Reframing Evangelism

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As I glanced down at the paper that had been thrust into my hands, I silently read through its questions, “Is there a God?”; “Are His standards the same as yours?”; “Is there a Hell?”; “Can you afford to be wrong about the last question?”, “Repent and believe…”. Suddenly I was not amused.

Excusing myself from the conversation that I was having with my friends, I walked over to the group of people who were handing out tracts.

One woman who appeared to be leading the group stepped forward as I approached and asked,

“Are you a Christian?”

Well, that is one way of opening a conversation with a complete stranger. After assuring her that I was, I engaged the group in conversation. We talked briefly about what it looks like to talk to people about Jesus.

All of a sudden, the leader cocked her head and firmly inquired, “What is your method?”

I understood what she was asking of course, she wanted to know if I used Romans Road, the 4 Spiritual Laws, Evangelism Explosion, Way of the Master, passing out tracts etc. However, I think that this is a misguided question for a few reasons.

Beholding the Image of God

Firstly, “What is your method?” is indicative of an all too human desire to have the perfect technique, the right answer for every question, absolute certainty in every circumstance, and absolutely no surprises. This is the undergirding question that fuels numerous diet fads, business strategies, exercise regimens, and unfortunately far too many self-help sermons. It embraces a reductionistic worldview that presumes that somewhere out there that there is a one size fits all approach to the present obstacle that minimizes pain and maximizes pleasure, all in as little time as possible.

The intrinsic difficulty with this question is that frequently it reduces people into objects that can neatly fit into and validate our pre-planned agendas. This in no way reflects the Christian understanding of the inherent dignity and worth of every human being as those who are created in the image of God.

All too often if this motivation guides our evangelism, the encounter that ensues is fear-driven, i.e. repent and believe in Jesus so that you can escape hell. Furthermore, this mode of evangelism often has a short-term vision for conversion rather than long-term discipleship, which can at times be rooted in an egocentric need to validate our own spirituality.

These insights are foundational to my second objection to the question. The question in itself is amoral, however the prevalent human desire for a quick fix subtly betrays a far more alarming reality indwelling the hearts of many who call themselves Christian…. A lack of love.

How could I possibly say that? Aren’t people sharing the love of God through evangelism?

At times they may be, and in no way do I want to discourage those who are compelled by the love of Christ to share the message of reconciliation with those for whom Jesus died. However, fear rather than love is the hidden reservoir that births both our desire for the simple fix and the question, “What is your method?”

Spirit of Fear or Spirit of Love?

I want you to pause for a moment. Imagine in your mind that you are out in a public place and suddenly you feel led by the Holy Spirit to go talk to someone about Jesus. What reservations or questions would pop into your mind? Would they sound something like:

“I don’t want to bother them”

“I don’t want to cram my religion down someone’s throat”

“What if I mess up?”

“I don’t know what to say”

“I don’t like conflict”

These objections and many more flood our minds at the very notion of sharing our faith. Fundamentally they are rooted in fear: fear of rejection, embarrassment, failure, incompetence, conflict, being unveiled as a hypocrite etc.

Whether we want to be candid enough to admit it, much of the American church is in bondage to fear. Unfortunately, this may indicate that the good news that we are afraid to proclaim has yet to truly become good news to us. We recognize the fear, yet rather than examining its roots on our knees in the place of prayer with authenticity and vulnerability, we try to create sure-fire and fail-safe methods of communicating the gospel. For many, the pursuit of this ever-elusive “method” leads to paralysis at the thought of a question that one cannot answer or an awkward situation that we are not prepared for. Yet, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…. We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:17-19)

“What is your method?”

Perhaps a better question might be, “What was Jesus’ method?”

Jesus’ method was simple. He wiped away the tears of widows (Luke 7:13), restored people to their communities (Mark 5:19-20), and welcomed little children (Matt. 19:14). At his hands the blind received their sight, the lame walked, the lepers were cleansed, the deaf heard, the dead were raised, the multitudes were fed, and the good news was proclaimed to the poor (Luke 7:22-23).

His every touch and word were both intimately personal and spoke to the deepest longings of the human heart. Unlike many gospel tracts, the message he proclaimed was not reduced to, “Repent and believe,” but it also included inviting people into abundant life and the fulfillment of flickering hope because the kingdom of God was at hand. Every word and every action that Jesus engaged in was perfectly within the will of God.

And we crucified Him.

It was love that led him to share the message of the gospel, love that empowered him to resolutely put one foot in front of the other on the road to the cross, and it was love that held Him there when He alone out of all humanity had the power to stop it all with a word.

This gives rise to my final concern with the question. Not only can it be a fruitless search for the perfect technique and demonstrative of a lack of love, but it is often our subtle attempt to avoid the cross that our King Jesus has called us all to carry.

The Way of the Cross

There is no easy Christian road that circumvents the cross. There is no perfectly serene journey with God that involves no awkwardness or unresolved questions. The message of the gospel cannot be shared if we do not hit our knees and authentically and vulnerably wrestle with our fears. The perfection that is ever evading our grasping fingertips was fully embodied in Jesus Christ, and it led him to the cross in the name of love.

Perhaps when we do evangelism we can set aside the question, “What is your method?” in favor of the way that Jesus has modeled for us. Let our every touch and interaction with people be intimately personal. May our words bring grace and speak to the deepest longings of the human heart. Let us invite people into the abundant life and the fulfillment of dormant hope.  May we affirm and act in light of the inherent dignity and worth of every human being as those created in the image of God. And finally, let us embody cruciform love in our interactions with the world, almost as if God were making His appeal through us.

This method does not circumvent awkwardness or failure; in fact it almost certainly ensures it. Neither does it avoid suffering. Instead the way that our King walked subverts suffering and in the midst of awkwardness and unanswerable questions turns its eye to the One who in all things is working to conform us into the image of His Son. “What is the method I use?” Walk like Jesus.

Whoever says, “I abide in Him”, ought to walk just as he walked.    –1 John 2:6

Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the Day of Judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.  1 John 4:17

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For the past several years, David and his wife Mary Beth have been working inter-denominationally with the Inspire Movement in the U.K. and the U.S., assisting local churches to develop and implement the vision and practice of robust Wesleyan-style discipleship. This reflects his passion to encourage other believers to flourish in their God-given giftings and to reclaim a biblically grounded spirituality that interweaves discipleship, evangelism, prayer and incarnational living.

5 COMMENTS

    • Sam, thanks for the curiosity. In response to her question, I asked her what her preferred method was and allowed her to talk about the ways that she was trying to share her faith.

      In general communication such as this article I feel it appropriate to express my opinion in a forthright manner, however, often times in face to face conversations with strangers I seek to encourage the measure of faith that people are demonstrating, trusting that the Holy Spirit is at work within them.

      Thus the rest of the conversation involved me telling them that I was inspired by their desire to share about Jesus with other people and encouraging to keep being responsive to the Holy Spirit as he guided them to bear witness to Christ. I also told them it might be fun to do a small group bible study on the sermons/speeches in Acts to see the different ways that the gospel was shared in different contexts.

  1. I love the way you turn the question to “what was Jesus’ method?”

    I think you nailed it. Did Jesus spread the good news by handing out hellfire tracts, or by demonstrating what the kingdom of God looks like?

    Further, would an unbeliever be more likely to become a Christian if they think being a Christian means standing on a street handing tracts to strangers, or if it means feeding the hungry, serving the needy, etc?

    What would the unbeliever see as the fruit that accompanies repentence?
    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  2. David,

    Great article! Your reframing of evangelism from a question of “method” to a question of motivation and motive-force is right-on! I know from personal experience that fear is the major factor in our reluctance to engage people in Spirit-led conversations about the Good News. And fear certainly comes largely from the Enemy (though some level of fear is a natural human reaction to the prospect of entering into interactions which have unpredictable outcomes). And we can be filled with “the perfect love that casts out fear” only through our full surrender to God and the in-filling of His Holy Spirit of love. And then, certainly, we must repeatedly wrestle on our knees in prayer so that the Holy Spirit may heal and transform us.

    That said, though, I would like to put in a plug for some of the traditional evangelistic methods. The very fact that we can answer the question, “What was Jesus’ method?” demonstrates that He had one. Incarnational living is much more than _a method_ but it can be viewed as “method.” We might call Jesus’ method of evangelism “incarnational Good News sharing.”

    One important aspect of Jesus’ incarnational Good News sharing was His spending time in sincere friendship and fellowship with needy people. This included His readiness to engage them in extended conversations on subjects that mattered to them. We should do the same. Further, Jesus’ own example teaches us that in our conversations we should be ready and able to quote Scripture (in a modern version, of course!) whenever it can inform the discussion. In order to be ready to do this, we must study the Scriptures and memorize passages just as Jesus did. For many people, mnemonic devices or organizational themes like the “Roman Road” or the “Four Spiritual Laws” can be very helpful in this preparation process.

    Jesus also understood that incarnational Good News sharing sometimes means going out and preaching in temple courts, on the mountainside, or walking along the roadways. (If He were doing this today, it might look a bit like handing out tracts and preaching on street corners!) Public proclamation in a variety of modes and circumstances was undeniably part of Jesus’ “method,” and should be part (but by no means all) of ours, if the Holy Spirit has gifted us for that type of service.

    Finally, “the love of Christ compels us” to implore people: “Be reconciled to God.” This is mainly a positive message, but there _are_ consequences (temporal and eternal) of not being reconciled to God. We probably shouldn’t lead with, “Do you realize you’re going to Hell unless you know Jesus?!” But in our incarnational Good News sharing we must not fail to mention this truth. In Jesus’ message, and in ours, mercy and redemption always presuppose judgment, too.

    Okay, that’s enough from me. God bless, and keep on “reframing”!

    Phil Troutman

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