Last week, I was toddling down the sidewalk, enjoying the scenic passage between my pastoral study and a local coffee shop. As I approached the counter, the barista and I exchanged knowing smiles, and the clerk handed me a warm cup of extra-bitter espresso (everyone knows lesser men drink that sugary stuff).
Finishing my afternoon energy shot and folding away my tattered copy of Augustine’s ancient book, Confessions, I noticed that a man sitting next to me was reading a Bible. I stroked my beard and wondered, “Is he reading an acceptable translation?” Thankfully, I observed the ESV impression on the binding when he raised the volume in order to give himself a closer look at the text.
The man realized I was eyeing his Bible, and, with an inquisitive look, he longingly asked, “Sir, can you help me know what this means?” Sliding his Bible over to me, he put his finger on the page, indicating his concern with the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. He was particularly vexed by chapter 2, verses 1-10, so I made use of the passage.
Starting with verse 1, I scourged him for being a terrible wretch. The pitiable man tearfully agreed, and even admitted that he was worse than I knew. Resisting his emotional attempt to derail my exposition by provoking my sympathies, I simply continued. But when I read verses 4 and 5, he rudely interjected, “Who is this ‘Jesus’?! And what does it mean to be ‘saved’ by ‘grace’?!”
As you probably figured, this story is entirely made up (except for the bitter coffee part… seriously, be a man). Evangelistic encounters may never happen like this. In fact, I am a pastor of a relatively small church in rural East Texas, and evangelism can be tricky in my neck of the woods. I only remember meeting one conscious non-Christian in the last four years. My hometown evangelistic conversations usually focus on inconsistencies between the professions of faith I hear and the unfaithful practices I see. I often feel like quoting Inigo Montoya. “You keep using the word, ‘Christian.’ I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Pastors can and should be exemplary evangelists, but sometimes the task can feel intimidating and exhausting. Here are four things I try to remember about evangelism so that I might be more faithful to the task.
One, evangelism is teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade.
I am stealing this definition of evangelism from Mack Stiles. His little book Evangelism is fantastic. Among numerous gems in this book, Stiles defines evangelism by writing, “Evangelism is teaching (heralding, proclaiming, preaching) the gospel (the message from God that leads us to salvation) with the aim (hope, desire, goal) to persuade (convince, convert).”
Each part of this definition is worth our time, and Stiles dissects it in the book, but let me stress the content of evangelism here. Don’t assume the gospel. The gospel is the power of God, but only if we convey the message from God that leads sinners to salvation in Christ (Romans 1:16). I try to remember that evangelism is happening when I articulate, explain, and apply the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Two, preaching and teaching are the pastor’s primary work of evangelism.
There are several passages in Scripture which make me involuntarily shudder when I read them. The Apostle Paul’s charge to Timothy “in the presence of God and Christ” is one of those passages (2 Timothy 4:1-5). What a thrilling and serious charge! The responsibility given to Timothy is “preach the word” (v2). Paul describes that task by writing, “be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (v2). After Paul warns Timothy of the resistance he is sure to encounter, Paul urges him again, “do the work of an evangelist” (v5).
These charges – “preach the word” and “do the work of an evangelist” – are not separate from each another. In other words, to be a preacher of the Scriptures is to do evangelistic work. I try to remember that the primary and profound work of every pastor is to teach the gospel among his own congregation by preaching good expositional sermons regularly.
Three, evangelism is life to some and death to others.
While every pastor is responsible for teaching and preaching among his own congregation, he is also responsible to do so outside of the community of faith. And yet, the experienced Christian will know that not everyone hears the message of the gospel with gladness. In fact, some will not respond well at all.
The Bible reminds us that the “aroma of Christ” is a “fragrance of death to death” for some (2 Corinthians 2:15-16). Of course, some will breathe in the gospel with pleasure, as a “fragrance from life to life” (v16), but this is not always so. I try to remember that some people will love the gospel and others will actually hate it.
Four, the results of evangelism are God’s alone.
If the aim of evangelism is to persuade, then we measure success by rate and frequency of conversion, right? Well, not exactly. Obviously, our deep longing is for the lost to be found, the dead to be raised, the unregenerate to be born again. Therefore, we do celebrate when someone responds to our evangelistic efforts by repenting from sin and trusting in Christ.
However, we are unwise to think that evangelistic encounters are only worthwhile if we can record a positive response. The Bible buttresses our faltering confidence in the face of an undesirable reaction by reminding us that we may “plant” and “water” the seeds of the gospel, but “only God gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7). I try to remember that faithful gospel conversations are always worthwhile, and I ask God to produce growth.
In pastoral ministry, there are plenty of expectations. If you are like me, then you may regularly leave the office with things left undone. But, we can both take heart. If we are faithfully teaching and talking about the gospel of Christ with fellow Christians and non-Christians, then we are doing the work God has called us to do. If we are lovingly and prayerfully conveying this exceptionally powerful message, then some will love Christ and others will hate us. In all of this, we may be sure that our Chief Shepherd sees all, and He shall reward His servants with an unfading crown (1 Pet. 5:4).
Now, let’s go get a manly cup of joe and talk with someone about Jesus.
Stiles, J. Mack. Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus (9marks: Building Healthy Churches) (p. 27). Crossway. Kindle Edition.