This fall I celebrate my thirtieth year as a follower of Jesus. It was my third year of college in Virginia. I grew up in Florida and had heard the gospel story many times and heard countless sermons about it. But it was my third year of college, during a season of much struggle but also much grace, that I found myself surrounded by a Christian community. Over the semester I participated in large group worship, small group conversation, and personal prayer. I wasn’t a Christian. I didn’t believe Jesus was any more special than the rest of us. And since I didn’t believe in him, I certainly didn’t believe his words and had no awareness of sin. But by the middle of November the gospel had been revealed to me and I gave my life over, as much as I could at the time, to Jesus.
After teaching for almost a decade at the Claremont School of Theology, pastored churches for the previous fifteen years, and talked with Christians around the world, I’ve come to believe there is one central foundation for evangelism. Evangelism reveals the gospel. The New Testament speaks in one voice regarding the terminology of evangelism: It is the announcement of good news, of which Jesus was the best news the earliest Christians could imagine. Evangelism may be other things and consist of a variety of practices, but any practice, by the Christian community or individual Christians, that doesn’t specifically articulate Jesus’s life and ministry cannot properly be understood as evangelism.
We don’t need to rehash the data in this series that all too clearly demonstrates that the number of Christian disciples in the West is on the decline. Instead in this series I want to discuss what I believe are the six common elements of evangelism that work together to reveal the story of God in Jesus. These practices include examination, listening, verification, announcing, inviting, and repeating. Rearranging these six practices, they form the acronym REVEAL. The six practices can occur in a variety of orders depending on the person encountering the gospel, the evangelist herself, and both of their traditions. But all six are critical components of evangelism.
Soon after moving to Claremont, my family was walking through the downtown village area with some friends. It was just before Christmas, so all the stores and offices were decorated with various assortments of holiday cheer. As we passed by one shop after another, we came on one that had a variety of manger scenes. Some scenes were made of Legos, others were built of wood, while still others were plastic. Some had expensive price tags and others were quite cheap. They all had a few similar elements. All of them had animals, though the animals were often different from scene to scene. Many had pigs and cows. Some had chickens. One had chickens while one silly scene had an alligator. Some had a little house. A few had a barn, and even one or two had caves. Most scenes had three strange characters dressed in fancy garb. Each had a woman, a man, and a little bed. Most of the beds had a little baby in it, but sometimes the bed was empty.
We stared at the window for a few minutes. One of the boys with us asked, “What are these?” My wife said, “Do you know what these are?” “No” said the boy. “This is the story of baby Jesus,” my wife said. “That is Mary and Joseph, those fancy men are the wise men who came to visit Jesus. And that is baby Jesus in the bed. I guess the ones without the babies are Mexican as many Christians in Mexico don’t put the baby in the manger until Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.” After a pause one of the boy’s friends asked, “You know the story of Christmas, right?” “No,” said our friend. “I’ve never heard this story. Tell me more.”
Every disciple begins their journey at some point saying, “Tell me more.” None of us are “born” Christian. We may have Christian parents or be raised in a church, but every disciple comes to a place of saying, “Tell me more.” Not all of us can remember that time though. My dad could tell you the date he first repented of his sins and claimed his faith. He grew up in a church like my mom, but her story is different. She can’t name a date, but she remembers coming to a place in her life, though she had long “believed” in Jesus, when she came to believe he was real and worthy of worship. In each case, my parents came to a place in their lives where they wanted to learn more about this person of Jesus, and they began to examine his life and ministry.
Churches and Christians who effectively evangelize today, no matter where they are in the world, provide space for people to examine the Christian faith. Sometimes this comes in formal classes like Alpha or Disciple Bible Study. But most of the time examination seems to take in informal spaces where a friend or family member mentors a person in the faith, answers their questions, and gives them space to investigate the Christian faith.
Is your life marked as one where friends and family can find a nonjudgmental space to explore the person of Jesus? Is your church known as one where people worship Jesus, but who also give freedom for non-Christians to probe and consider Jesus, sometimes for years, before becoming his followers? If so, then you and your church have one of the six marks of evangelism today.
Another mark is related to examining but is so important that I think it is best understood as a distinct practice, namely, listening.