As I said yesterday, there are many things to say about evangelism. I’m just discussing a few things I regard as essential but that are often overlooked or neglected when it comes to strategizing about evangelism. The three big notions I’m drawing out are (1) the character of salvation, (2) Jesus’ command to make disciples, and (3) confidence in God’s saving power. I considered the first in yesterday’s post.
Second, Jesus’ command to make disciples in Matt. 28:19-20 should shape how we conceive of evangelism.
As you are going, therefore, make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to keep all that I have commanded you; and behold I am with you always, until the end of the age.
I provide my own translation in order to highlight the grammar of Jesus’ command as Matthew records it. The command here is to “make disciples,” and this is done as Jesus’ disciples are spreading throughout the world. They carry this out through the two participles—baptizing and teaching—by initiating people into the faith and then teaching and training them in holistic lives of obedience.
Some conclusions from Jesus’ command to make disciples:
(1) Evangelistic efforts must be situated within and vitally connected to the church’s mission to make disciples. We are not told to make converts. That is relatively easy to do. Jesus was very popular early in his ministry, but disciples began to fade and fall away when the true cost of discipleship became clearer. While we ought to be excited about conversions, evangelism should be aimed at cultivating long-term discipleship.
(2) Discipleship is carried out in a community of faith and through renewed communal behaviors. We ought to make note of this in our evangelism. When John the Baptist and Jesus proclaim the gospel of the Kingdom, they do not simply make note of a juridical transaction—“forgiveness can be yours in exchange for faith in Christ”—that individuals can obtain and then go on with their lives. They call for specific repentance usually involving transformed communal behavior. In Matthew 19:16-22, Jesus calls on the rich young ruler to sell all he has and share with the poor. In Luke 3:10-14, John gives specific instructions to tax collectors and soldiers about what their repentance would look like.
There’s much to say about this—both theologically and practically—but we should resist offering a simple transactional formula without calling for repentance from destructive practices and a commitment to a life-long process of transformation among the people of God in Christ by the power of the Spirit.
(3) Disciple-making is a long-term effort that encompasses the “three moments” of salvation—initial conversion, on-going perseverance, and final perseverance. When we evangelize, we ought to inform potential disciples about the life of faithfulness to which Jesus invites everyone, and advise that they count the cost before making any commitments.
(4) The gospel involves the announcement of the arrival of God’s reign and the multifaceted character of God’s redemption in Christ. Evangelism, then, may take some time. It may look far more like education than a sales pitch. Talk about what salvation involves can’t be captured in a 3-minute presentation, as I was taught in my college evangelism class. It may take some time. It may take repeated discussions. It may involve patient instruction. This may tax the patience of (especially American) Christians who have accommodated to perverted cultural values such as efficiency, convenience, and immediacy.
(5) If a person commits to becoming a disciple of Jesus, we ought to see this as the initiation of an intensely committed friendship that will cost me a significant amount of time. If I am not ready to commit to a discipleship relationship/friendship for at least 5 years or so, along with all the risks, discomforts, and adjustments that go along with that, then I should not expect a person to make a commitment to Christ.
These last two factors ought to discourage Christian people from many evangelistic enterprises in which we accost strangers and hit them with sales pitches and expect to “close the sale” right away so that we can return and report numbers of decisions. I shouldn’t expect anyone to commit to Christ if I’m not ready to make adjustments to my life over the next 5 years in order to develop and cultivate a friendship with that person. If we made that a rule, many bad practices in evangelism would be brought to a halt.
(6) Because evangelism is an invitation to discipleship carried out among the disciples of Jesus, evangelism is not merely the conveyance of information. It should be integrally connected with the demonstration of a life of discipleship, most effectively with the demonstration of a transformed community. This is why speech about gospel realities is best situated in already committed friendships where others can see our holistic lives of discipleship in all their beauty and ugliness. We should also invite others to witness our community life in all its messy-ness and awkwardness so that people see what it looks like in practice to be those who forgive and are forgiven, who love and are loved, who confess sins and reconcile, who rejoice together and grieve together. Gospel proclamation is information about a reality. We should give the information, but we must also embody the reality.
Third, confidence in God’s saving power ought to shape our thinking about evangelism.
To this point I’ve said almost nothing about technique, as you may have noticed. Technique, however, implies having an agenda and I’ve tried to make clear that Christians don’t have agendas in relationships. We relate to other people as if we are being reclaimed by the gospel, which means that we enjoy others and receive them as gifts. We don’t try to work toward an opportunity to tell them that they should be reclaimed by the gospel. We love and radiate freedom as we are agents of God’s love and grace to others. We don’t manipulate others so that we reinforce all the horrible stereotypes about evangelicals reported in books like unChristian and films like Lord, Save Us From Your Follwers.
In my opinion, Christian evangelism happens within committed friendships as we have opportunities to speak (non-manipulatively and non-coercively) about gospel realities. If such talk meets warm acceptance and others want to receive salvation, we should rejoice like nobody’s business. If not, my committed friendship continues, regardless.
It is God’s business to save; it is my business to love and leave the rest to him. Some conclusions from this.
(1) In my opinion, we should avoid words like “effectiveness” when it comes to evangelism. We ought to focus on faithful discipleship to Christ and strategic love for others that expects nothing in return. We are called to love with abandon and if God wants to transform hearts, then we should be available to welcome new family members. But we are not called to do what only God can do.
(2) It’s not up to me to “close the sale.” We ought to be vigilant to embody a spirit of love and freedom, not one of manipulation or coercion. We may feel that we’re going to “let one slip away” if we don’t press the issue with someone who is considering conversion. But we should keep in mind the more precarious danger of marginalizing the Spirit of God with our own manipulative scheming. Jesus told others to take some time, go home, and count the cost. We’re in good company if we do the same.
We are freed up to radiate freedom and to truly love. As you present the gospel, embody the gospel.
(3) If you ever get into a conversation about the faith, you’ll probably be asked questions that you haven’t anticipated and for which you don’t have a good answer. No problem! Say that you don’t know. Remember, God is not creating good salespeople who are never stumped and always have a good comeback. God is transforming us into authentic, loving people who honor others and treat them with dignity. God’s saving power is not dependent on your quick-wittedness.
(4) God’s power runs along relational networks that are shaped by authenticity, weakness, humility, and love. That is to say, God’s power is unleashed by cruciform disciples of Jesus.
His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse, nor his delight in the legs of the warrior; the LORD delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love (Psalm 147:10-11).
God’s power does not run along relational lines shaped by human power and schemes oriented by manipulation and coercion. These are ways that we shove God’s power out of relationships and guarantee that he has no room to work. If we evangelize like this, we have some other agenda and we can’t make any claim to be obeying Jesus in any sense.
(5) Because of all of this, I am set free to enjoy everyone I encounter, to receive them as the gifts that they are, to love them with the joyful love of Jesus, and to resist relating to them with any agenda but to discover the profound reservoirs of richness that they are. I don’t do this because people like this are actually enjoyable to be around (which may end up being more “effective,” anyway), but because the gospel sets me free and because God’s program of redemption involves transforming us into these kinds of people.