There’s a word in American Christendom that strikes fear into the hearts of God’s people. It’s not ‘Islam,’ ‘liberalism,’ ‘socialism,’ or ‘atheism’ (although all those do create irrational fear in Western Christians). The most terrifying word in all of American Christendom is “evangelism.” If you doubt me, just ask a fellow believer when was the last time they verbally shared the gospel with an unbeliever—the answer will likely be silence. When one considers why it’s hard to share the gospel with the lost, many answers will come forth, but the common denominator is usually fear. North-American Christians are afraid of looking unintelligent, weird, awkward, and ignorant. In our celebrity-obsessed culture, to look uninformed, unintellectual, and unattractive is the highest of social sins. However, we are not called as Christ’s church to proclaim our own excellencies (we have none) but to “proclaim the excellencies of Him who called [us] out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:19). Fortunately, there are tools available to help with this. Consider “The Three E’s of Evangelism”:
What do you think of when you see that word? Do you think of going up to random people in a confrontational or obnoxious manner? Do you think of being loud or aggressive? You’ll be happy to know that that’s not what engagement in evangelism means. Engagement in this context is demonstrating to those who don’t follow Christ that you welcome them and their opinions by listening to them. When it comes to evangelism, we often think we have to be the ones speaking or even leading the conversation, but that’s not true. In my experience evangelizing non-believers, they appreciate it when they see that we truly care for them as fellow human beings as opposed to being just another notch on our spiritual belt.
Recently, I was speaking with a young man at a local park. Through the course of the conversation, he had mentioned his rough upbringing and how it shaped his view of the things of God. I could’ve gone straight to answering some of his objections, but I didn’t. Instead, I asked him to share more of his story. As he did, his tears started to flow. He poured out his heart and allowed me to share in his pain and sorrow. When he finished, I was able to minister to him further by offering some perspective on his trials and questions that he had. At the end of our conversation, he mentioned how he needed to rethink his views on God and I was able to share the gospel of Jesus with him. It was a good time of fellowship and encouragement for us both, and I wonder if one of the reasons for that was my willingness to simply love him by listening. As Pastor Leon Brown of Montage Church in Los Angeles, CA writes in his book, Words in Season: On Sharing the Hope that is Within Us, “A listening ear is usually welcomed and appreciated.”
When speaking about evangelism, people often ask me what are some of the main things they should remember and do. I have two pieces of advice: “love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind…[and to] love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37, 39). Evangelism must come from a heart in love with God and neighbor. If our evangelism doesn’t flow out of love for God and neighbor, then we are nothing more than a “…noisy gong…[and] are nothing” (1 Corinthian 13:1-3). The second is like it: James 1:19, “…let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger…” If we are truly operating out of a love for God and the neighbor with whom we are sharing the message of eternal life, then we will engage by eagerly and actively listening. By doing this, we demonstrate our genuine love for the lost by treating them as fellow valuable image bearers of God instead of debating opponents against whom we’ve won an argument.
Empathy is defined as “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” There is a belief about American Christians—a belief that has sadly proven true in too many cases—that we think of ourselves as holier (and therefore, better) than our non-believing neighbors. True, Christians are holy unto the Lord because of the work of Christ, but we are not superior to unbelievers, nor do we possess an innate quality of holiness over against them. We easily forget that all we have (especially salvation), is a free gift of God’s sovereign grace and that we therefore we have nothing to boast about. We too were once “…dead in the trespasses and sins…” and “…were by nature children of wrath…” (Ephesians 2:1, 3). When we forget that we were once enemies of God and on our way to the Lake of Fire and assume a self-righteous superiority, we make our evangelism more about our ‘kind willingness’ to let ‘these people’ join our special club, and less about a good desire to see all tribes, tongues, and nations praising God for his salvation. Empathy allows for a better, more God-glorifying way of relating to our unsaved neighbors. Pastor Brown writes,
To various degrees, both believers and unbelievers know what is right and wrong. When confronted by the law, we must admit we’ve all broken it. Since this is commonplace, we have another ally: compassion. We know what it’s like to fight against our true identity and follow after the course of this world; to be constantly drawn away from the Lord to fulfill the lusts of the flesh…God in Christ had compassion on us…Can we have compassion on others in a similar way (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)? Can we relate to others since we know the struggle that sin brings-the temptations, the guilt, the shame…because Christ had compassion on us, that Christlike compassion should flow from us to others.
In my years of experience sharing the gospel on high school and college campuses, street corners, boardwalks, airplanes, movie theatres, etc., I’ve seen that my willingness to admit that I have sinned against God and deserve His wrath frees others to admit that as well. When I’m honest and admit that as a Christian, I’ve wrestled with doubts and questions and still do at times, it frees the unbeliever to admit his own doubts and questions and opens up an avenue for discussion. When I admit that I still wrestle and struggle with sin, it frees them to open up about what sin(s) they’re trapped in and how it is affecting their lives. We know what it is to be “…separated from Christ…having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12).
When we stop pretending that we have it all together and are honest about our struggles in life and the hope of Christ we have in the midst of it all, it shows that we aren’t holier-than-thou, but struggling pilgrims going through some of the same issues they are and yet, have hope. Wise transparency, compassion, and empathy are far more becoming to God’s chosen people, the Church, than compelling arguments and sophisticated rhetoric.
At some point during our evangelistic conversations, we have to explain the truth of the gospel. In other words, we have to actually break down for the non-believer how they can be reconciled to God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. This is what most Western Christians fear the most. Listening and being empathetic comes much easier than actually sharing “…the hope that is within [us]…with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). This brings forth the question you probably wanted answered the moment you clicked on this link: how do we share the gospel? While there’s no 100%-of-the-time-it-works-every-time method, there are certain biblical principles that can help us navigate the waters of evangelism. Personally, I use these five categories: God as Creator, Lawgiver, Judge, Savior, and Caller.
At the beginning of this year, I went to that same local park near my house and spoke with a young African-American man named Jeremy. When I first asked if he had any spiritual beliefs, he answered, “Well, I don’t believe in white Jesus.” I told him that I also didn’t believe in the white Jesus presented by American cultural Christianity, and over the course of an hour, I told him about how he was lovingly created in the image of God (Creator), how he (and I) had fallen short of the perfection God demands of us by breaking His perfect Law (Lawgiver), that we both deserved His wrath in the Lake of Fire for eternity (Judge), how God bridged that gap between us and Himself by sending His Son to live, die, and rise in our place, thus paying the sin debt we owe (Savior), and how we are called to stop running from God and trust in Jesus alone (Caller). After about ten minutes of clarifying our terms and making sure we understand one another accurately, he told me that he had been thinking about these issues for a while and that he was thankful I had spoken to him about the gospel. He then bowed his head and prayed to receive Christ as his Lord and Savior! We exchanged phone numbers and he’s been reading his Bible and asking great questions about his new faith. He’s also come to church with me since then and we’ve discussed him getting baptized. When speaking to non-Christians, it is important to realize we no longer live in a culture and time where the Christian worldview is a commonly-held framework for life. Many don’t have or understand Christian concepts, and those that do profess a form of spiritual beliefs will use similar words with very different meanings. We must seek to make Christian truth understandable by explaining our terms and clearing up any misconceptions about our message.
Salvation does, after all, “belongs to the Lord” (Jonah 2:9). No matter what tools we utilize, if the Holy Spirit doesn’t regenerate a spiritually dead sinner, they won’t respond positively to the Gospel. However, the Holy Spirit has been and continues to be pleased in using these tools of engagement, empathy, and explanation to bring life to people dead in their sins and it is this truth that should make us bold in using the “Three E’s of Evangelism.” The gospel is the message non-Christian image bearers need to hear and believe in order to be reconciled to the Triune God and it is our privilege and blessing to share it with others. May the Spirit of God give you His love and boldness as you seek to reach a lost and hopeless world for Jesus Christ.
Anthony English is the Assistant Director of Mission to the World’s West Coast Office and is currently enrolled at Birmingham Theological Seminary. He and his wife live in Southern California with their three boys.
 Leon Brown, Words in Season: On Sharing the Hope Within Us (Spotsylvania, VA: Gospel Rich Books, 2013), 68-69.
 Leon Brown, Words in Season: On Sharing the Hope Within Us (Spotsylvania, VA: Gospel Rich Books, 2013), 116-118.