A few months ago, my pastor friend invited me to a 12-session Bible study on the topic of evangelism.
“Thanks, but no thanks,” was what I wanted to say.
“O…kay?” was what I actually said.
I agreed partly because I knew evangelism was something Jesus encouraged his disciples to do in the Bible, and partly because I trusted this pastor wasn’t going to lead me to strangers’ doors so I could stammer Bible stories at them. Still, I wasn’t looking forward to the meetings. Despite the fact that it meant “good news,” evangelism had become an uncomfortable, even dirty, word to me.
“Evangelism” reminded me of summer weeks watching over kids at Bible camp, where getting a child to say the sinner’s prayer in seven days was celebrated — but I wondered how they were doing at home after the high of worship music, games and Bible drills wore off. It reminded me of painting kids’ faces with the five colors of the gospel at festivals, when they had to sit and listen to get the pretty flowers drawn on their cheeks — but most of them were not really listening. It reminded me of handing out tracts on the street, of people knocking on my door to tell me about Jesus and not quite believing me when I said I was already a Christian.
And maybe these things have their place. Maybe talking to random strangers about Christ is valuable. But if we do it without really hearing the person we are talking to, what does that achieve?
“Today evangelism does not always mean good news, and the feet of the evangelist are not considered so beautiful,” writes Bryan Stone in “Evangelism After Christendom.” “For many people in our world, both Christian and non-Christian, evangelism is neither welcomed nor warranted . . . this is especially true in the context of interfaith dialogue, where evangelism is perceived as something to be feared, as a barrier to mutual respect, careful listening, open sharing, and cooperation . . . The E-word has become a dirty word — an embarrassment to the Christian and an affront to the non-Christian.”
This is exactly what the E-word had come to mean in my mind — the feeling that I am talking at someone instead of with them.
And yet, that’s never what Jesus intended.
The book of Acts relates a story about a growing church in the city of Antioch, where a scattered group of Christians come together to tell people the good news about Jesus (Acts 11:19-30). As a result, “a great number became believers and turned to the Lord” (11:21). There are several factors to note about this story: the Christians were committed (11:19), they were spreading the Word to those who might be receptive (11:19-20), God was with them (11:21), they were known for being from Christ (11:26) and for their generosity (11:29).
So what were they doing right that so many of us are getting wrong now? Why does the word “evangelism” leave a bad taste in the mouths of so many people — Christians and non-Christians alike?
The intent of the Bible study we went through (titled “Bearing Faithful Witness“ if you’re interested in learning more) is to reclaim the E-word as something positive and life-giving. The first step to doing so is looking at what Jesus teaches His disciples, which is to love each other, just as He loved them — “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
I can’t help breathing a sigh of relief at this. I’ve always thought evangelism meant I had to be charismatic and good at speaking (I’m not — hence why I’m a writer). But that’s not what Jesus says. His direction is more about community than outspokenness, more about behavior than words. And loving those around me through actions — that’s something I can do.
When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well, He didn’t begin by condemning her; instead, He asked her for a drink — something that a Jew would never do, for they did not “share things in common with Samaritans” (John 4:9). He didn’t immediately tell Zacchaeus about the God who loved him, but invited himself over for supper instead (in fact, it’s implied in Luke 19:1-10 that Zacchaeus came to the decision to give half his possessions to the poor without Jesus even telling him to do so). The act of accepting one another — which isn’t the same thing as condoning sin — is powerful.
It’s not my job to talk someone into becoming a Christian. I can participate in their journey by working with the Spirit already calling them and sharing the ways I have experienced hope, joy, strength and endurance because of Christ. I can love others through my actions, as Jesus calls me to do. And I can help reclaim the E-word so it means “good news” once again.