These competing questions bookend the following statement I borrowed from a social media group that was a preface to some questions about evangelism:
The truth is that many Christians have difficulty with the thought of doing evangelism. Many people in our culture today think that forcing one’s views on others is morally wrong, yet evangelism has long been something expected of Christians, especially in evangelical churches.
Before diving in, I need to make the point that we all have freedom of speech in a free country. Exercising that freedom is no more forcing one’s self on others than expressing the belief that forcing one’s views on others is morally wrong. We have equal rights to speak and equal rights to reject what others are saying.
I don’t believe that sharing the Gospel is morally wrong. If it is, then it is morally wrong for you to tell me that it is morally wrong to share the Gospel. I don’t share your views on that position, but I would never say you are being immoral or have no right to express your views or even to try to convince me of the truth of them.
With that said, I feel fortunate not to have grown up in a church tradition that is “aggressive” about evangelism and “forces” people to evangelize or risk hellfire and brimstone. Not that anyone is “forced” to do anything. We all have a choice in the matter.
More importantly, though, God doesn’t work that way. In fact, I maintain that such an attitude is exactly contrary to the will of God. Further, no one can be forced into the kingdom of God. Not even Jesus forced people to be saved:
“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:9-13)
God became man, and He appeared to “His own people” – the ones with whom He established a close relationship characterized by great demonstrations of power in their favor – and they didn’t even recognize Him. What did he do?
He didn’t rain down fire and brimstone. He also didn’t stop sharing the good news, but most of the people who were willing to listen were the poor, the downtrodden, and the “sinners” who knew their own deficits.
People become children of God not by not by blood: not by being born into the right family line. People become children of God not by the will of the flesh: not by their own desire or wishing that it were so. People become children not by the will of man: not by decree, or force, or proclamation.
People who “receive him” (receive Jesus, believe on his name) are the ones to whom “he gave the right to become children of God”, and that is not of their doing, or of anyone else’s doing; it is God’s doing!
The key word here is “receive”. That is how we become God’s children: we receive him, which requires, first, that we believe him. The believing comes before the receiving. Believing is accepting what he is saying and trusting him so that we put our faith in him and enter into relationship with him.
To receive him means more than simply believing, however. It means receiving him into our lives (into our “hearts”). It means not only trust, but commitment. It means receiving him in to have relationship with us, but this is not of our own doing. The invitation is His, not ours!
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God….” (Eph. 2:8)
We simply have to receive it, accept it, and make “room” for him in our hearts and lives – as our Savior and Lord. We don’t do this on our terms, but on His terms.
Notice to the elite, religious leader, Nicodemus, Jesus said, “You must be born again to enter the kingdom of God”, but to the outcast woman at the well, Jesus said, “I will give you Living Water.” The invitation Jesus gives to everyone is ultimately the same (to receive Jesus), but people have to be willing to exchange what they have to receive him. Those are God’s terms.
The Gospel isn’t a dogma or propaganda to be enforced and forced on people who do not want to receive it. It is a gift that God offers, a “free” gift (Romans 6:3), but people must be willing to exchange what they have for it.
Though we have reason to believe that Nicodemus did ultimately receive Jesus and become a follower, the outcast woman at the well likely found it easier to receive Jesus than Nicodemus did. Nicodemus had most of what the first century world had to offer: power, position, prestige, wealth, reputation, etc. The outcast woman had little of it.
Perhaps, this is why Jesus presented a different way of looking at the offer to Nicodemus – you must be born again, you must be willing to give up what you think you have and start over. To the woman at the well, who had little to hold onto in this life, Jesus said, “I have Living Water to give you.”
Both of them had to give up what they had. There is a cost to the free gift of salvation that God offers, but some of us are unwilling to let go of what we have to receive it. We aren’t willing to make room.
How does this tie into the statements that prefaced the questions about “doing” evangelism?
We have to understand what evangelism is and why we might want to “do” it. We have to understand what it is that we are presenting when we do evangelism. We need to understand, ultimately, what God is offering and how people must receive it.
Jesus told the 12 disciples when he sent them out to proclaim “the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” to shake the dust off their sandals and move on when communities didn’t receive them.
He didn’t tell them to double down in their efforts. He didn’t threaten them with hell if they failed to convince anyone of what they were saying. He said,
“And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town.” (Matthew 10:14)
I have grown over the years into believing that God’s love is such that He won’t compel us, or anyone, to believe in Him. It’s tragic that people don’t believe in Him, but love doesn’t force itself on people against their will.
I would not be loving my wife if I forced myself on her. We would not call that love; we would call it sexual abuse or rape.
If we know that love means not forcing ourselves on others, how much more does God exercise His love for us by not forcing Himself on us? If forcing ourselves on others would not be loving, God, who is love (1 John 4:16), would not force Himself on us.
If God would not force Himself on us, because to do so would not be loving, He would not ask or expect us to force the Gospel on people who do not want to receive it. He would want us to do the opposite of that.
I also believe that any of our actions that are motivated by guilt or shame are misguided. There is no condemnation in Christ. (Romans 8:1) If we are feeling condemned about not evangelizing people, something is wrong (either in the message or how we are receiving it).
If our desire to share the gospel does not flow out of gratitude in our hearts for what Jesus did for us and God’s love for us, our desires are missing the mark. I don’t mean to be condemning by that statement. The truth is that we all miss the mark. That is why we need God.
We can’t right ourselves; we need God’s forgiveness, His redeeming work in our hearts and His empowerment in our lives for us to do (or think) anything that reflects the reality of His love. We are lost without Him, and we are wholly dependent on Him even for the relationship we have with Him.
Recognizing that dependency is always the starting place in our relationship with God. We go to Him in our weakness and failings to accept His forgiveness and love that He freely offers.
Keep in mind that He knew our condition when he came and died for us. (Romans 5:8) He knows our hearts better than we know our own hearts. (Ps. 139) He loves us anyway.
I think one problem with a hyper emphasis on evangelism is that many people are not in the right place to share the gospel. Not all of us, and not any of us all the time, are in the right “place” in our lives to share the gospel.
Peter was not in the right place to share the gospel after he denied Jesus three times. Peter went through a period of deep angst and doubt in which he certainly was not able to share the gospel with anyone!
The apostles weren’t in the right place to share the gospel even after Jesus rose from the dead. They weren’t in the right place until the Holy Spirit came upon them with tongues of fire. At that point, sharing the Gospel was not awkward, difficult, or forced. It flowed naturally and powerfully out of the experience of the Holy Spirit.
They had to wait, though, for the Holy Spirit. They met together, in community, while they waited. That is precisely what Jesus instructed them to do.
“I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:49)
“And while staying] with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (Acts 1:4-5)
We are often urged to evangelize without the waiting. We often try to share the gospel without taking time “to sit at Jesus’s feet”, like the disciples did. We have to follow him and spend time with him before we are ready “to go”.
Even then, the Great Commission speaks of “making disciples” and baptizing them. You don’t disciple (or baptize) a non-believer.
“[G]o and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
Someone needs to “preach the gospel”, of course, but the emphasis of the Great Commission isn’t on the preaching of the Gospel. Sharing the Gospel is implied, but it isn’t the emphasis.
One person plants, and another person waters. (1 Corinthians 3:8) We can’t all be planters, and we can’t all be waterers. We can and should all be disciples and grow over time to be disciplers of others.
“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6)
Even among the leaders of the church, some are apostles, some are prophets, some are pastors, some are teachers, and some are evangelists. Only some are evangelists. (Eph. 4:11)
That doesn’t mean that no one other than an “evangelist” can share the good news and the love of God. It means that some people are specifically gifted at it, and others are not.
While evangelical churches emphasize sharing the Gospel, we don’t emphasize discipleship nearly enough. We notch our belts with “shares” of the gospel, but that isn’t what the Great Commission is all about.
The focus is on discipleship, which is relationship, and it starts with us being disciples of Jesus first. Our focus (I think) should be on discipleship first. Everything else flows from there.
Just as discipleship is an extension of relationship, evangelism is connected to relationship. In doing evangelism, we are inviting people into relationship with God, and that inevitably means relationship with God’s people. It begins and ends with relationship.
We are in a much better place to be able to share the Gospel effectively with people if we have some relationship with them. Further, we should expect that sharing the Gospel with people means inviting them into relationship.
Too often, the evangelical churches have focused on getting someone to the point of praying a “sinner’s prayer” and taking them no further. We leave them at the doorway to relationship.
Perhaps, that is because we don’t have healthy and robust relationships (community) in our churches. Evangelism should flow naturally out of relationship and community with God and His people. It should begin and end with community.
That community is the salt and light Jesus said we should be. People should see that community and desire to have it because it is good. Jesus said the world would know us by the love we have for one another. (John 13:35) If we exhibited that kind of love for each other, many people would be asking us about the Gospel!
We also don’t wait nearly enough. We don’t spend time “sitting at the feet of Jesus”. We don’t pray and meditate and read Scripture enough. We don’t spend enough time in the community of the body of Christ. When we do, it’s too much about accomplishing some mission – like evangelism – and not enough about “doing life” together as disciples of the One who loves us.
If we did more of these things, I don’t think we would view sharing the gospel as a command that we must follow at the risk of damnation. We wouldn’t find it a chore. We wouldn’t feel guilty for not doing it or not doing it well enough. It would flow out of our relationship with God and our love for Him and our desire to share the good news!