Evangelism has become a dirty word. This is probably because of situations like my wife and I ran into in San Francisco a couple years ago. We spent a few days traveling up and down the Pacific Coast Highway before working at the Oracle Conference, a technology conference attended by more than 30,000 business people from all over the world. As we walked to the convention center from our hotel one day, I noticed a short, stalky gentleman on the street corner in the midst of all the hustle and bustle. Suddenly, the man on the street corner began to scream. It was not your average yip or yell. It was a high pitched, throaty kind of scream, one that would cause you to lose your voice within a few minutes of unleashing it. He began to wave his Bible back and forth in the air. Between his gasps for breath, I could tell he was saying something about Jesus, repentance, and God. The crowds quickly skirted around him, crossing the street as fast as they could, adding one more reason to their dislike of the “E-word.”
As I’ve gone back over this experience in my mind, my main deduction is that this stalky street preacher was using the wrong bait.
Jesus talked to his first followers about “fishing for men.” I’m not much of a fisherman myself, aside from the occasional sunny day in Minnesota (we have 10,000 lakes in here, so it’s almost a sin not to do all that fun lake stuff). If fishing has anything to do with the “E-word,” we can easily assume that “different strokes work for different folks.” It doesn’t take a brain scientist to discover that screaming at a businessman (or 30,000 of them) is among the most unsuccessful sales pitches in the history.
I get it. I understand why evangelism has become a dirty word, but I want to believe God can do something different with it through my life. If I don't scream the gospel, what can I do? How can I care about people more authentically, and love people more unconditionally, share the gospel more faithfully?
So What Do We Do?
We have to put ourselves in the apostles' shoes. When they traveled with Jesus, what did they say? What did they do?
I’ve done my fair share of street evangelism. It took me many years to realize something profound: the first followers of Jesus did not witness to every person they met on the street. In my mind, I had somehow come to the conclusion that the more we witness to strangers, the holier we become. I used to think if I could just witness to literally every person I came into contact with throughout my day, I would have made it into Kingdom greatness (I seriously thought this).
It took some time and some years to understand Acts 17:2: “As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures.” What did Paul do on the days in between? We don’t exactly know, but we see on every church day, he took opportunities to speak of Christ, proclaim Christ and call men and women to Christ. Paul wasn’t rabidly evangelizing every single person he met throughout the week (although he did personal evangelism at times), yet in the power of the Spirit, the spread of the gospel was the driving force of his life.
The gospel frees us from the notion that the evangelization of the world falls on our shoulders alone.
I believe in reaching the world. I believe that God has placed each of us in the time we live in, growing up where we grow up for a reason (see Acts 17:26-28). But it is God alone who draws men and women to Himself (John 6:44), and it is the Church collectively that is called to reach the world. Not me. The Church together. With every part working its unique strength (Ephesians 4:16) that God can use for his glory.
We can play a small part in God’s grand story: the rescue and redemption of the world. Our role is led by the Spirit and focused on Christ. We carry it out by setting apart Christ as Lord within our own hearts, to give an answer to anyone who asks for the hope we have received, and to always share of Christ with gentleness and respect for our hearers (1 Peter 3:15). Our role is to be faithful to the leadings and promptings of the Holy Spirit in the large and small stages of our lives. If we are to “do the work of the evangelist,” we must study the life of Christ, and also the story of Philip the Evangelist in Acts 8. He was led at key moments by the Spirit, where to go, what to do, what to say. He was prepared with a proper understanding of the Word of God and how to point a seeker towards Jesus.
We Don’t Go Alone
Evangelism becomes a dirty word when it is done religiously out of human motivation (often guilt and aiming to earn God’s pleasure by works) and attempted to be accomplished through human strength. The antidote comes from understanding our proper role as simple tools in the hands of God.
“One says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor.” - 1 Corinthians 3:4-8
The message of evangelism is not just “go,” but also, “I am with you always.” (Matthew 28:19-21). It is Christ’s presence that heals. It is Christ’s presence that saves. It is Christ’s Presence that delivers. We are needy of his Presence every day in every way. Unless God moves, and does through us what he loves to do best, hearts will remain darkened to the light of the gospel.
Matt and Michelle Brown are evangelists and founders of Think Eternity, an evangelistic nonprofit. Matt is the author of several books, including Revolutionaries: Men and Women in Every Century Who Advanced Christianity and a frequent blogger. You can connect with them on twitter @evangelistmatt and @Thinke
Read Unbelievable Gospel by Jonathan Dodson (available as e-ebook and in print).