Evangelism is a Four Letter Word
I get it. Culture is changing rapidly and radically. The methods we have used successfully for decades have become ineffective, even counter-productive. Heaven? Spiritual laws? Bible verses? These no longer spark spiritual interest. Evangelism training isn’t what it used to be, but in many cases is uncertain of what it should be.
This frustration is actually good news. Good because it is causing us to reimagine how we think about evangelism (see my earlier guest post on The Exchange) and, whether we like it or not, forcing us to redesign training tools and equipping experiences.
In 2002, I purchased a new release by Michael Slaughter simply because of the title: Unlearning Church. Reading the title was a revelation in itself. Learning new or different methods without first changing the way we think is doomed to ineffectiveness. And thinking differently without retiring or radically revising standardized assumptions and approaches guarantees failure. A critical component of the learning process is to discern what must be unlearned so that new insights reveal critical implications and lead to fresh implementation.
My learning/unlearning journey continues. I’ve tried to think radically and simply. Which is why I’ve begun to think of evangelism as a four-letter word. More than one, actually.
Evangelism is not something we do as much as being authentically and consciously who we are. We are in Christ—that is our identify in every role and in every situation. Evangelism takes place when we become evidence of God’s love in and through Christ; by what we say and do; by what we do not say and actions we refuse to do.
We are never not meant to be the good news of Jesus. We can choose to hide our light under a bushel, but even then we cannot not be a witness (evidence). We live evangelism every moment, every encounter, every decision.
If God is love, and if love is what motivated God to send Jesus to become our savior, then love is more than a bow on a package or frosting on a cupcake. Love is more than a value; it is an eternal essence of being.
Without love, we (and our evangelistic enterprises) are nothing. Make love our aim is a biblical call to make love our motivation, our message, and our method. Want to teach evangelism? Teach me how to authentically love my neighbor. And the stranger in my neighborhood who dresses and cooks so unlike me. Even my enemy; near or far. So that when we speak truth about Jesus or the Bible, we speak evidentially with love.
Here are some wise words from Ed Silvoso: “Don’t talk with persons about God until you have talked to God about those persons.” Of course, he is not suggesting that we reject a spontaneous opportunity if we have not mentioned that specific person in a prayer the day before. His challenge is to be in prayer mode (listening, anticipating) all the time so that even with a store clerk we’ve never met, we are ready to yield to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Disciple every Christ-follower into praying for persons—the lost in need of salvation, those with less who need help and hope, those who lead and themselves need the leadership of God’s truth. Can we expect real change in our neighborhoods, our courthouses, or the governor’s or president’s mansion if our praying does little more than identify the names of the saved-but-sick-in-the-hospital list? Transformation will come when we pray by name and need for every person in every place.
Once we get serious about praying for those outside the holy huddle of our comfort zone, we should expect an increase in opportunities to give evidence (testify, witness) to the gospel. Especially as we become “quick to listen” to bruised or broken hearts.
Those who have been authentically listened to become more open to what the listener has to share from his or her life. But we must avoid the temptation to too quickly give our answers. Rather, we should continue to ask questions that lead the person deeper and more clearly into his or her own set of assumptions.
And, as you converse, converse too with the Holy Spirit, praying your friend will see the weakness or paucity of his or her faith. Ask the Lord to make your friend more open to considering your story of faith in a loving God who sent a savior to rescue and reconcile every person who will believe.
Gifts are almost always received with appreciation, sometimes with the joy of surprise. Depending upon the contents, it is often seen as a blessing. So evangelize by giving someone a gift every day. Affirmation or assistance. Compassion or concern. Listening while others walk away.
Teach your team/members how to give the gift of:
- Time – meet someone for coffee or at a juice bar
- Talent – serve a need by matching your skill (baking? oil changing?) to their problem or situation
- Touch – a hand on a shoulder to let them know you hear and care (NEVER let your action be misconstrued as inappropriate; if uncertain, don’t do it)
- Truth – with wisdom and discernment, quote a scripture and how it gives you strength (or send a card; give a book that has helped you through an issue they face)
- Tangible – give a gift (flowers are colorful and evoke pleasant smell; their favorite snack or food gives a delicious tasting experience?); a gift you are confident they would like
Hospitality is a lost art and value in our culture. The gift of simply inviting someone into your home, even briefly, is a powerful aspect of building a relationship. You do not need to first redecorate or purchase new furniture (it would not hurt to vacuum or remove a mess). Instead, read up on hospitality evangelism. Many who fear confrontive witnessing have grace and mercy and peace to share at their kitchen table or living room couch. Live evangelism.
Whether in your home, at a restaurant, or tailgating, food breaks down barriers between individuals and cultures.
Like to fish? Basketball? Jog? Board games? Live some life together. As you go, pray for an opportunity to brag on God.
Step into others’ lives by simple acts of kindness (some of the unidentified weapons of spiritual warfare are released when we pray, are kind, show mercy, and act justly).
Increasingly, people’s needs are anything but simple. Drug addiction. Broken homes. Violent neighborhoods. Caring includes advocacy (giving voice to the powerless), community development (every church class or group should take on a yearly build-hope problem-solving type of project), and the pursuit of justice.
Many who feel the guilt of being unproductive would have a very different experience if they teamed up. Evangelize (see four letter words above) with a friend /your spouse/ another friend/couple. Participate with a study class or fellowship group on a redemptive project. Mobilize the entire congregation on a prayerwalk or street/stream cleaning. Remember, Paul always travelled with companions on his missionary journeys. Evangelism can be a fruitful team sport.
In all of our reimagining, redesigning, and relating, we must not forget to explain the motivation and meaning of our asking and listening, our caring and helping.
How can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? (Romans 10:14)
- Identify what perceptions, applications of scripture, expectations, methods, and events describe the status quo of evangelism in your setting. Help those you lead/teach to discuss how these assumptions have become static in a dynamic culture. Allow conversation that tells the truth about the ineffectiveness of much we do to evangelize and the fear of not knowing other ways to reach family and neighbors.
- Return to scripture verses that have appropriately been used to challenge believers to evangelize. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you keen eyes and ears to know the mind of Christ and how to apply that truth to a new world (dis)order.
- Teach-discuss-pray into each of these four letter words with your team/group/class/cohorts.
- Agree to an action step for each one. Pray and talk about this new approach.
- Create an ongoing conversation in your congregation. Keep asking what must we unlearn so that we can accommodate new learning.
- Share insights, frustrations, successes with me: phil[@]missionamerica[.]org.