Why Does the Word "Evangelism" Make Me Nervous?

Maybe you’re different, but there’s one sure way to make my blood pressure spike. Start talking about evangelism.

Especially, start talking about how evangelism is something we ought to be doing. Start that conversation, and my mind begins to maneuver toward the nearest exit.

You would think it would be different with me. My mother shared her faith constantly. She was a bold one, my mom. But this shy introvert didn’t pick up the habit. I was behind the door when they were passing out evangelistic boldness.

Which makes me feel awful when people say (rightly) that we ought to be evangelizing, telling our friends, neighbors, co-workers about Jesus.

My discomfort with the word “evangelism” comes from the two things I know about it:

  1. I should be doing evangelism.

  2. I’m not doing evangelism.

Couple this natural shyness with a question that has been plaguing me for the past several months: If Jesus’ Great Commission (“Go and make disciples”) is the heart and soul of the Christian mission, why isn’t that mandate repeated throughout the rest of the New Testament? If it’s really that important (and it is), why don’t we hear the New Testament epistles beating that drum over and over again? Why don’t we hear Paul repeatedly urging his readers to share their faith with their neighbors?
These two dilemmas seem to be related: my evangelistic reluctance and the absence of the evangelistic imperative in the epistles. Can this shy introvert find an excuse in the silence of the epistles on the evangelistic mandate?

I think not. I think both my shyness and the epistles’ silence are resolved in the way Jesus answered a key question about the Law, particularly the way he answered a question that wasn’t asked.
Do you remember when Jesus was asked about the relative importance of the commandments in the Law (Matthew 22)? Two things about his reply are remarkable:

  1. Jesus doesn’t quote any of the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue). These ten imperatives stand at the heart of Jewish ethics and law, yet Jesus doesn’t go there to find the greatest of the commandments, the one thing God wants from us more than anything else. Instead, he goes to Deuteronomy 6, where Moses declares: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” God knows that genuine obedience is ultimately a matter of the heart: without love, obedience is a meaningless exercise, and genuine love always issues in obedience.

  2. Jesus answers a question that was not asked. The question was about the greatest commandment, but Jesus’ answer includes also the second greatest commandment: Love (take care of) your neighbor in the same way and to the same extent that you love (take care of) yourself. These two commandments, says Jesus, comprise the whole of God’s expectations for our lives. If we are compelled by love for God and love for our neighbor, we will do what is right and good.

Which brings me back to evangelism and the matter of motives. If my motive for telling people about Jesus is that I ought to, I will freeze up. But there’s an altogether different driving force in my love for God (who gave up so much to save me) and my love for my neighbor (who doesn’t know that God loves him this way). This is not the force of a mandate but the graciously compelling power of love.

I have previously recommend Rosaria Butterfield’s book The Gospel Comes with a House Key. (We have copies of it on our Resource Shelf, or you can order it here.) Butterfield understands the role that love of neighbor plays in sharing our faith: “God is calling us to so greatly love others that we do not desire for them anything that might separate them from God.”

So my wife and I pray for our neighbors. And we pray for them by name. Why? Because our neighbors aren’t projects that we need to work on so we can cross a task off of a list. Our neighbors are people whom God loves, people for whom Christ died, people who desperately need to hear the Good News about Jesus.

Our dream is that the good people of PPC will love their neighbors well. That we will get to know them and create the space we need for spiritual conversations to emerge without being forced. The real work of evangelism (there’s that word again) will be done around the kitchen table or over coffee in the family room as we talk with our friends. Let’s be the people who love God deeply enough and love our neighbors well enough to walk across the street.

Paul Pyle
Discipleship Pastor