Thoughts on Evangelism: Past and Present
Returning Evangelism to the People
Out of all of the Spiritual gifts, there is one that continually ends up at the bottom of my personal list of Christian aptitudes. This is evangelism. While my heart soars when I hear the testimony of a new Christian, and I love the fire and overwhelming passion of new believers, I have never been all that exceptional at traditional methods of leading people to Jesus for the first time. Yet, with the American church’s recent emphasis on evangelism in worship, I have wrested a great deal with this important Kingdom mandate. My primary exploration has focused on the role of evangelism in worship. There is a good bit to discuss here. Very quickly, I’ll state that I have seen too many life-changing moments at the end of alter calls to ever think that God does not like to seal the deal in the midst of worship. I believe he does, but I do worry when the majority of our efforts in worship are aimed at evangelism. With love-filled, righteous intentions, this practice can cause the illusive, yet critically important work of worship itself to be diminished in our church families. The main focus of worship should be worship and if we are relying on one hour a week to evangelize the world, I believe we are shorting the Great Commission on numerous levels.
So, if worship is not the prime or ideal space for our main evangelistic efforts, what is? It is my inclination that evangelism is best expressed in everyday life by everyday believers. It is easy to be in awe of skilled, fiery evangelists and poignant pastors that seem to be able to fill alters with a few well-placed words. This awe has led many in the church to express their personal evangelism by dragging their unbelieving friends to hear professional proclaimers of the Gospel. Without a doubt, God has gifted certain individuals to reach the masses, yet I believe only a small percentage of growing believers first respond to the Gospel in mass settings. It is my distinct impression that the large majority of adult converts simply had a friend who began to speak to them about Jesus. While not the only way, I believe this is the most effective, personal, and natural way of sharing the Gospel. Unfortunately, the majority of believers I know are woefully overwhelmed with brandishing classic American strategies of evangelism.
Building Upon the Past
In high school, I was introduced to what is probably the most pervasive evangelism tool in the last half century, the “Four Spiritual Laws.” I was officially trained how to use it and, on occasion, I did. In my experience, this tool could have wonderful results. It simply communicates that God has a wonderful plan, everybody sins, and this separates us from God, Jesus is the answer to this problem, and one must personally accept Jesus. For decades, theological types have questioned this tactic, claiming that it was too simplistic or too sin focused. At this point, a famous D.L. Moody quote is usually evoked, “I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.” Fair enough, but I have to be honest. This form of presenting the Gospel, and others like it, have always seemed a little forced and formal, a little impersonal, a little formulaic, and like there is something missing. There has also been something somewhat predatory and inauthentic about the way many have been trained to use this and similar tools. I still have a great deal of respect for this Bill Bright’s “Four Spiritual Laws” and the good it has done in the Kingdom, but the style of the invitation does set the tone for the rest of the party. I think it is worth re-exploring how we share the gospel.
It is amazing to me that while so much in the American church is changing, our evangelism tools and tactics don’t seem to be keeping up with a radically evolving culture. A few tools and popular sermon series, such as Bill Hybels’, “Just Walk Across the Room,” have made the rounds in the last decade or so, but American Evangelical evangelism seems to be sleeping. I think this is because we have work to do. This work does not have to do with effort or getting over the fear of having awkward conversations about Jesus with our friends. This work is primarily theological in nature. While there a myriad of reasons why Christians do not share the Gospel, I believe that a starting place for refreshing our passion for this work lies in rediscovering the depths of salvation, life in the Spirit, and the Kingdom to come. I believe that much of the awkwardness that comes from our traditional forms of evangelism is due to the fact that we really do not know what we are talking about! What is Salvation? What are we being saved from and to? What does the Bible say about Heaven and Hell? What is happening to me when I become a follower of Jesus? I believe the traditional answers to these questions have been adequate in the past, but we would benefit from newer ways of presenting and explaining the Gospel. These explanations should be rooted in the fullness of Scripture and reflect a thoughtfulness usually lacking in many of our pat explanations. In recent years, conversations about Heaven and Hell have made waves in certain circles of the American Church. Many have felt quite threatened by these conversations. While I disagree with the conclusions of a number of the main players in these controversies, I welcome these conversations. We desperately need to revamp our traditional teachings on these elemental subjects. I am not calling for us to move from orthodoxy, but to actually return to explanations more firmly rooted in the Bible and sound theology. We do not have to completely disregard the old form and models completely, but graciously and wisely analyze them and build on what our Mothers and Fathers have used in years gone by. They would want us to.
Over the last century or so, we have allowed our evangelists to form the church’s common theology surrounding salvation, heaven, hell, death, and the like. This is not the fault of the evangelist. We have simply lost the voice of the theologians and teacher in the conversations about the work of sharing the Good News. In essence, we have allowed our salesmen to write the owner’s manual. These is why our common pictures and understandings of these elemental concepts make good pitches, but sometimes fall short in other ways. We desperately need our teachers and evangelists to wrestle and pray together to find simple, yet profound ways of explaining the Good News. Help us Lord!