As a rule, when it comes to spiritual things, I have a deep suspicion of get-rich-quick schemes. By this, I mean all those plans and programs that promise massive success in exchange for little effort or spiritual growth on the part of Christians and congregations. It’s important to be wise in our efforts to serve the Lord, but we should never imagine that we can serve by anything but effort.
I think this is particularly true with respect to evangelism. The reality here is pretty simple. The greatest evangelist of all time was Jesus, so it follows that the more like Jesus we become, the better at evangelism we will be. This is no easy thing; after all, Jesus Himself compared imitating Him to taking up a cross. However, if we follow Him, the rewards will be unimaginably rich, both in this life and in the life to come. Let’s consider, then, the teaching and example of Jesus on evangelism.
The first thing that we should learn from Him is to PRAY as the cornerstone of our efforts to reach the lost. Consider His words in Matthew 9:37-38. In context, Jesus is about to appoint the twelve, so His prayer here is for workers. We can certainly imitate His example here. Every congregation of the Lord’s people on the planet needs more disciples who will invest themselves in evangelism.
However, our prayers shouldn’t stop there, and I don’t think that the prayers of Jesus did either. We know that on the night of His betrayal, He prayed specifically that Peter wouldn’t fall away, and it would have been entirely in character for Him to pray for specific people to obey the truth in the first place too. Whenever we want some friend or loved one to come to the Lord, our first course of action should be to pray for them, fervently and continually. It may well be that it takes decades for those prayers to be answered as we want, but I have seen spouses and siblings and children repent after decades of prayer. God does what God does. Our job is to pray and not lose heart.
Finally, we should pray that the Lord will send seekers our way. Back when I interviewed with the elders here before I came on, they asked me, “How do you make your evangelistic contacts?” I replied, “I pray.” It’s true. I’ve found for years that once I remember myself and start praying for somebody to help to the Lord, it won’t be more than a couple weeks before somebody shows up. Often, these prospects are the kind of people I never would have expected, or even specific people I would never have expected. However, they’re willing to listen. All I can say is that God knows His business a whole lot better than I do!
Second, we have to learn to LOVE IMPARTIALLY. Look at what the Lord says in Luke 19:9-10. Jesus here is talking about Zacchaeus, and in that place and time, His words were almost unimaginable. Zacchaeus was a tax collector, a legalized extortioner and a Roman collaborator. In the eyes of every one of his neighbors in Jericho, he was scum. Jesus, though, didn’t call him scum. He called him a son of Abraham, and He treated him like somebody who was worth saving.
This, to me, is the single most beautiful thing about Christianity. The message of the gospel is that God loves everybody, and indeed, that He loved us so much that He was willing to send His Son to die for us. The way that God has valued everybody is the way that we should value them too. I don’t care who somebody is. I don’t care how old they are, what color they are, how smart they are, how much money they have. I know this about them: I know that Jesus came to die for them, and that God would gladly spend eternity with them. If that’s how God feels about them, then who am I to treat them any other way?
This means friends, that we are called to treat even the very lowest of society—in human eyes, at least—with dignity, compassion, and love. Perhaps the best example of this that I’ve ever seen was my own mother. She was a prim, proper lady, but she was also a constant champion of the underdog. I can remember going with her when I was a little kid to study the Bible with women who lived in trailer parks, those trailer parks with dirt instead of grass around the trailer, and all kinds of toys and other junk scattered around on top of the dirt. I said to her, “Mama, these people must be rich to have so many toys.” She kind of laughed and answered, “Honey, they aren’t rich.” She studied with women she had to teach to read first so she could teach them the Bible second.
We must never underestimate the impact of impartial love. How much of a difference did it make to Zacchaeus when Jesus treated him like an actual human being? How much of a difference does it make to the no-counters of our day when we treat them like actual human beings? Love doesn’t see the externals. Love sees the soul.
Next, we should LET OUR LIGHTS SHINE. This comes, of course, from the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5:14-16. Underneath here, we see something very important about God’s purpose in saving us. He didn’t call us to Himself so that we could be anonymous and unnoticeable. He called us so that our good works could shine in front of everybody who knows us. Only then, once people see our good works, will they come to glorify God. We ought to be people, then, who actively look for opportunities to show our love for others.
However, when we help others, we have to make sure that we are helping them for the sake of the good deed and not for a spiritual quid pro quo. We don’t help some lady change her flat tire and then say, “So this means you’re going to show up at my church for Sunday services, right?” That’s slimy, and I think it’s equally slimy when churches try to guilt the lost into obeying the gospel by giving them stuff. Instead, we should be people who do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.
Just like the evil that others do can have wide-ranging effects, so too it’s true that the good we do can have an impact that we never imagined. Let me give you an example. Earlier this year, one of the members at Joliet died. He left behind a houseful of stuff, so his son, whom I’d known for years, but who wasn’t a Christian, put out the call for people to come help him. I showed up, along with one of his dad’s old friends, and we worked for several hours on clearing out the junk. I never baptized the son, though I certainly wanted to, but you know who did obey the gospel? The friend who saw me show up. The point is, do good. You never know who is watching and thinking.
Fourth, we should look for opportunities to EAT WITH SINNERS. Jesus was famous for this, and we see His thoughts on the matter in Matthew 9:10-13. In my experience, there is no way to build a connection with somebody faster than to share a meal with them. I do not know why this is true, but it’s true. Even in our day, when hospitality isn’t nearly as important to our society as it was 100 years ago, it’s still true. Eating with people is powerful. We need to use it.
I think it’s valuable, for instance, for brethren to eat together, and it’s great when Christians get together with their Christian friends. However, we must make sure that those things aren’t the limit of our hospitality. Otherwise, to put things in terms of Jesus’ parable, we’re only offering the services of the Great Physician to the healthy.
Instead, we should look to invite others into our hearts by inviting them into our mealtimes and our homes. I don’t yet have a feel for what things are like around here, but in Joliet, I could be certain that pretty much every outsider I met knew nothing about the Bible. They had no more ability to determine whether I was telling them the truth about the word than I have the ability to determine whether a physicist is telling me the truth about nuclear physics. He gets three sentences in, and my head is spinning! As a result, people like that would generally draw back suspiciously unless I gave them a reason to trust me first. When we eat with people and they get the chance to know us, we give them that reason.
Admittedly, for many of us, inviting strangers or near-strangers into our homes may be outside our comfort zones, but the Greek word translated as “hospitality” in our Bibles literally means “love of strangers”. That’s what Biblical hospitality is. Like so many other godly attributes, it’s a skill. The more we practice it, the better we will get at it, and the more useful to God we will become with it.
Finally, we learn from the example of Jesus to SPEAK IN LOVE. There’s a really interesting example of this in Mark 10:21-22. This, of course, is the climax of the story of the rich young ruler. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell the story, but only Mark tells us why Jesus says to the man to sell everything he has and follow Jesus. Jesus says that because Jesus loves him.
This may be the most subtle and difficult part of evangelism. Ironically, it’s made even harder by sermons like this one. Brethren hear preaching on evangelism, get scared, and say to themselves, “I’d better get out there and teach the lost, or else God isn’t going to be pleased with me.” And so they do, not because they’re worried about the lost per se, but because they’re worried about themselves.
When we’re trying to convince somebody to do something, but we want them to do it not for them, but for us, don’t you think that sentiment comes across? Yes, we absolutely should be concerned about obedience to the commandments of the Lord, but more than that, we should be concerned for the souls of those who don’t even know Him yet. Evangelism has to be about them, not us.
Also, Jesus’ example here is a fascinating model of what speaking in love looks like. Sometimes, when we’re emotionally connected to somebody, we’re worried about offending them, about telling them something that they don’t want to hear. Brethren, when love keeps us from telling somebody the truth, it isn’t really love. It’s selfishness disguised as love. We’re worried more about protecting a relationship that matters to us than we are about their eternal destiny. Jesus loved the ruler, so He told him not what he wanted to hear, but what he needed to hear. If we truly love, we will do the same.
Second, notice that even when we speak in love, it’s not always going to have the effect that we want. Jesus didn’t tell the ruler to sell everything because He wanted to get rid of him. He said that because He wanted the ruler to follow Him. When the ruler went away sorrowfully instead, I’m sure that he wasn’t the only sorrowful one involved in the conversation!
It hurt Jesus to share a gospel that mattered to Him with people that mattered to Him and have that rejected. That’s why we see Him weeping over Jerusalem. Here, as in so many other places, imitating Jesus means that we are setting ourselves up to be hurt too. When I think about some people, my heart just aches because of how disappointed I am in the choices they’ve made. However, the only way we can avoid that heartache is never to get involved in the lives of the lost at all, and if that’s what we’re doing, we can no longer say that Christ is our example.