Be Ready to Respond
The Biblical pattern for evangelism is far more natural than many of us would believe.
Is your preaching and teaching ministry doing enough to prepare your church for the task of evangelism? In this series, Andy Paterson offers biblical encouragement that every Christian has a role to play, free from false guilt.
This is part 7 in the series.
In The Trellis and the Vine (p49), Colin Marshall and Tony Payne observe:
“It is somewhat surprising that the New Testament contains relatively few exhortations for ordinary believers to speak the gospel to others.”
They’re right. But it’s no more surprising than the fact that very few of us have had any instruction on how to breathe. Breathing is something that comes naturally. It’s what we do.
In the same way, sharing and spreading the wonderful news of God’s grace is expected to be the most natural and normal thing for any believer to do. The problem is we’ve made it into something that it isn’t. It’s become complicated; programmatic; systematised.
How every believer should evangelise
There are only two verses throughout the New Testament that refer specifically to how every Christian (not just evangelists) should share the good news.
The first is Colossians 4:2-6:
“Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”
Paul has been writing to the Colossians about his own public ministry of gospel preaching. But he changes emphasis as he goes on to encourage them to use every opportunity that they have to share Christ. Not in the direct way that he uses, but in a responsive manner: "make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone."
And this didn't seem to be Paul's idea only - Peter mentions it too (1 Peter 3:15):
“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect...”
And what I want to suggest is that the Biblical pattern for evangelism is that every believer should be ready to respond to every opportunity that comes their way to speak of Christ. They don’t need to manipulate or force the opening, they can wait for God to give it to them.
The benefits of being ready
I believe this is Biblically consistent: it fits in with the sweeping story of God’s salvation plan on a number of levels.
It recognises God's sovereignty
No one can be saved unless God moves in the first place. Spiritually dead corpses have no power to decide for Jesus. Because he’s in control we can expect that he’s able to move in our neighbour's or colleague's life so that they ask questions that give us an opportunity to share the good news about Christ.
It leads us to prayer
As we’re dependent upon God for these openings, rather than our own ingenuity or nerve, we’re forced back to seek him for such opportunities.
I’ll spend more time in his presence than in working out how I might force an opening.
It encourages holy living and loving action
Holy living is inextricably tied up with responsive evangelism. What creates the questions in people's minds is the deliciously distinctive lives we lead as believers, and the lovingly practical ways we do them good. "Why are you different? Why do you tick as you do? Why are you so caring? Why are you doing those things that help us?"
Indeed, the reason we may have so few opportunities to share the good news about Christ isn’t to do with the fact that we haven’t the right strategies or sufficient courage. It’s to do with the fact that our lives are no different to others: they’re compromised, they’re unattractive. Little wonder, therefore, that Paul's opening words to the Colossians in this section on evangelism are: "Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders" (Colossians 4:5).
It develops a Christian mind-set
Many opportunities arise in the natural course of conversation at work, or over the garden fence, or in the shops. Someone asks you what you think about the latest story in the paper, or on some particular topical issue. As a Christian, you will have a perspective that is likely to be radically different and a viewpoint that will challenge the materialism or relativism of the age.
Increasingly, a mind that understands and is shaped by God’s truth will clash with the presuppositions of today’s society. Little wonder Paul tells the Colossian believers: "Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt." (Colossians 4:6).
The wisdom of being ready
This approach is not only Biblically consistent, but it’s also practically wise. And these two categories go together. We’re convinced that the Bible - the living Word of the living God - is radically relevant. And this comes over in a number of ways.
It removes strain and false guilt
If evangelism is down to me forcing an opening, then there’ll always be pressure to manipulate situations, and if I find at the end of the day that I haven't been able to present the major points of the gospel I’ll feel the guilt of failure.
But when I’m waiting for the opportunity that God provides, I can rest in his providence and timing. I'm not going to get upset if, on a particular occasion, the chance hasn't arisen to share Christ. I’ll rest in God's sovereignty and wait for another opportunity.
It develops genuine friendships
You probably know some Christians who always feel the duty to blast anyone they meet with the gospel as soon as they can. The outcome is that they become known as Bible thumpers and are generally avoided as religious weirdos. They haven’t had the opportunity to develop friendships that more naturally, in God's gracious timing, will lead to profitable sharing of Christ.
I think one of the most important lessons that I’ve learnt is that we should love people for who they are, and trust that at just the right time in that friendship, the Lord will provide the opportunity to speak for him.
I no longer look upon those I meet as potential gospel projects but as men and women created in the image of God, blessed by common grace but lost in their sin and needing the Saviour.
It allows effective, relaxed, and open conversations
When I respond to others rather than forcing the conversation, I am not intruding into their space. Rather, they’ve chosen the time, the place and the subject. They’re relaxed, they’re enquiring, and therefore they’re more open than when I might go in with all guns blazing at a time that might be inconvenient, upon a subject that might not be touching their major need of that moment.
If they ask the question, they’ve invited me to share what I believe, and in presenting Christ, I am legitimately responding to what they have asked.
It embraces all personality types
The danger with imagining that evangelism is exclusively about forcing situations to share Christ is that some people will inevitably back off and do nothing. They feel uncomfortable with such an approach - it’s so alien to their nature.
Yet when my responsibility is to respond to the opportunities that God sovereignly provides, then I’m being invited to be me and to share honestly and openly how Jesus Christ impacts my life. Such an approach involves every believer. It excludes none.
I’m trying to contend that evangelism is far more natural than many specialists would have us believe. Above all, I’m suggesting that this is what the Bible actually teaches.
We don’t need to be governed by the latest theory or methodology: what we really need is to be gripped by the stunning grace of Christ and live our lives under his beautiful Lordship and rule. And as that becomes more and more real in our lives, we won’t think twice about sharing Jesus. It will be as natural as breathing.
Next time: Drilling down into the New Testament.