It wasn’t until the Spirit led me to the actual work of evangelism that I realized what I had been missing. In bearing witness to new people, I found the strange upside-down promise of the Reign of God. Praying for a person who I didn’t know, imposing ashes, touching shoulders, holding hands. In all of these things, the Spirit drew near to us, and the energy of life and hope and comfort and healing surged through us like electricity in the air before a storm. What looked like me giving something to another turned out to be life-giving for both of us. Bearing witness to Jesus strengthened my own faith and I got a front row seat to another’s experience of the risen Lord. So often we speak of evangelism as a kind of duty or responsibility and it is, but it is also a gift to both giver and receiver.
I grew up in the era of Lutheranism that stood firmly in contrast to those who were peddling the four spiritual laws and the sinner’s prayer. In my own tradition, evangelism looked like new babies, “invite a friend to church” Sunday, and maybe a well-articulated elevator speech. But mostly, I learned that evangelism left a bad taste in your mouth. We were solidly from the “if you build it, they will come” school of evangelism. In other words, spend your time and energy on doing worship well, tending the integrity of your faith, or getting your theology right. Others will eventually notice and come your way. There is some truth in that, but it is hard to get away from the fact that Jesus’ command at the end of Matthew’s gospel was to “go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19).”
So, what does it look like to be a missional church faithful to Jesus’ command to “go”? Evangelism is, at its core, an outward motion. It is about reaching out with the love of God we know in Christ Jesus. A dear friend of mine said to me recently that if he goes to a great restaurant, he wants to share that with the people he loves. He tells them, “I went to such-and-such restaurant last night and the food was amazing! You should try it!” Evangelism, he notes, is similar. How is it that we share the life that is in us in ways that reflect the genuine joy we know in Jesus?
Notice that the work of evangelism is not about getting someone to come to church (though that can be a nice side benefit). Notice that the work of evangelism is not about getting someone to believe in/follow Jesus (only the Holy Spirit has that power). And the work of evangelism is not about critiquing someone else’s life choices. It is simply about sharing the love of God in Christ Jesus, believing that relationship with God leads to abundant life for all people and creation. We do this work of evangelism first and foremost because we are commissioned to do so and secondly, because we care deeply about others and their well-being.
So, what does evangelism look like for those of us who are not out to win souls or pack our pews? For me, it begins with prayer. One of the simplest ways to know who and how to respond to this calling is to pray for God to show you. Ask God to reveal those who are in need, who are open, who are ready. Ask God to give you eyes to see and ears to hear those around you who with whom you are called to walk. This prayer is one God loves to answer.
Sometimes these prayers will lead you to someone you do not know, but often they will lead you to a conversation with someone in your own relational orbit: a co-worker, a neighbor, a local barista, a family member, or friend. Prayer opens me in a new way to see those who are open to God. It is about noticing and asking, about listening with compassion and faith. More often than not the prayers prompt me to notice and to ask what is going on in another’s life. Listen deeply. And then ask if you might pray with them—right then and there. (In all the years I have asked this question of strangers and friends alike, no one has ever said no.) Don’t advise. Don’t try to fix. Don’t debate. Pray. Talk to God on another’s behalf. Pray for healing or hope. Thank God for a new chapter or a recent joy. Ask for what is needed. Be honest, brief, and direct. And then ask if you might follow up with them. Often these simple acts of care are enough to open the door to another’s new or renewed relationship with God.
A text or call a few days later, an offer to listen again, and continued prayer are all great ways to show someone the love and care we know in Jesus. Sometimes you will find yourself in longer conversations about God and faith; sometimes you won’t. That’s ok. Remember, the outcome is not up to you. Your work is to show the love of God, to offer compassion and care.
I am not an extrovert. I don’t look the part of the stereotypical evangelist. And for lots of years I didn’t imagine it was my calling. But I was invited into the work, and I began to understand the extraordinary need—hundreds of strangers lined up for prayer. Some of them were Christian, some were not. Some were angry. Some were despairing. Others were overflowing with joy. Many were curious. All were grateful for the chance to be listened to and prayed for. And I saw the work of God—the power of the Spirit at work in ways I thought were only fabled in ancient stories. It renewed my own faith and sparked faith in others. It was a blessing and I pray that this blessing might be yours as well.