Evangelism According to the Gospel, Pt. 1

There are many things to say about evangelism, and I don’t claim to have the final word on this topic.  I’ll just lay out some important considerations that I believe have been overlooked or neglected, matters which ought to have priority in our thinking about evangelism.

I’ll develop three biblical/theological notions that ought to orient evangelism, and then I’ll draw some conclusions about specific practices from each one.  These three broader notions are (1) the character of salvation, (2) Jesus’ command to make disciples, and (3) confidence in God’s saving power.

First, the character of salvation should shape how we think about evangelism.

According to the Scriptural narrative, humans were created to enjoy, explore, get to know, and increasingly delight in one another.  In the Garden, Adam and Eve were naked.  This is significant in that God intended for humans to get to know each other and to open ourselves up to being fully known.  The more we knew and were known, the more we’d delight and be delighted in.

Nakedness also implies that there were no threats, no hidden agendas, no manipulation, no shame, no guilt.  There was only freedom in relationship.  Human relationships were supposed to follow how God relates within himself as Father, Son, and Spirit.  Humanity was to reflect the life of God on earth.  Just as each Person of the Trinity loves and delights in the others, so humans were to love and delight in one another, experiencing the twin joys of discovering and being discovered, delighting in and having others delight in us.

Human relationships are perverted tragically after the fall.  We now have manipulation, exploitation, hidden agendas, hiding from one another, shame.

Salvation involves God restoring our humanity so that we no longer manipulate, no longer coerce others, no longer exercise power over others.  God grants us his Spirit and transforms us so that we become people who listen, who receive others as gifts, who honor others, who seek to discover the richness within each person we encounter.  Christians cultivate humility, learn to regard others as more important, and take others seriously as people who must be treated with respect and honor (I develop these notions more fully in my talks on the Trinity [part 1 and part 2] and the meaning of Easter [part 1 and part 2]).

When we repent and turn to Christ, we embark on a journey of becoming people who love others with the love of Jesus.

Some conclusions about evangelism from the character of salvation:

(1)    We must behave as redeemed people in our evangelism.  It is inappropriate to develop evangelistic strategies in which we behave as unredeemed people.  We are saved by God so that we no longer manipulate or insult others.  Evangelism, then, should not involve manipulative conversations in which we try to work our way toward a “gospel presentation.”  Behaving as redeemed people means that we receive other people as gifts.  Insofar as we focus on technique, we ought to develop conversational strategies whereby we draw others out in order to appreciate their life stories, rejoicing in their triumphs, grieving with their tragic experiences.  We are saved by God so that we radiate to others gospel freedom and the life of God.  If we leave people feeling that they’ve been insulted, manipulated, treated badly, shamed, treated with condescension, scolded, or preached at, then we haven’t embodied the character of Christ by the power of the Spirit.  We’ve embodied some other spirit, and probably not a good one.

(2)    We should never view another person as a target or as an opportunity to practice our evangelistic technique.  If you are a redeemed person, you should regard others with great respect as people created in God’s image.

(3)    Don’t force yourself on people—that’s called assault, violence, or just plain rudeness.  The gospel calls us to put ourselves in positions of weakness and vulnerability with others.  It seems to me that forcing and manipulating conversations violates God’s purposes in redemption.  And don’t say that the gospel is offensive!  The gospel of a meek Messiah who gives himself for the life of his enemies was indeed offensive to those who wanted a violent Messiah who destroys his enemies.  Don’t be rude and offensive and blame the gospel.

(4)    Get to know other people.  God created humans to know others and to be searched out and known by others.  Get to know another person’s life story over time.  Ask good follow-up questions.  Develop an on-going relationship that involves some deep conversations and some frivolous ones.  People have had infinitely varying experiences and come from all over the place.  Some people are broken by life.  Others are lost in their lives and just want someone to listen to them.  Gospel people give others the gift of listening to, honoring, and appreciating their life stories.

(5)    Enter open-ended friendships with others in which you receive others as gifts and come to delight in them.  The gospel frees us and calls us to radiate the life and freedom of God in Christ to others.  Let friendships go where they will and enjoy them.  The power of God works through relationships like that, not manipulative ones in which our use of strength marginalizes God’s power.

(6)    It seems that redeemed people should develop friendships of mutuality.  Focus on cultivating relationships in which you bless others and are blessed by them, too.

(7)    It seems to me that redeemed people do not develop friendships with hidden agendas.  We do not make friends in order to “use” them, nor do we cease being their friend if they don’t do what we want.  Here’s the point: Something is seriously wrong if we drop a friendship if a person rejects or is resistant to the gospel.  Speech by Christians about gospel realities should take place within committed friendships, and those friendships should survive any commitment or lack of commitment to Christ made by another person.  I’m insulted when I sense that a person became my friend just to sell me something.  Don’t befriend a person with an agenda except to get to know, love, and honor them.

(8)    Christian people are the primary target of the gospel.  We are the ones being transformed by the gospel so that we relate to others with love and dignity and honor.  We develop relationships with other people as if we were Christians, not in order to make them Christians.

(9)    Our focus ought to be on discovering the profound richness of the gospel and discovering the richness of other people, and far less on technique.  Truly plumbing the depths of the gospel takes time, as does truly getting to know other people.  Redeemed people invest that time.  Technique tends to diminish the value of people, tends to make communication shallow, shifts our focus to results, and cheapens the truth of the gospel.

As I said, there’s much more to say about evangelism, and I’ll develop a few more thoughts tomorrow.

17 thoughts on “Evangelism According to the Gospel, Pt. 1

  1. Eric Lapata

    I love this post, Dr. Gombis. I love your depth and view of The Scriptures. I do not disagree with the following point, but can you help me understand it from your vantage point? “We develop relationships with other people as if we were Christians, not in order to make them Christians.”

    Thanks, Brother!


    1. timgombis

      Hey Eric, good to hear from you. How ’bout them Indians!? I saw Hafner’s walk-off a month or two ago and thought of you…

      I’m trying to say that WE always are being transformed and constrained and determined by the gospel, which means that our behaviors have to be intentionally shaped by the gospel. This doesn’t come naturally and must be worked at. We try on new behaviors, speech patterns, etc., and become more and more like Christ. All of this affects how we treat other people.

      Too often it seems that we use “worldly” methods and relational patterns when encountering others. We try to manipulate conversations, shoe-horn the gospel in somehow, and try to make people convert to become like us. But this is ungodly behavior! It’s easy to act like unbelievers when it comes to “sharing the gospel,” and we do this in order to make them turn to Christ. It just doesn’t work, even though God in his grace sometimes uses boneheads to do his work — but this doesn’t excuse boneheaded behavior!

      So, we ought to focus on loving and honoring and truly being gospel people — we might find that these relational patterns of “giving up” actually are the relational dynamics that unleash God’s transforming power! So, the focus is on being Christ-like and giving others freedom.

  2. athanasius96

    Agreed. We need to be people who are free, forgiven and redeemed. Our communication about the Gospel should reflect that. Too often we come across as creepy and manipulative, and no one aspires to be that.

  3. athanasius96

    I just found this quote apropos to our conversation:

    “When we are securely rooted in personal intimacy with the source of life, it will be possible to remain flexible without being relativistic, convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle and forgiving without being soft, and true witnesses without being manipulative.”
    — Henri J.M. Nouwen

  4. S Wu

    Tim, you’ve said it so well. I am really glad that you’re blogging.

    I think the New Testament book that contains of the verbal proclamation of the good news a lot is the Book of Acts. Thus I tend to think that there is an (important) intentional element of the proclamation of the gospel. The danger of today’s many methods and strategies of evangelism is that they tend to degenerate into some form of “manipulation, exploitation, hidden agendas,” etc (as what you said above). But I find the following characters in the proclamation of the gospel by the apostles in Acts.

    (1) It’s about the “good news” of God’s grace (not manipulation).
    (2) It’s about the good news of the resurrection of the crucified Christ. That is, it is about the vindication of the King who died on the Roman Cross, which was a symbol of shame and humiliation. It is also the sure sign of the restoration of humanity (not about a future disembodied heavenly existence).
    (3) It’s the gathering of a Jew-Gentile community who gives their allegiance to the risen Lord. That is, it is about the good news of God’s gathering of a worldwide multi-ethnic eschatological new humanity that seeks to reflect God’s glory as his renewed image-bearers.
    (4) Such kind of proclamation inevitably results in persecution and suffering, for that’s precisely what Christ had to go through in his own proclamation of the kingdom of God.

    I wonder whether the manipulation (and other problems) we find in today’s evangelistic methods is a result of us missing the above characters and an over-emphasis on the “verbal” aspect of proclamation? That is, there is a tendency to think that once we have “told” people about how to become Christians (via some kind of simple formula) then we have done our duty. This kind of evangelism is very problematic, of course.

    1. timgombis

      Great thoughts, S. I’ve run into that, too, where we think we’re done when we just speak gospel realities. Or, worse, we think we’re done when someone converts! That’s like leaving a newly born baby lying around without feeding it! Evangelism must be connected to wider dynamics and especially to a life of discipleship.

  5. Mark CE

    What a great post. Beautiful. It strikes me that in order to have such a non-manipulative, non-wordy way of being with other people, we have to (ironically) have a very clear understanding of the redemptive worldview we are living out of. At the same time, Henri Nouwen warns us about being too floppy with people in terms of what we stand for. Talking about hospitality, which I think is what you’re talking about; hospitality in its broadest sense; he calls us to make clear to people what we stand for. (I can’t remember exactly how he put it but) he said our hospitality has to have walls, just as a room has walls: otherwise it doesn’t truly welcome. He seems to say that it is only when we present ourselves to others as having a clear worldview (or gospel) that we truly create the welcoming space that enables them to get to grips with their own worldview on their own terms *as compared with ours*. “I want to invite you into my space, without taking my pictures from the walls or the books from my shelves . . . but I also want to leave enough room for you to walk in and out and around freely so you can respond from your own place in life.”

    1. timgombis

      That sounds good, Mark, and I agree. It seems to me that we can still be “strong” while maintaining a posture of “pure welcome,” so that we aren’t being coercive or relating to others with an agenda for them to change. In fact, such a posture of pure welcome will demand great strength, it seems!

      At the same time, it’s completely appropriate to talk plainly that we are doing so in the name of Jesus. I’m just trying to maintain that we avoid being preachy — we do this in Jesus’ name and because of his redemptive claim on us. We can invite others to join us there, but if they don’t, that doesn’t diminish their welcome presence with us.

      1. Mark CE

        Yes absolutely. Something makes me think, though, that Jesus always has an agenda for change! The redemptive story is one big change agenda, and individuals and relationships must be part of that… something about “I’m suffering birth pains until Christ is formed in you?” But yes, I think we’re on the same page! Thankfully I’ve got friends who will tell me when I’m being preachy (which I can lapse into), and I apologise, and we start again.

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