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The Paradox of Evangelism

Today, we're going to talk about something that can tie my brain up in knots - evangelism. Evangelism was important in my life until I left home at 18. It's the main part of the word, evangelicalism. The base of the word - evangel - means "good news" and to evangelize means "to preach the gospel" (Merriam-Webster) or "to share the good news" (every Baptist church I've ever been to) or "to make my insides clench up and make me want to run home and hide" (me and pretty much every other person who doesn't have the spiritual gift of evangelism).

Growing up, I was told that the Bible was very clear about our mandate to evangelize. The proof-texts are plenty and obvious.

Matthew 28:19-20 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Acts 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Proverbs 11:30 The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and the one who is wise saves lives.

Matthew 4:19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.”

Like all good things, evangelism is hard! It's awkward to talk about people about their eternal destiny. And most people don't really want to talk about it. Especially not with strangers!

When I was a teenager, I enrolled in a course called Evangelism Explosion. This taught us to share the Gospel in a scripted way. The idea was that in about 15-20 minutes, we could tell people the good news about Jesus. In that brief time, they could understand their need for a savior, believe that Jesus was the savior, pray the "magic words", and the deal would be sealed. (It was a proof-texter's dream!)

Life doesn't actually work that way, though. Most people who are coming to church for the first time are still on the fringes of ready to believe. According to one of our pastors about 20 years ago, there is some research that shows that people need something like eight encounters with the Gospel before they are ready to believe or not. No wonder Evangelism Explosion was so miserable for us when we were talking to people who had been to church just once.

What I'm questioning today, though, is the whole premise of evangelism. Not that no one should evangelize. Clearly, if Christianity is going to continue, some people need to share the faith. And there are people who are really good at it. The Apostle Paul, and Billy Graham come to mind.

I was taught, though, that if I, personally, did not evangelize my friends and neighbors, though, that I was responsible for their eternal salvation, or lack thereof. Let's start with the fact that that is an obscenely heavy burden to place on a sixteen year old's shoulders. But, the real question is, "Is that true?" I haven't been able to find anywhere in scripture that I'm responsible for other people's salvation - whether eternal conscious torment or annihilation. If I'm responsible for anyone's salvation, it's mine; and God is pretty clear that I'm not even able to save myself - Ephesians 2:8-9 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.

What is my responsibility as far as evangelism? If I have the spiritual gift of preaching or evangelism, then I need to be doing those things according to 1 Corinthians 12. Paul very clearly felt that God had called him to be an evangelist and take the message of Jesus to much of the known world, but even he didn't get to go everywhere he wanted. He had plans to go to Gaul, but was executed before that happened.

But, while there is plenty of scripture, like John 3:16 (For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.), that says that faith in Jesus is required for salvation, there is a disconcerting amount (for evangelicals) of scripture that that talks about all people being saved without regard to belief or works. (And, shockingly, some that says that our salvation is linked to our works. It's all quite confusing.)

In Luke 3, John the Baptist says, "And all people will see God's salvation." Paul generally teaches the exclusivity of Jesus as the means of salvation, but in 1 Timothy 1, he reminds us that God wants all people to be saved: "This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth."

What I find most encouraging as a non-evangelist is when Paul tells Timothy this in 1 Timothy 2, "I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth."

When I was growing up in evangelicalism, we were encouraged to do "big things for God!" The people who were held up to us as examples were the ones going in to Christian ministry, who were "sold out" for Jesus, who were going to a Christian college, who were going in to missions. The rest of us were, unacknowledged of course, leading second class lives.

I've always wanted a "big life". Some of that is just hubris. Some, though, was my upbringing. I figured that while I was practicing medicine, I'd also do medical missions and bring the Gospel and modern medicine to less fortunate parts of the world (white savior complex much?). And then chronic migraine showed up. God had different ideas.

And living a little life is totally scriptural. God is with us in the small things. Making dinner for my husband is enough ministry if it is done with love. Jesus doesn't say that we need to be killing ourselves to make the world safe for Christianity. In fact, the Bible tells us just that we need to love God and love others. It appears to leave the "how" of that loving up to us.

I have many other thoughts on this subject, but this will do right now. I'd also direct you to this essay on the topic by one of my favorite authors. Sadly, he died a few years ago. But, I think this was one of his best pieces.

I welcome your thoughts on the topic. Does evangelism make you nervous? On either side of the conversation? Do you have particularly good or bad experiences to share?


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