I am going to take a few days to see how many people I can engage in thinking about evangelism with me – yes, that’s the E word.. The subject is really “a beggar telling another beggar where she got the bread.” But in this day of marketing and proliferation of media charlatans who have poisoned the idea of evangelism, it has become very difficult to talk about the E word, or, for most Christians, to even think about it.
The word “evangelism” does not occur in the Bible. The word “evangelist” occurs three times, once when Paul is exhorting his disciple, Timothy to take himself seriously: “As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.” 2 Timothy 4:5. The root idea of the word evangelist is to be a “good newser.” “Evangelism” comes from a word in Greek rooted in the idea of a “good message.” The word “gospel” in English is just the same; the word comes from Old English “good” plus “spel” or story, message, word. Early on, the association with God changed the association with “good” to “God’s” word.
Christians have a good story to tell — the one about the life and work of Jesus, the ones about our ancestors in the faith, and our own stories about how we are living, Spirit to spirit, with God — through Jesus and like our ancestors. People tend to make evangelism very complicated, as if they were in charge of what God does and as if they need to be an expert in everything biblical and metaphysical before they open their mouths. I think it has got to be simpler than that, or none of us could do it. And I think, if you are a follower of Jesus, Paul’s admonition to Timothy basically applies to you, too: “Be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.” We’ve got the call and God supplies the capacity.
The work of evangelist includes asking.
Last night at Haddon and Fern I was trying to get people to see how they ARE the invitation, much more than they are merely asking people to come to meetings or asking them to do things. The Gospels in the Bible (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are stories about who Jesus is and what he does. They are not sales pitches for a product or comparative religion classes. They are telling about who Jesus is and about what happened when he showed up.
The A of evangelism first requires, showing up and being who we are in Christ. The love and truth we bring when we enter the room or enter a relationship is an “ask” in itself. Everyone is a story waiting to be told. Our story centers on Jesus. When we are ourselves in Christ, we are a good “ask.” So often we try to do evangelism right and we lose the most winsome thing we can do, which is tell our own story to someone who is interested in knowing us. Our story is a question in itself. When we tell it, it asks itself.
Some of us will be more aggressive because that is who we are. To be an evangelist is one way the Holy Spirit gifts people. Timothy was probably a gifted evangelist. But everyone who has received the Holy Spirit has some evangelist in them. If we are repressing the spiritual desire to ask people to listen, to come and see, to open up to the truth and love we have received, we are thwarting our true selves. I also think we are missing out on the adventure of being involved in what God is doing.
God, in Jesus, is certainly asking us to come back into love and truth. When we follow him in doing similar asking, the process is not without its pain, no less than it was for Jesus – some of us are pained when we ask someone to go out to dinner with us for fear we might be told “No,” after all! But the asking is so generative! Simply showing up with Jesus, simply asking, “What do you think about my faith?” could unleash new life. How do we know what God is going to do? How can we know if we don’t ask?