Despite Christ’s Great Commission to “go and make disciples of all nations,” evangelism is a task I have most often avoided. I usually associate evangelism with an effort to convert nonbelievers to Christianity, something that makes me very uncomfortable. Too often the desire to bring about conversions grows out of a belief that nonbelievers need to be “saved” from eternal damnation by adopting the Christian faith. To the extent that evangelism is about “saving souls,” I want nothing to do with it. I approach matters of faith and belief with humility, unwilling to assert the superiority of my own religious beliefs over those of others. The most I am willing to say is that it is the Christian story that has claimed me and helps me to make meaning of my own life. I recognize that other stories have claimed other people in a similar way, and I want to respect that.
So what of evangelism? Can evangelism be redeemed?
Theologian Bryan Stone has written that evangelism is a “pacifist” activity. The Christian faith is not something to be imposed upon another person but must rather be offered. After all, effective evangelism is not ultimately our doing but is the work of the Holy Spirit. Martin Luther writes in his Small Catechism, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in true faith.” When it comes to evangelism, no amount of studying, strategizing, planning, or calculating will bear fruit if the Holy Spirit is not present. As Stone writes, we can trust that the “Spirit goes before us so that we need not be anxious, manipulative, or controlling in our evangelism.”
Stone says that the “most evangelistic thing the church can do today is to be the church.” To be the church means to gather to hear the gospel proclaimed–to hear the good news that we cannot and need not secure our own salvation, but that we are saved by grace through faith. Having heard this good news, we are liberated from self-centeredness and opened to respond to the needs of our neighbor. When the church is really being the church, those who hear the proclamation of the gospel respond in loving service of the neighbor.
An evangelizing church is at its best when it is doing what the church should be doing in the first place: hearing the gospel and responding to this good news in service of our neighbor. To do evangelism–to offer the Christian faith to another person–is to embody the gospel in a public way, to live in the world as people who have heard the good news and have been freed to address our neighbors’ deepest needs.
I believe that a church that strives to really be the church–that strives to respond to our neighbors’ needs in selfless love–would be perceived by others as something worth exploring. Such a church would be relevant because it would identify and confront the actual needs of people who are suffering. It would provide a real sense of identity and purpose in a world of meaninglessness and self-interest. It would be radically counter-cultural and in this way would provide an alternative way of being. Such a church, I argue, has intrinsic evangelistic appeal. Simply to be the church, then, is to engage in the ministry of evangelism.
The featured image for this post, “The Time of the Preacher,” is copyright (c) 2004 Thomas Hawk and made available under an Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license.