There is a problem with our emphasis on evangelism. It is not the evangelism that is the problem. It is what we are skipping along the way!
When I suggest what is obvious in Scripture, that “the Great Commission” was given only to the apostles, I am excoriated by everyone but my closest friends. Now, though, a book I am reading may give me a chance to make my suggestion—well, assertion—more palatable.
The following is a quote from some theologians who seem to agree with me, but with whom I disagree. The quote is from a report called Re-Thinking Missions, which was produced by a “Commission of Appraisal” led by Harvard philosopher William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966).
The Christian way of life is capable of transmitting itself by quiet personal contact and contagion, and there are circumstances in which this is the perfect mode of speech. Ministry to the secular needs of men in the spirit of Christ, moreover, is evangelism, in the right sense of the word.… We believe that the time has come to … be willing to give largely without any preaching, to cooperate whole-heartedly with non-Christian agencies for social improvement. (cited by Sweeney, D. A. . The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement [p. 100]. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.)
I think being willing to give without preaching is a good thing. Avoiding preaching, however? Not a good thing. The apostle Paul wrote:
How shall they hear without a preacher? (Rom. 10:14)
Preaching is necessary. Evangelism is a good thing. The harvest is ready, and the laborers are few. We should be praying that the good Lord would send laborers into the harvest.
… that the good Lord would … send …
The next question Paul asks is:
How shall they preach except they be sent?
Have we considered who is sent?
Missing a Step
So what step are we missing?
We are missing the step in which they are sent. In fact, we’re missing a much more major step in which people can be prepared to be sent.
I’m not talking about missionaries. Many of those are ill-prepared for what they will face on the mission field, but most missionaries have had some preparation and have been sent by someone.
I’m talking about the evangelists that are sent out into their own homes, workplaces, and towns, who are neither equipped nor commissioned.
The step that’s missing is the church.
How Can We Be Forgetting the Church When We Have So Many Churches?
Admittedly, evangelicals start churches, and they encourage their members to be a part of a church. But if you are a part of an evangelical church for any length of time, you soon find out that church is just a way to keep up your zeal for evangelism. It’s a way to pass time until we get to heaven. There’s only two steps that really matter, getting saved, and saving others.
The magnitude of what we’re missing with that mindset is phenomenal.
We are predestined to be conformed to the image of King Jesus (Rom. 8:29). The reason that Jesus gave us apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers is so that we would be able to build up the body of Christ so that the body of Christ, the church, can grow together into his fullness (Eph. 4:11-16).
Paul told us that it is through many tribulations that we must enter into the kingdom of God (Acts 14:21). We rejoice in tribulation because it produces character and character produces hope (Rom. 5:3-4). The goal of the Scriptures is to equip us for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17). James tells us that the route to that equipping is the trials of this life (Jam. 1:2-4).
You will find all sorts of commands in the letters to the churches about loving one another, having the same mind, maintaining unity of the Spirit, and living a life worthy of the calling with which we are called. Paul’s entire letter to Titus is about what to say to the churches in Crete, and even to its leaders once he appoints them, and not one line of those instructions include “go out and evangelize.”
In fact, Paul’s instruction to the church at Thessalonica, after he commended them for the great love they had for one another, was to …
… labor to lead a quiet life, to attend to your own business, and to work with your hands, like we commanded you, so that you may live decently before outsiders. (1 Thess. 4:11-12)
Evangelism the Bible Way
Whether we like it or not, here is what the Scriptures say. Jesus told the apostles to go out and start churches all over the world. Some others were clearly added to that commission, such as Paul, Barnabas, and Apollos. We know from Acts that Paul and Barnabas (Barnabas and Saul at the time) were given a specific call from the Holy Spirit and then sent by the church.
Those churches were told to live in such a way that …
- the world would see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven (Matt. 5:16);
- the world would see our love and know we are his disciples (Jn. 13:34-35);
- the world would see our unity and know the Father sent Jesus (Jn. 17:20-13);
- the world would see us live quiet lives, work with our hands, and attend to our own business and know that we are decent (1 Thess. 4:11-12);
- the world would be embarrassed to speak evil of our good behavior in Jesus (1 Pet. 3:16).
Let’s address that last passage. It’s really important.
Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give an answer to to everyone that asks a reason for the hope that is in you. (1 Pet. 3:15)
I quoted this once to someone who disagreed with me about the Great Commission being given only to the apostles. He answered me, “So we have to wait for someone to ask? When was the last time someone asked you?”
He nailed the problem right on the head.
Why Our Emphasis on Evangelism Hurts Our Evangelism
People ask me all the time for the reason that I live with such hope. It happens more often now that I’m a cancer survivor, but it has happened all my Christian life, 32 years worth of requests for the reason for my hope in Jesus.
In 1983 I was in Alaska in the Air Force. My roommate was a tough guy, hunter and all around strong, healthy, and outdoorsy guy. I was a complete nerd. I thought he despised me, and I hardly ever talked to him. He certainly didn’t talk to me.
One night, right after we had both climbed into our beds, he asked, “How do I become a Christian?”
I was shocked. He listened openly, then said, “I have to give some real thought to this.”
The next day a co-worker who was a nominal Christian—maybe “unrighteous hypocrite” is more honest—explained to him that he didn’t have to live like me to go to heaven. Faith was all it takes, so he could just go on doing his own thing.
I had a couple very interesting occurrences a couple years later. I was an electrician working on F-4’s, and so I worked out of a dispatch office that included all the mechanic, radar, communications, hydraulic, and navigation specialists. With 24 planes to take care of, we often had up to 60 people in and out of the dispatch office during day shift.
I read a book during that time that really convicted me and got me to thinking about changes I needed to make in my life. As I was sitting one day, mulling over the message in the book, an airman with whom I’d never talked sat down next to me.
“Are you okay?” he asked. “Is something wrong?”
“I’m fine,” I told him. “I’m just thinking about some things.”
He then told me, “Well, you better pull yourself together. You’re supposed to be shining a light to the rest of us.”
Not long after, I was on an evening shift, and one of the crew chiefs swung by to ask one of us specialists to stand fire guard while his plane was being refueled. We specialists worked on all the planes, but the crew chiefs were assigned to one plane. They took care of it, and they called us if they needed our help.
No one liked to get up and stand fire guard when they could be sitting in the dispatch office chewing the fat until their next repair job. I didn’t like it, either, but I figured Christians should serve, so I volunteered for the job.
What transpired afterward was simply amazing.
One of the guys said, “We need more Christians here so that I don’t have to do fire guard. Would anyone like to get saved?”
Someone answered, “I don’t think I could live like that.”
A third co-worker said, “No, it’s not like that. I’ve been talking to Paul here, and it’s about grace. If you accept Jesus, then he’ll give you the desire and the power to live like a Christian.”
The first guy who had spoken got excited. “There you go!” He announced. “Raise your hand if you want to accept the Lord!”
All three were non-Christian. One of them was also an electrician, so he had asked me a lot of questions as worked out on a plane one day, me sitting in the cockpit, and him sitting out on the ladder next to me. I got a good hour or two to explain the Gospel to him, and though he had not yet repented, something had gotten in. Now he was telling others even though he hadn’t decided to follow yet himself!
Sometimes the questions are not so direct. One day while I was hospitalized I went to visit one of my chemo buddies in his room. He was Jewish proselyte. He had been agnostic, met a Jewish girl, was baptized into Judaism, and married the girl. Oddly enough, he was still agnostic, and he told me a lot of Jews are.
He had already seemed like the philosopher/intellectual type. That day he had a visitor who was even more so. I’m pretty sure they were discussing an ancient Greek book that I knew little or nothing about. It was clear I was with people who were over-my-head intellectual. Honestly, forsaking humility, that’s not a common experience for me.
I just listened, knowing I wasn’t in their league on whatever they were talking about, when my chemo buddy told his guest, “Paul wrote a book. It’s pretty interesting.”
Don’s guest asked me about it, and I started explaining about the Council of Nicea and what happened to the church and how it affected western history. He listened completely captivated. When I was done, he said, “I have got to talk to you more.”
That never happened because Don was released a couple days later.
I have at least dozens, maybe a couple hundred stories like that.
I started this section by saying that someone had asked me, “When was the last time someone asked you about your faith?” Obviously, he thought that if a person said nothing and just lived their faith, no one would notice.
What is really happening is that because of our emphasis on evangelism Christians, from the holiest to the outright hypocrite, is exhorted to evangelize as though this were our prime Christian duty. It is, after all, according to evangelicals, the GREAT Commission.
Thus, we have created an army of salesmen, usually no more welcome than a Jehovah’s Witness, a Kirby vacuum peddler, or a used car salesman. No one asks for a reason for the hope that is in us because they are tired of hearing it. When they see us, they have the same feeling they get when they walk into a car lot and the salesman approaches. You don’t get to say “just looking” in a car lot.
I’m not saying we can’t overcome it. Even in this modern day, if we will do what Jesus said—good works, love each other, and maintain the unity of the Spirit—people will see us and know there is something different.
And that is just my point. Set a real Christian free, and he (or she) cannot help but evangelize even if he never opens his mouth. No matter how shy a Christian is, the light of his life is going to draw people, and the movement of the Holy Spirit in his heart will make sure he has something to say in time of need.
Evidences from Scripture and the Early Church
This post is just over 2,000 words already, but this subject is so sacred, though not any more Scriptural because of its sacredness, to evangelicals that I think it’s important to give you a bit more.
The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus the King; King Jesus from God. … Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus the King, established in the Word of God, and with full assurance of the Holy Spirit, they went forth proclaiming that the Kingdom of God was at hand. (The Church at Rome to the Church at Corinth. 1 Clement 42.)
He has exhorted us to lead all men, by patience and gentleness, from shame and the love of evil. And this indeed is proved in the case of many who once were of your way of thinking, but have changed their violent and tyrannical disposition, being overcome either by the consistency which they have witnessed in their neighbors’ lives, or by the extraordinary forbearance they have observed in their fellow travelers when defrauded, or by the honesty of those with whom they have transacted business. (Justin. First Apology 16)
[Jesus] commanded the eleven others, on his departure to the Father, to “go and teach all nations, who were to be baptized into the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Therefore, the apostles immediately did this, as their title indicates “the sent” … On the authority of a prophecy which occurs in a psalm of David, they chose Matthias by lot as a twelfth … they next went forth into the world and preached the same doctrine of the same faith to the churches. They then … founded churches in every city, from which all other churches, ane after another, derive the tradition of the faith and the seeds of doctrine. Indeed, they are deriving them every day so that they can become churches. (Tertullian. Prescription Against Heretics 20.)
One of my favorite passages illustrating the plan of God is 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10. I have asserted that God’s plan was for the apostles, and those who are especially sent, like Paul, Barnabas, and Apollos, to go into all the world with the Gospel. Everywhere they went they would establish churches that were a testimony to the Lord by their very lives. As Jesus pointed out, they were cities set on a hill that could not be hidden (Matt. 5:13-16).
1 Thessalonians 1:5-10 is a testimony of how well this plan works!
Paul tells the Thessalonians that their love is so well known that it is a witness not only in Macedonia and Achaia (entire provinces), but everywhere “so that we do not have to say anything.”
No wonder Paul went on to Spain after the imprisonment that ends the book of Acts. His churches were prospering lights. The life of his churches in the east was testifying for him.
Arise, shine, for your light has come! And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you! For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people, but the Lord will arise on you, and his glory shall be seen on you. Gentiles shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. Lift up your eyes! Look around and see! They all gather togther. They all come to you. Your sons will come from afar, and your daughters will be nursed at your side. … The abundance of the sea will be converted to you, and the Gentiles shall come to you. (Isa. 60:1-5)
The Fulfillment of the Great Commission Through the Church
Somehow, most people assume I am against evangelism when I say that the Great Commission is not for everyone. Not at all! I am arguing that the most powerful way to evangelize is God’s way.
I’ve been reading a book about the evangelical movement. There is, of course, a lot of focus on the missionary movement. The stories of some of these evangelists thrill me.
At our church we are fond of saying, “The only thing better than living this life is sharing it with others.” We love to shine the light of this life that has descended from heaven, and we cherish every opportunity to talk about it.
That doesn’t mean that every Christian is commanded to evangelize.
Facts are facts, whether we like them or not. Jesus was talking to the eleven when he gave the Great Commission. Jesus still calls people and sends them.
The instructions to the church, however, are to stay right where you are, live a quiet life, work with your hands, mind your own business, and give everyone around you a reason to marvel at your life and the life of the people you have been joined to in Jesus.
I’m sorry. I love Keith Green, but Jesus did not command us to go, and it should definitely NOT be the exception to stay.
We have sent ill-equipped missionaries into the field. That’s the minor problem, though it is still a problem.
I know of one couple whose intention was to go into the mission field. They were all excited about it until they got a taste of real church life. At that point it became obvious that their marriage was entirely dysfunctional. As is common in marriages where the wife is “the spiritual one” and the husband is meek and tagging along, the wife didn’t like it when her husband started to become a man of God. In fact, she disliked it so much that as he began to rise up and follow Jesus wholeheartedly, she divorced him.
What would they have taken with them to the mission field?
That’s the minor problem. Those who want to be missionaries are almost always trying—sometimes despite glaring faults—to live for Jesus. The major problem is the unsaved or baby “Christians” that fill our pews and are exhorted to go witness, witness, witness.
Some baby Christians ought to be witnessing. They have a transformed life, though they may know little of the ways of the Lord at the beginning. They are excited and in love with Jesus. Let them witness. Let their excitement show.
However, it’s usually not necessary to command such people to witness. People notice the change and ask what happened. When I was converted, it spread all through our squadron. I heard “Is it true you got saved?” daily for a month or so.
Others are intimidated and terrified. They don’t know what they’ve gotten into. They are given the same instructions a Jehovah’s Witness might receive: “Go out and recruit.”
Unless you have a salesman personality, that is simply overwhelming.
That wouldn’t matter if that is what Jesus or the apostles taught to the disciples in general. Yes, Jesus trained the twelve and even the 70 to preach the Gospel. We should be training people to do so as well. We should be praying for the Father to send people out into the harvest.
First, though we should make a disciple out of those who have been converted!
Look at Jesus’ instructions to a large crowd rather than to just the eleven. The Sermon on the Mount started with just his disciples (Matt. 5:1-2), but by the end, he was clearly speaking to a crowd (Matt. 7:28). In the Sermon on the Mount he does talk about “evangelizing,” but the method of evangelism was to do good works.
What sort of good works? Well, he goes on to describe them. Be poor in spirit; show mercy, rejoice in persecution; hunger for righteousness; don’t lust; don’t be angry or hate; turn the other cheek; be private in your prayer and giving; seek rewards from God, not men; Trust God, despise money; etc.
Read that paragraph again (or better yet, the whole Sermon on the Mount), and ask yourself, “If I did all these things, and more importantly, if I did all these things together with friends, would the world notice?”
I think so. They might even ask about it.