I was sitting in a dark youth room listening to a guy trying to use chocolate bars to explain how to talk about Jesus to strangers. I was at an evangelism seminar for teenagers at my friend’s church and was excited to get better at sharing my faith.
After three hours of tips and tricks worthy of one of those list-style internet articles, they set us loose in pairs on our local shopping mall armed with one all important question: if you dies tonight, do you know where you would go?” We were instructed to go up to strangers in the mall asking them this question with the goal of ultimately leading them in the sinner’s prayer somewhere between the Gap and Spencer’s
My duo struck out as far as salvation were concerned but we did learn several interesting hand signals and four-letter words that were not part of the seminar. We all loaded back on the church bus to debrief and then were taken to the strip on Panama City beach with an additional instruction: look for inebriated people (they were apparently more open to receiving the gospel).
For the longest time this is what I thought of when I heard the word “evangelism.” Ok, that and the people who stood on the side of the street with bullhorns. But let me say unequivocally that what I was taught was not evangelism. It was couched in evangelistic terms, but it was so far from what true evangelism is that I no longer think you can use the same word to describe both things.
Over the past fifteen years, I have discovered that evangelism is far bigger and far more important than I had ever imagined. Evangelism is how we offer the loving embrace of God’s grace to our world through word, deed, and sign. I know that is a lot, but this metaphor of embrace that I learned from Dr. Kim Reisman reveals the loving, grace-filled practice that I believe is TRUE evangelsim.
She says that we begin by opening our arms to the world. Having an open posture to the world is a major part of evangelism. In order to enter into this embrace we have to be open and aware of those in need of the grace of God in our World. Not only that, opening our arms is a stance of welcome to those around us. Being open and welcoming is the essential first step in being true evangelists. The problem is that our world encourages us to be closed off, unwelcoming, and even suspicious of everyone around us. If we are to offer the loving embrace of God’s grace to our world we must begin by changing our orientation to that world.
At that point Dr Reisman offers a brilliant second step in the metaphor that seems to not be a step at all: waiting. We wait. We don’t coerce or try and do some sort of surprise-hug attack like I was taught at the evangelism seminar in my youth; rather, we wait for someone to open their arms to us and express an openness to receiving this loving embrace of God’s grace. In the waiting, we are asking the Holy Spirit to do the work of wooing the people in our world to the good news of Jesus. We are waiting for the Holy Spirit to open the arms of another so that we can enter into this embrace.
At this point, we enter into the moment where we get to close our arms in embrace and share the love of God in our words, in our deeds, and in signs revealed to us by the Holy Spirit. It means talking about Jesus, feeding hungry people, and praying for peace for our coworker. In this embrace it is not a one-way thing, we are both embracing the other person and being embraced in return as we are used by God to communicate his love and grace.
Finally, we open our arms again. A hug can get creepy real quick when we don’t let go. In opening our arms we release the other to walk out into the love and grace of God in their world and we open ourself up to embrace another. There is a reciprocal nature to this process.
This is evangelism. It is not the process by which we make people feel guilty about their sin, confess to us and say an emotion-filled prayer asking for forgiveness. That can happen, but evangelism is much more than that. And, those things are only truly evangelism when they are expressed in this holy pattern of embrace. When they are not, they turn from evangelism to spiritual manipulation or worse spiritual abuse.
Evangelism is an essential aspect of what it means to be a faithful Christian, and I believe that at his moment in church history it is imperative that we recover evangelism in its pure form. Some would have us move away from talk of evangelism for fear of offending others or being disrespectful, but it is only offensive and disrespectful when it is being twisted from this loving, holy practice into other coercive, manipulative forms.
We must reclaim true evangelism because our world needs to experience the love and grace and mercy of God. It needs to be embraced by the power of the Holy Spirit and empowered to walk away from sin. If we ever want to see the New Jerusalem descending out of our clouds, we must seek the redemption of this world and its people, and that flows through evangelism.
This is also why I am part of an incredible group called World Methodist Evangelism that seeks to train up evangelists all over the world so that the world will be filled with believers that not only know the grace and love of God, but know how to offer that grace and love of God to the others in their world.
If you are looking for an organization in addition to your local church worthy of your prayer and financial support, this is it. Their world has a powerful, global impact in training believers to step into their God given calling to be evangelists everywhere God has planted them.