When discipline was handed out, I missed that superpower. It’s astonishing how many things I can find to do besides the things I need to do. Yet true Christian maturity is rooted in discipline. The writer of Hebrews sets it out this way: “. . . solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:12–14). In other words, maturity is gained by constant use, a.k.a., discipline.
Practice, Practice, Practice
There is nothing earth-shaking about this. Christians though the ages have taught that personal spiritual health comes from regular spiritual disciplines: the reading of Scripture, participating in the church’s weekly gathering, prayer—these are bedrock spiritual disciplines.
But I would add another to the list: evangelism as a spiritual discipline.
I remember the first time I ever thought of evangelism as a discipline. I was talking to my friend Josh over lunch. Josh was an administrator in a seminary. I met him in the seminary cafeteria and I casually asked him what his morning was like and he told me that he had visited with some refugees downtown to share the gospel with them.
I said, “Josh, I didn’t know you had a heart for refugees.”
“Well,” he said thoughtfully, “I don’t think I’m called to refugee work, but if I don’t find ways to share my faith, especially while working in a Christian environment, I’ll never share my faith.” He took a bite of his sandwich, “I see evangelism as a spiritual discipline.”
Josh is now serving as a pastor of an international church in the Middle East. Not to say that those who are disciplined about evangelism will wind up in ministry in a tough place, but the trajectory of Josh’s life was to live a significant life for Jesus because he faithfully followed Hebrews 5:12-14 in evangelism.
Josh challenged my unvoiced thought that we share our faith merely for the effect we have on others. But I have found that sharing our faith, regardless of the response, is a key to spiritual health. Yes, of course we want to be effective in our witness. And certainly we long for people to respond. But to understand the riches of Jesus more deeply, we should practice sharing our faith. For one thing, if I only shared my faith because I was effective in sharing my faith, I would never do it: 99 times out of 100 my evangelistic attempts fail.
The Fruit of Spiritual Discipline
Spiritual disciplines are the means God uses for our personal growth. So before we look at some practical help for evangelism as a discipline, I want to walk through three ways I’ve seen the practice of evangelism as a discipline help grow my walk with Christ. I think it will help grow yours, too.
We see people the way Jesus sees people.
As Paul is speaking of the gospel in 2 Corinthians 5:11, he says that he attempts to “persuade others.” He says that we no longer view people from a merely human perspective (v. 16). That is, we reject sinful, fleshly views and worldly, racist understandings of people. We come to see them for who they could be in Christ—redeemed children of God.
Peter annoyed me. To me he represented a type of guy: the one who only made bad decisions with his life. Every stupid and bad decision he made (meth, smuggling, prostitutes, to name a few) tempted me to write him off. Yet, in the midst of his foolishness, he kept coming back to hear the gospel. And as I shared with him, I noticed that I started to love him despite his stupidity. And that’s how Jesus loves me—because I’ve been pretty stupid, too.
C.S. Lewis said we have never met a mere mortal. Everyone we meet is destined to one of two eternities: horrors in hell or beings of splendor in heaven. How we treat people along the way moves them on one path or the other. We can snub them or we can love them knowing what they might become. The apostle Paul says that we understand the potential of what divinely created but fallen enemies of God can become, namely, “new creation[s]” in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). Forgiven, restored, redeemed creations in Christ.
We are reminded of the goodness of the gospel.
When I share my faith, I discover the richness of my own faith. At times I forget what it’s all about, but when I share the gospel, I see the beauty of what Jesus has done.
I was talking with my agnostic neighbor and I mentioned that I’ve been taking care of my mother, who has Alzheimer’s. He said, “Alzheimer’s is a horrible illness.”
“Yeah,” I said, “it really makes you wonder if there’s a God.”
“Yes, it does.” He gives me a puzzled look. (He knows I’m a pastor.)
“But, then” I said, “you know me, I follow this God on a cross who knows our pain and that’s what keeps me believing.”
“What do you mean?” he says.
And there it is—another opportunity for the gospel. But also a reminder to me of how Jesus has come to earth and taken on our flesh and our weakness and even our death. He gives my mother the bright hope of resurrected power when her days are over—and me, too. (Philippians 2:6–9).
Our hearts and our faith is refreshed
And then sometimes I’m allowed to see God’s work in transforming a heart in a way that strengthens my heart, too. Yes, 99% of my efforts in evangelism fail. Ah, but that one in a hundred is so very sweet.
Life was hard for Ali in Iraq. He had been in the Kurdish Army when a roadside bomb blew off most of his left hand and caused permanent deafness in his ear. After he healed physically, as much as he could, there remained depressing scars of the soul that wouldn’t heal. So he sat aimlessly in the street outside his mother’s small shop until a member of our church noticed him, struck up a conversation, and invited him to our fellowship. And he came.
Then week after week he continued to come, and eventually, after much thought and study and prayer, he came to faith! We marveled at the transformation in his heart and mind. Most of all, I couldn’t believe the love I saw in Ali. There’s much to tell of Ali’s new life in Jesus; what a great privilege for me to baptize him! But to watch Ali come to faith strengthened my faith; to see the work of God in this new brother’s heart reminded me of the wondrous work of the Holy Spirit in my own life and helped keep my perception of my own salvation precious and fresh.
The Practice of Spiritual Disciplines
So how do you start the spiritual discipline of evangelism? Well, it’s really not that hard. The battle is not to have more knowledge to share your faith, or to have the right method, or to memorize Scripture. The biggest battle is of the will.
I’m of the mind that the best evangelism is the evangelism that flows out of our love for Jesus. So the first order of business is to keep up the other disciplines that increase our love of Jesus: a commitment to the body of believers, the church; having regular, personal times in God’s Word; spending consistent time in prayer. The more we fall in love with Jesus, the more we want to talk about what we love.
Not only that, but I believe that evangelism that is spoken out of our love for Jesus engenders a loving approach to others. I’ve said that for over twenty-five years. However, a pitfall of that sort of evangelism is that we can forgo intentionality. In order to add a bold commitment to being intentional in evangelism, let me close by making a number of practical suggestions.
- Start by praying for opportunities. I’ve found it to be a prayer the Lord delights to answer.
- Be quick to reveal your love of Jesus and his people. Mention to people something of your spiritual life, going to church, or a Bible verse that has meant something to you. Will people reject you at times? Will it be awkward? Yeah. So? Awkward is better than silence.
- Read books on evangelism. Randy Newman’s Questioning Evangelism is a good one. I’ve written a couple: Marks of the Messenger, and Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus. The Gospel and Personal Evangelism by Mark Dever is excellent.
- Make the inner choice not to duck out of opportunities to share when they come up.
- Be intentional in friendships. Will some decide not to be friends anymore? Maybe, but if they do, they probably weren’t friends in the first place.
- Reach out to family. Drop a family member an email and ask them a question about what they think of faith.
- Ask a fellow student if they would read the Bible with you.
And there are many, many more. The main thing is to be intentional over time with your faith. And if you take steps to practice evangelism as a discipline, I think you’ll find great growth towards spiritual maturity and, down the road, you’ll see lives transformed.