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.