Jesus’ last words before his ascension were, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Throughout much of the church’s history, we’ve heeded that promise. The abiding gift of the Holy Spirit, given to those gathered on Pentecost to be witnesses of the gospel throughout the earth, is the same Holy Spirit that abides with the church today, drawing lost people to Christ as his people share the gospel.
But as of late, the final words of Jesus have become such a low priority in the American church. Why is that? And how did it happen?
A Failure to Communicate
On the one hand, we’ve seen more buzz about Jesus today than in recent memory. You’ve no doubt seen an ad from the He Gets Us campaign. He Gets Us has elevated the conversation around Jesus, producing more Google searches about him during the 2023 Super Bowl than the preceding Christmas.
The movie The Jesus Revolution is the biggest movie produced by Lionsgate over the past three years (and was in the Top 10 on Netflix in August). Then we have The Chosen, which has seen over 500 million views globally, and captured the attention, in particular, of young people.
What’s more, add in the intense media buzz around the Asbury Revival last year, and it’s possible that Jesus is seen more in broadcast media right now than in recent memory. This gives believers an incredible opportunity to talk about Jesus with others.
But while scores of people are expressing interest in Jesus because of what they’re seeing on their screens, Christians aren’t taking the opportunity to broach conversations about him. Evangelism is core to the mission of Jesus and essential to accomplishing his vision, so why isn’t that happening in the American church as it could and should be? I have observed four reasons.
· Suspicion. Some are suspicious of evangelism, seeing it as culturally inappropriate. Even many Christians feel like evangelism is wrong. According to Barna Research “Nearly half of millennial practicing Christians say it is wrong to evangelize (47%).” But at the same time Christians still recognize that evangelism was central to Jesus’ mission with two out of three millennial practicing Christians believing “being a witness about Jesus is part of their faith (65%).”
· Stereotypes. Evangelism becomes equated with buttonholing, screaming, rude street preachers, treating people like projects, or shaking people down for money by charlatans. Examples of these stereotypes exist but do not represent the kind of witness Jesus taught and modeled or practiced by most believers who share their faith today. However, because of the stereotypes, many people simply avoid engaging in a biblical and compassionate evangelism altogether.
· Substitutes. Some churches have elevated serving others in Jesus’ name, which is a good thing. But history has shown us that this has the effect (intentional or not) of diminishing evangelism. Others who once may have been passionate about sharing Christ have adopted a trending topic related to matters of justice, which again matters, but not enough to set aside the Great Commission. And yet others have traded passion for sharing Jesus with passion for shaping politics. When we substitute a good cause for the great commission we miss the glorious call of Jesus.
· Shame. Let’s face it: No matter how winsome and gracious we may be in our witness, calling people to respond to the gospel in any culture requires sacrifice. But a “path of least resistance” brand of Christianity has won the day. We are in a spiritual war at a time when too many naming the name of Jesus are enjoying peaceful coexistence with the devil. Paul was not ashamed of the gospel, nor should we be.
Evangelism has become a taboo word. That’s ironic, because the term evangelist has become common in the business world at the same time it is spurned in church. This confusion about evangelism has left the church with a lackluster approach to reaching the lost crystalized in the Barna Research that found, “More than half of practicing Christians report having two or fewer conversations about their faith with a non-Christian during the past year (56%).”
Making Evangelism Matter Today
If we are going to fulfill the vision of Jesus (Acts 1:8), we must be about the mission of Jesus (Luke 19:10), and that means we must revive evangelism. In doing so, we cannot go back to the approach of a previous generation that has sometimes left people feeling like a group to be conquered or won. We also must carefully avoid practices that make people feel they’ve been cornered into a sales pitch or that we don’t genuinely care for the individual.
We must approach people with hospitality and empathy. They, like us, want to be heard and allowed to have their own spiritual journey. This requires a willingness to be patient, to steward doubts and questions, to build trust, and to enter the brokenness and messiness of people’s lives. We must foster churches that have cultures that prioritize evangelism by creating a safe place for people to belong before they believe, incorporating these five values.
1. Passionate Evangelism
By passion I don’t mean anger. We have enough of that. I mean a burden for those separated from God by sin.
Throughout history we see people bring gospel change when driven by a passionate evangelism. Michael Green writes in Evangelism in the Early Church: “Here were men and women of every rank and station in life, of every country in the known world, so convinced that they had discovered the riddle of the universe, so sure of the one true God whom they had come to know, that nothing must stand in the way of their passing on this good news to others.”
“Lord, give me Scotland or I die,” John Knox prayed.
William Booth said to the King of England, “Some men’s passion is for gold, other men’s passion is for fame, but my passion is for souls.”
Evan Roberts, on the brink of the Welsh Revival of 1904–05, described feeling “ablaze with a desire to go through the length and breadth of Wales to tell of my Savior; and had that been possible, I was willing to pay God for doing so.”
It’s time that we move from personal embarrassment to a passionate evangelism.
2. Purposeful Evangelism
Passion without a plan is exhausting. We need a renewal of disciple making that purposefully and strategically plans to equip believers and move from the church facility to the field of our community. Does your church have a plan for disciple making, and is equipping believers to witness key in this plan? Elevating the equipping of believers to share their faith personally, as a congregation, and both locally and globally is the need of the hour.
With all of the Jesus conversations going on in media, this is a phenomenal time for such equipping. I’m part of a new master class in evangelism (MasterClass.Palau.org). Currently, 100 churches per day are signing up for this training.
We need to be training believers personally to share their faith confidently and effectively. We need to be leading our churches congregationally to be present in their communities with the life-changing power of the gospel.
In my book Christians in the Age of Outrage, I describe how I mapped out my neighborhood, using that as a plan to reach my community. We need to be renewed with a purpose and a plan to reach our world.
3. Prioritized Evangelism
The first thing we lose isn’t our love for the Bible or engagement with our church, it’s our devotion to evangelism. If men and women are dead in their trespasses and sins, we can’t neglect sharing the message of new life and the promise of a new birth.
If your church shows no burden for the unreached, you have missed the commission of Jesus. If your church plant isn’t seeking and saving the lost, you’ve not joined in the mission of Jesus. If your small group is only a holy huddle with no concern for the broken all around you, you have moved away from being a gospel community.
4. Personalized Evangelism
You’ve heard the saying that all politics are local. Well, all things spiritual are personal. As a pastor or church leader, you can’t lead what you don’t live. People will hear your words, but they will follow your personal example. As you prioritize your schedule to share Jesus and build relationships with unbelievers, those you lead will notice.
As a spiritual discipline, I ask the Lord to give me a weekly opportunity. What is your personal commitment to personal evangelism? If you want something replicated in your church, it first has to be modeled.
5. Persevering Evangelism
Recognize we are sharing Christ in an “unseeded” generation. There have been seasons of harvest. We see that happening in many places globally just now. But we’re not in a harvest time in America. We’re in an unseeded field. So let’s find ways to show and share the love of Jesus with perseverance, knowing that the harvest will come (Ps. 126:5–6).
The early church faced incredible challenges in the Acts: problems from the inside, persecution from the outside. How did they meet those challenges? Filled with the Spirit, they continually proclaimed the good news, reached people and formed churches. Let’s meet the challenges of our time with the same evangelistic focus.