A Bible Study on Non-Creepy Evangelism

God’s activity of wholeness, restoration, and liberation
two men walking away in a eastern, rural city

Read Matthew 28:18-20 and Acts 1:6-9

In Matthew 28 and Acts 1 we have two versions of Jesus’ last words to the disciples. They are classic evangelism texts. These Matthew verses are known as the “Great Commission,” and for centuries the Christian church has heard them as our marching orders from Jesus: GO to all nations, MAKE disciples, TEACH Jesus’ commands, BAPTIZE in the name of the Triune God, and REMEMBER God’s presence with us always. Jesus’ post-resurrection, pre-ascension words in Acts 1 seem to reinforce that job description with emphasis on being a WITNESS to Jesus from the place where the disciples are standing, Judea, all the way “to the ends of the earth.”  

What has your experience with either of these passages been? 

Historically, the western Christian church has used these marching orders to justify the worst of human atrocities in the name of Jesus. “Making disciples of all nations” and going “to the ends of the earth,” coupled with the greed of empirical adventures by Rome, the United Kingdom, and the United States became the foundation of “missionary” efforts meant to colonize entire continents, committing genocide and wiping out generations of culture, language, and religion all over the globe. In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells a parable about the final judgment of the nations where the sheep on the right hand enter eternal life and the goats on the left enter eternal punishment, to add to the mix. Not only shall we take over the world in the name of Jesus, but the threat of never-ending torment awaits all who do not comply. 

I wish I could say that this understanding of evangelism no longer dominated the western Christian mindset, but I can’t. Scaring people into following Jesus, regardless of the fact that Jesus never did that, is still quite common. Now there is less of an emphasis on conquering nations to save them from their so-called uncivilized selves and more of an emphasis on the individual soul that needs to be saved from its immorality. When I was a teen in the 1990s, the phenomenon of Halloween “hell houses” emerged in the United States. As a 2008 article by Jason C. Bivins explains, “These [Hell Houses] … explicitly engage the hot‐button political issues central to New Christian Right activism and organizing. Hell Houses’ individual scenes illustrate to adolescents the harms (such as abortion, gay weddings, and school shootings) awaiting them in a society that … has unwittingly drawn them toward hellfire.” 

While that is a most extreme example, many people have experienced a creepy evangelism assault. Some well-meaning person approaches a friend or stranger with the goal of getting that person to “accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior.” By the way, that phrase is so common that Google Docs auto-wrote it as I was typing it. So you should know, that phrase never shows up in the Bible. There is no Biblical story that depicts one person approaching another with that question. Even if this kind of “evangelist” does not begin with this agenda stated outright, they eventually get there, after expressing interest, care, and concern for the recipient of their efforts. A lot of evangelism tactics look a lot like a cheap sales job and feel just as dishonest, self-serving, and manipulative. To convert someone to Christ is proof of one’s own goodness, and the converted soul is a feather in their cap, a jewel in their crown, and another golden brick to pave their own way to paradise.

Most mainline Protestants I know shy away from this type of evangelism, and by “shy away” I mean they run as fast as they can the other direction. I count myself among them. But I admit I haven’t been satisfied with its replacement. Like many people in the institutional church, I got comfortable conflating evangelism with marketing and advertising. To avoid the awkward encounter with a person, we put up better signs and created better messaging, not so much to get people to believe in Jesus, but to get people to join our church. We became “invitational” evangelists in the way that Jesus invited people to follow him saying “come and see” when he called his disciples (John 1:39-41). Our hope was that if we could just make a good invitation, the Holy Spirit would do the rest. If we could lure them into our club, they would naturally want to be a part of it because it was so good and fulfilling. Evangelism became synonymous with “church growth.” But the same critique can be applied: that is not Biblical either. There is no place in the Bible where someone follows Jesus because of the better sign outside the church building or the really catchy, brightly colored mailer inviting them to Christmas Eve worship services.

Questions for reflection:

  1. What is your experience of evangelism? When has it felt creepy?
  2. Why are you a follower of Jesus? What is it that first drew you to Jesus and what is it that continues to do so?

Another way

Scripture: Isaiah 61 and Luke 4:18-19

Luke wrote his gospel around 85 CE in the wake of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE. The infancy narrative (1:5-2:52) and the travel narrative (Luke 9:51-19:47) make it clear that Jesus is coming to save the world through the restoration of Israel, which cannot be understood apart from the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple. In Luke 4, at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, he goes to the synagogue in Nazareth and reads from the scroll of Isaiah. The portion of Isaiah that he reads from is believed to have been written for those who were returning to Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile (597 to 537 BCE). The Babylonians destroyed the temple in 587/586 BCE. So it makes sense that the words of the prophet that gave hope to the exiles who were returning to a decimated Jerusalem in 537 BCE would also give hope to the world following the fall of the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE. 

Just hold that bit of history for a moment while we review what the word evangelism actually means. It is Greek, and it literally means “good news.” Jesus does not use the phrase often. In Matthew 11:4-5, “Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.’” And in Luke 4:18-19, reading from Isaiah 61, Jesus says, “‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’” In the Apostle Paul’s writings “good news” is simply identified as “Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David” (2 Timothy 2:8). Sometimes he refers to “the good news” (or “gospel”) as a dynamic event, the exercise of God’s power for human and cosmic restoration: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (Romans 1:16). 

So at the heart of evangelism is God’s activity of wholeness, restoration, and liberation. Do you see how far away that is from getting people to convert to a particular belief system? Evangelism for us is to participate in God’s wholeness, restoration, and liberation project. Our evangelism is to attend to people and places that are broken and destroyed. Evangelism skills have little to do with skills of persuasion, marketing, or even preaching, and much more to do with repair, reconciliation, and restoration. Christian evangelism efforts may look much more like seeking justice for people who have been treated unfairly, imagining and creating economic systems that are not oppressive, and advocating for ways of life that make people well, give people rest, and contribute to their healing. For those of us in the western Christian church, evangelism must include repentance for the ways we have hurt others for centuries in the name of Jesus. It should look like working for environmental justice, repairing the damage we have done to the earth, and overhauling a criminal punishment system that has never sought restoration of individuals or communities. 

Just as the words of Luke 4 and Isaiah 61 gave hope to people in a destroyed and messy world, they give us hope. The good news is that in the risen Jesus God continues to promise a better future, not because we have done everything right or believed all the right things, but because our God insists that the brokenness, lifelessness, and hopelessness of our world can and will be overcome. 

Questions for reflection:

  1. What is a “good news” moment in your life—when you felt hope was lost and saw God do a Good, New thing?
  2. Who in your community needs good news today? What good news do they need? and how will you partner with God in making that good news happen for them?
Libby Howe

Libby Howe

Pastor Libby Howe was ordained in the ELCA in 2002. She serves as the Congregational Support Coordinator for Peace and Justice Ministries with the Wisconsin Council of Churches working with congregations and leaders to integrate community focused peace and justice initiatives into their regular, ongoing ministries. She enjoys reading, writing, praying, and walking with her old dog, Marley. She lives in La Crosse, WI on the banks of the beautiful Mississippi River. More information about her work can be found here: https://www.wichurches.org/leadership/

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