I admit it – starting an article on evangelism with the reasons we Christians don’t evangelise might be a strange tactic.* Why focus on the negative? Shouldn’t we dive in and fire our imaginations with the positive biblical reasons we should evangelise? Wouldn’t you prefer some inspiring stories, or Five Easy Steps To Make You A Better Evangelist Before Tea Time, or maybe just the searing kiss of red-hot guilt to push you back out there on the evangelistic trail?
There are lots of good things (not to mention some really bad things) that motivate Christians to share the gospel of Jesus with their neighbours. Yet I’m convinced that for most of us normal people, acknowledging the obvious challenges is a helpful place to begin. Here, in no particular order, are 12 reasons (you might prefer to call them ‘excuses’) that Christians find it really hard to share the good news of Jesus with the people around us.
What would I say? I just don’t know how to bring Jesus up in normal conversation, and I definitely don’t know how to explain the gospel. And what if a conversation actually started and people asked me questions – how would I answer them?
It’s socially awkward: You know what they say – never discuss politics or religion in polite company. Christianity is just not something people talk about, and I don’t want to be the one dropping lead balloons into conversation.
I have my own struggles: The truth is, I’m not excited enough about my own faith, or I have big questions that need answering. So why would I want to share my faith with someone else?
I don’t have any close friends: Introducing Jesus into the conversation can be like asking someone for a first date: what if I misjudge the relationship, and it turns out it was just too soon? My close friends are all Christians – how can I raise something so important with people I don’t know well?
It seems judgmental and intolerant: If I talk about Jesus, people hear me saying that I’m better than them, or that they aren’t good enough, or that their beliefs are wrong. I’ve been called plenty of things in my time, but intolerant might be the worst insult a person can hear these days.
I want to fit in: My friends already think I do weird things (I mean, who spends their free time going to things like Bible study, church, or Christian conferences?). Talking about Jesus would just make me seem like even more of an oddball.
I’m not godly enough: My friends and family have seen me make plenty of mistakes. If my life is meant to be the advertisement for Christianity – ‘the only Bible some people will ever read’, as they say – who would believe it? It’s better if I just keep my mouth shut and don’t give Jesus a bad name.
No one’s interested: Let’s be honest, even if I were brave enough to talk about Jesus, who would listen? People around me just don’t want to know. Who’d want to come along to a talk? read the Bible with me? visit my church? It feels like a waste of time even trying.
My friends aren’t good enough: Have you seen the stuff they get up to? Heard the way they talk? They wouldn’t fit in at Bible study, Christian Union, or church. And just between us, I’m not sure they deserve Jesus.
I don’t have time: Sharing the gospel takes time, energy, effort, and mental headspace. All those things are in short supply around here – they’re being used elsewhere.
The urgent trumps the important: Don’t get me wrong, evangelism is important, but so are lots of other things. Have you seen how busy I am at work? Have you seen the assignment I have due next week? And remember, God is sovereign anyway, so surely he can take care of the whole mission thing while I take care of other stuff.
I’m scared! If you’re wondering why, see above.
Some of these are really bad excuses, and some are more understandable. But whatever we think of these reasons, it’s a long list. And it leaves us with a very real question: Why bother?
Why not give up on evangelism – or at least give up on putting lots of effort into it? Sure, if it happens naturally, then let it happen. Keep running church in a welcoming way, put on the occasional event for seekers, and (if you ever get asked) have a go at answering people’s questions. But why go any further? Why spend time and mental energy on something that we find stressful, that our friends and neighbours don’t want us to do, that our society condemns, and that God could do perfectly well without us if he chose?
Of course, it’s not that simple. It’s not just about the negatives; there are multiple biblical ideas that drive Christians to evangelism. But in the rest of this article, I’m going to settle for just two: Love, and Prayer.
The starting point: Love
Penn Jillette is an American illusionsist and entertainer, one half of the brilliant duo Penn & Teller. Over the years, Jillette has used his platform to aggressively promote his own brand of atheism – including writing two books and producing a half-hour TV special ridiculing the Bible. He’s no friend of Christianity. Yet a few years ago, he posted this fascinating clip:
It’s well worth taking four minutes to watch the whole clip, but here’s the punchline: “How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize?”
Take a minute to ponder that perspective. “How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize?” If a committed, outspoken atheist can reach a conclusion like that, surely committed Christians should feel the weight of his challenge.
I doubt we would be guilty of active hatred towards our non-Christian family or friends. But might we be guilty of a lack of love? If so, a renewed love for the world and for the people around us might just be the fuel that will renew our commitment to evangelism.
Lessons in love from Jonah
Most of us know the book of Jonah as the story of a man and a big fish, but it’s so much more. In the end, it’s a book about Jonah’s apathy (if not outright hostility) towards his neighbours, not wanting them to receive God’s forgiveness. In stark contrast, the God of the universe possesses a passionate, unrelenting love for the people he has made – even hard-hearted rebels like the Old Testament Ninevites.
Here’s Jonah 1-3 in a nutshell:
Chapter 1 – God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and ‘preach against it’, because he has seen its wickedness. Jonah says no, and catches a boat traveling to Tarshish (in the opposite direction from Nineveh). God sends a storm, and Jonah is thrown off the boat, but God saves Jonah’s life by sending a ‘huge fish’ to swallow him.
Chapter 2 – Jonah thanks God for mercifully saving him from the storm, and he’s ‘vomited out’ onto dry land.
Chapter 3 – God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh a second time, and this time he goes. After he proclaims God’s coming judgment, the Ninevites repent. God relents, and does not bring the judgment he had threatened.
Jonah 4 opens with the prophet complaining – not about God’s judgment, but about God’s mercy! “But to Jonah [God’s mercy] seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:1-3) For most people, God’s mercy and compassion are reason for praise; for Jonah, they become reason for complaint. The Ninevites were Israel’s enemies, and the last thing Jonah wanted was to see them escape God’s judgment.
There is a massive irony at the heart of the book – Jonah celebrates God’s saving mercy towards himself, but he hates the idea of God’s mercy being shown towards his enemies.
How does God respond? He gives Jonah a lesson in love. God provides a vine to offer Jonah shade, but then the vine shrivels and leaves Jonah exposed to the intense heat. Jonah, channeling his inner impetuous three-year-old, responds by declaring ‘I’m so angry I wish I were dead!’ (4:9)
But God drives home the point: “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals.” (4:10-11)
It’s a bit like God is saying: ‘Jonah, wake up! You didn’t want that vine to perish, but you’re fine with thousands upon thousands of people perishing?! Your heart is far from me. My creation, and especially the people in it, are precious.’ God exposes and challenges Jonah’s distorted self-love by reminding the prophet that he, the Creator of the universe, has an infinite love for his world.
Do we share God’s love for his world? Do we grasp the reality that men and women are perishing, and that God cares about that? You can’t fix a lack of love with guilt. But you can fix it by meditating deeply on God’s love for his creation. Consider these few examples:
“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.” (John 3:16) God’s stance towards the world – even a world that hates him – is one of costly, sacrificial love. It’s a love that says, ‘Here’s how much I don’t want you to perish: I will not even withhold my own Son.’ At the very heart of God’s character is a deep love – not just sentimental love, but a love that moved to the greatest act of love ever (see 1 John 4:7-12).
“When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matt 9:36) Don’t skim over that word ‘compassion’ – it’s a word for a deep, heart-felt response from the very core of someone’s being. Jesus looks at the spiritually needy, and he is profoundly moved. We know where that love led him.
“I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel…. Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved.” (Romans 9:2-4, 10:1) These are the moving words of the apostle Paul, shaped in his thinking by the love of Christ that he had experienced. Willing to be separated from Christ if it means the salvation of others? Now, that’s love!
Here’s the point: once we understand the gospel, once we grasp God’s love for us and for his world, it should naturally lead to a deep love for others – specifically, to a deep desire that they should be saved. The truth is, so many of our reasons for neglecting evangelism reflect a lack of this kind of love. More accurately, it’s a distorted and exaggerated self-love. I often prefer my own comfort and my own reputation to the eternal good of the people God puts around me. I love myself more than I love others.
The Greatest Commandments
What did Jesus say when asked to name the greatest commandment in the Law? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37). But it’s telling that, though he was asked for just one greatest commandment, he chose to add a second – one which he said is very much like the first: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (22:39) Jesus saw love for God and love for neighbor as being intimately connected. Can I really say I love God if I don’t love my neighbour
As Christians, knowing what we know about eternity – that hell and judgment are both real, that God takes sin seriously, that there is one way to escape God’s coming wrath, that the present time is short, that our response to Jesus determines our eternity – how would we want others to treat us if they loved us? Would we want them to keep the peace and avoid social awkwardness? Or would we want them to make an effort – however imperfect and sputtering that effort might be – to share with us the greatest news in the world? Like Penn said…
When we meditate on God’s extraordinary love for his world, and when we prayerfully resolve to love our neighbours as ourselves, evangelism becomes easy.
Wait – no, it doesn’t. Not even close. It’s still really hard. But it’s the place to start. Forget guilt. Put the techniques and events on hold. Leave the inspiring conversion stories in second place. Start with love.
It’s love that will fuel our evangelistic efforts. It’s love that will allow us to look at our world and say, “I don’t have all the answers, and this is still going to be hard, but I want people to be saved! I want people to escape God’s coming judgment! I want people to see that they’re sinners in need of salvation, that God loves them, and that he’s provided the way home. I want people to live with Jesus as Lord, because nothing is better. I want people to know the hope that Jesus offers, and to escape the emptiness and sadness of scrambling for meaning and answers that only Jesus truly offers. I want them to have what I have!”
That would be a response of love, right?
Prayer: Love in action
If you’re wondering about a first step to putting this love in action, let me suggest starting with prayer.
Prayer has often been called ‘faith in action’. I think we can also describe it as ‘love in action’. There is no more loving action than to pray persistently for someone’s salvation. We can speak of Jesus in all kinds of ways, but we can’t change anyone’s heart. That’s God’s job. So if meditating on God’s love creates in us a real love for our neighbours, that love should be expressed in prayer. If we are going to see anyone come to a living faith in Christ, it will begin (and most likely end) with faithful, love-fuelled prayer.
When you read Paul’s letters, you learn a lot about what he prays for other people. But it’s also fascinating to observe his prayer requests. When Paul asks for prayer, more often than anything else, he asks people to pray for opportunities and ability to share the gospel.
“Pray for us, too,” he asked the Colossians, “that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.” (Col 4:3-4) “Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel.” (Eph 6:19) “Pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you.” (2 Thess 3:1) Even Paul, the great apostle, knew he couldn’t evangelise effectively in his own strength. He relied on prayer.
And it’s always been the way. Charles Spurgeon, the great preacher and evangelist of the 19th century, would take visitors to the basement of his church, explaining that they were being shown the ‘engine room’ of the church – for it was there that people gathered to pray.
If we want to see the gospel go out and people saved – on our campus, in our churches, on the mission field, or wherever – it will only happen through faithful prayer, borne out of love.
Pray that friends will be willing to listen, and to talk. Pray that God would help us, in our fears and insecurities, to be bold. Pray that God will give us not just the words to say, but also a deep, lasting love for the people around us.
* This is an edited version of a talk first delivered on campus at the University of Canterbury in July 2014.