Jesus and the disciples had pretty useful ways to share the gospel:
If you know your New Testament, you will know that Jesus and the disciples had particular ways in which they shared the gospel. These were not the only ways in which folks can share their faith, but if it was good enough for them, then presumably we can learn something from them – especially if many modern forms of evangelism seem to counter what they had done.
It is not just that much of what Christians do today in this regard seems to conflict with what Jesus said and did – along with the disciples – but often we are hearing from some folks that evangelism and proselytisation is wrong altogether.
I kid you not. Plenty of those claiming to be Christians have said that we should not proselytise others. Consider these words that I penned nearly a decade ago. They involve the then Australian head of the once strongly evangelical para-church group World Vision. He actually came out and said this back then:
“We don’t engage in proselytism, and we work cooperatively with people of all faiths and those without a faith. In fact World Vision has more Muslim employees than any other NGO in the world, including Muslim NGOs. We strive to serve people everywhere without regard to their race, religion or politics.” https://billmuehlenberg.com/2014/03/28/clueless-christianity-fuzzy-thinking-and-some-spiritual-lessons/
Wow. The group’s founder Bob Pierce would be rolling in his grave at that. Then we had the case of Pope Francis saying in 2019, “You must not proselytise. It is not Christian to proselytise”. Yes, he then had to go on to explain and defend his remarks. Whether or not he was ‘taken out of context,’ there are many believers today who do seem to look down on evangelism.
Certainly, the idea of waltzing into a town and engaging in open air preaching seems to be a big no-no for many of these trendy and progressive Christians. Such actions are considered to be ‘intolerant’ and ‘unloving’ and we must just slowly build relationships with folks first. You know, let’s just go to lots of cafés over a long period of time and sip on our lattes, and maybe one year we might be in a place to share your faith.
Now, is the building of relationships with non-believers generally a good thing? Yes it is. If and when we have that luxury of doing this, then by all means go for it. But two responses come to mind. This does not always work as planned. I know of Christians who kept putting off sharing their faith in order to “build a relationship” – only to then be told the person had died, and they never did get to hear the gospel! This happens far too often.
Secondly, it implies that everything Jesus and the disciples did were wrong, or not at all paradigmatic for us to follow. Hate to say it, but as far as I know, Jesus and the disciples did NOT normally spend many weeks or months getting to know folks and trying to get onside with others. They quite often simply went up to complete strangers and told them the gospel!
That was their normal way of doing evangelism. Sure, as a fledgling and persecuted new community of believers, they may have been rather limited in this regard. As I say, today, if relationship building is possible, then go for it. But the point is, simply telling people – even complete strangers – the gospel has always been the standard procedure – not just back then but for some 2000 years of church history and Christian missions.
Having just read again this morning from Luke’s gospel, this is all quite plain. Not only do we find little about establishing relationships, but we find little about seeker-sensitive services, trying to be nice, trying to be nuanced, and so on. As I say, there can be a place for all that, but just have a read of Luke 9:1-5 where we read about Jesus sending out the disciples:
When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. He told them: “Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt. Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town. If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”
Hmm, many Christians today would say Jesus was not being very patient or loving there: ‘We need to give them more time – just try to be friends with them. Love is what matters, not forcing the gospel down people’s throats.’ But of course if they did not like that passage, they really will be upset with the version in Matthew which is even harsher:
“If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town” (Matt. 10:13-15).
Oh boy, not much love and sympathy from Jesus for those who are unresponsive and unrepentant to the gospel proclamation! We know how Sodom and Gomorrah ended up. But again, how many Christians today would tell Jesus he needs to be much more tolerant and loving, and not be so narrow-minded and ungracious.
Yes, an element of his disdain was the concept of hospitality which was a big part of the culture back then. But those who rejected the preaching of the gospel had a lot to answer for. With that in mind Jesus often said things like not ‘casting your pearls before swine and the like (see Matthew 7:6).
If folks are not at all interested in what you have to say, then go elsewhere. But keep on keeping on. There will always be some whose hearts have been prepared by God for a clear gospel presentation. And you might be the vehicle God uses to see that person come into the Kingdom.
As I have repeatedly said now, there is more than one way to evangelise, and if you can develop good relationships with non-believers, that is great. But the point is, if Jesus, the disciples, and the church for so many centuries concentrated on actually proclaiming truth to anyone and everyone, then we should not be dismissive of it – even in a rather different culture today.
Sure, use the internet or social media or all sorts of new technologies to share the gospel message. And engage in “friendship evangelism” and the like. But do not think that just being nice and “being there” will ultimately cut it. Please make sure that you eventually SAY something!
There can be no conversion without proclamation. As Paul put it in Romans 10:14: “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”
In this regard we really must ignore the “if necessary, use words” silliness. I have often dealt with the unbiblical advice, as in this piece: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/12/15/if-necessary-use-words/
And please do not criticise those few brave souls who do go out doing street evangelism and preaching. I know some of these folks, and they are champs. Sure, they get plenty of abuse and hatred, but they are faithfully planting seeds, some of which may later bear fruit by God’s grace. The main thing is that we seek to fulfill the Great Commission.
Too many armchair critics are sitting around attacking those who do while they do nothing. With that is mind, I always love this little bit of dialogue between the great international evangelist D. L. Moody and one of his unhelpful critics:
One day a lady criticized D. L. Moody for his methods of evangelism in attempting to win people to the Lord. Moody’s reply was “I agree with you. I don’t like the way I do it either. Tell me, how do you do it?” The lady replied, “I don’t do it.” Moody retorted, “Then I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.”