Have Evangelicals Gotten Evangelism Wrong? 12 Challenges

The subject before the house today is evangelism.

Note that I am someone who has shared the gospel with many people over the years and I’ve had the joy of seeing lost people come into the kingdom of God. So I’m pro-evangelism. 

However, with few exceptions, every traditional evangelical church I’ve ever been a part of emphasized evangelism to be God’s grand goal. And every believer was religiously obligated and even pressured to share the gospel with lost souls.

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, this sentiment is fairly recent, harkening back to the teachings of D.L. Moody. Moody, who was a gifted evangelist, had his paradigm circulate through mainstream evangelicalism through Bible colleges all across America. (Moody Bible Institute was among the very first). His paradigm is now in the drinking water of modern-day evangelicalism.

A number of my friends on the missional church scene continue to work from D.L.  Moody’s paradigm despite that it’s been publicly refuted scores of times.

Several years ago, I was flipping through the TV channels and came across a very well-known pastor telling his congregation about the desperate need for them to evangelize. He went on and on, warning them that if they didn’t tell others about Jesus and bring them into the church, the building they were all sitting in would be converted into a furniture store. He told stories about this happening with other churches he knew of. He then went on to tell them that his ministry as pastor is to teach the sheep and motivate them to go out and bring others into the sheepfold. The saving of lost souls was their complete responsibility. If the church failed in this and the building was lost, it was their fault.

With every word, the guilt and condemnation piled higher upon the heads of God’s people in that audience. I felt sickened. Yet they took it like good Christians, and I suspect that it wasn’t the first time.

Let me make a few observations about evangelism that, I hope, will help all believers seriously rethink the subject:

  • People who use the number of souls saved as a metric for anything demonstrate that they don’t understand God’s eternal purpose. Einstein was dead-on when he said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” Think of God’s purpose for every human like a race track with a finish line. (Paul actually used this image.) The finish line is God’s intention, His goal. Every person is born 5 miles away from the race track in a dark forest. Bringing someone to the Lord is like taking them by the hand out of the forest onto the starting line of the track. However, many different people may be instrumental in that process. Let’s use you as an example. At some point, someone took you by the hand and brought you 1 mile closer to the track. Later, another person took your hand and brought you another mile closer. Another brought you a few feet closer. Another brought you some yards closer. Perhaps it took 10 different people at different seasons in your life and through different means to bring you to the race track. However, once you set foot on the racetrack – that is, you repented, believed, and were baptized thus becoming a disciple, a believer, and a convert (the New Testament knows no difference between the three), God hasn’t yet fulfilled His purpose in your life. There’s still the finish line which is 3 laps around the track! Someone else may come along and help you finish the first lap. Another may help you make the second, and another the third (which is the end of your life). Or more accurately, many people will bring you to various points in the track. Now here’s my point: It is utter blindness and absurdity to place special value on the person who brought you to the last leg of the forest to the starting gate of the race track. Each step and each person who has been and will be instrumental in helping you take the next step toward the finish line is equally valuable. God gets the most glory when you have finished the race. Nothing short of that is His goal. What many evangelical Christians have done is to make the whole ballgame bringing people from the last leg of the dark forest to the starting line. And they wrongly assume that this is the calling of every Christian.
  • There is nowhere in all the NT epistles to the churches where one word is said to them to go out and evangelize. The silence is deafening, and it cannot be dismissed.
  • The 12 apostles stayed in the city of Jerusalem for at least 4 years before they began bringing the gospel to other parts of Palestine. They weren’t trying to get the world saved in a hurry, John R. Mott notwithstanding. That blows past and present movements to “save the world in one generation” higher than a kite.
  • Sharing Jesus Christ with others is not a duty, a religious obligation, nor something that Christians should feel guilty or condemned about if they fail to do it with instant results. You can’t find any of this in the New Testament. It’s a post-apostolic idea. Sharing Christ was and is a spontaneous thing that issues forth from one’s life in Christ and his or her love for others.
  • Christians who love the Lord Jesus Christ cannot but share their Lord with others, when the season is right and when a door has opened by the Spirit. You don’t have to command or guilt a woman who is in love with a man into telling her friends about him. She just does it by instinct. Now a word to preachers and teachers. For the last 25 years, I’ve observed the following: If you preach to people that they “must evangelize, and if they don’t, God won’t be happy with them,” you’ll end up with people who aren’t very good evangelists and who live in guilt. But if you preach the glories of the Lord Jesus Christ to where God’s people are intoxicated with Him, you’ll have a group of fire-brands that will naturally share their Lord as opportunities arise. As I have often said, pursue Jesus Christ with others, get to know Him deeply, and evangelism and the like will take of itself. When this happens, God’s people won’t  be found trying to sell something to others that they themselves haven’t been utterly sold on.
  • In the first-century, the greatest evangelist was the ekklesia of God, a close-knit community of believers that loved Jesus, showed Him forth by their life together, took care of one another, and served others. Whenever she – the ekklesia – is functioning according to her spiritual nature, she trumps every other evangelism program known to man. That’s still the case today when she’s reflecting her Bridegroom as God called her to. I hope that those who love evangelism, but think that the way a church expresses itself isn’t important will give this point serious consideration. The way a church expresses itself is terribly important. Biblically speaking, the church is the premier witness to Jesus Christ.
  • During seasons of revival, the salvation of souls happens quite effortlessly. In a revival, scores of people are open to hear about Jesus Christ and are ripe to receive Him. For instance, a massive amount of disciples were made from 1968 to 1977 in the USA. You could say the name of “Jesus” and people would be open to believe on Him. We aren’t in a time of revival right now. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t share Christ if we feel the Spirit compelling us to do so, but it does mean that far fewer people will come to the Lord right now than in a time of revival. So don’t get befuddled when few people come to the Lord right now. A related, but overlooked fact is that the early church experienced seasons of outreach and seasons of in-reach. Churches that function as organisms today rather than human organizations experience this same rhythm of seasons. This is because such seasons are part of the DNA of the church. (I discuss the seasonal nature of the church in Finding Organic Church.) Those who pit evangelism against spiritual formation and vice versa do not understand the seasonal nature of the ekklesia.
  • Sharing Jesus Christ with others can be done in many ways other than giving them “the plan of salvation” verbally. A believer’s life that is lived by Christ embodies the gospel. Paul and Peter make this clear throughout their letters. A life lived for Christ will often provoke open-hearted questions from others. It will be reflected in acts of mercy, love, care, giving, and kindness. Equally so, someone who shows the love of Christ to their coworkers (for instance) will often be sought out when a coworker is going through a trial. Their heart will be opened to hear about the living Christ, and what makes you so different. Such cases are often the best opportunities to share the Lord with others.
  • Israel was called to be a light to all the nations. God said that through her, all the nations of the earth shall be blessed. The church is called to fulfill this prophecy just as did Jesus. It is by the ongoing life of an authentic local assembly that meets under the Headship of Christ – through the reality of authentic community, mutual love, mutual sharing, justice, care, open-participation, and fellowship that the church reflects the kingdom of God to a watching world. There will be seasons where a local assembly will be called to serve their city, to serve the lost and to show Christ to them. However, it will only be effective if it is done “in season” and the Lord Himself is leading it. If not, the people will burn out, and there will be little fruit that will come from it. As I’ve described in Finding Organic Church, there are seasons for in-reach and seasons for outreach. There are also dry spells and wet spells. All come from the hand of God. For a church to always be in-reaching spells death. The same is true for a church that makes outreach its only focus. It must learn how to bear the light of Christ outside its own walls (metaphorically speaking). This gets into the subject of living by the indwelling life of Christ, which is the source of all things spiritual. (Note: I don’t hold to “replacement theology.” The New Testament authors did see Jesus and the church fulfilling many of the Old Testament shadows regarding Israel. See Jesus: A Theography for details.)
  • Many Christian leaders today will argue fiercely that not all Christians are called to teach or to be pastors, yet they will fiercely teach that all Christians are called to be evangelists. The New Testament is clear that not all are called to be evangelists (see 1 Cor. 12). Philip was an evangelist. And Timothy, who was an apostolic worker, was encouraged by Paul to do “the work” of an evangelist. While all believers can evangelize and teach and shepherd, not all of them are called to be evangelists, teachers, or shepherds. This point is often overlooked and a double-standard exists when it comes to evangelists which is different from teachers, prophets, apostles, and shepherds.
  • There’s an immense need to learn to read Scripture with fresh eyes instead of reading it through a 100-year old lens. N.T. Wright is known for arguing that contemporary Christians come to the New Testament and read it through the lens of the Reformers with respect to justification and the works of the Law. I submit that contemporary Christians come to the New Testament and read it through the lens of D.L. Moody with respect to God’s mission.  It’s high time that this changed and we begin to explore the fact that God has an eternal purpose that’s been beating in His heart since before time. That purpose, in fact, preceded the Fall. It’s what provoked Him to create. And it’s not the making of individual disciples. The way disciples were made in the first-century church was through the planting of ekklesias, where disciples were “built together” in various cities to be the Lord’s corporate expression in the earth, fulfilling His eternal purpose. See Rethinking Discipleship, Mission, and Church for details on this thought.
  • All told, God desires to save the lost and Christians should have a heart to see the lost come to Christ. God so loved the world that He sent His Son to save it. So the fact that many evangelicals have gotten evangelism wrong at certain points doesn’t mean that Christians should have no heart for the lost. Our spiritual instincts will lead us to share the hope we’ve found with those who need to hear it at the Spirit’s leading. It will also lead us to help the poor and hurting with God’s love. The same love we have received.

Those are just some quick and cursory thoughts on evangelism.

Again, I’m a strong advocate of sharing the gospel with both lost and saved (many so-called “saved” have never heard the gospel by the way). But as I’ve explained elsewhere, the most potent evangelist in the earth is a community of believers who are living by the indwelling life of Christ together in face-to-face community.

Having been part of virtually every Christian denomination and movement, I have seen more genuine and sustainable conversions to Christ through such communities — which are free from guilt, duty, and religious obligation — than I have in every other Christian venue or method or movement. 

Also, the most effective evangelists I’ve ever met were those who didn’t feel religious obligated to evangelize, but they were moved by the compassion and impulse of the Spirit of God to so.

As with everything else, the life of Jesus Christ known and experienced is the trump card here. We can descend into theories all day long; but for this author, experiential results tips the scale.

Which point in this post resonates with you the most? And can you add any more points to the list?

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  • gimpi1

    Just an aside from an outsider, I think the best “witness” anyone can give is to be genuinely caring. If you really care, if you really listen, if you refrain from judging, most people will return the favor. A real dialog is always going to be more effective than a sales pitch. You make better friends, too.

    Also, and this is a personal bug-a-boo of mine, but so many Evangelical people I have met seem to demand total conformity. They can’t accept any form of disagreement. If I disagree with them politically, on matters of taste or on my understanding of science and history, they can’t simply agree to disagree. Facts don’t matter, and every tiny theological point is a hill to die on. You see it in Evangelical churches that spilt over head coverings for women, Sabbath observances, minor points of dogma, whatever. Why do so many Evangelical people seem to be so rigid? Just wondering.

    If you really believe the most important part of your calling is to spread the Good News, emphasizing that over telling me I’m going to Hell for voting for the current president would be a good start. Really, it would.

  • gimpi1

    I profoundly agree, Dashifen. I also find I am more open to what someone has to say if they seem to actually want to be in dialog with me,not just sort of tossing a generic “witness” at me.

    If someone comes to me out of honesty, out of genuine friendship, out of respect, I am much more likely to reciprocate. And if I am honest, friendly and respectful I am much more likely to truly listen and take on board what someone is saying.

    In short, having an actual dialog is a much more effective form of witness than just showing up on my doorstep and running through your sales-pitch. And part of that dialog is respecting someone’s wishes when they say, “Not right now, I’ve had a bad day.”

  • Mike Bell

    Great post. It also doesn’t help that, besides the eternal purposes of God as you’ve codified them, we don’t really share the Gospel of the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed, of which redemption is only one part.

  • Susan_G1

    This post brings to mind a wonderfully telling story from News from Lake Wobegon wherein an aunt and uncle cover their white van in Scripture verses so that they can rest knowing that they’ve shared the Good News with everyone they’ve encountered.

    Teachers of this philosophy often fail to mention Jesus’ two greatest commandments, which, I imagine, might bring about plenty of questions from witnesses of such behavior.

  • Keith

    Thanks So Much. I appreciate all that you you are doing in the kingdom! It is such an encouragement to me.

  • http://frankviola.com/ Frank Viola

    I agree about that Ezekiel passage. Good point.

  • Chris Walker

    I like the point about the process of evangelism – it takes many people and many different events to bring the person to the place of conversion from seeker to new disciple.

    You are right on – the process doesn’t end there. There is spiritual growth and maturity in front of them.

    Finding ways to teach evangelism without using guilt has been my goal for the last several years. I’m bothered when people use the “Watchman” passage from Ezekiel to heap guilt on people, a la, if they die before you share the gospel, it’s your fault. . .

    I keep bringing people back to

    What is Jesus doing in your life in this season that makes the gospel good news?

    This question for me generates a passion to share my faith and help others to find this same grace.

    Chris Walker

  • http://frankviola.com/ Frank Viola

    Keith. In September I’ll be releasing an online course called “Living by the Indwelling Life of Christ” which is very practical. You can hear the first session free on the podcast. http://frankviola.info

  • http://theoppositepc.blogspot.com/ Frank Friedl

    Thank you for this excellent post! I am part of a fellowship that leans heavy on the evangelism and nothing else side of things and I am frequently butting heads when I push back that there is more to the Gospel than Matthew 28:18-20. Another scripture that is over-emphasized is that Jesus “came to seek and save the lost” and if that was his purpose it should also be ours. But that ignores that there are a dozen or so other “I came to” or “I was sent to” passages that show Jesus wasn’t so one-dimensional. (And this segues to your emphasis on Christians not trying to be just like Jesus but rather allowing Jesus to live through them)

  • Daniel Farrow

    Thank you. I will do that. God bless! :)

  • Keith

    I love the statement, “the most potent evangelist in the earth is a community of believers who are living by the indwelling life of Christ together in face-to-face community.” However, having been brought up in a church that is extremely pragmatic and lacking in the concepts of the Spirit, how do I internalize and begin to realize that “indwelling life?” That’s a question of practicality. I might just be one of those people you spoke of as being saved and never heard the gospel.

  • http://frankviola.com/ Frank Viola

    No time. What you can do is get my podcast and listen to episodes 62 to 65 — I deal with this idea in some of those. http://frankviola.info/2013/04/12/archives/ – it’s also on iTunes. Subscription is free and you can download all previous episodes.

  • Greg Carlet

    I agree with Frank and you completely. But a lot of people make it seem as though since the last command that Jesus gave was to go and make disciples, that the most important and primary thing to do is that. And if you are not doing that then you are being disobedient.

  • Daniel Farrow

    Thank you for an honest answer to an honest question. I do not currently have the means or the time to read another book. Would you be willing to give me a brief synopsis of your book and your position regarding Israel or is that too intense a subject for a brief synopsis?

  • http://frankviola.com/ Frank Viola

    No, it doesn’t. See my book “Jesus: A Theography” where I expound on my view. It’s not replacement nor is it dispensational. It’s how the NT authors viewed Israel in relation to Jesus and the church: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/frankviola/publications/

  • Daniel Farrow

    Frank. When you say the church is the new Israel, does that mean you endorse replacement theology?

  • http://dashifen.com/ dashifen

    You wrote “Christians who love the Lord Jesus Christ cannot but share their Lord with others [...] when a door has been opened by the Spirit.” As a non-Christian, the times that I have had the most moving experience learning from my Christian friends and neighbors has been when context indicated that I was willing to learn at that moment. From within a Christian context, I suppose it could be said that the Spirit moved me to accept at some moments and to decline (politely) at others for a variety of reasons.

    But, this point resonates with me because it indicates that there are going to be times when that door remains closed for some reason. It could simply be that I’ve had a bad day or that I’m trying to focus on a different part of a conversation or whatever, but quite possibly the worst experiences I’ve had with someone advocating for a point of view, religious or otherwise, is when they assume the door is open without discerning if that assumption is accurate!

  • DanielForster

    Greg, I agree with what Frank is saying. We cannot take the text out and separate it from the entire bible. No one is saying evangelism isn’t important, it just isn’t the main focus of being a follower of Christ. All throughout the bible, the main focus is very clear, and that is Christ Jesus. We must take these thoughts that Frank has shared and test it against all of His Word, and with the Holy Spirit. I believe when this is done, many points that Frank makes are valid and on point. To be obedient is to love Christ, and follow Him.

  • Greg Carlet

    I remember reading Rethinking Discipleship a couple of years ago and it definitely helped form a framework in my mind on this topic.

    “Christians who love the Lord Jesus Christ cannot but share their Lord with others”

    This definitely stuck out to me, as it causes me to evaluate my love for Him and other idols in my life. Something I have been thinking through a lot recently and we having been discussing in our gatherings.

    The last three points, as well, really struck a cord with me. Very important.

    I will be sharing this with some close friends and will discuss with them as well.

    Thanks Frank!

  • http://frankviola.com/ Frank Viola

    Thx. Steve. Appreciate your insightful remarks.

  • Steve Kitzman

    I was born into a very large, extremely conservative evangelical denomination that placed “evangelizing” near the top, if not the pinnacle of our Christian duty. My entire spiritual life was spent from preschool until I left that church at 27 years old, feeling massive amounts of guilt because I didn’t go door to door on “visitation” Tuesdays and I didn’t read my Bible every day. Lots of guilt. To the point where I always felt I was running or trying to hide my lack of obedience from God. It took many years and through God’s Grace and many friends and teachers and some very odd circumstances I slowly made the incremental steps to the Starting Line. Frank is right on the money with this one. Since being filled by the Holy Spirit and having the revelation of Christ for myself, I have continually shared the Gospel but it has always started organically. I have never “set out” to knock on doors. I have had awesome conversations with atheists, agnostics, and many burned out Christians and those who thought they were Christians. Every time, it was natural, not forced and the love of God just seemed to pour out with no effort on my part. It wasn’t me, but Him and His life being shared right where we were. Sharing Christ is life, not an act. Great post.

  • Matt Moore

    The guilt trip on evangelism looks a lot like Amway. You have to build your downline so the guys at the top can keep getting a paycheck.

  • http://frankviola.com/ Frank Viola

    That text cannot be taken in isolation apart from the rest of the NT. It must be taken in context with all 12 points list above. In one of those points, I remark on what “making disciples” means and how disciples were made in the first century. The article “Rethinking Discipleship, Church, and Mission” covers this. What are your thoughts on the other points? Which resonated with you the most?

  • Greg Carlet

    What do we say in response to someone who uses Matthew 28:18-20 as the basis for everything we do and says that if we aren’t doing that then we are being disobedient?