Evangelism: a trinitarian approach

Note how the apostle Paul exhorts his young protégé Timothy:
I give you this charge: preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction…. Keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.” (2Tim. 4:1-3, 5)
Here Timothy, apparently serving as pastor of the church in Ephesus, is exhorted by Paul to fulfill his duties, including that of evangelism. Note Paul's similar instructions to Timothy in an earlier letter:
Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the elders laid their hands on you. Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. (1Tim. 4:14-15)
The “gift” here seems to be Timothy’s calling to be an elder/pastor. With ordination came certain expectations, which in 2 Timothy 4 Paul exhorts Timothy to fulfill, evangelism being one of them. Though in the early church there were itinerant ministers who specialized in evangelism (today we’d probably call them “missionaries”), Paul apparently sees evangelism as a key part of a pastor’s duties. I think this is something for all followers of Jesus to consider.

Some people object, saying “I don’t have the gift of evangelism!” But that objection presumes that the Spirit gifts believers on a one-time, fixed basis. But there is no indication in Scripture that this is the case. Instead, God invites us to grow into Jesus’ giftedness (he alone has the fullness of the Spirit’s gifts and fruit). Toward that end, we can ask the Spirit for gifts that relate to sharing the gospel with non-believers (we call that evangelism) and then go to work using that gift in our Lord’s ministry. Another objection I sometimes hear is that incarnational Trinitarian theology precludes evangelism as being inappropriate or unnecessary. Is that true? Not according to T.F. Torrance:
The church today in its faint-heartedness and skepticism seems to have lost its nerve…adapting the gospel to modern man instead of bringing modern man face to face with the gospel…. The Church cannot discharge the task that Christ has laid upon it without offering unadulterated witness and engaging in pure evangelism, cost what it may in scorn and ridicule or oppression. If at the point the Church seeks to save its life it will lose it, but here if it is ready to lose it for Christ’s sake and the gospel’s it will find it. (Gospel, Church and Ministryp. 160, emphasis added)

My goal in addressing the topic of evangelism is not to guilt you into being active in evangelism. Instead, like Paul, I want to exhort us all to live up to (and into) this vital part of our calling, believing the Spirit will gift us as we do. Will any of us be the next Billy Graham? Probably not. Will the Spirit use us mightily to lead people to Christ? I believe he will, if we seek that gifting then go about faithfully, persistently and consistently exercising it, motivated by Christ's love (2 Cor. 5:11-6:2). 

I can testify from my own experience over the course of 45 years of ministry in various roles that there is no work more thrilling and fruitful than that of evangelism. As Lyle Dorsett says in the forward to The Sacrament of Evangelism, “God is present with the witness [evangelist] and the person being witnessed to—and the Lord brings new life when He is met there in faith” (p. 9).

What is evangelism?

First, let me say that evangelism is not about “taking Christ” to people. Instead, as Lyle Dorsett goes on to say
[Evangelism] is helping folks become aware of our “God who is here” now and that He wants to transform our souls and lives…. Because all people are created in God’s image, they long for fellowship with Him, in the way Adam and Eve experienced His presence before the fall. Because God made us to have intimacy with Him, He wants to meet us and transform us into who we were created to be. (pp. 9-10)
It is with this truth about who God is, and who we humans are in relation to God that Jerry Root and Stan Guthrie (authors of The Sacrament of Evangelism) approach evangelism not as a duty, but as a “sacrament”—meaning that it is about experiencing in a powerful, life-transforming way the presence of the triune God. Root and Guthrie comment:
Those who practice [evangelism] find that God is always showing up. Of course, He is already there, but those engaged in this sacrament begin to see Him regularly because their eyes are open to His presence. They practice His presence in their prayers for family, friends, and coworkers—even when those prayers are repeated year after year, seemingly unanswered. Hearts full of concern that others know the love and forgiveness of God keep us mindful of His nearness as we pray. Those concerned that others in their world discover the grace of Christ tend to be alert to the daily evidence of God’s activity around them. They see Him when they build a relationship, when they take a risk, and when they are rejected. They also see Him when a dear friend becomes a new follower of Christ. ( p. 16)
When we engage in evangelism, we’re not “taking Christ” anywhere. Not only is he (in his divinity) omnipresent, through the hypostatic union Jesus assumed our human nature, and thus our humanity is included in his. In other words, the human Jesus (now glorified and in heaven) is already intimately involved with all people—sharing their humanity, thus present to them and with them through the Spirit as he works in his time and way to reveal himself to those who do not yet know him; those who do not yet know that the Father has reconciled himself to them through Jesus—those who do not know that because of who Jesus is and what he has done, they are forgiven, accepted and loved by the Father (and the Son and Holy Spirit) unconditionally. (For more about this incarnational, Trinitarian perspective on evangelism click here for an earlier post on this blog).

Our work as evangelists is to join with Jesus who already is at work in the lives of all non-believers (believers too!). Evangelism is Jesus’ work and as followers of Jesus we are called both to participate personally and directly. Those of us who serve as pastors are charged in Scripture with equipping the other followers of Jesus under our care so they might participate actively and skillfully as well. Root and Guthrie say this about this calling to evangelism:
The sacrament of evangelism is not about getting a few more notches in our outreach belts, about following a formula. It’s about working with [God], worshiping Him, and knowing Him as we participate with Him in bringing the lost, sinful, and hurting people to Himself. The work will go on, with or without you. But if you choose to stand aside, God will still work, but you will be the loser. (p. 17)
Few activities give meaning and purpose to ministry more clearly than the privilege of leading another person to faith in Christ and discipling that person to lead others to Christ as well.

How do we evangelize?

Though evangelism is not about some set formula, it does involve certain attitudes (heart), knowledge (head), and skill (hands). One of the dangers in reading about evangelism (as you are now doing) is that you might conclude that the most important thing is head knowledge. Well, let me dispossess you of that notion. While knowledge of evangelism is important, it’s far less important than getting “out there” to meet non-believers, leading to meaningful conversations, that, in turn, lead to building authentic (real) relationships that involve sharing life.

I’m reminded that Jesus didn’t give his disciples long lectures about evangelism—he simply “hit the road” as the evangelist that he was and invited his disciples to come along and share in what he was doing. It appears from the four Gospel accounts that, at first, his disciples did not have a clue about what they were doing. But as they gained hands-on experience, their knowledge grew and their competency soared and along with that came the transformation of their hearts (remember it’s about hands, head and heart; often in that order). Root and Guthrie comment:
The more you share your faith, the more people will ask questions—hard questions. The more you take people and their questions seriously, the more you will grow as you dig for answers. Sharing Jesus will help you gain a fuller understanding of your life in Christ, more deeply than you are likely to gain if you are idle evangelistically. This too is evidence of the sacrament of evangelism, because in the act of wrestling with questions of others, we discover more about God and His presence. Second, you will grow spiritually because those with whom you share Christ will be watching to see if you are the real thing…. Non-believers are looking for authenticity, since so often Christians are seen as hypocrites. People want to see if the Christ we preach makes a difference in our lives. (pp. 26-27)
By sharing life with those who do not yet know Jesus, we begin to learn what Jesus, through the Spirit, is already doing in their lives. We then look for ways to join in so that these people may share in the blessings we already enjoy. It’s my conviction and experience (and I believe Scripture supports this) that the greatest understanding of the heart, mind and hands (activity) of Jesus comes as we participate with him in leading non-believers to their Savior—which is about their eyes being opened to see that Jesus is right there with them (and always has been). It is in this work of evangelism that we see Jesus doing some of his most amazing, life-transforming work. The good news is that we get to have a part, if we will “dive in.”

It begins (and continues) with prayer

As Root and Guthrie note, evangelism that is real participation in the work of Jesus (versus some sort of perfunctory, programmatic scheme), begins (and continues) with intercessory prayer:
Prayer and practicing God’s presence [the essence of prayer] are not some fancy add-ons to our sacramental evangelism. They are its engine…. One way to pray to the God who is already present with us and is also with the person we wish to reach is to ask that the other person’s heart be opened to the gospel. The Lord, in a sense, stands both between us and above us. There is more involved in sacramental evangelism than horizontal, one-on-one witnessing. Before you do that necessary act, be sure to start your vertical ministry: pray. Then God, who loves this person more than you do anyway, will begin to do His work from above, down into the heart of the person, before you even open your mouth. You may even find that God was already working before you offered any prayers. (p. 37)
As we pray together as believers concerning our non-believing friends, we begin to experience more fully the reality that Jesus is sharing the lives of all people—both within and outside the church walls. In prayer, we discern more clearly the Spirit's call to join in what Jesus is doing "out there" and we are emboldened to do so.

Plant seeds through storytelling

What we join Jesus in doing “out there” is sharing in the lives (the story) of other persons. To do that we go to them, not primarily to convey information but to listen to their stories. This leads to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls "place sharing," which involves indwelling the "story" of the other and thus to “feel” the other. An essential skill for place sharing is empathy, which is acquired through prayer and in time spent with other persons (ideally, in prayer with them).

Such place sharing encounters give us opportunity to evangelize by “planting seeds” of the gospel, which involves sharing our story as it relates to the story of Jesus. In this, pastors can be of great help by modeling story-telling and otherwise teaching members to tell their stories.

Evangelism as radical hospitality

At this point I want to offer a caution about evangelism—it’s not a technique the church uses to recruit new members by using mechanical, formulaic, high pressure sales techniques. Biblical evangelism is the outflow of the Incarnation—the outflow of the reality that God has come among us as one of us in the person of Jesus, an event that creates the space and place in which believing is possible as a gift of God, by the Spirit, through grace. As noted by R.C. Anderson his  book The Effective Pastor, the freedom to believe “only results from the actuality of belonging, which the incarnational community [the church] signals by its own existence in the world” (p. 128). A primary way the church sends this “signal” is through what we might refer to as “radical hospitality,” which tells non-believers, “we care about you,” “you are welcome here,” “you belong.”

Unfortunately, many churches send to non-believers the message that they are nothing more than a project and, actually, are not welcome within the church until they first believe (and even behave!). Once they do, then (and only then), they can belong. Such churches see the gospel sequence as 1) believe, 2) behave, 3) belong. The actual gospel sequence is this: 1) you belong, 2) so believe this glorious truth, and 3) that will lead to the transformation of your life (including your behavior). Said more succinctly, the sequence is belong - believe - become. Seen from this gospel-shaped vantage point, evangelism involves showing radical “you belong” hospitality to non-believers. A powerful example is the way Jesus, visiting Jeriho, related to the despised tax-collector Zacchaeus.

Extending radical hospitality to non-believers requires that we know our audience—that we gain an intimate knowledge of the people we are wanting to reach with the gospel. Biblical evangelism is not about evangelistic “drive-by shootings”—it’s about developing real relationship; it’s about intimate, in-depth, personal, empathic knowing (and caring). As Root and Guthrie note
The greatest principle of Christian proclamation is: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The gospel hits the mark when it is couched in empathy for those who hear it. (p. 50)

Evangelism tools

Here are two GCI publications that you might find useful in making evangelistic presentations:
This post is adapted from a lecture given by Ted Johnston in his Practice of Ministry course at Grace Communion Seminary.