It seems to me that the greatest irony of modern Evangelicalism is the very title of their collective movement. What does it mean, after all, to be Evangelical? One particular aspect of Evangelicalism is the approach they take to spreading the Gospel. I’m afraid that many Evangelicals don’t even know what the Gospel is in the first place, so there’s already a fundamental problem right there. Even if they know what the Gospel is, many more don’t know how to witness to unbelievers. The practice of evangelism gets confused with something else or is eschewed entirely in favor of a “seeker-sensitive” approach.
I could go on for days about why this happens, how it happens, and what ought to be done about it, but I’ll stick to one particular problem I see in the church today. In many cases, evangelism gets confused with apologetics. What may be appropriate for apologetics is not always appropriate for evangelism, even though the former can often lend support to the latter. To argue against a particular false teaching, for example, is not evangelism–neither is proving from the Scriptures that a particular behavior is wrong and then denouncing it. Evangelism is not about proving one thing or disproving something else.
Often we have friends who are Muslims, Jews, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roman Catholics, Unitarian Universalists, or caught up in some other kind of cult. We have a heart for these people and we want them to have a saving faith in Jesus Christ. This motive is only natural for a Christian. However, even a well-meaning believer can make some pretty awful mistakes when it comes to acting upon that motivation. These mistakes can, unfortunately, drive people away from the Gospel entirely and present a bad witness for the church.
So how do I witness to a friend who happens to be a Muslim? The first mistake people often make is to bash the religion of the individual to whom they are trying to witness. This is not evangelism. And what do we hope to gain by doing that? Bashing Islam, tearing it down, and putting all of its worst faults on display is no way to witness to my friend. I’m not doing him or the Gospel any favors. What I might say about Islam may very well be true, but that’s not spreading the Gospel. It only serves to antagonize people and turn them off to hearing anything else you have to say.
When Paul goes into Athens in Acts 17, he doesn’t address his hearers by bashing all of the paganism around him. Even though Paul is clearly provoked by all of the idolatry he sees around him, he doesn’t immediately lash out against it in a huge tirade. What does he do instead? He preaches Jesus and the Resurrection. He proclaims the one true God of the Scriptures over and against the false gods of paganism. Indeed, Paul doesn’t need to bash the false religions of the Athenians, for the superiority and excellence of Christ is enough to put them all to shame.
Don’t get me wrong here. If particular issues come up in the course of a given discussion, then we need to be honest about where we stand as Christians. The Gospel message, after all, is going to be offensive. We just don’t need to be offensive unnecessarily. In the course of witnessing to a Roman Catholic, I don’t need to start out by proclaiming the Pope to be an antichrist figure. That subject may come up later in the course of conversation, but it’s not the Gospel message. The word “gospel” itself means “good news.” Instead of denouncing someone’s religion–false as it may be–we need to boldly proclaim that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone.
I’m no expert on evangelism and I haven’t written a book about it, but starting from that point is key to any effective evangelism. If the person to whom I witness comes to a saving faith, then he will slowly untangle himself from the chains of his former false religion. An individual who is regenerated by the Holy Spirit and brought to a saving faith will see these false religions for what they are. It’s a process and it takes time. No overt bashing of Islam, Mormonism, or Roman Catholicism is necessary. God has a way of removing the scales from our eyes and revealing His truth.
I confess that in the past I’ve been guilty of this sin I describe above. I’ve torn down false religions instead of presenting the Gospel. I haven’t done what I ought to have done. When you have the truth and know it, there’s a tendency to get cocky about it. Self-righteousness and pride tend to creep in. We need to repent of that. A true understanding of the Gospel is one in which we are constantly reminded that we are saved–and sustained–by God’s grace alone. Therefore let us show grace to others who are caught up in false religions–because such were all of us.