Christians seek to be an influence to others. Church plants pray for revival in the city. Parachurch organizations plan movements that seek to advance the cause of the kingdom in the city. The action begins, and everyone now seems to be doing “evangelism.” It might not come as a surprise that everyone does evangelism differently and even have different opinions on what constitutes evangelism.
In our day and age, evangelism has become a lost art inside some Christian circles.
So what is evangelism? Thankfully, it is not terribly complicated. Theologian Wayne Grudem provides an accurate and simple definition: It is “the proclamation of the gospel to unbelievers (from the Greek word euangelizo, “to announce good news”). In other words, it is the announcing, teaching, or communicating of the good news of the gospel to the unsaved with the hopes that they might come to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. This is the essence of evangelism. Nothing more and nothing less.
We find this definition in two key passages, both defined by Jesus Himself. The first is Luke 24:47, which says that “repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” The second key passage is Mark 16:15, which reads, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.”
Understanding what evangelism is according to Scripture also helps us to discern what evangelism is not. In understanding the difference, we have a clearer focus on our mission as Christians. It also should give us soberness to not pass up good opportunities to speak the gospel to people, especially when we are tempted to replace evangelism with another program or method that we think constitutes true evangelism.
Here are ten common practices that can tempt us to believe we have evangelized (especially when these activities are used as a replacement for verbal gospel proclamation):
1. Inviting non-Christians to church: This is one of the common practices of Christians today. Christians think that they have done their evangelism job once they have brought the unbelievers into the church gathering. It’s not bad to invite a friend to church, since the assembly of the saints is a good place for unbelievers to see the living testimony of Christ lived out before his eyes. But when using this as a crutch or a substitute for your obedience to evangelism, then it becomes a problem. And is there really any guarantee that your pastor or any church leader will personally evangelize your unbelieving friend on that Sunday?
2. Conversions: Another term for this is “the results of evangelism.” This is when you have both proclaimed the gospel to the unbeliever and converted them. Nowhere in Scripture, even in passages like Romans 1:15 and Galatians 4:13 when evangelism is used as a verb, does the word imply that evangelism is successful when we procure conversion. Failure to grasp this concept has lead to unnecessary pressure on evangelists, which in turn leads them to try to get conversions at nearly all costs. When this happens, Christians experiment with unbiblical, pragmatic methods of evangelism that produce manipulated “decisions,” and ultimately spurious conversions.
3. Apologetics: This is the art of defending the Christian faith with answers to objections. The problem is that some Christians use apologetics, rather than the gospel, to try to win over unbelievers, thinking that clever arguments, such as kalam cosmological argument, the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery, the DNA structure, and biblical prophecies, will win the day. Other than the fact that commonplace experience shows us that unbelievers are not generally converted by hard data, Scripture even tells us that God does not use solely empirical evidence to draw a sinner to belief in Christ. Instead, the Lord uses the gospel. God has chosen to use the “foolish message” of the cross to be the power of God onto salvation (1 Cor 1:18).
4. Praying with unbelievers: This is when you pray with unbelievers. Some people believe this to be evangelism, and have actually replaced evangelizing unbelievers with praying with them. This is a case of the fear-of-persecution syndrome. Let’s face it; it is a lot more “loving” to pray for them than to be “confrontational” by being open with them about the issues of sin, judgment, and the need to repent before a holy God. The problem with this approach is that it clearly does not square with the biblical definition of what evangelism is. Another roadblock is that nowhere in Scripture are Christians exhorted to pray together with unbelievers, as if they have a common saving faith or a common god. Instead, Christians are commanded to pray and intercede for an unbeliever’s salvation (Rom 10:1; 1 Tim 2:1).
5. “God loves you” or “Jesus loves you:” You’ve probably been a part of evangelism teams, or have seen groups, that said or held up signs that read, “Jesus loves you!” Yet these evangelists rarely mention sin, heaven, hell, the atonement, the resurrection, or any information that a sinner needs to know in order to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. It’s not a bad thing to say “God loves you” to an unbeliever, because it is true. But when proclaimed without any context, it can be misleading. When unbelievers hear this statement, they think that God will accept them eternally, no matter what kind of lifestyle they are living or what they believe.
6. “Accept Jesus:” This is very close to evangelism, but not quite. This is when you take a gospel presentation, chop out all the content, and simply call the unbeliever to “accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.” In other words, you don’t actually explain the gospel message to them. There is a problem with this approach. The unbeliever will obviously not desire to believe in Christ because he does not see why he needs to come to Christ, and does not understand why Jesus is the only way for him to be saved from hell. Gospel proclamation, although not an encyclopedia of data, is certainly more than just telling someone to “accept Jesus Christ.”
7. Lifestyle evangelism: This is when you live a certain way before your unbelieving friends, relatives, and co-workers, thinking that your actions will impress them, illicit curiosity to your faith, and eventually draw them to salvation in Christ. It is somewhat based on the salt-and-light principle from Matthew 5:13-16. Although this Sermon on the Mount passage does teach us to be living witnesses to unbelievers, it is not identical to evangelism. Evangelism, once again, is the proclamation of the gospel to the person, and “lifestyle evangelism” does not fit that bill. Unbelievers will not understand the gospel just by observing your lifestyle. They can very well see a respectful lifestyle in a moral Buddhist and an atheist. As Romans 10:14 declares, “…How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?”
8. Personal Testimony: This is when you share your life story with an unbeliever about how you came to Jesus Christ or what he did or is currently doing in your life , with the hopes that this “bait” will attract your prospect to the faith. The problem with personal testimonies is that many of them are devoid of the gospel message. Once again, we must remember that it is not apologetics, clever stories, or arguments that win people to salvation, but the gospel (Rom 1:16). A downfall with personal testimonies is that unbelievers will approach such stories with an attitude of, “That’s good for you. But I have my own path and happiness.” However, the gospel is not relative or optional. It sets one path of salvation, and calls for a response from the sinner.
9. Humanitarian or social action: A popular trend among many evangelicals, especially in urban settings, is to spread the Christian influence by doing good deeds for the city, such as feeding the poor, serving in soup kitchens, cleaning up the streets, and tutoring underprivileged children. They call this “servanthood evangelism.” In this pursuit, the gospel is sometimes preached, but other times, it is not. In the latter case, the church becomes no different than the Angelina Jolies of the world who do humanitarian work in the name of “love.” Giving a sandwich to a homeless guy on the street is noble, but what does it profit him if we feed him physically, yet he dies spiritually?
10. “Revival” events: These are special events designed to rally Christians up in “worship” of God. They are usually centered on high-tech music designed to stir up the feelings of the attendees so that they can get an emotional high for God. The problem with this approach is that this type of event does not place the preaching of the gospel as its centerpiece. Therefore, it cannot qualify as a “revival” in any way, because the historical outworking of revival is the mass salvation of unbelievers as a result of gospel proclamation, such as the case with the Great Awakening. Emotional feelings for God do not save people; only the gospel can do this, as the Bible teaches.
These ten practices should always be kept in perspective. This is not to say that these practices are evil or counterproductive. Most of them can actually be of great benefit to supplement or open opportunities for the preaching of the gospel to non-Christians. This is why if they are done, they should be done to the glory of God and in some sort of partnership with evangelism opportunities. Creative approaches should always serve the cause of biblical evangelism, and not be replacements of it.
As defined earlier, evangelism is the proclamation of the good news of Christ to unbelievers with the hope that they might turn to Christ in faith and be reconciled to Him eternally. And the content of that faith should center on God’s authority, man’s sinfulness, eternal punishment, and the good news of Christ’s incarnation, atonement, resurrection, and our need to respond in repentance and faith in order to be saved. That is the successful communication of the gospel. And that message alone has tremendous power, as Paul states, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).
Steve Cha is the teaching pastor of Grace City LA.