Evangelism and Love:
Two sides of the same coin?
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and illness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’Matthew 9:35-38
When I was younger, I used to think evangelism was something you did – you had to go out and, you know, preach the gospel. You had to tell people about Jesus, get it into conversations, go on missions, all that sort of thing. It was, if you like, an extra task that was added onto the to-do list of the Christian life (or, more accurately, the must-do-otherwise-you’ll-feel-guilty list). In short, I felt like evangelism was something extra that I had to get involved with – something which wasn’t simply part of natural rhythm of my Christian life.
So, for example, when I was talking with my colleagues or non-Christian friends, I used to think that I had to do an ‘evangelistic bit’: on occasion, try to mention something about Jesus. The ‘Jesus bit’ of the conversation, rather than the ‘everything else’ bit.
The problem is, all of this left me feeling deeply guilty – I’m not a naturally good person at working the conversation round to talking about Jesus. (I sometimes joke in sermons now that I’m the world’s worst evangelist and God took me out of a secular work situation in order to be more fruitful!) And, to be honest, it always felt… artificial. Talking about Jesus never felt natural or right.
I’ve come to believe that, although I wasn’t completely wrong about evangelism, I certainly believed some things which were very unhelpful if not downright wrong. I think other people might benefit from sharing what I believe now and how it’s different.
The purpose of our lives
The purpose of our lives can be summed up in the two Great Commandments, as given by Jesus in Matthew 22:36-40. They are, essentially: (1) Love God; (2) Love your neighbour. The sum total of what God wants us to do is – love. Of course, we need to understand what that means – that’s why God gave us the Law as well, and indeed the rest of the Bible – but that’s basically it.
Let’s think about loving others. What does that actually look like? Of course it means a few basic things e.g. no murder, stealing, adultery, false witness. But it means much more than that: it means taking an interest in their lives. It means listening to them, caring about their joys and sorrows, feeling the pain of things they are going through, having compassion on them. Jesus is our model, of course, I’ve always loved the description of him in the verses I started with: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
I’ve found over the years that, as I’ve grown as a Christian, I’ve grown in my ability to understand and sympathise with others. Believe me, I’m still far from where I should be – and I don’t even know the half of it! But, by the grace of God, I am not what I once was. God is working, bit by bit, to produce Christlikeness in my character.
In addition to this, over the years I have seen God working in my own struggles and sufferings – I have learned more and more to trust in God and put my faith in him even in the midst of difficulty. I don’t just believe that God is my rock any more – I have experienced it and I can testify to how God has been there even in difficult times.
I hope that where I am going with this is becoming clear. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:4, God “comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” We comfort others with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. Paul here isn’t addressing Christian counselors, or pastors – but the whole church. This is something every Christian is called to do.
And this is how I see it working out in my own life. When I hear someone talking about the struggles they’re having in their lives, I think (or at least, I should think) (1) “wow, that’s awful” – compassion; (2) “It would help them so much to trust in Jesus” (if they don’t already). In fact, this is how it should work all the time: if someone is a Christian already, you can encourage them with the gospel. If someone isn’t, you can point them to Jesus.
In other words, my natural reaction now when I hear of someone suffering is to think “the thing they really need is Jesus.” This comes from both a greater love for others, as well as a deeper sense of my own need of God.
Evangelism = Love
And this is why I think the way I used to think about evangelism is wrong. Evangelism is not a different thing God requires us to do, something distinct from loving him and loving others. It is the extension of it – it belongs at the very core of what it means to be a Christian.
Too often I think people are put off from evangelism because they have a wrong view of it. They think it will mean being Billy Graham Mark 2, or crowbarring Jesus into every conversation, or something like that. But the truth is that every Christian can do it, because it’s at the heart of what every Christian is called to do.
I often say in sermons – we can’t all be Billy Grahams, and we are not all called to be. But each of us has friends or neighbours or family members who do not yet know Christ. I’m sure we could all think of at least 1-2 people who are not Christian. One thing we can all do is to pray: pray and ask God to lead them to him, pray that he would give us hearts of love for others, pray that God would give us opportunities to speak of him. It is through prayer that God changes our hearts, changes circumstances, and gives us the ability to do what we thought we couldn’t do.
When we think that evangelism is about doing an extra task, we’ll always feel guilty that we’ve never done good enough and it will always feel awkward. But when evangelism is about love, it may still feel awkward sometimes – but we will have a new power to accomplish it. It will become part of the rhythm of the Christian life, not an additional extra to be accomplished occasionally. When we have compassion on those who are hurting, out of love we will have no choice but to evangelise naturally.