Approaching evangelism from another angle

For a number of years now, I've been trying to re-emphasize the importance of outreach at the church I pastor. More specifically, I've been trying to move everyone toward engaging in evangelism. Whenever I bring up the subject, I hear someone say (sometimes audibly), "Oh no! Not evangelism!" The word conjures up images of street preachers or door-to-door witnessing that has all but been abandoned by everyone except "cult" groups. Perhaps another approach is needed. We can start by defining what evangelism is. What I mean by evangelism is simply speaking about the gospel of Jesus Christ--everything from "preaching the gospel to ourselves" (as Jack Miller and Tim Keller put it) to bringing up God (or more specifically God's work for us in Christ) in conversation with those who are disinterested or curious or in open rebellion against him.

There has been a mixed response to my attempts at getting us back to this essential part of the mission. Some seem wary of engaging in evangelism. Most feel guilty about not speaking more about Jesus to others. Others have misunderstood what I mean by gospel discipleship. There has even been some strong vocal opposition to what I believe the Bible clearly teaches; i.e. that all Christians are called to be obedient to the Great Commission. By any objective measure, we haven't made much progress in this area.

Tony Payne, author of The Trellis and the Vine, has written a very helpful, well-written two-part series of articles addressing the topic of  personal evangelism. Here are some highlights:

Over the past couple of decades, various evangelicals have contested the idea that every Christian should be taught and equipped to understand the gospel, and to be able to share the gospel personally with others. Perhaps this resistance has stemmed from a desire to preserve the importance and position of the ‘Evangelist’ as a singularly gifted and commissioned individual; or it may have been motivated by a desire to avoid placing an undue burden on everyday Christians, or to avoid making them feel guilty for not being Billy Graham.

Whatever the motivation, the ensuing debate has been dissatisfying and largely counter-productive. Often the question was framed as: “Is every Christian an evangelist?” I remember John Dickson (the ‘no’ case) and David Mansfield (the ‘yes’ case) debating this question in the pages of Southern Cross in the 90s. John made the legitimate point that ‘evangelists’ were special people in the New Testament, and that there was no explicit command anywhere for Christians to be evangelists or even to evangelize (using those terms). He concluded that it was therefore unreasonable to place this burden on Christians when the New Testament didn’t. David responded, also quite legitimately, by asking how as a matter of love Christians could not feel a burden to evangelize, given the plight of those around us and the saving news of the gospel that we have in our hands.There was a palpable sense of two brothers both keen to see the gospel spread, but speaking past one another. 

But not only were debates like these usually without resolution, the consequences have been damaging. It is difficult, of course, to trace cause and effect in these matters—but it is hard to deny that the urgency and effort to train every Christian to be eager and equipped for personally sharing the gospel has dwindled over the past 15 years. It’s simply not on the agenda for most churches.

I suggest that a better way to think about the whole question is to understand that all Christians have been liberated to speak of the word of God, by being filled with the Spirit of God. Our goal with this Spirit-speech is to seek to move those around us towards Christ, and to maturity in him.

Another way of saying this is that the basic Christian response to almost any situation is simply to speak the truth in love, to speak “such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph 4:29).

Now as we do this we are fellow workers with God in his plan to see people from every nation come to Christ and grow to maturity in him. Our involvement in this extraordinary activity is, like every aspect of the Christian life, both God’s work and ours. It can only happen as the Spirit gives us utterance; but it is also something that we should be zealous to pursue and be trained in.

How should that training take place? What does it look like?

We often think of Christian ministry training like this—as purely a matter of instructing and training someone in a particular skill or competency, such as how to share the gospel with someone, how to follow-up a new Christian, how to read the Bible one-to-one with someone, and so on.

And certainly, this aspect of ‘training’ is valid and important. Sometimes all a Christian needs to gain confidence and get started in engaging in a word ministry to others is some simple tips, frameworks and tools to practise and then to use.

However, not all ‘training’ is purely a matter of competency or skill. Medical ‘training’ is a long and comprehensive process, taking years. At the end of it, the student has not simply gained medical skills, but has ‘become a doctor’. They have mastered a massive array of knowledge, and a set of mental models and frameworks to apply that knowledge to whatever diagnostic situation presents itself. They have imbibed the culture of what it means to ‘be a doctor’; a set of values and practices and traditions that is more than textbook knowledge, and also more than a set of practical skills.

Christian growth and ‘training’ is more like this. It involves not only the gaining of competencies or the ability to do certain things, but the convictions that drive those practices, and the character that infuses and shapes them. Training for Christian living and ministry is about gaining knowledge, being convicted of that knowledge in our hearts, seeing the character form that springs from that conviction, and then putting into practice the daily actions and behaviour that result.

It’s like the older woman in Titus 2 who is to train the younger women in godly living. Paul is insistent that this ‘training’ is a direct consequence and outflow of the teaching of “sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). A certain gospel or doctrine will lead to a certain way of life; the two are inseparable. And so the older women are to “teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled” (Titus 2:3b-5). It’s one complete package: true doctrine, resulting in a godly character, along with practical outworkings in daily life.

Training in the New Testament is the thoroughly practical imparting of doctrine and character, in the context of personal relationship. It is the kind of spiritual parenting that Paul showed to the Thessalonians, as he prayerfully taught and modelled the gospel in their midst, like a gentle nursing mother (1 Thess 2:7) and an encouraging, exhorting father (1 Thess 2:11-12).

Now if speaking the word of God to others is the privilege and role of every Christian—if it is, in other words, a facet of Christian growth and godliness under the power of the Spirit—then training someone in an aspect of word ministry will be part of an ongoing training of them simply to be Christian. It will encompass Bible teaching or study, personal example, character formation, along with practical help with the how-to details of putting it into practice.

To read the complete articles click on the links below:


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