Driving up the East Coast's Interstate 95 will teach you about one approach to evangelism. Sponsored by an anonymous donor, several billboards present travelers with various theological messages. "Have you read my #1 Bestseller? There will be a test," read ones. And "You think it's hot here?"
These billboards represent the kind of evangelism that many ministry leaders today grew up with. I (David) was told as a young believer that I needed to share my faith so people could avoid hell. The approach was transactional, "Just get them to pray a sinner's prayer."
But what I was taught about how to do evangelism didn't match up with my own experience of coming to faith. My search began with questions and a lot of doubt. Sometimes I would get answers like, "You just need to give your life to Christ." I felt these Christians were really saying, "You shouldn't ask these kinds of questions—just believe."
Perhaps that's why, some 30 years later, evangelism is a hot topic for me and for the church I serve. What does it mean to evangelize today? Here are four principles that we've applied to reform our evangelism.
1. Start with sovereignty.
In ministry, success is not easy to measure. We yearn to be effective in our work, and it can become easy to look for ways to know we are getting it right—attendance, finances, new members, baptisms, etc. These things are important but they can become a tempting way to decide just how well we're doing—with or without God. This same performance temptation can apply to our evangelism. We have mixed motives. We want people to know Christ because we love them, but we also want people to know Christ so that we can feel good about ourselves and "count our work."
We both realized early in ministry that trying hard to be an effective evangelist led to being really ineffective evangelists. It took time—and awkward conversations—to realize that the methods we'd been taught placed the burden of conversion on ourselves. It felt like a personal responsibility to actually be the one to pray with someone to receive Christ. That kind of pressure actually sabotaged our efforts.
Now we possess the paradoxical spirit of urgency and lightness when it comes to salvation. We stay urgent in prayer, but we embrace Paul's attitude. "I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow." (1 Cor. 3:6.) We do our part, as authentically as we can, but expect that the Holy Spirit is ultimately the one who draws people. Turns out, it is much easier to help people find a relationship with Christ once you jettison the idea that we are the sole responsible party for their conversion.
2. Incarnate the message.
Jesus embodied obedience to his Father and a relentless love for people. He was attracted the humble ones who needed him and repelled those who were too proud to admit their need. And that is our model or evangelism.
Now, consider the popular programs and classes that characterize the modern-day approach to evangelism. It's not that the content of these models is bad or the people behind them aren't well-meaning. The problem is that they take what was meant to be a way of life and make it impersonal. They reduce evangelism to an inquiry of knowledge. They seek to initiate conversations designed spark confrontation.