On Evangelism, Witnessing, and The Great Commission
I’ve been thinking about the Great Commission as found in Matthew 28:19-20, which says, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
We’ll be getting there in our teaching series through the Gospel of Matthew, but I have been troubled by it ever since whatever Sunday it was in January when I answered a question by drawing three concentric circles on the flip chart.
You may remember that the three concentric circles represented three facets of evangelism.
Three Facets of Evangelism
The three concentric circles, starting from the outside, represented evangelism through our witness (Acts 1:8), the next inner circle represented evangelism through our outreach (Philemon 1:6), and the most inner “target” circle represented evangelism through our soul-winning efforts (Matthew 28:19-20).
The illustration explained that witnessing seeks influence, outreach seeks interests, and soul-winning seeks inclusion. Put another way, witnessing is proclaiming the gospel with our unspoken life, outreach is usually sharing the gospel with others through the medium of tracts/books/website in hopes of finding someone seeking Christ, and soul-winning is the gift of being able to ask another to make a decision to believe and follow Jesus as Lord.
In church circles the terms witnessing, outreach, and soul-winning are sometimes used interchangeably as the work of the Great Commission or the work of evangelism. Of course it depends on who you ask or what denominational background a minister is speaking from. (Some denominations use the term evangelism almost exclusively in reference to public campaigns like a Billy Graham Crusade.)
The three concentric circle diagram was something I developed around 1990 to help my parishioners and I get on the same page regarding the Great Commission, better understand the differences between these facets of evangelism, and to illustrate that our calling as followers of Christ is simply to be His witness.
In Matthew 5:14-16 Jesus asked us to be “the light of the world” and not to hide that “under a bushel” and He added, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”
As a young pastor I quickly learned that too many church members felt a presumed obligation to evangelize everyone they meet and in their mind it meant asking if people were saved. However, few even attempt to fulfill that assumed task leaving them to feel like failures or cowards.
The truth is they were not even gifted by the Holy Spirit as evangelists and the work of the Great Commission would have been better advanced by teaching witnessing and outreach skills, or prayer ministry training in order to send the Spirit of God out to the lost.
In Ephesians 4:11 we see that “evangelists” is one of the gifts Christ gives to the church to do its part in the Great Commission. The Apostle Paul wrote “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:11-12 NIV).
It may surprise most to learn that the Bible only make mentions of one individual as being an evangelist and that was Philip in Acts 21:8 who was one of the deacons. In 2 Timothy 4:5 the Apostle Paul told Pastor Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist” and that is something that is part of pastoral ministry, though not the whole of pastoral ministry.
The word “evangelism” is simply from a Greek New Testament word, used about 70 times, that means to proclaim the good news of the gospel of Christ, as in Mark 16:15, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel.” We could transliterate the verse to read “Go into all the world and evangelize.”
The Great Commission is the instruction the Lord gave us to evangelize the world and that is task with various facets of witnessing, outreach, and soul-winning. We do find that in one of Paul’s letter’s to the Corinthians he introduces the concept that we are also ambassadors of Christ.
We are all “Christ’s ambassadors” (2 Corinthians 5:20) representing Him. As an ambassador we are not politicians, policy makers, or lawyers. As an ambassador our official activity is to represent the King who sent us by relaying only what He instructs us to. Ambassadors share only what has been shared with them.
We are not asked by God to be theologians or to eloquently explain complicated doctrine, but we are asked to simply respond to others with what we do know and what we have personally experienced.
All are not asked to be evangelists and assume the responsibility of discernment of souls, asking for decisions of others, and correcting objections without further harming a soul searching the Savior.
All are asked to be real authentic witnesses at whatever level of walk with the Lord we may be. We learn in Acts 1:8 that with the Holy Spirit we are all used as witnesses for Christ through the influence of relationships and allowing the “good works” of our life to shine light in the darkness.
As witnesses we are not required to give away what we don’t possess, but only what we know through our own experience with the Lord. This is why Peter said “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15).
None of us are asked to answer a question we don’t fully comprehend, instead we are asked to only be a witness for what we do know. What if someone asks you to explain a deep theological point that you don’t have a clue on? You simply say, “I don’t know.”
What are they going to say to that, “What do you mean you don’t know?” “Yes, I don’t know, but I do know that God loves me more than I deserve and that is enough for me.” To which your questioner is left to think, “Maybe if God has given them that much peace and they don’t even know what I’ve asked, God can give me that peace, and maybe I don’t need to figure it all out first.”
Let me tell you something about people… they ask questions they don’t really expect an answer for, but they are hoping that someone will at least hear them, listen to them, and not shut them out. What people want is love. You can’t influence another human being any more effective than to love of them.
Jesus said, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35 NIV).
With the love of God firmly planted within, we witness for our Lord we allow our light to shine, our works to be seen, and we share what we know. Our light is our influence of confidence in Christ when another is scared for the future, our good works is the decisions we make in rejecting sin and following Christ when another is already convinced they are going to hell, and in these things we witness from what’s within.
Individuals vs Church
Being a witness for the Lord Jesus Christ is a very natural outgrowth of being filled with the Holy Spirit and walking in the Spirit. Each of us is a witness to the Lord we serve and all of us together as the church is meant to be involved in outreach and soul-winning.
The diagram from the flip chart not only explained three facets of evangelism, but it also points to three levels of our involvement in evangelism.
Witnessing involves us individuality and not dependent on the local church. Outreach is partially involving us individuality and partially involving the local church. Soul-winning as an effort mostly involves the local church because that is where the gifted evangelist is placed and where inclusion to discipleship happens.
Witnessing is something we can do anytime and anywhere and does not require resources, materials, or the local church’s participation. We can witness of what Christ has done and is doing our lives by the way we cope with trouble, or the way we have stopped participating in sin, or by how our influence upon others causes them to consider what makes us appear to have it all together. We can authentic with others and explain that we don’t have it all together but we trust in the Lord who does and He helps us keep it all contained, at least.
Outreach is something we can do individually, but it is also something that is partially dependent on the local church body as in resources to use for outreach or in inviting others to attend the Sunday morning fellowship at the local church.
Soul-winning is something that an individual who is gifted as an evangelist can do, in one sense, but it is mostly something dependent on the local church body because that is where the evangelist is placed and where inclusion to discipleship happens. The target goal of evangelism is to include others into the fellowship of Christ.
According to the Jesus, the end-game goal is not an individual coming to the Lord and confesses their belief in Him as Savior. The Great Commission instructions by the Master is “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” and that is not something that can be done at a 3-minute alter visit.
Witnessing is something we can do as individuals, outreach is partially something we can do individually and partially as a church body, and soul-winning is something we mostly do collectively, together, as the local body of Christ.
When we look at the Great Commission as Jesus stated it in Matthew 28:19-20, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” it is kind of hard to do that as an individual.
You may meet someone looking for Jesus, ask him to commit to Jesus, but “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” will take a little bit of time don’t you think?
Of course, the implication of the practice of baptism is a public commitment to following Christ as Lord and that is seen in one’s public attendance with other believers in fellowship (Hebrews 10:24-25). Not to mention that it would be very difficult for an individual to evangelize all 280+ nations of the earth by traveling the globe over their lifetime.
It is pretty clear that the Great Commission is impossible to do by oneself, but rather is meant to be the mission and focus of church body.
As I mentioned in my opening sentence I have been troubled by the Great Commission lately, because it has challenged me to evaluate if I have given it enough focus in my ministry and in our church fellowship.
I have been thinking that for the last ten years I have primarily thought of CrossHope Chapel as a place for the burned-out, dropped-out, and generally those who have not found the traditional format of liturgy very helpful. I think we are still ideally positioned for those who feel like they are part of these categories, and I certainly want to continue that.
However, I have been considering the Great Commission, my own response to the Lord’s instruction at this stage in my ministry, the due attention it should have going into our next ten years, and I think this Sunday I want to further this conversation.
So this Sunday, March 21st, I want to talk more about what has been on my heart, what I am sensing as the Holy Spirit’s conviction going into our future, and what we may do as a church body to better honor our Lord’s Great Commission instruction.
I am looking forward to talking more about evangelism, with you!