In recent years, more and more churches have been overcoming their fears and re-discovering evangelism. This reengagement with the Great Commission has led to a deeper understanding of all the ways that evangelism happens. Rather than knocking on doors or passing out tracts on the street corner, Christians are inviting neighbors to church, sharing the good news at critical times in friends’ lives, and praying for people to come to a deeper relationship with Jesus.
At the same time, everything good (or even everything Christian) is not evangelism. A popular quote going around that St. Francis may or may not have had something to do with, says, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” Certainly our actions do speak louder than our words, and preachers who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk are a stock literary figure. Yet being a faithful Christian is not the same as being an evangelist, with or without words.
I would propose that we think about four different areas of Christian response to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission that are necessary for individual Christians and for church communities.
1. Love God through relationship: includes public worship, private prayer, and other activities that deepen the intimate relationship between a believer and God.
2. Love God through discipleship: includes all the works of (sacrificial) obedience we undertake in our daily life, such as tithing, following the ten commandments, offering our spiritual gifts for building up the body of Christ, and working with other believers on deepening their discipleship.
3. Love neighbor through charity: includes all the ways that we reach out in love toward others, such as almsgiving, caring for the sick, offering support to those who are struggling, and working for good causes.
4. Love neighbor through evangelism: includes all the things we do as part of an intentional process to bring people into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ, such as praying for unbelievers, building relationships with unbelievers, meeting the physical, emotional and financial needs of unbelievers, and telling unbelievers about Jesus.
Certainly there are many actions that could fall into more than one category, depending on the circumstances and the intentions. Clarity around those circumstances and intentions matters, however. Without clarity around what we are trying to do, we have a hard time setting goals, planning, and evaluating.
To give an example, we might decide that we want to have an evangelism event to build relationships with the unchurched in our community. For the event, almost the whole church shows up, has a great time of fellowship, takes up a collection for a parishioner who just lost a job, puts together a group to repaint the church hall, and closes with a short worship service of lively singing and powerful praying. All in all, one of the best parish events of the year, and probably one that was needed. The evening was a great success in loving God through relationship, loving God through discipleship, and loving neighbor through charity. It was a total failure of evangelism, however, since not a single relationships was deepened with a non-believer and no one new heard the good news of Jesus. When that church reflects on that evening, they can be thankful for what did happen while also recognizing that their evangelism programming needs to go back to the drawing board.
We need inspiring worship. We need dynamic discipleship. We need compassionate charity. But we also need effective evangelism. Unless we are clear about what we are doing when we are doing it, we will have a hard time improving any aspect of our life in Christ.
Rev. Adam Trambley – St. John’s Church, Sharon, PA