Version 1.0, 3-20-05
Evangelism is a controversial topic these days. Not everyone thinks we should do it. It tends to offend people who are of a pluralist persuasion or a private nature. When I was young, around junior high, I didn’t know any of that. I was just discovering how significant my Christian faith was to me, and I had a hefty sense of mission for someone my age. I wasn’t preaching on street corners, but I did make “projects” out of several of my non-Christian friends, and I tried to persuade other Christians to make evangelism a habit as well. I was even working on a book (which fell by the wayside once I got into apologetics). It was going to be a Complete Guide to Soul-Winning, and I spent hours and hours compiling notes from other books on the subject. I was a devoted kid.
It all seemed so simple in the beginning. Just show unbelievers the Roman Road or the Four Spiritual Laws, maybe make an appeal to their emotional turmoil, lead them in the prayer, and they’d rush right into the fold. And if they were skeptics or followers of other religions, well, it seemed simple enough to prove them wrong and guide them to the truth.
Only it didn’t work out that way. I had three fairly quick converts, but I wasn’t very good at follow-up, so I don’t know how they turned out or even if their conversions were genuine. The others just wouldn’t be persuaded. I talked to some of them for years, and at least one of them got fed up with my attempts. Fortunately she didn’t give up on my friendship as well.
Evangelism was just getting more and more complicated, and gradually it faded into the background because I had a growing sense that I didn’t know what I was doing. It was still important; it had just moved itself from the list of “ways I direct my activities” to the list of “life problems to solve.” The more I explored the issue, the more complications I found. I didn’t know how to introduce the Gospel into my conversations. I didn’t know how to connect the Gospel effectively to people’s lives. I wasn’t even sure what the Gospel included. Is the Gospel about justification only or also things like physical healing? And how do faith and works fit together anyway? People have answers to these questions, of course, but these people don’t all agree, and a lot of their solutions seem unsatisfactory to me anyway.
To put it another way, I think of evangelism as a great World-Saving Machine, kind of like a tank, sitting in a clearing in the middle of a forest. Now, I would hop in the driver’s seat and barrel across the countryside, using the machine’s magic to scatter people’s delusions and pull their lives together … only the machine seems to be broken. In fact, it’s very broken. Some of the parts are missing, there’s very little fuel, vines are growing all over it. This thing isn’t going anywhere. Now, to judge from the stories, other people’s World-Saving Machines are humming along just fine … or at least certain other people’s. I suspect I’m not the only one scratching his head.
So I’m in a muddle. Now, I do have a few definite opinions. If the Bible is true (as I believe it is), then evangelism is important. The most obvious reason is that the majority of the human race is lost and on its way to hell, to put it bluntly. This is not a flattering view of humanity, and maybe that’s behind a lot of people’s objections to the practice. But if you’re a Christian and you can get yourself to view things so starkly, evangelism becomes a frantic rescue mission. The panic involved is tempered by other considerations, such as the gentleness and patience of God, but the urgency is still there in the background.
But while impending doom is a persuasive factor for me, at a more fundamental level I am driven to do evangelism (or at this point, just to figure it out) simply because to me, conversion is a part of one’s personal growth. Human beings were created to be like God, to embody his character, and in our current state that is impossible. Being recreated by Christ is the crucial ingredient, and that involves conversion, and that involves evangelism. I am interested in the whole process of becoming like Christ, from the initial unbelief and first contact with the Gospel, to the point of belief, to the process of sanctification after. I want to know how that journey works and how I can be involved in it, both for myself and for other people. It’s a large part of what drives my life. So evangelism is a big deal to me.
As I said before, evangelism is controversial. I’m interested in the controversies, too. How can evangelism be a justifiable activity in today’s enlightened, pluralistic culture? Are there “anonymous Christians,” or must people believe in Jesus by name to be saved? And if there are such people, is evangelism really that urgent?
I think of evangelism as sort of a meta-issue or an organizing principle. It has its own issues to be worked through, but I think some of the major difficulties will be cleared up as I deal with other issues, especially apologetics and spiritual formation. It ties together many aspects of Christianity nicely, which makes evangelism itself a good spiritual discipline. Evangelism isn’t the end goal of being a Christian, but it is a significant piece.