Recently, BNG has had several stories about evangelism (here, here, and here). The word evangelical comes from the Greek euangelion, and it means “good news.” Christians have good news to share. But sharing does not mean converting. Why do we share and not convert? Sharing means trusting God to do the work of converting. It means not worrying about what belongs to God alone. Distinguishing between sharing and converting is at the heart of contemporary evangelism.
Throughout the 20th century, Protestant Christianity had its epicenter in the United States. It shifted from Europe in the 19th century and earlier. Like a pebble in a pond, evangelism spread outward in rings. Well-meaning Christians packaged cultural baggage along with the good news of Jesus Christ. Thus, an “us-versus-them” mentality pervaded every tract and missionary training center.
The main thrust of evangelism was converting the masses, not sharing good news. This process dehumanized people. They were no longer individuals with vibrant life stories, but converts. I went on a mission trip as a college student 25 years ago. A fellow short-term missionary lamented our lack of converts. Why? He measured success by the number of souls saved. We were in a Catholic country. Every person we encountered was baptized. Many (or all, I don’t know) attended mass every week. Instead of counting converts like notches on a belt, we could have celebrated our opportunities. We had the chance to share God’s love and encourage our fellow believers.
The old approach seemed to assume that everyone needed Jesus. A new approach would be to share good news and let God do the rest. Many missionaries served under this new approach by living alongside the people they served. I would be remiss if I did not represent their selfless service to God. My criticism is about an overarching “us-versus-them” mentality in evangelism. We have the answers; they need us. A Christ-like approach is: we are all in this together.
Today, as at every point in human history, we live in a fallen world. People hurt and feel pain. People struggle to find meaning in life. People lose loved ones, experience natural disasters, and fall prey to human disasters. Throughout this darkness, Christ is a light of hope. Evangelism does not mean converting someone to my way of thinking. It means sharing this hope.
Evangelism is holistic. Jesus met people where they were. He fed the hungry, visited the lonely, healed the sick, and encouraged the despairing. When we do likewise, we follow him. When we do it in his name, we share good news (Matthew 25:31-46). Evangelism is not about making converts but following Jesus. It is ministry with, not ministry to. Evangelism is not going someplace and telling people about Jesus. It is, alternatively, listening to people’s stories, relating to them where they are, and sharing God’s love along the journey.
The greatest challenge in contemporary evangelism is redefining expectations. If someone has a preconceived notion of the end goal, then they might close themselves to good news. They might feel like another intended convert. People who have had a transformative experience in Christ want to share it. Evangelism is sharing the experience.
How can would-be evangelists redefine other people’s expectations? It begins by redefining our own expectations. If we trust God, then God will handle the interior work. God will work in people’s hearts (or souls or inner being). We can share God’s love, model Jesus’ relations with people, and know God is still God. Relating with people and seeing them as valid, sentient beings humanizes them. They become participants in evangelism, even if they have not yet experienced God.