Many of us approach Christmas dinner brimming with fear. Such anxiety doesn’t come from Aunt Mary’s liver sausage pate or her sour-apple fruitcake so much as our sense of the challenge of trying to direct conversation toward the gospel. After all, last year’s attempt was a proverbial train wreck. How can this year be any different?
If I were to give one piece of advice, it would be to understand what evangelism is, and what it is not. The following definition and subsequent explication are intended to provide this sort of perspective, to help us approach Christmas dinner with a greater measure of optimism and hope.
“Evangelism is the activity in which the entire Church prayerfully and intentionally relies on God in sharing gospel love and truth, in order to bring people one step closer to Jesus Christ.”
The entire Church. The Church is the Body of Christ. As such, we extend hope to the world by communicating the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Gospel outreach is not simply one ministry option among many—something that only a gifted evangelist does. Rather, sharing Christ strikes at the heart of who we are. Just as Jesus was the Light of the world, who in his very being shined the hope of salvation, so we, in Christ, are the same. In this way, gospel activity is central to our identity, much as heat is a natural extension of the sun’s rays. This evangelistic call applies to every Christian, from the youngest to the oldest.
Prayerfully. Talking to God in prayer relates to every facet of the evangelistic enterprise. Prayer provides wisdom to the evangelist; it appropriates power for its proclamation; and, in some mysterious way, it is used by God to accomplish His redemptive purposes. Prayer is also a common denominator to every renewal movement in the history of Christ’s Church.
Intentionally. Evangelism happens with intentionality. Having been inspired, equipped, and mobilized by Church leaders, the congregation is positioned to actively seize gospel opportunities. For example, at a nearby mall, I recently observed a young girl walking up a downward moving escalator. As soon as the child stopped walking, she immediately began heading downward. With additional steps, however, she continued moving up. This illustration helps me think about the challenge to maintain proactive gospel outreach. The busyness of life and the gravity of selfishness draw us downward. To the extent that we are intentional, evangelism has potential to make progress.
Relying on God. Psalm 18:2 says, “The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” The Psalmist is intent on exalting God as the foundation of his salvation and does so by choosing eight different ways to say it. In the Hebrew language, indeed in any language, this manner of repetition emphatically underscores the point: salvation is of God! Because of this great truth, we can joyfully and confidentially rely on Him.
In revealing gospel love and truth. Being a Christian is more than being a friendly person. I have the privilege of knowing some nice people. My colleague Jay Thomas for instance, always appears happy. What’s more, his joy is contagious. If you asked him, he would tell you that his positive attitude is an outgrowth of his faith. However, I suspect that no one has ever looked at Jay and concluded “Wow, he is a nice guy! I’ll bet Jesus died for my sins and rose from the dead to provide me with forgiveness and eternal life.” This kind of inference doesn’t come from abstract deduction; it requires specific explanation. In other words, in order for outreach to be more than “friendly service,” we must communicate gospel content.
To bring people. Notice, it doesn’t say “to bring unbelievers,” but “people.” As I explained earlier, evangelism—the activity of sharing the gospel—is bigger than just conversion. After initially coming to Christ we still need the gospel to liberate us from sin and establish us in righteousness. Thus, to say that we “evangelize” someone doesn’t mean that the recipient is necessarily without faith.
At the same time, those outside of Christ are in dire need of the gospel. This need provides much of the motivation for doing evangelistic outreach. Consequently, we who have been in the Church for a while must break out from our holy huddles. Like Jesus—the friend of tax collectors and sinners—we must forge meaningful relationships with nonbelievers. In Jesus’ words, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matt. 5:14).
One step closer to Christ. Of all the points I’ve made so far, this is the one about which I am most passionate. Sometimes when we think about evangelism, we define it by a particular method. For many of us, it’s the crusade approach made popular by D.L. Moody or, more recently, Billy Graham. Accordingly, we think of evangelism as a full-blown gospel presentation that begins by explaining the human problem of sin and culminates in an invitation for one to receive Christ.
I don’t know about you, but most of my gospel encounters don’t allow for a full-orbed sermon. In a crusade, the goal of the evangelist is to clearly present the entire message and urge someone to make a decision. (It’s probably not an accident that the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s magazine is named Decision.) However, if you define all of evangelism in that way, what happens when you only have two minutes to talk to a colleague beside the water cooler during break? How do you witness to the checkout person in the supermarket, or to a family member who knows what you believe and is utterly disinterested in hearing any more sermons? The answer is—you don’t. You don’t say a thing. We can’t share in that kind of way without completely alienating ourselves; therefore, we don’t share at all. The outcome is the same as hiding our lamp beneath the proverbial table. What we need to learn is how to gradually plant seeds of gospel truth that help people incrementally move one step closer to Christ. Therefore, instead of defining evangelism strictly as a comprehensive presentation of the “full delmonte” (i.e., everything there is to say about salvation) culminating into a Billy-Graham-like invitation, we need to view the incremental efforts of seed planting, which we perform in the course of natural relationships, as not only a legitimate form of evangelism but also a critical method among our loved ones.