Effective evangelism is a process, not merely an activity or an event. Evangelism is the process of communicating the gospel. This may be verbal, but it must also be incarnational and demonstrative. That evangelism involves presence, proclamation, and persuasion is accurate.
Most Christians I know are doing a reasonable job of "presence." Our lives are a reasonable reflection of Jesus. We are not perfect, but our commitment to Christ can be seen by many of those around us. Nor is that the matter that Paul illustrates.
Proclaiming the Gospel--How?
Proclamation (Greek, kerusso) means to announce, proclaim, or herald. The kerux was a herald of the king. None doubt that we are commanded to proclaim the gospel, or that God intends the gospel to be preached (kerusso, Matt. 24:14) in the whole world. The Great Commission in Mark and Luke uses the same word to describe our command to spread the gospel message. But how?
I remember talking to a non-Christian while I was living in Michigan. He was about 29 years old. For 29 years, he had done want he wanted to do, established his habits and lifestyle, developed his own personal philosophy of life that reflected his worldview. He had almost exclusively fed his mind with things contrary to the word of God. I spent a couple of hours a week with him for a little over a month. What did I expect to happen? I expected him to conclude that the direction of his life was wrong. "For 29 years I've been messed up, but I'm going to make a 180 degree about face." While that does happen in some situations, I sadly report that it did not happen with this young man. Why?
Was the gospel without power in his situation? Surely not! Are we expecting the impossible? Yes and no. We can expect results from the proclamation of the gospel because the power is God's. But not every person we meet is prepared. Soil must be prepared. Some soil is not good nor bad, but simply unprepared. Further, in gardening, bad soil can be changed to good soil. We can cultivate and improve the soil. This too is a part of the evangelistic process.
The Acts Approach(1)
In the early chapters of Acts, the gospel was preached primarily to prepared people. As late as Acts 13, Paul in Pisidian Antioch is addressing Jews, and God-fearing, God-worshiping Gentiles. The Jews on the day of Pentecost were prepared by heritage. They readily responded to the proclamation of the gospel. They had a 1500 year religious heritage. They were prepared. Others converted in the early chapters of Acts were also prepared--Gentiles who were either Jewish proselytes or God-fearers. In one sense, the eunuch is the first Gentile convert, but we do not call him that because he was a Jewish proselyte. Although he was Gentile by birth, he was Jewish by religion. Cornelius was a Gentile, devout and God-fearing. For half of the book of Acts, responses were numerous. We read of 3000 on the first day. The 5000 a few weeks later numbered only the men. The gospel was being preached to people with a spiritual interest and heritage. Acts continually announces numbers--a great company, the church increased.
In the second half of the book of Acts, something changes. After Paul turns to the Gentiles (Acts 13:47-48), he continues to go first to the synagogue, but the results are never again the same. He is stoned and left for dead. Conflict with Judaism intensifies. When Paul arrives in Philippi in Acts 16, there is no synagogue so he and Silas go to a place of prayer. Confronting the secular side of society lands them in prison. The jailor is converted with his house, but the results were apparently meager. In Thessalonica in the synagogue, the message is accepted by some of the women and God-fearing Gentiles, but Paul is soon run out of town. The Thessalonian Jews also run Paul out of Berea, although there appears to be some increased receptivity. In Athens, we have a message recorded to a pagan crowd. The content of the message is obviously different. Paul is philosophical, he quotes other sources in addressing the crowd. He begins with the person of God, then speaks of Jesus and the resurrection. The results were almost non-existent according to Scripture. Is Paul a worse speaker than Peter was on Pentecost? Is the Spirit no longer present? What is the difference?
The difference was in the preparation of the audience. When the gospel is proclaimed to people with a religious heritage, results are obvious. When the gospel is proclaimed to the unchurched of the first century, results are considerably less. It is no different in our day.
Our Unchurched Society Must be Prepared for the Gospel!
Religious polls suggest that approximately 1/3 of the U.S. population is churched, 1/3 minimally churched, and 1/3 unchurched. One poll that yields these numbers considers church attendance once a month as churched, while the minimally churched must attend church at least 4 times a year. Consider. Our society is significantly unchurched. Perhaps 50-60% of the U.S. population has no significant religious heritage. Some families are two or three generations removed from church involvement. Many people in our neighborhoods have no personal experience with church other than weddings and funerals.
Unchurched people are basically unprepared to hear the gospel. Our traditional gospel meetings, home Bible studies, media efforts, or invitations to church or small groups are not going to change them because they are yet unprepared to understand the message. Our strategy for evangelism must first address preparation.
1. I first met this idea in Jim Petersen, Living Proof--Sharing the Gospel Naturally (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1989), 73-75. The importance of this insight has become more apparent to me the longer I have studied it.
Go to Articles Index