospel.
4. Ask Good Questions. There are many ways to begin a gospel conversation, and it doesn’t have to start with the questioning words, “If you died today ....” If we’re prayerful and alert to the promptings of the Spirit, it can be easy to segue from everyday conversations into spiritual territory, says Strobel.
“For instance, when you go back to your office or jobsite on Monday morning, it’s natural to ask a coworker, ‘What did you do over the weekend?’” he says. “After they talk about their weekend activities, it’s natural for them to reciprocate by asking, ‘What did you do?’ Then you could reply, ‘Well, I washed the car, watched the big game on TV, took my wife to dinner, saw that new action movie, and went to church, where I heard a fascinating message about God. Which one do you want to hear about?’ Even if they choose a topic other than church, you’ve planted a seed that you’re a Christian and this might open a future conversation.”
Questions that can lead to spiritual conversations don’t have to be rehearsed or “stock” questions. They should feel natural to you and natural to the conversation. If you’ve just seen a profound film with an unsaved friend, let that be a jumping off point for spiritual conversation. Movies, music, books, art and a whole host of other interests that Christians and non-Christians alike can enjoy together can be solid launching pads for deeper conversations.
5. Share Your Story. In terms of evangelism, one of the upsides of postmodernism is the elevation of story — and particularly one’s individual story — to near sacred status. Propositional truth claims may be suspect, but the power of one’s personal story of transformation is much harder to write off.
“Each of us has a story to tell about how Christ has changed our lives,” says Strobel. “Sometimes we think we have to be a former axe-murderer and have an incredibly dramatic conversion story, but the truth is that most people can relate better to the simple story of someone whose life has been impacted by Jesus.”
In The Sacrament of Evangelism, Root and Guthrie suggest that evangelistic Christians should become very familiar with their own stories, practicing them aloud to themselves at different lengths, with various points of emphasis, ready to share in whatever context, whenever the opportunity arises. But believers must also be good listeners, they point out, ready to empathize with the other person and allow them to be vulnerable and honest about what they’ve gone through.
6. Don’t Stress About It! Sometimes believers psych themselves out of evangelism, overthink it or become overwhelmed by the high stakes. As messengers of the gospel, it’s easy for Christians to put too much pressure on themselves regarding others’ salvation, notes Cardoza, who thinks it’s important to remember that “the fact is, and always will be, that salvation is of God, from first to last.” Evangelism is not about you. We must remember that our shortcomings are no match for God’s eagerness to work through us; we must not forget, as Root and Guthrie point out, that not only is the Creator of the universe “with us in our halting efforts to spread His good news, but He is also already with the other person whom we want to bless.”
When you practice the sacrament of evangelism, they say, “there is no need to press. God is present.” There is also no need to worry about not being qualified enough, as if only the Billy Grahams can be used by God for evangelism.“ So many Christians think they can’t share their faith because they’re not Lee Strobel, Greg Laurie or Craig Hazen,” said Mittelberg. “What they really need to be is themselves! God gave us each a unique personality and approach, and we need to discover what that is and how to express it with confidence.”