By Brian Parks
“Evangelism changed my life.” John, my taxi driver, told me this as we drove down the Orlando freeway toward the conference I was attending. Our conversation had quickly turned to faith when he discovered I had not come to Orlando for Disney World like most of his passengers.
“What do you mean?” I asked, fully expecting him to explain how someone had led him to Christ. But that is not what he meant. He meant that doing evangelism had changed his life.
He explained: “Learning to share my faith brought so many important issues into focus. It has made me work through things I had never thought about before. And, boy, after you lead someone to Christ you never forget it. It’s like you can’t stop! There’s nothing like it!”
John’s testimony to the spiritually invigorating effect of sharing one’s faith resonated with everything I have experienced in my own walk with Christ and in 22 years of student ministry and church leadership.
Yet how often have we thought of discipleship and evangelism as two separate and unconnected aspects of our life in Christ? Even more harmful, we often consider discipleship necessary and evangelism optional. Or we think evangelism is only for the most zealous and “spiritually gifted” in our churches.
EVERY DISCIPLE SHOULD EVANGELIZE
But the New Testament paints a picture in which every disciple of Christ is normally and naturally involved in evangelism as much as in Bible study, prayer, and corporate worship. From the brand new Christian to the wizened old saint, sharing the gospel is necessary and integral to a growing life in Christ.
Many of us have heard and even preached sermons that rightly focused on the Great Commission’s theme of “make disciples” (Matt. 28:18-20). And we’ve taught those around us that they should be disciple-makers themselves. But we also need to be clear that “making disciples” necessarily involves helping people who are not yet disciples to become disciples—that is, evangelism. Jesus modeled it (Mk. 1:14, 15; Matt. 9:35) and trained his apostles to do the same (Mk. 6:7-13; Lk. 10:1-12). Only a few days later Jesus said that they would be his “witnesses…to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Part of the apostles’ teaching that the newly Spirit-filled church devoted themselves to (Acts 2:42) must have been the normal and regular sharing of the gospel with family, friends, and strangers. From those very first weeks and months after the Pentecost, people were being saved every day (Acts 2:47). Evangelism was immediately a part of their new life of discipleship to the risen Lord Jesus.
Here are six ways that treating evangelism as a necessary part of discipleship helps to grow mature disciples.
1. Evangelism helps keep the gospel central in our lives and churches.
The gospel creates the church (Col. 1:5, 6), is its chief message (1 Cor. 15:1-3), and powers our growth in Christ (Phil 1:6). Therefore, we ought to do everything in our power to keep it central. We know that the world, our flesh, and the devil will do everything they can to move it out of view.
D.A. Carson has said that one way we preserve the gospel is by working hard to pass it on to others. Evangelism helps us maintain the gospel message as the engine of a growing life in Christ.
2. Evangelism deepens our understanding of the most fundamental truths of Scripture.
Gospel conversations with non-Christians force us to better grasp the central, underpinning truths of God’s Word. Issues like God’s character, his holiness and wrath, man’s creation in God’s image, sin, grace, the cross of Christ, and judgment all come into sharp focus. We have to think through explaining these concepts to different people in different circumstances. And we learn better how these truths lace together all of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation.
One of the clearest verses on the discipleship benefits of evangelism is Philemon 1:6: “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.”
Knowing something and explaining it to someone who doesn’t understand it or believe it are two different things. These treasured truths become clearer to us as we explain them to others.
3. Properly motivated evangelism grows our love for God and neighbor.
All people are called to wholeheartedly love God and other people (Mark 12:28-31). Sharing our faith because we love God and people stokes the fire of this love all the more. I’ve never seen properly motivated evangelism do the opposite.
If you’ve not led someone to Christ, I can only describe to you the joy of seeing the transforming power of the gospel newly at work in a person. To see their heart broken for their sin breaks my heart more fully for my sin. To see them revel in the freedom of forgiveness makes me want to drink it in all the more myself. Experiencing the privilege of leading someone to Christ reminds us of how much more powerful, holy, and merciful God is than we often think him to be.
Likewise, when we share the message of gospel hope with others, Christ promises us that sometimes they will reject it and perhaps reject us as well (Jn. 15:18-20). When that happens my heart is more broken over the imprisonment and blindness that sin brings. I ponder the coming judgment with greater urgency. And I wonder again why God would save me, just as much a sinner as the person who rejected me and the gospel message.
4. Evangelism prompts unexpected questions and objections from non-Christians, which can deepen our faith.
I’ve lived in the Middle East for almost ten years, and my interactions with Muslims and other non-Christians have consistently strengthened my faith as I turned to God seeking wise answers to their questions.
In the food court near our company’s offices I have spent many an afternoon befriending Muslims. Often our conversations will naturally turn to issues of faith, and I have had the opportunity to explain what Christians really believe. I cannot always answer their questions immediately but as I turn to God and his Word for answers, my faith is always strengthened. Sharing my faith puts me in a position to hear objections and find answers to questions that I never would have asked on my own.
5. Evangelism protects us from mistakenly assuming that those around us are saved.
Unregenerate people cannot be discipled in any biblical sense. They do not and cannot grow in godliness (Rom. 8:5-8).
A great danger for the church today is assuming the salvation of people who simply claim the label “Christian” or are involved in church activities. Not being careful about who we consider to be “born again” often has its roots in unbiblical views of conversion. Or sometimes fear of man dissuades us from taking the risk of offending a professing believer by suggesting they may not be trusting in Christ after all.
But making the gospel a part of our everyday conversation will often result in nominal Christians actually being born again of the Spirit.
The sower spread the seed liberally, seemingly without consideration for where it landed (path, rocks, thorns, soil; Mark 4:2-8). We too should share the gospel broadly and without discrimination, allowing our sovereign God to use it however he sees fit, to save the lost as well as encourage the saints.
6. Evangelism increases the likelihood of being persecuted for the gospel, which leads to our growth.
There’s a reason I didn’t start with this “benefit”! Still, consider Romans 5:3-5:
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
While we should not seek suffering for suffering’s sake, we should be prepared to embrace suffering for the gospel’s sake (2 Tim. 1:8; Rom. 8:17). In fact, suffering because of our evangelism should be an encouragement to us as it was to the early church (Acts 5:41). And sharing our faith helps ensure that we will suffer because of the gospel itself rather than because of unwise decisions or giving needless offense. Suffering for our proclamation of the gospel can deepen our faith as we look to our suffering Savior.
CAUTION AND ENCOURAGEMENT
One word of caution: as you push forward in evangelism as a part of your discipleship, be careful with evangelistic programs. I have described evangelism as needing to be “natural and normal.” When we do it only because we are participating in a program, then we are not conforming to how Scripture describes evangelism in the life of believers. Treating evangelism as a program can divorce it from discipleship and our daily lives.
Training wheels eventually need to be removed from a child’s bike. In the same way, programs are fine as long as we see them as forms and structures that we will eventually shed in favor of a more natural and normal integration into the fabric of our lives.
Finally, the single greatest encouragement to your congregation and Christian friends to be actively sharing their faith is for the senior pastor and elders to be seen and heard sharing their faith. People will learn best what you are most excited about. If you as a pastor are excited to share your faith, the congregation will learn to be excited to share their faith. And they will grow as disciples of Jesus as they do.
Jesus told his apostles in the Great Commission, “Make disciples…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19). As we make disciples, let’s be sure to model and teach them all that he commanded—including the great joy and blessing of a life of evangelism.
Brian Parks is Vice President of GDS Knowledge Consultants and is an elder at Redeemer Church of Dubai. He has over 20 years of student ministry experience.