We’ve heard and read it a thousand times ‒ Jesus’ final words while He was still on Earth:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:18-20)
If, like me, you’ve grown up in church and been around the things of God all your life, the word evangelism may not have a wholly positive connotation: You may associate it with awkwardness and failing PA systems; you may associate it with attempts to tell your school friends about Jesus, that seemed to fail; you may associate it with feelings of guilt and inadequacy or you may have even had a church leader pull you up in front of an “open air” meeting to tell your story without giving you time to prepare.
This negative ‒ and false ‒ impression of what constitutes evangelism is sadly commonplace and even includes some Christian leaders today encouraging their people not to evangelize at all!
Surely, this is not what Jesus was commanding before He ascended to the Father?
Redeeming the Word “Evangelism”
There’s almost always a semantic confusion lurking somewhere within our impassioned theological debates. What even is evangelism? Can’t we just do “relational evangelism” gently with people in our everyday worlds? Doesn’t sharing Jesus with my neighbor over the fence count? Isn’t there a difference between the office of Evangelist and all of our evangelistic efforts, anyway?
The answer to all of these questions is, of course, “Yes!” But I would hope that all sensible, wise, Spirit-filled, Bible-literate believers, let alone leaders, would be keen to re-examine Jesus words concerning evangelism rather than dismissing it as a wholly negative or powerless reality. We renege on our basic Christian callings as disciples when we relegate evangelism to the doldrums of seeker-sensitive “Church.”
Evangelism is not negotiable; God means our witness to be at the spearhead of all Christian ministry. That’s right, all Christian ministry and arguably all Christian living, regardless of whether or not you would call yourself an Evangelist. If we’re not witnessing to the miracle of knowing Him, what are we doing?
Why the Awkward?
It’s the awkwardness and embarrassment that I alluded to above that drives this false notion of evangelism, rooted in unbelief.
Growing up in the seaside town in the South of England where I’m from, I have vivid weekend memories of being in town and being aware, every Saturday, of a small gathering of men from an exclusive Brethren chapel. Three or four or maybe five of them huddled together outside Woolworths clutching their closed Bibles and, at a level of audibility that was barely above a whisper, they proceeded, every single week, to “share” the Good News of Jesus.
This was awkward. Why? Not just because no one could physically hear them but because there was no demonstration of supernatural power.
I also recently recall seeing two guys from a Bible College in Edinburgh, where I now live, “witnessing” on one of the busiest streets in the UK. Standing aloft on a plastic stool and with angry facial expressions, this time literally shouting at the top of their voices with flailing arms and legs and probably dribble, and nothing by way of personal testimony, they proceeded to “share” the Good News of Jesus.
This was awkward. Why? Not just because no one liked them, not just because they weren’t communicating the love/whole counsel of God, but because there was no demonstration of supernatural power.
Both in South West England in the 1980s and on Edinburgh’s Princes Street just last year, was anyone encountering the living Christ … really?
I’m not sure what kind of church you lead ‒ or indeed if you lead any church at all ‒ but I think we all read the same Bibles.
When I read the book of Acts, I experience something that I can only describe as a holy jealousy. I am jealous for the pneumatic explosion of Word and Spirit and mission ‒ the full authority of Jesus that He commanded above in Matthew 28, outworked through humble, broken, obedient followers of the Way.
Towns were turned upside down, the Apostles were imprisoned and flogged or chased away, persecution broke out like a virus and yet supernatural power was manifest.
I believe the disparities between the pages of Acts and the scenes I describe above are for at least three reasons:
- The Apostles were themselves cut to the heart. As witnesses of Jesus, and of His ways (Matthew 28:20[a]), the men who’d walked with Him possessed an urgency in witness that flowed from the mercy they’d received. Romans 12:1 ‒ “in view of God’s mercy … offer your bodies as a living sacrifice.” When we share our own grace-doused stories of mercy upon mercy ‒ of our own personal sanity, salvation and rescue in Christ ‒ we’re more inclined towards boldness from rooftops, not furtive whispers in huddles. This doesn’t mean that all of us stand on houses and shout, but it does mean that wherever we are, and whenever, we witness to the Jesus who is The Author of our own lives and identity as sons, and who could appear as Thief at any moment.
- Their Evangelism was rooted in lifestyles of fasting and prayer. I made this point recently and was accused of being judgmental. Of course, it’s not for me to point a finger (but perhaps at myself) and unanimously judge on the temperature of people’s lifestyles of faith, but I think I can ask the question generally of the Church by saying, do we really take Jesus seriously when He commends a fasted lifestyle of prayer and intercession? I for one know that I struggle to pursue this lifestyle with faith, but I’m not pretending that I seek or love Him wholeheartedly as I really would like. When we witness and participate in evangelism without getting serious about our personal lives behind the scenes, you and I forfeit the very Power that breaks out (2 Samuel 5:20) in moments of faith when we advance and engage in evangelism. Jesus descended into the valley only when He’d climbed the mountain; radical valley-activity required radical mountain-dwelling.
- The Apostles feared God more than man. It’s not true to say that there was no anxiety or nerves in the book of Acts but it is true to say that the fear of the Holy Ghost (the beginning of wisdom ‒ Proverbs 9:10) was greater. We are not compelled to proclaim Christ from anxious, selfish motivations (as Jehovah’s Witnesses do) but from the bold urgency of a “rich man’s longing” (see Luke 16:19-31) for people to know and be transformed by the love of God. This only really catalyzes into fruit-bearing when we fear God above man.
So, may this blog be a challenge and, perhaps, provocation to the deeper things in God. Let’s not give up on evangelism as some kind of outdated construct of man, but let’s fall to our knees ‒ our weak, trembling knees ‒ and plead with the Father so that our, “… message and … preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.” (1 Corinthians 2:4).
Awkwardness in evangelism, and indeed no evangelism at all, is because we desperately need to re-examine how we do life as followers of Yeshua.