As we look forward to moving through 2021––and past 2020––we need to learn from the crises we've faced over the last year. Lots of challenges have been met, and there are still many more to come. Yet we always need to ask ourselves how we should share the gospel in times of crisis.
The Gospel Remains Our Priority
I’m an integral prioritist, and I’d like to encourage you to be one as well.
For the believer, the gospel is always a central priority. Jesus’ final instructions to the church were to go and make disciples. To frame how sharing the gospel connects with serving the hurting, I’ve begun to explain that I am an “integral prioritist”: I believe in integral mission—that this mission involves both word and deed. Put another way, I believe both caring for people and proclaiming the gospel matter. But I also know how easy it is to lose our focus on proclaiming the good news, and that loss can be magnified when crisis strikes. Hence the need for making evangelism a priority.
There is no question biblically we should be sharing Christ; the Great Commission is not the Great Suggestion. There’s also no question biblically that we should lovingly care for the needs of those in a crisis. The Great Commandment is not the Great Selection; we don’t get to pick and choose who we love and when we love. So, how do we prioritize the two?
When Others Are Facing a Crisis
When others are facing a crisis, we don’t push the crisis aside in order to get the message out; we love the person and help them in the middle of the crisis, then share Christ by applying the gospel to their issue.
a) Meet the immediate need first.
When someone's house is on fire, you don't necessarily take the time to share the gospel; you get them out of the house. But the fire doesn't last forever. Frank Luntz is a pollster and a recognized professional on the topic of communication. The subtitle to his book Words That Work offers an apt reminder here: "It's not what you say, it's what people hear." When in a crisis it's hard for people to hear anything in that moment other than "I can help."
Further, Scripture consistently reminds us to care for people in need. Zechariah 7:9-10 tells us care for the widow, orphan, the sojourner, and the poor. In Matthew 25, Jesus reminds us when we care for the naked, the hungry, the sick, the prisoner, and more, we care for him.
But we need to pay attention to when—or if—the house fire goes out. If we aren’t careful, when a crisis is persistent, like much of what we saw in 2020, we will never get to the gospel because the crisis is so persistent. Take for example global poverty. I care about alleviating extreme global poverty, yet if I don’t find a way to prioritize evangelism, I’ll never get to it because this particular house fire never goes out.
b) Pray for gospel discernment.
In Colossians 4, Paul asks for prayer as he seeks to share Christ wisely. Then he says, "Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person" (Colossians 4:5-6). It's appropriate and helpful to ask God for wisdom in the middle of a crisis.
c) Apply the storyline of Scripture to their specific crisis.
In Luke 4:18-20, Jesus applies Isaiah's words to himself. The Spirit of the Lord anointed Jesus to do what? Proclaim good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, set free the oppressed, and proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
Then we come to Luke 19:10 where Jesus said he came to seek and save the lost. We remember that theologically the greatest crisis a person will face––whether they see it or not––is their lost condition. Jesus was the master of taking a situation and using the circumstance to explain good news: living water in John 4, fishing for men in Matthew 4, and so on.
At the beginning of the pandemic, in a widely watch broadcast, I talked about the four phases of the crisis. During Phase 1, Pause and Pivot, I explained we needed to serve the community and prioritize the elderly and those with preexisting conditions. But by the time we got to Phase 2, Prepare and Plan, there needed to be the proclamation of the gospel. If we didn't prioritize the gospel then, it would get lost.
We can apply this to specific situations as we deal with people going through a personal crisis. We pause and pivot, taking care of pressing needs first. But as soon as possible, we prepare and plan to help them to see the love of God in the middle of the crisis through the gospel.
d) Do so with humility and care.
People don't care how much you know about if they don't know that you care about them. We can't detach your gospel proclamation from the reality of their crisis. The compassionate thing is to care for their need and to share with them the truth as we serve them.
When Believers Face a Crisis
When believers face a crisis, we prioritize sharing Christ. We don't ignore our own need, but we put others first and the gospel foremost. This is seen clearly in the New Testament, both in the commission of Jesus and the practice of the early church.
In Acts 4, leaders are detained and threatened, and yet they shared Christ. After prayer, the whole church shared the gospel and met needs. Then, in Acts 5, leaders were beaten for sharing Christ and told not to do so, but they continued to share Christ. Stephen is killed in Acts 7, yet in his dying he shared Christ. In Acts 16, Paul and Silas are in prison, and they shared Christ.
Also, speaking to a persecuted church, Peter said when facing persecution, believers were told to be ready always to give a reason for their hope in Christ (1 Peter 3:15). That’s the priority for the believer.
Most people who came to Christ in the Gospels did so in a time of crisis. Crises are not a time forget the gospel; they are a time when both sharing the gospel and serving those in need converge in a way that brings both glory to God and good to others.