I have said before, if you’re not at some point sharing the gospel with people, using actual words to convey the actual message of salvation in Jesus Christ, then what you have done is not, strictly speaking, evangelism. It is important for us to be clear on what is and is not evangelism because this keeps us from perpetuating the myth that the gospel can somehow be shared without words. It certainly stops us comforting ourselves in our lack of zeal and insistence that, because we doled out a few bowls of soup, we have somehow done gospel work. If that’s all you’re doing, it’s not evangelism, it’s not mission and it’s not sharing the gospel.
But there is a view that unless you are tacking on some gospel epilogue to the end of everything you run, you are failing in your evangelistic duty. The words that bear a lot of weight in what I said above are these: ‘at some point’ and ‘if that’s all you’re doing.’ I am a firm believer that, at some point, you actually have to share the gospel and that if all you’re doing is mercy ministry, or acts of service without words, you are not doing gospel ministry. But that doesn’t mean those sorts of things have absolutely no evangelistic value whatsoever.
The reality is that the church is made up of all sorts of people so that it can reach all sorts of people. For every person you can find who responds to the in your face confrontation of a cold-contact grilling, you can find another who needs gentle, careful handling over a long time. There are people who come to the church (at least, our church) because they were told the gospel in the frankest terms in the open air. Others come to the church (at least, our church) because somebody specifically didn’t do that but gave them room simply to be around the church without pressure before, over time, introducing the gospel to them. It is a case of different strokes for different folks.
The Lord considered the greatest apologetic to be the love of the church for one another. In the early chapters of Acts, it is the evident Christian community that appears to draw many to Christ. But how will the world ever see that community in action if all we ever do is invite them to stuff that are geared up as evangelistic events with the inevitable 5-minute epilogue at the end? If the community within the church is going to draw anybody, doesn’t the world actually have to see us living in community? And if that community is to be seen as genuine (and it should be genuine in actuality!), won’t people have to see it apart from those events that are obviously geared up to reach them in a contrived, albeit entirely legitimate, way?
Then, of course, we have to contend with the fact that evangelism is not the only mission the Lord gave to the church. In fact, the Great Commission did not say, ‘go into all the world and do evangelism.’ The charge was to ‘make disciples.’ If we are about the business of making disciples, it necessarily means we will be doing things beyond mere evangelism to build the church of disciples the Lord has already given us. We will not simply be parroting short, evangelistic messages at every meeting but will be asking, instead, how does the gospel impact this area of life and how ought we to live as believers in light of the gospel. We can’t do these things if all we’re ever doing is encouraging people to invite folks to what will amount to yet another short evangelistic presentation.
The fact is, there is value in the church simply spending time together. There is some evangelistic value in unbelievers seeing the church simply spending time together as believers. There is some value in doing acts of mercy. Not everything has to have a gospel epilogue to be evangelistically worthwhile. Of course, if that’s all you’re doing, then you’re most certainly not doing evangelism and aren’t really doing anything missional, you’re just avoiding sharing the gospel. But let’s not fall into the other trap of assuming that unless you’re pumping out a full gospel presentation every time you interact with an unbeliever, or there is no epilogue at every event somebody comes to, that there is no evangelistic merit at all.
At the end of the day, in all the talk of attractional vs missional, aren’t we aiming for a bit of both? If people are coming to your church because somebody invited them and they heard the gospel; praise God! If folk are hearing the gospel because you are active in your community and you are generating gospel conversations at the school gate, in the pub or whatever clubs you frequent; praise God! That seems a perfectly legitimate outworking of Paul’s ‘all things to all men’.
But let’s also recognise that there are those who respond well to direct gospel challenge from strangers and those who would run a mile from it. There are those who respond well to slow-burn, gentle, long-term friendship and those who get off because you took too long to actually tell them anything of substance. And let’s not pretend that what we do – whether overtly evangelistic, designed to build the body, or simply just living out our day to day Christian life in community – happens in a vacuum. People hear the gospel presentations, people see the acts of mercy, people respond to friendships and the Lord may use all these things – or some other things that we thought entirely valueless altogether – to bring people into the kingdom.
Clearly, at some point, the gospel must be shared. But, equally, there are a variety of different ways to do it and not everybody responds to all things the same way. As churches, we would do well to share the gospel in as wide a variety of ways as we can, so that by all means we might save some. And we shouldn’t be scared of letting people see what is not overtly evangelistic or inviting them to what, on the face of it, has no obvious spiritual merit. Not everything needs a gospel talk.