Jesus seemed to think that evangelism was an important part of being a disciple. He told Simon and Andrew that to follow him would mean fishing for people. He told those of his friends who stuck with him in Jerusalem that when he sent the Holy Spirit they would end up being his witnesses. According to Matthew, his parting words make it clear that to be a disciple is to make other disciples. It all seems pretty straightforward. If we call ourselves Christians we are meant to evangelise.
The same is true if we call ourselves Baptists. The official basis of our union only has three principles, one of those is that every disciple is to bear personal witness to the good news and take part in the evangelisation of the world.
So, how’s that going?
Ah, thought as much, sorry to hear that.
More and more of us seem to have a problem with evangelism. On the one hand we know we are supposed to, but quite frankly much of the evangelism we have seen puts us off. “If that’s what evangelism looks like I wouldn’t do it to my worst enemies.” Evangelism can so easily become intrusive, arrogant, pushy, manipulative, forced, artificial, dishonest - anything but good news. However, it doesn’t have to be that way.
If you are not a fan of some of the evangelism that you’ve seen, here’s some good news - not the good news, but some good news about the good news.
· You don’t have to stand on street corners shouting at people.
· You don’t have to pretend that you want people to be your friends, just so you can evangelise them.
· You don’t have to devise a cunning strategy to get your friends to come to church even though you are pretty sure they don’t want to.
· You don’t have to invite them to hear some minor celebrity who’s pretending to talk about being a celebrity when really that’s just an excuse to preach the gospel.
· You don’t have to wear a wrist band and explain what the heart, the X, the cross and the question mark stand for, or be able to draw The Bridge to Life, or memorise The Four Spiritual Laws, or any other formula for that matter.
Those things aren’t what evangelism is. They are just some of the ways that people have gone about evangelism.
OK, then, so what is evangelism?
To put it simply, evangelism is the communication of the gospel. It’s all about helping people to find out about and understand the good news of Jesus in the hope that they too will want to follow him. Evangelism is goodnewsing, getting on with life in such a way that people have a chance to discover Jesus for themselves.
If I’m right, and this is what evangelism is, another bit of good news is that it’s best not to limit evangelism to verbal proclamation.
We can communicate the good news as individuals or as churches by the way we are, and the stuff we do as well as the things we say. Being, doing and speaking are all important modes of evangelism. When we are the kind of church that is welcoming, friendly, outward-looking, generous and forgiving, we communicate the good news by embodying it. When we work to shelter the homeless, feed the hungry and campaign for the oppressed, we communicate the good news by enacting it. When we explain to our friends why we pray, how we came to follow Jesus or what God means to us, we communicate the good news by articulating it.
Of course these three modes of communication work best when they work together. That way they make for a richer expression of the gospel. Being on its own is too passive. Doing on its own is too ambiguous. Speaking on its own is too facile. Get it all together though and our message is more likely to ring true.
The next piece of good news is evangelism doesn’t always have to be the thing at the front of our mind, the thing we are consciously aiming at. In fact it often happens best when it happens obliquely. Ironically, if evangelism is always the primary motivator for everything we are, do and say we will end up actually undermining our evangelism because we will make it inauthentic, twisted, less than genuine.
So, for example, when the way we are bespeaks Christ, when our churches are hospitable, honouring the least and including the outsider, this is indeed evangelistic, it communicates the good news, but our primary intent here is not to communicate but rather, together as a church, to live a Christ-like life. Evangelism in this mode is more often than not a blessed by product of trying to be faithful, Jesus-type communities.
Similarly, if we only ever care for the needy or work for peace and reconciliation so that we can let everyone see what the way of Christ looks like, there’s something about our motivation that is not true to the Jesus we hope to communicate. Again, gospel communication in this mode happens best when we are focussed something else, such as loving people, irrespective of whether or not they are interested in our message.
This also applies when we speak of our faith. When we explain to friends why we pray, when we offer a Christ-informed perspective to colleagues at work chatting about an event in the news, even on occasions such as these it is not that we think, “OK, now I am going to evangelise.” No, we just do it because part of what it means to live as a Christian is to speak as a Christian and therefor to speak of Christ.
Now don’t get me wrong here. I’m not against intentional proclamation of the gospel as one means of communicating good news. There will, of course, always be those times when our primary purpose is indeed to get the good news across. But these are evangelism’s special occasions not its everyday way of being. This is evangelism in its Sunday best not the kind of come as you are and take us as you find us evangelism which is the staple of ordinary goodnewsing. This matters, because when we allow disciples to believe that the exceptional is what defines evangelism we run the risk of putting them off.
Nor am I suggesting that we don’t have to speak about our faith. I don’t think St. Francis ever actually said, “Preach the good news and if you must, use words” but I wish it hadn’t got round that he did. Piping up about Jesus is a crucial part of evangelism. But it’s a part not the whole. And it’s at its best when it’s not contrived but rather when we just tell our friends about Jesus, when we say what we say because that’s who we are, not because we are targeting someone, seeking to assuage our guilt or trying the get the pastor off our back.
I don’t know if these thoughts will help. Some might think I’m watering down evangelism. In which case I’ve not made myself clear. I think I’m trying to beef it up. I’m also trying to help people see that it can be a commonplace part of ordinary Christian living; something everyday for everyday disciples; something that everyday disciples just get one with; something for which the Baptist flavour of disciple becomes known – in life and not just on paper. If that were to happen, that would be good news.
This was originally published in the Summer 2016 edition of Baptists Together