Evangelism: What's and Why's

Posted 8/5/2018

Scriptures: 2 Corinthians 4:7-17; Matthew 28:16-20

This month we are going to be looking at evangelism. Yes, we are going to talk about that e-word to which we Presbyterians seem to have a genetically based allergic predisposition. For many of us, that is at least partly because we think of evangelism as involving aggressive, and even offensive, behaviors. Our experiences of evangelism tend to be like those I had in college — that of someone accosting you as you are simply walking by with an opening line like, “Have you been saved?”  This opening line is then followed up with a very specific, carefully defined form of gospel presentation and concludes with strong urgings to pray a set prayer, usually called “The Sinner’s Prayer.”

The truth is this kind of evangelism can be, and often is, in some ways aggressive, and even offensive. If you refuse to go along with the pre-set conversational pattern or to pray the required prayer at the end, you may be rather forcefully reminded you are a sinner, forever lost without Jesus.  Yet, no matter how the conversation may go, it always approaches people with an agenda that treats them as if they are simply “notches on an evangelism belt.” It also treats people in a “one-size-fits-all way,” failing to recognize individuality in its pre-set formatting. Finally, it clearly assumes you aren’t already a Christian, and as a result often leaves those approaching you either with the option of challenging your statement you’re a Christian or with no idea what to say. All of those reasons, and others, are, in truth, turn-offs for many of us, discouraging us from entertaining any thoughts of our doing evangelism.

However, the fact is, those techniques aren’t the only way to do evangelism nor do they provide the only definition of evangelism. Personally, I like the definition of evangelism that is based upon something D. T. Niles once said: Evangelism is “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” Evangelism isn’t about accosting others with a demand they listen to a specific gospel presentation. It isn’t a matter of getting someone to pray a specific prayer. It is about developing relationships which allow us to witness to who Jesus is and what Jesus has done in our lives. 

If the negative stereotypes of evangelism we have probably been exposed to can keep us from witnessing, there can two other dynamics that can also do so: Fear and a feeling we don’t know how to witness. Both of those are real concerns, not to be lightly dismissed. 

Talking about something so personal as our relationship with Christ can be frightening. What if the other person isn’t interested? Or even worst, is offended? What if our witness is rejected? What if WE are rejected? 

Yet quite often our fear is based more on our own feelings than on reality. Study after study shows that many more people are more open to hearing about Jesus than we think. We live in a culture that is awash with a search for a meaningful spirituality. Although younger generations have left the church and often proclaim themselves to have no religious affiliation; they are eager to develop a deep, meaningful spirituality. That means they are also generally very open to, and even interested in, having serious conversations with others about God and Jesus when they and their questions and doubts are taken seriously.

And certainly, if all we have experienced are the negative stereotypes of evangelism, examples we don’t want to follow, we may truly be at a loss as to how to go about witnessing to our faith. If we don’t want to witness in the way we have experienced others witnessing, how in the world do — how in the world could — we go about it? What alternative way (or ways) of witnessing do we have?

The truth is, we Presbyterians often seem caught on the horns of a dilemma. We desperately want to have more people coming to church. We want our neighbors and friends who never darken the door of our church (or any church) to come worship with us. Yet we often have no way of effectively inviting them to come. As a result, we continue to rely upon what worked years ago — the hope that our mere presence will lead people to come. Or perhaps we hope that holding some kind of special event will draw them in. The truth is, while those strategies may have worked at least to some degree in the past, studies show they are no longer effective today.

But our problem may involve even more than outdated strategies. If our only reason for witnessing ( or inviting other to church) is simply we want more people in our church building, we honestly are no better than the stereotypical evangelist who is such a turn off to us. We too are treating those to whom we would witness with an agenda that treats them as if they were simply “notches on our belt” - not an “number I’ve saved belt” but a “membership belt.” Surely there are better reasons than putting a notch on a belt — whatever kind if belt it may be — for our evangelism!

And there are. The first good reason for evangelism comes from the simple nature of evangelism, and of discipleship — the fact that what we are doing is witnessing to Jesus. 

Clearly, there are many in this congregation who are adamantly committed to the Packers. For example, when I was interviewing to come here Luann came to the interview all prepared to convert me to the Pack with an entire bag (or bags) full of Packer gear! It may not be the Packers, but all of us have something in our lives which truly excites us. Something we joyfully talk about with others. Something we can barely keep ourselves from sharing with everyone with whom we happen to strike up a conversation. It may be your grandkids. It may be a hobby. It may be one of any number of things. 

Being a disciple — being an evangelist — witnessing to Jesus — simply means sharing our excitement about Jesus just like we might share our excitement about any of those other things. It means having had an experience of Jesus that is so compelling that we can’t help but want to share. It means recognizing that in the gospel we have received a treasure that is beyond all measure, a treasure we simply can’t keep to ourselves. 

Having said that, we will be looking in future sermons at more of the specifics about HOW we go about sharing; but for this morning we merely want to note that one of our motives should be simply the desire to share what is such an important part of our life — a relationship with Jesus. 

I mention this motive first, because it should be the main one that drives our witnessing. However, there is another reason we witness to Jesus. It is that we are commanded to do so. I expect all of us are familiar with what is called “The Great Commission” — Jesus’ command given to his disciples that they “Go into all the world.” The fact is Jesus has told us to go, to bear witness to who he is and what he has done. To share the good news we ourselves had heard and received. We are commanded to share — we are commanded to witness. 

Now as I said, this in many ways should not be our first, much less our only, motive. If we witness solely because we are commanded to, it is too easy to forget evangelism is first and foremost about relationships. When we are motivated only by a command it is tempting to see our faith as merely agreement with a specific set of propositions — accepting a certain group of teachings. Yet the heart of evangelism — the goal of witnessing — is not accepting certain beliefs but the start of a vital relationship with God through Jesus. It is not about agreeing with certain dogmas, but about living a life that is rooted and grounded in a living relationship with Jesus.

When we have that kind of life, when we ourselves have a living relationship that is rooted and grounded in Jesus, how can we help but share the good news we have experienced? When we have come to know the grace of God embodied and given to us in Jesus, how can we help but tell others of this wonderful news? How can we help but be witnesses by sharing with other beggars who are seeking a truly abundant life the good news of the bread of life — the good news of Jesus?