Is evangelism something that is accomplished primarily by words, or works? What I mean by that is, is evangelism accomplished by verbally telling people about Jesus, or by doing things that may, or may not show people that we are followers of Jesus? To put it another way, how do evangelism and social action interact?
First of all, my understanding of evangelism is that it isn't something that is an isolated activity - like leaving our house to go do "evangelism". We can do that, but it's something that we should be intentional about doing all day, every day - a lifestyle. As an individual, I don't see any issue with approaching someone simply looking to have a conversation about the most important questions of life. I'm not offering them anything physical, except maybe a gospel tract. We are simply exchanging worldviews with each other and sharing our thoughts - although, my intention is always to get to the gospel. Done rightly, I don't think this is offensive to people.
Some people say that we need to earn the right to speak into people's lives. I've never understood that. If we are genuinely kind, and interested in a sincere discussion, people will recognize that, and appreciate our concern. Not always, but I can say that I have received handshakes and hugs from complete strangers, because they've enjoyed the brief moments we spent together sharing ideas.
Building relationships is important. I just don't know if it's essential. Obviously a good relationship with someone lends itself well to our goal, but is it necessary? Sometimes building relationships and evangelism are pitted against each other. Shouldn't they go hand-in-hand?
There is a quote that is often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, "Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words." Can it technically be considered preaching, if most of the time we don't say anything, but let our actions speak for us? Don't we have to open our mouths, and tell them the good news? Serving them is not going to convey the message of the gospel. I believe our works should support what we're saying, they aren't the message themselves. I suspect many Christian's mindset is this - Evangelism is showing God's love through example. It's true that we do show our faith in God through our kindness to others, but we shouldn't say that we're evangelizing by doing good deeds.
Here's how I think it plays itself out in the mind of many Christians. They step out in faith into their community and they're thinking two things, in this order: #1 Serve people and show the love of Christ. And #2 If the opportunity arises, tell them about Jesus. They are more than willing and excited to do something kind for someone, and that's great, but truth be told, I suspect many are extremely reluctant to share the gospel verbally, - because of the fears that exist. ("I don't know enough. What if they ask me a question I don't have the answer to?" etc.) And not to mention that many Christians aren't going to use the law of God to bring about the knowledge of sin and discuss repentance and faith in their gospel presentation. That is a much more challenging approach than "Just ask Jesus into your heart..."
All I'm suggesting is that we flip the order of priority between #1 and #2. Do both, but be more intentional about engaging them in a meaningful conversation. What might this look like? Let's say, I give someone a hot dog and a bottle of water. They smile and say "Thank you." At this point I could say "God bless you." or "God loves you." Or I could say, "Would you be willing to give me two minutes of your time so that I could share with you why I'm out here giving away hot dogs and water? And maybe I could ask you a question or two, would that be ok?" By God's grace, I think I'm capable of doing that, and so are other Christians. And no doubt sometimes those 2 minutes will quickly turn into 20 minutes of extremely meaningful interaction.
If all we are doing is the good work of providing food or a service to people, they will think well of us, but not necessarily think well of Jesus. On top of that, if all we do is the kind deed, it might even be possible that we are conveying a message that salvation is achieved by good works! Along those same lines is the concept of "Lifestyle Evangelism" - Which I would define as people coming to know Christ by the way we live. We don't even have to go out into the community to witness, people will witness our exemplary lives and that will convey the message of the gospel. This is false, and I bet this is more of a prevalent view than we might suspect. It flows from a similar thought process, but the problems remain the same. How does someone know the difference between a Christian showing Christ's love, and a non-Christian simply being "nice?"
Any unsaved person can give blood or volunteer at a soup kitchen. Don't non-Christians do these things? And I don't know about you, but I have to tell people about Jesus because sometimes my life and the things that I say and do, look nothing like Jesus. Not only that, but lifestyle evangelism is actually a logical impossibility. To say that I will live like Christ to the world and that will be how I share Jesus with them, it can't be done. To live like Christ is to speak truth. He was about proclaiming truth, He came to seek and save that which is lost. If you always keep quiet about Christ, how are you acting like Him?
The fact is - the biggest problem people have is the issue of their sin. Whatever their physical need is at the time, it doesn't compare with the possibility that they are still in their sins. Sometimes I think the Church is just making this world a better place from which to go to hell. Their only hope is Christ; and He's given us the words of life to speak to them. Do we spend too much time and effort meeting all sorts of various physical needs and do we neglect their most important need which is spiritual reconciliation? I don't know. I'm just asking. Wouldn't you agree that a huge portion of the people that we run into on a daily basis are headed for hell? The people we see at the gym, the gas station, at the park and on our block... I'm pretty sure that many of them are on their way to hell. And God's plan to reach them involves me, actually all of us who claim the name of Christ.
Here's a quote to chew on, "Oh my friends, we are loaded with countless church activities, while the real work of the church, that of evangelizing and winning the lost, is almost entirely neglected." - Oswald J. Smith. Charles Spurgeon said regarding reaching the lost, "Do something, do something, do something!" Most people interpret that as him speaking with a sense of urgency. That may be true. Since we can't go to iTunes and hear how he said it, I think he might have said like this, "Do something, do something, do something." Basically saying - Do anything! Find something you can do. Find a way! Talk to someone, if you can't do that, hand them a tract, if you can't do that, throw one on the ground so someone will pick it up, if you can't do that, support missionaries, if you can't do that, pray. Pray like crazy! Do something!
All I'm saying is that I take seriously when Scripture says narrow is the way, and few there be that find it. The only hope for this world is Christ, and I'm just trying find ways that work with my personality so that I can be a usable vessel for Him. And do evangelism not my way, or the way others do it, or the way the world wants it done, but to do it the way Jesus wants. And if I can help others along the way, the more the better. Each one, teach one.
I think John Stott sums up this issue in a concise manner. He said, "This does not mean that words and works, evangelism and social action, are such inseparable partners that all of us must engage in both all the time. Situations vary, and so do Christian callings. As for situations, there will be times when a person's eternal destiny is the most urgent consideration, for we must not forget that men without Christ are perishing. But there will certainly be other times when a person's material need is so pressing that he would not be able to hear the gospel if we shared it with him. The man who fell among robbers needed above all else at that moment oil and bandages for his wounds, not evangelistic tracts in his pockets! Similarly, in the words of a missionary in Nairobi quoted by Bishop John Taylor, 'a hungry man has no ears'. If our enemy is hungry, our biblical mandate is not to evangelize him but to feed him (Romans 12:20)! Then too there is a diversity of Christian callings, and every Christian should be faithful to his own calling."
I thank you for reading this. I appreciate you letting me share/rant about some things that God has (in a good way) burdened me.