I want to explore with you all how to do ministry in our post-Christian landscape, but before we talk about that it makes sense to define our terms. In my last post I asked What is the gospel? In this post I am asking What is evangelism? Before we talk about the how of evangelism, we need to talk about the what.
What is evangelism?
The definition or summary of the gospel that I gave in my last post was this:
The gospel is the good news that: Through the person (Son of God, God-man) and work (sinless life, substitutionary death, bodily resurrection) of Jesus, God the Father has rescued us from judgement for our sin, reconciled us to Himself, adopted us into His family (the church), broken the power of sin and the devil in our lives and given us His Spirit so that we can live, though imperfectly in this life, as a new humanity in a broken world, and someday He will utterly vanquish all evil, completely transform us body and soul into our perfect selves, and usher in a new creation, free from the presence of sin, in which we can enjoy our new life with Him forever.
To evangelize is to “gospelize” people, it is to speak this good news into peoples’ lives. And this good news is needed by Christians and non-Christians a like. Non-Christians need to know Jesus can forgive their sins, make them right with God, empower them to live a new life, and give them a new destiny in the New Heavens and New Earth. Christians constantly need to be reminded that Jesus has saved them, is saving them, will save them. Christians need to be reminded that they do not need to obey God to earn His love, favour, and acceptance, they already have all of that in Jesus, and they get to obey out of grateful joy knowing there is grace for all the ways they will mess up. Christians need to be reminded that they are not slaves to sin anymore, they don’t have to live defeated, beaten down lives, they can overcome by the power of the Spirit of God that lives in them. Jesus has started a good work in them and He is going to complete it (Philippians 1:6). Christians need to be reminded that although the world is chaotic, their futures are secure. God will fulfill all His promises. Evil will not win. The church will not be eradicated. Nothing of eternal value will be lost to them. They can never lose what ultimately matters. Christians need to be reminded of these things, sometimes daily. Evangelism isn’t just what Christians do with non-Christians, it ought to be what Christians do with each other. Sometimes I am overwhelmed at the brokenness of our world and all that needs to be done, and I need a fellow Jesus follower to come along and say to me, ‘David, you aren’t the saviour of the world, it doesn’t all rest on you, Jesus is the Saviour, let Him live His life through you and trust Him that He will build His church (Matthew 16:18), He will make all things new (Revelation 21:5), not you.’ I need this. I need to be gospelized, to be evangelized. I need to re-believe the gospel almost every day, not to be made right with God but to stay close to God and live the life of full joy that He has welcomed me into through Jesus.
Evangelism as telling an alternate story
Evangelism is something of a dirty word for some people, and some of this is reaction to how poorly evangelism has be done (and is being done), but it doesn’t have to be. For me, evangelism isn’t about imposing my religious beliefs on someone. It isn’t about winning converts to enlarge my tribe and diminish someone else’s tribe that my people might have more influence in culture and politics. It isn’t about winning an argument, and it isn’t about explaining a series of propositional truths and then asking people to intellectually assent to those truths (although the gospel is not less than a set of propositional truths). Evangelism is about speaking into peoples lives a different story and inviting them to explore, believe, embrace, and live into that story. The reality is is we are constantly telling ourselves stories: we need to be in control, we need to be approved of by these people, we don’t have any value if we don’t have this or that etc… And our culture is constantly telling us stories: look out for number one, live for your happiness, do what feels good for you, buy this and you’ll have joy, do this and you’ll be significant, be this and you’ll be accepted, this is what is wrong with the world and this is what will fix it etc… Everyone in our society is telling us stories all the time. Celebrities are telling stories, politicians are telling stories, late night talk show hosts are telling stories, satirists and comedians are telling stories, activists are telling stories, artists are telling stories, advertisers are telling stories, everyone is telling stories, and the gospel is a story, a story that gives a beautiful alternative to the narratives of self-salvation, self-service, self-glorification, liberalism, conservatism, materialism, consumerism, individualism, capitalism, hedonism, relativism, socialism etc… that we so often hear and that have left us wanting, and it is a story that I believe to be true, as have millions of others throughout the ages.
Evangelism as personal story-telling
Evangelism, however, isn’t just about sharing the gospel story, it is about sharing our stories. The gospel is not just a story that is out there. My testimony is the story of how my life story and the story of the gospel intersected when I was 16, and so for me evangelism is not just about sharing a story, but it is about sharing how the gospel story has changed my life story; how my life story has become absorbed up into this far grander narrative that transcends my time and place. The gospel has redeemed my past and present, the chapters in my story that I wish weren’t there, and it has given my story a far greater ending. It has also added a ton of transformative and exciting, though rarely painless, chapters leading up to the ending that I would not have written on my own. Evangelism, therefore, is deeply personal, and it should be for every Jesus follower. It is me telling people who I believe Jesus Christ to be, but it is also me telling people how He has changed my life and how I believe He can change the lives of others. When I evangelize a Christian or a non-Christian I am speaking an alternate story into their lives, a story that has profoundly changed and shaped my story.
Evangelism as showing people how Jesus is good news for them
To evangelize is also to step into peoples’ stories and show them that Jesus is good news for them, He is the answer to their questions, the solution to their problems, and the satisfaction of their deepest longings and desires. He is the One they have wanted all along, the One they have looked for in other people and things. For example, in an honour-shame culture, we can talk about how Jesus takes away our shame and our guilt and restores to us our dignity, value, honour, and worth.
In a culture that cares deeply about justice and human rights, we can talk about how Jesus is coming back to make all sad things come untrue. He is the rightful King who will vanquish all evil and will usher in a restored creation where there is no racism, sexism, xenophobia, human trafficking, inequality, sexual abuse and exploitation, war, genocide, terrorism, bullying, food insecurity, poverty, slavery, corruption, greed etc…
In a culture where people desperately want to be seen as good, we can talk about how Jesus was good on our behalf so we don’t have to be perfect to be accepted, and how Jesus, if we give our lives to Him, gives us His Spirit and starts to make us truly good, not just externally but internally at the heart and motive level.
In a culture where people want to belong, we can talk about how Jesus adopts us into God’s family, the church, where, because of Him, we are all equal and we all belong despite differences of age, experience, race, socio-economic status, family or origin, gender, education, career, ability, mental health, or whatever else divides us in society.
In a culture where people want to be forgiven, we can lift up Jesus as the One who has secured ultimate forgiveness for us from God. Because of Jesus we are fully forgiven and acceptable to God. We are unconditionally, unwaveringly, and irreversibly loved and delighted in. God is pleased with us through Jesus.
In a culture where the dark forces are believed in and feared, and religion is all about placating unpredictable demons, we can talk about how Jesus is stronger, and He has defeated the devil and his demons, and through Jesus we can overcome them as well. “Greater is He who is in us then he who is in the world (the devil)” (1 John 4:4).
In a culture where death is feared, we can talk about how Jesus has conquered death and rendered it a means by which we enter into the very presence of God in heaven. We can talk about how death is not the end of our story but the beginning of a new chapter that never ends. Though our bodies die we will be with the Lord. Though our bodies go into the ground, someday they will be resurrected and transformed into perfect bodies, bodies incapable of sickness, injury, ageing, decay, and death, and we will live forever with God in a New Heavens and New Earth, a world where there is no darkness, pain, suffering, or death; a world where everything has been set to rights and is as it should be.
In a culture where suffering and pain are feared, we can talk about how Jesus’ suffering resulted in the salvation of the world. He redeemed suffering and showed that all suffering can be a means by which God saves us, peeling away the layers of our brokenness and selfishness and liberating us to truly live (Jesus’ suffering makes us right with God, but our suffering can bring us closer to God, it purges out our darkness and forms us into the image of Jesus).
In a culture where self-actualization is supreme, we can talk about how Jesus came to show us what a fully lived human life looks like and He can empower us to live the way that He lived, making us into our true selves, who we were meant to be and created to be.
I could go on and on but I think we get the point. To evangelize is to speak into peoples’ stories and show them how Jesus is good news for them (this is not to say we don’t share the whole gospel with people, we will have to do that eventually, but we need to start here). He is the Saviour, the Friend, the King, the Redeemer, the Hero, the Liberator, the Priest, the Prophet, and the Advocate they need, and He gives them access to the God who is the Father they need, and He fills them with the Spirit who is the Teacher, Guide, Comforter, and Empowerer they need.
Evangelism often seems like an overwhelming and terrifying thing. We don’t want to do it. When we think of evangelism as winning an argument, winning converts, enlarging our tribe, and presenting propositional truths to be intellectually assented to, then it is impersonal, dry, lifeless, and terrifying and overwhelming. But when we think of evangelism as telling an alternate story, as sharing how the gospel story has transformed our life story and how it can transform the life stories of others, and when we think of evangelism as showing people how Jesus is good news not just in general but for them, and when we think of evangelism as inviting people to explore, believe, embrace, and live into this story, then it becomes personal, life-giving, do-able, exciting and adventurous. It ought to be natural for every Jesus follower. Anybody can do evangelism this way, and it can be done a million different ways in everyday conversations over the fence, at the coffee shop, on walks with the dog, and around the BBQ. When Jesus commissioned us to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), to “go into all the world and preach the gospel” (Mark 16:15), He was sending us out on an exciting adventure. He has sent us into a world full of stories to tell an alternate story, a story that is our story, a story that is beyond our story, a story that every other story is a shadow of, a true story, the story.