What do you think of when someone says the word “evangelism”? For many Christians it conjures up images of awkward conversations and one-size-fits all gospel presentations. But a closer inspection of the Bible reveals a different picture.
Our Collective Witness
I recently had the privilege of gathering with my church small group to discuss the topic of evangelism and “missional living.” As a group we wanted to become better equipped to engage our community, neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, and families with the good news of Jesus Christ. So we invited one of our assistant pastors, who is gifted as an evangelist, and his wife to come and share their experiences with us. Although they had several suggestions that individuals could take, many of their ideas had to do with what we could do as a group. This reminded me of the power of our collective witness as believers.
Collective Evangelism in Acts 2
In the Bible, Acts 2 is perhaps the best illustration of collective evangelism. Verses 1-4 explain that the Holy Spirit descended not on an individual, but on an entire house full of people (cf. Joel 2:28). Then this group of believers began speaking in tongues so that the diverse people of Jerusalem were all hearing them speak in his or her own language (Acts 2:8). Then the Apostle Peter gives a Spirit-filled sermon resulting in the conversion of 3,000 people that day (vv 14-41). While Peter served as the mouthpiece in this particular instance, the next several verses show that conversion and discipleship still occurred within the context of community.
Acts 42-47 describes the early church. After 3,000 people repented of their efforts at self-salvation and believed in Jesus Christ they gathered in communities. Verse 42 describes their practice as the gathered people of God. They studied the teachings about Jesus, they enjoyed fellowship with other Christians, they shared meals together, and prayed with each other. They also sold their possessions and gave to anyone among them that had a need (vv 44-45). In short, the new believers in Acts became a new community and lived out that new life in acts of love and worship.
What was the result of the believers in Acts living as a Christian community? People were converted. Acts 2:47 says, they were “praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” The Christian way of sharing life together gave them “favor with all the people.” Outsiders saw the sacrifices and joy the Christians displayed and they were attracted to this way of life. Then they began to investigate who these Christians were and what they believed (or rather in whom they believed) to make them spend all their time with other Christians and even sell their belongings. When they actually began to experience Christian community they came to believe in the One who makes Christian community possible…Jesus Christ.
Individual Responsibility and Verbal Proclamation
The Christian life on display in community draws unbelievers into fellowship with God. So, evangelism–sharing the gospel with unbelievers–is best done in community. This is not at all to take away the personal responsibility of evangelism. Each individual Christian should prayerfully be open to opportunities to share the good news. These verses from Acts also do not fall into the error of, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary use words.” The gospel is a verbal proclamation. It is an announcement that has to be spoken. “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:14). So all Christians should be ready to personally and verbally tell people about Jesus.
Revising Our Concept of Evangelism
Nevertheless, we should revise our concept of evangelism. Instead of imagining ways to share the gospel when we’re solo, we should think of ways to make our life in the household of faith more visible. A church small group can be an effective engine for making Christian community more conspicuous. A group might decide to make a standing “play date” at the local park and pray for opportunities to share the gospel with other parents. Some Christians might adopt a school to serve and build relationships with the kids in hopes that they can also develop evangelistic relationships with the parents. Or a Bible study group might decide to meet at a restaurant or coffee shop occasionally in order to open up pathways for conversations with the staff.
The Christian mission is clear. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20). Interestingly, Jesus speaks these words not to an individual but to a group of people. Thus while the Great Commission goes out to individuals it is not individualistic. Christians are a city on a hill (Mt. 5:14). And for many unbelievers our love for one another may be the greatest evangelism strategy they’ll see. Evangelism is a community project.