Does God command every individual Christian to evangelise? Or is evangelism
just a job for specially gifted individuals?
If you’ve been a Christian for a while, it’s likely that these questions have popped into your head from time to time. You might remember an initial burst of enthusiasm for Jesus at some time in your life. Maybe you remember burning with a passionate desire to tell as many people as you can about the wonderful news of Jesus’ death and resurrection. After all, this news had recently rocked your world and given you hope and life and meaning; why wouldn’t you want others to know it? But by now, maybe, you’re feeling a bit jaded. Of course, you acknowledge that the ‘gospel’, the message about Jesus, is quite important. But you’ve come to realise that you’re not really the kind of person who feels comfortable talking about Jesus to other people. Maybe you just feel ill-equipped. Maybe it’s not your personality type. Maybe evangelism just feels plain weird to you. Maybe you’ve had a few bad evangelistic experiences. Awkward moments. Maybe you’ve lost friends. Maybe you’re getting fed up with that vaguely guilty feeling that nags away at you whenever preachers tell you you’re not doing enough evangelism. And so you might be asking: does God really want me to do this evangelism thing anyway? Does he actually command it anywhere?
In fact, if you go hunting in the Bible for commands to evangelise, you won’t find very much material. True, there’s the ‘great commission’ in Matthew 28:19-20. Jesus, having just risen from the dead, says to his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” and then adds: “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” By applying the strict rules of logic, you can reason that “everything I have commanded you” includes the command to make disciples. So that means disciple-making is a command for all disciples, right? Peter also tells Christians to “always” be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15). Paul tells the Colossians to use opportunities to speak to outsiders about ‘grace’, which must have something to do with the gospel (Col 4:5-6; cf. Col 1:6).
But if you think about it further, these commands by themselves are a pretty flimsy basis to prove that God wants every individual Christian to evangelise. It’s possible, isn’t it, that ‘make disciples’ is just a general command for the church as a whole. Clearly, the church is expected to evangelise. But that doesn’t mean that I, personally, have to do it. Furthermore, the verses from Peter and Paul don’t really prove much. Being ‘ready to give an answer’ and to ‘make the most of opportunities’ seems to assume that evangelism is a passive and sporadic activity at best. When was the last time anybody asked you to give an answer for the hope that was in you? Anyway, the ‘evangelist’ was a special role in the early church (Acts 21:8, Eph 4:11, 2 Tim 4:5). So these commands don’t amount to very much, do they?
But take a step back for a moment. Why are you looking for a command in the first place? Normally we look for commands when we need a reason to do something unpleasant. When I tell my kids to eat their vegetables, they want me to give them a command with exact specifications. They ask: Do I have to eat all of the vegetables? If not, how many? Does that include the ones mushed into the potatoes? But it’s a different story with chocolate. If I put chocolate in front of them, no command is required. That’s because there’s no reason not to eat chocolate. The same thing applies when we start asking whether we’re commanded to evangelise. By asking the question, we’re treating evangelism like kids treat eating vegetables. We’re saying that evangelism is technically a good thing to do, but we’d prefer not to do it unless we really have to. That should tell us that something has gone wrong somewhere.
In recent times, certain godly and gifted evangelists and writers have approached the issue in a better way. They’ve realised that it’s not enough simply to scour the Bible for individual commands. Instead, they’ve asked a broader question: what patterns of mission did the Bible writers (e.g. Paul) expect to be happening in their churches? And how can we follow the same patterns?1 This is a more helpful approach, because it helps us to think in terms of bigger principles. But in the next series of posts, I’m not going to follow that approach either. Because ultimately, it’s not enough. There’s something more fundamental; a truth that needs to grip us before we even start to think about commands or communities or church organisation or pragmatics or patterns or gifts. We need to understand the relationship between human speech and the gospel itself. According to the Bible, there is something deeply and profoundly important about human speech, especially when we come to think about the gospel. In fact, the Bible often talks about human speech and salvation in the same breath.
You might have noticed already that I don’t like the title of my own post, “Are all Christians commanded to evangelise?” I don’t like the word ‘command.’ But actually, I don’t like the word ‘evangelise’ either. It’s too rubbery, and means different things to different people. What popped into your head when you read the word, ‘evangelise’? If I asked this question of ten different people, I’d probably get eleven different answers. From now on, I’m going to erase the word ‘evangelism’ from this series of posts. Instead, I’m going to use the more useful, albeit more clunky, phrase ‘gospel speech’. That will help us to get to the heart of the issue: What does the Bible say about how human beings use words to speak the gospel—to whomever, however, whenever?
Of course, that means we need to talk more about the gospel itself. And we will. In the following posts, we’ll look at what the gospel has to say about various questions or objections to gospel speech:
- I’m not good enough.
- I’m not gifted enough.
- I’m not really a ‘speaking’ Christian.
- I can promote the gospel better by my good works.
- I’m not the mouth in Christ’s body.
- I’m more comfortable speaking the gospel to insiders rather than outsiders.
- I can’t do what they’re doing.
1. Here are a couple of practical books from my part of the world with different perspectives on the issue of individual evangelism:
- Know and Tell the Gospel by John Chapman
- The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission: Promoting the Gospel with More Than Our Lips by John Dickson
Here are some more academic books about Paul’s expectations for his
churches, again with different perspectives:
- Mission-Commitment in Ancient Judaism and in the Pauline Communities: The shape, extent and background of early Christian mission by John Dickson
- Paul and the Mission of the Church: Philippians in Ancient Jewish
Context by James P. Ware
- Paul’s Understanding of the Church’s Mission: Did the Apostle Paul Expect the Early Christian Communities to Evangelize? by Robert L. Plummer. This book has been helpfully summarised by Kevin deYoung.