While the missionary spirit is central to the Christian church, I am often concerned that the way we talk about mission and evangelism can be harmful and counterproductive. This article is kind of a shotgun approach to a lot of problems I’ve seen. Hopefully, in identifying why some of these ways of talking are problematic, we can begin to be pointed back to a healthier discussion of this topic.
1) “Mission is an individual duty and obligation”
Sometimes we can’t help it since we’re Americans. We just automatically think in individual terms, but there are a lot of times where this is really unhelpful. I’ve seen people emphasize how mission and evangelism is the calling and duty of each individual Christian. There’s often an appeal to the great commission from Matthew 28 as a proof of what each of us individually is called to do. And while there’s some truth to this, it can create some unnecessary struggle in people. You might have a guy who feels guilty that he works for an insurance company when he could be a church planter or oversea missionary or something. Surely, if he just had enough faith, he would do that, right?
But we forget that the mission of the church is exactly that. It’s the church’s mission, not the individual Christian’s mission. As individuals we are all members of the same body, which means that we bring different talents, skills, and stations in life to the body. It is the duty and obligation of the church as a whole to do mission and evangelism. Of course individual Christians are going to participate in this, but this does not mean that it’s at all going to look the same for each individual Christian. In the words of St. Paul, live as you are called. Are you a layperson with a family and a job? Then do what you can within that station in life. There’s no need to give up everything and become a missionary. Now, if you do really want to do that, then go for it. Seriously, do it. But don’t feel like you have to. You don’t.
2) “If you don’t talk to someone about Jesus, then they’re going to go to hell.”
I know when people say stuff like this they are trying to get people to understand the seriousness of being witnesses of the Gospel to those we are in contact with. But this is some seriously messed up and unbiblical nonsense to tell someone. This is an absurd burden to place on a person. And I am so frustrated by how many times I have heard something like this from leaders and teachers in the church.
Now, yes, I agree with Paul who writes in Romans 10: “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?” (Rom 10:14). God uses means (i.e. us) to tell people about the Gospel. But we also know from Romans that all those whom God predestined, he called, and he justified, and he glorified (Romans 8:29-30). In other words, God will call all of his elect. Yes, all of them. Nobody can come to faith unless God creates faith in their dead and stony heart. You cannot save anyone. Only God can do that.
Now this doesn’t mean that you are free to sit back and do nothing. No. After all, how are they to hear without someone preaching? But it means that you don’t need to worry that if you don’t take an opportunity to talk to someone about the Gospel or if you mess up an opportunity then this person is going to be condemned to hell. That’s not how it works. Someone else’s salvation is not dependent on what you do. Only God can bring someone to faith, and if he is going to do it, then he is going to do it. You cannot mess up God’s plan. If you mess it up, then he’ll use someone else. If God wants to bring someone to faith, he will make it happen come hell or high water. Maybe this won’t be through you, maybe through someone else, but also maybe through you. So, you are free to try to be that means, to be a witness.
3) “Jesus could come back at any moment, which means you need to tell people about the Gospel now.”
The New Testament says a lot about the imminence of Jesus’ coming. It’s one of the central claims of Christianity. Jesus warns us to stay awake and alert, to repent of our sins now, and to cling to him in faith now. The time is short and he will come when you least expect it. So, don’t wait.
But in all of this, the New Testament never once uses the imminence of Jesus’ second coming as a motivation to do evangelism. I think this is significant. Now, if you are wondering if you should talk to someone sooner or later, the correct answer is always sooner. But this is not supposed to be this immense burden on you as if your poor timing might accidentally send someone to hell. After all, as previously mentioned, God will call all of his elect.
4) “You need to warn people against going to hell.”
I get why Christians do this. It makes sense honestly. But the problem is just that it’s terribly ineffective for someone who doesn’t even believe in hell.
Imagine, my dear Protestant brothers and sisters, that some Catholic warns you and says that you need to do such and such, lest you have to spend more time in purgatory. I doubt you’re going to be moved much by their warning, especially if you’re fairly confident that the Catholic understanding of purgatory is hogwash. So, why would it be any different for someone who doesn’t believe in hell? Instead, focus on the Gospel. Stop trying to scare people out of hell, but be a witness to the beauty of the love and forgiveness of Jesus. People might not be afraid of hell, but they’re still afraid of death, and Jesus has conquered death for all those who trust in him.
5) “Mission is really important! Like, really important!”
I cannot tell you how many mission talks or sermons I’ve sat through whose core message was this. They were talking to us as if we all thought that mission was unimportant and didn’t matter. Now I recognize that in some congregational contexts, this is not really the same. You do actually need to emphasize the importance of mission and evangelism. But don’t let talking about mission stop at emphasizing it’s importance. Say something about it that’s more substantive if you’re going to talk about it.
Also, I think that the goal of something like this is to motivate people towards participating in mission and evangelism. However, while this kind of a direct approach can work sometimes, I think that it is far better to help disciple people such that they have an outward awareness of the world around them and such that the gospel is such a deeply ingrained part of their life that now they can’t help but be thinking about how they can do mission and evangelism. Nagging people may get some obedience, but it’ll be begrudging and duty-bound obedience at best.
6) “Guys like go do some missions stuff now.”
Let me explain. This is similar to the previous one, but what I mean by this is when people encourage toward evangelism/mission activity, but they fail to give any kind of specific instruction on what this is supposed to look like. I remember last year I was attending a conference that was focused on mission. There were a lot of great insights, but by the end of the conference I became so frustrated, because it seemed like every speaker, every sermon, and every smaller session was telling me to go and do missions stuff or that mission is really important. But nobody was talking about what this actually looked like.
It would have been so valuable to have had people who are doing work engaging their communities and such talk about what they’ve done in their own context, talk about what has worked well for them and what hasn’t. I see this happen at the congregational level when people just tell others to “tell others about Jesus.” But nobody talks about how to do this or what this might look like.
I think this happens a lot because the people who are pretty vocal about mission and evangelism tend to be the more extraverted, uninhibited kind of people. These are also the same people who are generally less likely to be analytical and focus on the details. To them the details don’t matter. Just go do it. So, if this is you, please try to think about specifics. You might not realize it, but those details are very important to the people that you may be talking to.
7) “Don’t worry about your actions. Your words are far more important.”
This one truly baffles me. Apparently there are people who take the falsely attributed Francis of Assisi quote to heart: “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary, use words.” This is obviously nonsense, since the Gospel is a message about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is the declaration of God that you, a sinner, are now righteous before him. In Jesus, everything is going to be okay.
And while I’m sure that there are folks who think that just being nice to people is a good enough replacement for actually talking about Jesus, I think we could not be giving worse advice to people. Take a bit and actually listen to the stories of people who were non-Christians and then came into the church. I’ve yet to meet a person who was convinced by an intellectual presentation of the Gospel. Often people will talk about experiencing the love of Christians. A genuine love that was not trying to get something or earn something, but to love unconditionally. People can dismiss what you say about Jesus as religious nonsense and fairy tales, but they can’t dismiss love that is true and genuine. It’s often this way with the Mormons. People may think that what they believe is nuts, and while that’s true, people also recognize how kind and nice they are. It’s just a part of their culture.
So then, if the Mormons are like this, then how much more should we be a people marked by love? This is why Jesus says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-5). We are free to love people with the love of Jesus. It won’t always be perfect, but it’s a love that we have been given, a love that we ourselves have experienced and that we are invited to live out as well. And if you can learn to do that well, then I can guarantee you that that will be a thousand times more “effective” than any apologetic argument or gospel tract.
This is not to say that loving people replaces the proclamation about Jesus. Never. But if our proclamation about Jesus is not accompanied by the love of Jesus, then we are not giving a full witness of the Gospel.
8) “The goal of the Christian life is to become a missionary.”
I’ve sometimes heard Christianity presented as a Ponzi scheme of sorts. The singular end goal of discipleship and Christian growth is to be equipped to go out and make more disciples of Jesus, who then in turn go out and do the same when they are ready. And while it’s true that all Christians are called to be witnesses of the Gospel in their own way, this model fails to recognize that Christians do not merely exist to create more Christians.
First of all, it’s a denial of vocation. Christians exist in many and various callings though which they care for their neighbor. This will include caring for your neighbor by bringing the Gospel, but it’s in no way limited to that. Caring for you neighbor in any way is a good thing. We can never forget this.
Second of all, it’s a really shallow understanding of the Christian life. As if the Christian life had no depth other than learning how to be a better “missionary.” In the Christian life the Holy Spirit allows us to grow in so many ways. And this is going to look different for each person. Different people are gifted by the Spirit differently. Some are more given to grow in knowledge and wisdom, others are more given to grow in service and holiness, others are gifted in other ways. And of course part of this will be learning how to be a faithful witness of the gospel, but we dare not make this the only thing. As if it weren’t enough to be like Mary and sit before the Lord and receive his gifts. We receive his instruction and his forgiveness. This is what transforms us, not any program of development that we construct for ourselves.
I’ve written elsewhere about this topic here: We Don’t Make Christians: Our Role in Evangelism