For some time now, American Christians have conceived of their witness in terms of “sharing the gospel.” Read any book or listen to any talk on personal evangelism, and you’ll inevitably encounter the phrase. On one level, the terminology is positive, conveying the gracious act of giving others a treasure we possess. However, if by “sharing” we imply a kind of charity where we only give the gospel to willing recipients, then our Christian vernacular has become a problem.
I first awakened to this reality while doing language study in Central Asia. As I took a course in spiritual terminology, a missionary teacher bemoaned the fact that many Westerners had imported the idea of sharing the gospel into the vocabulary of the local church. He asserted that such a concept was completely foreign—to their context and the Bible. Scripture, instead, spoke primarily of preaching the gospel, declaring and proclaiming a message.
But what, you might ask, could be wrong with sharing the gospel? Isn’t the greater problem that people aren’t sharing it at all? However, I’ve come to wonder if these dual realities aren’t somehow related, with the way we speak about evangelism imperceptibly affecting the way we do evangelism.
More Than Semantics
Throughout the Book of Acts, we find repeated examples of authoritative witness—even in the face of suffering—from the apostles and early church. We find them proclaiming the gospel and speaking boldly. We read of them persuading others. We see them reasoning from Scripture, both expounding and applying it. We observe them testifying before rulers and governors, bearing witness before civil crowds and angry mobs. What we don’t find them doing is “sharing” the gospel.
So it’s more than a bit curious that the dominant way American Christians describe the act of evangelism is in terms of sharing. And I believe this lack of clarity is more than an issue of semantics.
What if a baseball coach instructed his pitchers simply to toss the ball? Not to throw strikes. Or work the corners. Or change speeds. Or pound it inside. Just toss the ball. Would the pitchers have an accurate understanding of their responsibility?
Our conception of evangelism is similarly lacking in precision and nuance. When simply sharing the gospel becomes our default instruction, we fail to convey the attitude, approach, and authority necessary for the act itself. What begins as a subtle change in terminology results in a massive shift in our whole ethos of evangelism.
That’s because “sharing” typically involves giving something to someone who desires it. Children share (or don’t share) Legos with other kids who want them. Friends share a great cookie recipe with another friend who asks for it. In each case, we share with others because they’re asking for what we possess. But the reality is, few people are ever begging us to share the gospel with them.
We must ask ourselves, then, whether casual Christianese has influenced the way we view the gospel mandate. Why are we only willing to speak the gospel when we perceive openness on the part of the hearers? Do we even have a category for proclaiming a message that other people actively oppose?
To evangelize is to preach good news. Far more than just sharing, evangelism involves testifying to Christ—warning, persuading, defending, pleading, and calling. Such authoritative witness need not be in opposition to gentleness and respect. But sadly we often value certain relationships more than a clear statement of the truth. Rarely do we engage people with a sense of authority or urgency.
Sensing the Urgency
Last year I had the privilege of teaching 2 Timothy to church leaders in a South Asian country. Our focus was Paul’s exhortation to faithfully preach the good news. Throughout the week, I reminded them of Paul’s farewell to his young apprentice, encouraging Timothy not to be ashamed of the testimony of the Lord but rather to embrace suffering and persecution—like Paul and Christ—for the sake of the gospel (2 Tim. 1:8–9).
Less than a week later, a story popped up in my newsfeed from the same South Asian country: Christian conversion and evangelism were now banned. Suddenly, the previous week’s teaching took on a greater significance.
In such situations, some might sympathize with those South Asian leaders and encourage them to avoid confrontation. Better to lay low and maintain your presence in the community. Better to remain quiet so that you can provide for your family. Better to witness to others through your good reputation. But that’s not what the apostles practiced (Acts 4:20), and it’s not how Paul charged Timothy. So with a grieving concern for my students, I prayed they wouldn’t be ashamed of the gospel but would boldly fulfill their ministry.
I faced my own test of boldness with Meryem, a teenage girl who wanted me to explain the gospel to her. We met inside a shopping mall, where my wife and I had gone to connect with her after she had requested a copy of the Bible. This wasn’t my first time setting up a blind rendezvous for this purpose (those curious about Christianity in our country could request a free copy through newspaper ads and various digital channels). But I had been expecting someone much older, not this baby-faced teenager.
Meryem presented a dilemma. She was clearly a minor. And in our Central Asian country, it was illegal to proselytize to anyone younger than 18. After making our way to a park across the street, we asked Meryem about her family, her interest in the Bible, and ultimately her age. When she revealed that she was only 17, I explained our difficult situation.
We couldn’t give her a Bible. We weren’t allowed to influence her in any way to Christianity. The result could be expulsion from the country or worse. We told her we first would need the permission of her parents. But Meryem wouldn’t take no for an answer. “How am I going to learn this stuff?” she asked. “I don’t know any Christians.”
As she pleaded her case, my wife and I looked at each other knowingly, sensing the urgency of the situation. This is why we had come to this country. This is why we left everything. If there were ever a time to risk everything, this had to be it. So I reached into my backpack and pulled out a Bible. Together, we told Meryem the Good News.
When we think about speaking the gospel with urgency and authority, we may envision a fiery preacher pounding a pulpit, or perhaps a man in a sandwich board warning of judgment to passersby. But that day, I just tried to explain to Meryem how Jesus is good news, for us and the world. The urgency of the moment opened my mouth with praise, not with stormy rhetoric.
These days, we tend to view preaching as something only preachers do. But preaching is really a close cousin to praise—and we praise things all the time. As C.S. Lewis observed, we praise that which we most enjoy. In fact, our enjoyment of something isn’t complete until we have communicated that happiness to others.
This kind of effervescent witness is God’s design for his people. Israel had been called out from among the nations to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex. 19:6). They were to sing to the Lord and declare his glory among the peoples (1 Chron. 16:23–24). Now God has conferred on us—Jew and Gentile believers in Jesus—this priestly ministry. Simply put, God saved us to praise him.
In his epistles, Peter tells us we’ve been set apart for this special service. We’re called to declare God’s praises to the world. So if we’re not faithfully proclaiming the gospel to those around us, it’s owing to the fact that we’re not overflowing in praise to God.
Praise is the most natural thing in the world for us. We brag about our favorite sports team. We rave about restaurants. We can’t stop talking about the latest Netflix series or our last vacation. We adore musicians, endorse politicians, and fawn over celebrities. But ask us to raise our voices in praise to God outside of weekend worship, and we struggle to string together a whole sentence. If we (and I include myself here) worshiped God as we should, our neighbors, coworkers, and friends would be the first to hear about it.
I want to conclude with three practical suggestions for moving beyond “sharing the gospel” to proclaiming it boldly, with urgency, and without regard to risk. These are principles I tried to implement while living overseas in a Muslim-majority nation.
First, be willing to offend. If you proclaim the gospel, it will be offensive—there’s no way around it. There will be inevitable conflict. You must come to a point of being willing to offend or else you’ll never say much of anything.
Whenever I spoke with Muslims, I wanted to demonstrate the foolishness of the gospel—and my own foolishness for believing it—if it isn’t true. Paul tells that we’re most to be pitied if the resurrection is a lie (1 Cor. 15:19) and that Jesus’ death was a waste if we could attain our own righteousness (Gal. 2:21). Such provocative statements showed my conversation partners that I’d thought through the ramifications of my beliefs: What if I’m wrong? But it also enabled me to press upon them: What if you’re wrong?
Second, call for response. About halfway through my time overseas, I became convicted that I rarely challenged people to repent and believe the gospel. I could argue for the deity of Christ. I might reason with them about Scripture’s truthfulness. I could try to persuade them about the need for God’s justice against sin. I might even speak boldly about the cross and resurrection. But I wasn’t closing the argument with a sense of urgency.
Actually, it was meeting Meryem that began to alter my approach. I realized that evangelism wasn’t simply engaging in religious dialogue and exchanging ideas. It wasn’t enough to simply tell others what I believed; I had to tell them what they needed to do.
Of course, such a posture conveys urgency. But it also demonstrates love. Because when you plead with others to turn from sin, sometimes you do so with tears. When you warn friends sitting at your dining table about coming judgment, you get a lump in your throat.
Third, delight in the gospel. The apologetic force of our preaching isn’t always that our message is more believable than another, but that it’s more desirable. We aren’t just talking to brains. We’re speaking to hearts that have desires and eyes that look for beauty. We’re not merely trying to convince people that our gospel is true, but that our God is good.
Preaching the gospel requires propositional truths. Believing the gospel requires historical facts. But when we preach, others should see how those facts have changed our lives. They should hear us singing with the slaves, “I’ve found a Savior, and he’s sweet, I know.” They need to feel the weight of glory. That’s because believing the gospel—like preaching it—is worship. Which makes praise integral to our preaching and turns our priestly ministry into delight!
Elliot Clark works to train local church leaders overseas with Training Leaders International. This article is adapted from his book, Evangelism as Exiles: Life on Mission as Strangers in Our Own Land (The Gospel Coalition).
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