As Christians, we are called to the task of evangelism. We are commanded by Jesus himself to go into all the world and preach the gospel, make disciples, and baptize into the name of our triune God (Matt 28:19-20; Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8). We are called to proclaim the excellencies of him who has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9). As ambassadors for Christ, we implore everyone to be reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:20-21), knowing that faith comes through hearing the gospel (Rom 10:13). The pattern that we see in the early church throughout the book of Acts is the gospel being preached boldly and clearly to everyone, everywhere (Acts 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7…). Whatever else we see in the book of Acts, we most certainly see the primacy of preaching the gospel.
However, there are some evangelistic strategies being promoted today that do not follow the clear pattern and commands of Scripture. While there are aspects of evangelism that these novel strategies rightly emphasize, and should be commended for, they are ultimately based on a complete redefinition of the word and activity of “evangelism,” and need to be confronted and corrected. But before we look at how it’s being redefined, we need to take a minute to remember the biblical definition of evangelism.
The Biblical Definition of Evangelism
The most basic definition of evangelism is sharing the gospel; it’s communicating (i.e., preaching, proclaiming, declaring, testifying to) the good news of what God has done in Christ for sinners. Our word “evangelism” comes from three Greek words:
- euangelion—“gospel”— this is the content of what is communicated (Mark 1:14–15; Acts 20:24; Rom 1:16)
- euangelistes—“evangelist”—this is the person communicating the gospel (Acts 21:8; Eph. 4:11; 2 Tim 4:5)
- euangelizo— “to preach/proclaim the good news”—this describes the activity of communicating the gospel (Matt 11:5; Luke 3:8; Acts 5:42; 8:4, 12, 25, 40; 10:36; 14:7, 21; 15:35; 17:18; Rom 1:15; 10:15; 2 Cor 10:16)
Notice that verbally communicating the message is fundamental to the activity of evangelism. Just like food is required to feed the hungry, words are required to preach the gospel.
But we can (and must) expand this definition. Evangelism is sharing the gospel with the aim of persuasion. In other words, the goal is to make converts. We don’t just inform people of the good news, hoping they remain unchanged by it. We share the gospel with boldness and clarity, praying and trusting that God will do the miraculous and monergistic work of regeneration that only he can do. We pray that our hearers respond in repentance, faith, and obedience. And this happens by the Spirit working through the word.
With this biblical definition in mind, we will look at two novel evangelistic strategies which, despite their intentions and what they rightly emphasize, redefine the activity and goal of evangelism.
Lifestyle Evangelism can be defined as “(1) the belief that living a good life in front of lost people is true proclamation of the Gospel; or (2) the belief that living a good life in front of lost people is a necessary preparation prior to the proclamation of the Gospel” (Johnston, Evangelizology, 1122). The thought is that “this lifestyle witness satisfies the demands of the Great Commission” (1107). Notice the last part of that definition. The assumption is that a loving and Christ-like lifestyle satisfies the demands of the Great Commission.
Strengths and Weaknesses
There is much to commend with Lifestyle Evangelism. First, this strategy seeks to combine the Great Commission and the exhortations to Christ-like living all throughout the Scriptures. It takes the command “to let your light shine” seriously (Matt 5:16; cf. 1 Peter 2:11-12, 15; Phil 2:15). Second, by focusing on the lifestyle of Christians, this evangelistic strategy reminds us of the obvious: Christians must be Christ-like; we must talk the talk and walk the walk.
But the problem with this redefinition of evangelism is that it confuses the missionary nature of the Great Commission with personal spiritual disciplines (Evangelizology, 1111). The danger is that acts of love and service can often replace the verbal sharing of the gospel. This can give believers the false impression that, by simply being kind and Christ-like to others—as all believers should be—they have successfully “preached” the gospel.
While we must have relationships with and perform acts of service for unbelievers, and while our lives are most certainly to reflect our Lord’s example, that must not replace the actual preaching of the gospel message from the Word of God. Unbelievers do good works, go the extra mile, and hold doors open for people on their way into Target, but such actions are in no way a fulfillment of biblical evangelism.
Taking the Easy Road
Evangelism is not easy because the gospel is inherently offensive to sinful and rebellious people. God calls us to deny ourselves, repent of our sins, put sin to death, take up our cross daily, and submit to his sovereign rule and authority. This news, despite being the most glorious news imaginable, is not always received warmly. It is an aroma of death to many (2 Cor 2:16), and proclaiming it will result most likely result in rejection, hatred (Matt 5:10-12; 10:22; 24:9; John 15:18), or much worse.
And this is precisely one of the reasons why lifestyle evangelism is so popular, because it’s easy. Every true believer knows that they should evangelize the lost and wishes they did so boldly and more frequently. But cleaning city streets, paying it forward, and holding doors for people are considerably easier tasks than warning sinners of the day of the Lord (John 3:36; Rev 19:11-21) and calling them to repent and leave the sins that make them feel so good. Simply living like nice people and preaching the gospel without words is taking the easy road. And if that’s all we ever do, then the easy road is nothing but the unbiblical and unfaithful road. At some point, our good deeds and Christ-like lifestyle must turn to gospel proclamation and all that entails. Our lifestyle must be an on-ramp to bold, clear, biblical evangelism.
In another article, we will look at a similar evangelistic strategy that replaces the verbal sharing of the gospel with the demonstration of signs and wonders: power evangelism.
Mitch Bedzyk serves as a teacher and worship leader at Elmira Christian Center. He received his Master of Theological Studies from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and works in IT for the NY Office of Mental Health. He and his wife, Sarah, have one son named Oliver Paul and are foster parents. In his spare time he enjoys reading, coffee, guitar, following the Bundesliga and MLS, and playing fantasy soccer. You can follow him @mitchbedzyk