"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves" (Matt. 23:15).
The Christian Church has always marked a difference between evangelism and proselytism, but it has often been guilty of proselytizing rather than evangelizing. Proselytizing is what the others do. Muslims, for instance, don’t evangelize, they proselytize. They can’t evangelize because they don’t have the Gospel. They can only proselytize.
Ever been guilty of that? Ever been left feeling guilty because you didn’t bring up Jesus Christ and “the Gospel” within the first five minutes of meeting a new coworker. Ever see Mormons riding bicycles down the street, and felt guilty? Ever been to a youth camp where the instructors put on a campfire skit where someone died and went to hell, because you didn’t make them pray the sinner’s prayer before leaving the coffee shop? Have you ever been to church on Sunday morning where the Gospel seemed to have been replaced with the admonition to evangelize? Then yes, you have been the victim of proselytizing, and victims victimize. Proselytes proselytize.
If you don’t believe Jesus Christ—that is, God in the man born of the Virgin Mary—died for the sins of the world, then you can’t evangelize. However, neither can you evangelize if you don’t believe God died for your sins, including your lack of evangelistic zeal.
You can’t evangelize if you don’t have the Gospel. That’s because the evangelism means Gospelism. It’s funny how often the church forgets this. The word evangelism comes from the same word that is translated "Gospel"... good news. There is only one Gospel, and should anyone come preaching any other gospel, even if they are an angel from heaven, let him be anathema! This is what Paul tells the Galatians.
This Gospel is the forgiveness of sins. It is the declaration that you are not guilty, justified and made innocent by the blood of Christ and nothing else. It is the good news that Jesus Christ died for sinners, and you qualify. It is a joyous message, and the joy is contagious. It’s the kind of thing a person just can’t help but sharing with others. This is why Paul writes to Timothy that “the aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a clean conscience and a sincere faith.”
These are things that result from the Gospel, from hearing that your sins are forgiven. It is through the Gospel and the forgiveness of sins that the Holy Spirit purifies your heart with fire, and cleans your conscience with the blood of Christ. Evangelism is for believers, evangelism is for you, and when the Holy Spirit has had His way with you, well then He will also work through you when and where He pleases.
This is why evangelism starts at church, on Sunday morning with a sermon focused on the Gospel. It is something that pastors all too often forget. Pastors can have a hard time of it. The Gospel doesn’t always have the results a pastor in his sinful human nature wants to see. We want to see the church bursting at the seams, standing room only, so packed you have to put large screens on the outside so people can see and hear what is going on inside. Yes, that is actually what we want, the same thing our board of elders and church council want.
Don’t think we aren’t a bit envious driving by that new supposedly non-denominational start up (actually funded in the millions by the Church of the Nazarene, or E.V. Free, or even by their own denomination). The parking lot is full and it is a Tuesday night, what could they possibly be doing on a Tuesday night? And then we find out that is just their youth group—on Sunday morning they need traffic cops and parking attendants. Yes, we wonder to ourselves whether we could make that happen at our church? And the answer is, for most of us anyway, yes. WE could. But then it would be WE that are doing the doing.
Not all that glitters is gold. The early church knew this. The apostles were under the same sort of pressure. They saw what was happening to the pastors and the elders in the congregations they had established. Charlatans were able to draw the crowds in by the thousands even in Paul’s day. So Paul would have to write even to heroes of the faith like Timothy and Titus. He had to redirect them, encourage them, and admonish them to stay on topic! Keep the main thing the main thing! Or as Paul would admonish Timothy, “As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry" (2 Timothy 4:5).
Be sober-minded, this was Paul’s way of saying, don’t let the despair get you down. Don’t let the numbers make you jealous. Don’t let your envy trip you up so that you forget the cross of Christ in the midst of your own suffering. Do the work of an evangelist. That is, proclaim the Gospel. Be focused on the Gospel because if you aren’t, you will be nothing but a proselytizer.
The joy of the Gospel isn’t the only contagious thing in this world. Fear and fearmongering are often more contagious. So is self-help rehashed. But where fear is the driving force behind the supposed evangelism program at the church then the church is no longer evangelizing, it is proselytizing. Evangelism should not be confused with membership drives. And this is what happens when the Gospel doesn’t give us the results WE want, and we get ourselves, our desires and our program confused with the Holy Spirit, His desires, and His work.
“God desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). God desires this. This is the will of God, and to accomplish it He has entrusted forgiven sinners with the knowledge of truth, the forgiveness of sins—yes, even their own... even yours. There is profound mystery in this. At times we see the Gospel break forth in a community like the Johnstown Flood. The only thing to do is rejoice. It is true small numbers are no more a test of orthodoxy than large numbers are a litmus of heterodoxy. When one passes that megachurch in town it does much more to pray that the Gospel be preached than to let jealousy take over your sober mind.
It is His church, His will be done. But preach the Gospel, do the work of an evangelist, and rejoice.
Rejoice, the angels do. The angels rejoice when even one sinner repents. It’s a miracle of God, it is a glorious sight. That baby you baptized last Sunday? Rejoice! This isn’t low hanging fruit, this is the work of God in your midst. This is the great news of a battle won for the kingdom of God! This is the good news that calls for throwing sobriety to the wind as you crack open champagne!
That couple that just returned to church after being gone four years? That woman in the wake of divorce and tears who comes forward to receive the blood of Jesus for her forgiveness? These are all people that God has saved, the same God who will leave the 99 and search for the one, because in heaven there is more rejoicing over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance. This is the Gospel at work. This is evangelism, and this is just as much the Holy Spirit working through you as it is the Holy Spirit working through the pastor you support because the Holy Spirit is at work in His church forgiving sinners like your pastor, forgiving sinners like you, delivering pure hearts and clean consciences.