There’s a special level of frustration in life reserved for playing a game of charades with your family, wherein, despite you acting circles around Daniel Day Lewis himself, they still end up guessing everything except what you are trying to communicate.
The communication of the gospel to those around you can at times feel as frustrating as trying to get your family to shout out “Jurassic Park” while you prowl around the lounge like a velociraptor. But Christian evangelism is not meant to be a lucky dip exercise in who can correctly discern our ‘Jesus actions’ in the world as being good news for them. Evangelism is more than the communication of subjective ‘good’ news; more than the offering of good advice; more than the marketing of the Christian faith.
One way to help us overcome some of the frustrations we may experience in evangelism is to remind ourselves what evangelism actually is. To help us do just that, let’s explore the concept, uniqueness and practice of evangelism.
The Concept of Evangelism
The word ‘evangelism’ basically means to announce good news. Historically the idea was often rooted in the ‘good news’ of a royal announcement:
‘A new prince has been born.’
‘A victory has been accomplished on the battlefield.’
‘A new day of national celebration will be observed in honour of our great king.’
These days we don’t need to wait for a royal announcement to get our good news, we evangelise every day by being proclaimers of ‘good news’ on our social media platforms about anything and everything.
‘I’ve just eaten an amazing cheeseburger at the new place in the mall!‘
‘My sports team won against our rivals!‘
‘This lipstick shade looks great on me!‘
‘I just got the new iPhone‘
But these declarations (good as they may be) are less than the good news of Jesus Christ. When it comes to the gospel it turns out that we aren’t done with royal announcements just yet. The gospel is a royal announcement from the perfect kingdom of heaven that is to be proclaimed to all of creation.
‘A prince of peace has been born and his name is Jesus.’
‘A victory has been accomplished on the cross over sin and death.’
‘A new and eternal day of celebration is possible through the resurrected Lord.’
The Uniqueness of Evangelism
Christian evangelism is unique to all other forms of good news proclamation in at least these three ways.
1. Its Universality
The overwhelming majority of what we announce as being ‘good’ is actually subjective. To take two of the earlier examples: the cheeseburger is not good news for a vegetarian (or the cow), and the rival team who lost won’t share your enthusiasm for the sports result.
But the Gospel is good news for all people in all places at all times (Psalm 96). It is the truth that restores humanity to relationship with the God we ran away from. In response to the gospel all can turn back to God, know his forgiveness and be set free to worship him.
2. Its Consequence
Not only is the gospel good news for everyone, it is also the most important news for everyone. There might be something other than the gospel that you could claim as universal ‘good news’, for example, reducing the plastic in our oceans could be good news for all people, ensuring our planet is a healthier space to live and thrive in. And yet, many people won’t notice this good news at work in their lives day by day (except for the effect of having to use a paper straw clearly not fit for purpose in a McDonalds milkshake).
But the Gospel is the most important news for any human to receive and know at any moment of their lives because it is the exclusive way by which a person can move from death to life (1 Corinthians 15:1-3; 20-22). There is no other way to the Father than through trust in the Son as Lord (John 14:6; Romans 10:9).
3. Its Power
Marketing can be powerful (and coercive). Your diet might be going gangbusters until that Doritos advert appears on TV to push your willpower beyond breaking point. The truth is that marketing is specifically designed to appeal to our emotions, wants and needs as it offers us something attractive to satisfy those things.
But Christian evangelism is not an attempt to coerce people into choosing our product. Evangelism is a presentation of the truth about Jesus in the power of the Spirit. Rather than exploit people’s emotions, wants and needs, we seek to exalt the one who can fulfil them. The Gospel has the power – both in its essential truth and in how God works through it – to revive our dead hearts and transform us into the people we were created to be (Ephesians 4:22-24).
The Practice of Evangelism
If conceptually Christian evangelism is a royal announcement of good news, and uniquely it is the proclamation of the powerful, life saving and changing news about Jesus Christ, what might it look like in practice?
Our evangelism can be outworked in numerous ways. Relationally over time with friends and family; offering prayer to a stranger; preaching to multitudes from a platform; through the giving of a bible; conversation that flows alongside meeting practical need; the practice of hospitality… the list goes on and on. But in any expression, evangelism always requires the Holy Spirit to be at work, not least because salvation power belongs to God alone (Romans 1:16). One simple definition of evangelism I’ve heard is to understand evangelism as joining in the conversation the Holy Spirit is already having with a person. Alongside this, evangelism is to be motivated by love – our response to the love of God who first loved us, and who offers that same love to the world through us (1 John 4:10-12). Beyond these two vital realities, evangelism in practice will centre to some degree on the following three things:
Whilst works and wonders are desirable in evangelism, words are essential (Romans 10:14). Many Christians never progress beyond ‘charades evangelism’ with the world, hoping that by their actions alone people will be able to put it all together for themselves and come up with Jesus as the answer. But without words we will struggle to give people the information they need to know that Jesus is Lord, that repentance is required, and that God is knowable not just as an abstract feeling but in his character as revealed in the bible. The gospel must be known by us and then communicated clearly with words to those around us so that they may know for themselves and respond accordingly.
We might think of works as being something we do in the world to ‘show’ Jesus before preaching the message. But the primary way that works are of use to us in evangelism are in the works of God himself. Historically (the gospel), presently (testimony of his work in our lives), and yet to come (the assured hope of the coming kingdom).
That being said, works in the world are also an important part of our witness as they reveal God at work in and through us today. In this way we become representatives for God’s character and heart in our own behaviour and interactions with the world – being and doing the gospel – meeting practical need and showing God’s love in action, all of which confirms the integrity of the message we share (2 Corinthians 5:20).
Regardless of where you sit on the charismatic spectrum, we must not ignore that God is still working the greatest miracle of all today – salvation. The healing and resurrection of dead human hearts is both the content and the outcome of our message and is a miracle we should proclaim with wonder. Alongside this, we should wisely be open to God moving in miraculous ways – healing, words of knowledge, deliverance etc – through us as he sees fit for the purposes of revealing himself to those we reach out to (Acts 14:3).
As we put the pieces of the evangelism puzzle together – while keeping in mind the desired outcome of seeing disciples made and matured in the church – we can offer an answer to the question what is evangelism as follows:
Evangelism is the Holy Spirit empowered proclamation (words essential; works & wonders desirable) of the Good News about Jesus Christ in the hope that people might trust in him as Lord, turn from their rebellion against God the Father and know true life in restored relationship with him today (brought to maturity by his Spirit and in his church) and forevermore in his eternal Kingdom.
1. How would you explain evangelism to someone unfamiliar with the concept?
2. What other elements of the Good News are unique to Christian evangelism?
3. Words are essential, but how do works and wonders play a role in your evangelism?
4. How might clarity about what evangelism actually is help with some challenges and frustrations we face as we attempt to announce the good news to the world?