Several years ago I was asked by one of my students if I would be interested in joining a group that was working toward better relations between Christians and Muslims in San Diego. I happily accepted the invitation to attend the event.
I had to admit I didn’t have any friends (and only a few acquaintances) who were Muslim. I thought, How can we share the love of Christ with Muslims if we don’t even know them?
At the event, jointly sponsored by a mosque and a Christian group, several Christians and Muslims stood and shared the joy they experienced getting to know each other and learning about each other’s culture, religion and worldview. During a question-and-answer time, the issue of proselytizing (trying to convert someone to your religion) came up.
The Christian pastor who had organized the event stood up and said, “We want you to know we would never dream of trying to convert others to our religion. That is out of bounds for this group.
Up until then, I had been excited about the prospect of joining this group. But now I realized I could not continue if these convictions were expected of participants. Why? Because Christianity, fundamentally, is a religion of mission and evangelism.
It is in our DNA to share the good news of Jesus with others and to seek to win others to Christ. This is who we are. Christianity without evangelism is not Christianity.
The movement of God behind evangelism
As a kid growing up in the church, I remember frequently being taught that we as believers needed to share our faith with others. Though the prospect of “cold turkey” evangelism could be scary, we were to do it because God had commanded it and because it pleased him.
We also shared our faith because it was good for us, kind of like eating our spinach, brushing our teeth or doing our jumping jacks. It was a spiritual discipline that would make us stronger. I remember feeling guilty if I had a conversation with an unbeliever and did not share my faith.
While we should all share our faith, these were not the best motivations. Evangelism is not something we do because it’s good for us. It’s not even something we do because it pleases God (though I’m sure it does). It’s something we do because of who we are.
As believers in Jesus Christ, we have been reconciled to God through Christ’s death on the cross. We are now his agents of reconciliation, ambassadors for Christ, who are carrying out his mission in the world. We are part of God’s story, the divine drama of Scripture and the movement of God in human history.
The story begins in the Book of Genesis with God’s creation of a perfect world and the creation of human beings in his image to have a relationship with him (Genesis 1-2). But with relationship brought free will, and Adam and Eve chose to reject God’s authority, disobeying him and becoming “fallen” people, destined for death and separation from God (Genesis 3).
But God, because of his grace, love and mercy, put in place a plan to bring people back into a right relationship with their Creator.
The plan began with Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:16) but found its first clear expression with Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3. God promised Abraham that through him he would make a great nation (Israel) and through that nation all the nations of the world would be blessed.
The plan came into sharper focus through King David in 2 Samuel 7:11-16. God promised David one of his descendants would bring salvation to the people of God and would reign over them forever in righteousness and justice.
Nine hundred years later, that prophecy was fulfilled with the coming of Jesus. Through his life, death and resurrection he paid the penalty for our sins and so defeated Satan, sin and death, reversing the results of the fall of Adam and Eve. Human beings and, indeed, all of creation can now be restored to a right relationship with God.
But the story didn’t end with Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension to heaven. Though Jesus accomplished our salvation through his death on the cross, he did not take this message to the whole world.
That was the role he gave to his disciples after his resurrection. In the power of the Holy Spirit, they were to be his “witnesses” in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
What has yet to be finished is the delivery of the message of salvation to a lost world. That is our task.
As the body of Christ and the people of God, the church’s role is to deliver the good news about the salvation Jesus accomplished and to call people to faith in him.
In reference to his own suffering as a Christian, the apostle Paul makes a remarkable statement in Colossians 1:24. He writes, “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.”
This is an astonishing statement. Paul says he is completing what is lacking in Christ’s suffering. What could possibly be lacking from Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice for our sins?
While nothing is lacking as far as our salvation is concerned, what has yet to be finished is the delivery of the message of salvation to a lost world. That is our task. We are finishing what is left in Christ’s work by taking the good news to the ends of the earth.
The word “evangelism” comes from the Greek noun “euangelion,” which means “good news.” To evangelize is to share the good news of salvation with those who’ve never heard it. While Jesus accomplished our salvation through his death on the cross, we “fill up what is lacking” in Christ’s suffering by taking this message to the world.
This is our mission. It is our identity and our reason for being.
The mandate for evangelism
Jesus’ last words to his disciples in Matthew’s gospel indicate our fundamental mission:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “Go and make converts.” He doesn’t say, “Convince people to accept Jesus as their Savior.” He says, “Go and make disciples.”
While evangelism is a necessary first step, it is only the beginning. Our task is to produce fully committed followers of Jesus, believers who truly love God and love others and who are themselves bringing others to Christ.
Paul says something similar in 2 Timothy 2:2. He tells Timothy, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.”
Timothy is to reproduce himself in others. This means first of all evangelism, but also discipleship — training and equipping believers who will pass this training on to others.
By way of analogy, parents would never leave a newborn baby in the hospital after giving birth. The birth is just the beginning of the long and challenging task of raising a child. There are 18-plus years of feeding and clothing and teaching and training.
In the same way, evangelism is the (necessary) first step in making disciples, fully committed followers of Jesus who are themselves evangelizing and discipling Christ followers.
Methods of evangelism
There are many ways to share our faith. Perhaps the greatest evangelist of all time, Billy Graham was famous for his huge stadium events, where thousands of people would come forward in response to the gospel. I remember being part of one of these events in Aberdeen, Scotland, where my wife and I were living during my doctoral studies. We had volunteered as counselors and marveled as thousands of people poured out of the stands at Graham’s invitation to accept Christ as their Savior.
Graham clearly had the spiritual gift of evangelism (see Eph. 4:11), and stadium events were an effective method for him. Though not everyone has this spiritual gift, we are all called to make disciples and to evangelize (2 Tim. 4:5). But there are many ways to share your faith.
Converge's Each One Reach One movement focuses on personal evangelism, which is simply living out the Christian life through your daily interactions with others. Whenever you do a kind deed such as visiting someone in a hospital, or welcoming a new neighbor with a gift, or stopping to help someone fix a flat, or babysitting for a young mother, you are sharing the love of Christ with them.
St. Francis of Assisi is purported to have said, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” Of course, this is something of an exaggeration. To share the message of salvation we have to not only share the love of Christ with them, but also tell them what Jesus accomplished on the cross by paying the penalty for our sins.
We earn the right to be heard by loving people unconditionally and giving self-sacrificially.
The best way to evangelize is to simply tell others what God has done for you and what he means to you. The transformation Christ has accomplished in your life is the best testimony you share concerning the truth of the gospel.
One of the most important images of the church is “the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:27; Eph. 4:12), a metaphor indicating we are Christ’s presence on earth. When people meet you, they are meeting Christ, because you are his representative, his presence in the world.
Some people wonder what they should say or whether they need to memorize a speech to share their faith. But the best way to evangelize is to simply tell others what God has done for you and what he means to you. The transformation Christ has accomplished in your life is the best testimony you can share concerning the truth of the gospel.
The means for evangelism
Of course, none of us lives up to the standard of Christ, and we will always fall short of modeling the life of Christ. But we need not despair because of our shortcomings. The power for evangelism does not come in our abilities or skills. It lies in the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, who convicts people of their sin and draws them to God (John 16:8). The Holy Spirit also promises to give us the words to say when we share our faith with others (Mark 13:11).
All this means that the most important tool we have for evangelism is prayer and a faithful walk with God. Pray God will give you opportunities every day to share your faith with others. And pray he will give you the words to say that will draw others to himself. Finally, pray the Spirit will be preparing the hearts of those you will encounter today.
Mark L. Strauss, University Professor of New Testament
Mark L. Strauss is a biblical scholar and professor of New Testament at Bethel Seminary, San Diego.