The Citadel of Erbil in Northern Iraq sits high in the center of town. It’s an UNESCO site filled with ancient history. “The oldest continuous living community on the planet,” reads the marker on the gate.
One day friends came to Iraq to visit us, and we took them to the citadel. We wandered into the Gemstone Museum and then to the museum shop. The proprietor approached me with some crystals in hand. After some polite exchanges, he said to me, “Many Europeans think that if you hold these crystals to your chest you can achieve inner peace.” He held out the crystals expectantly.
He seemed to think I might be one of those odd Europeans who might actually believe such nonsense. I knew he was trying to make a sale, so I examined them and said they were pretty. Then I rolled my eyes and said, “I don’t think you get inner peace from a rock.” He rolled his eyes, too, and we both smiled. It was clear that we were in agreement about rocks and inner peace.
And that was it.
It didn’t strike me until later how much I had blown it! As you read this, you’re way ahead of me. You’ve already thought of the things I could have said — should have said. “May I tell you where I find peace?” Or, “Hey, I know a rock that brings peace. Do you know what the Bible calls Jesus?” Or, “I remember when I didn’t have peace, but I do now.” You can think of other things I might have said.
But I said nothing. I settled for a smile, a quip, and a departure.
Why am I so slow in evangelism? Why am I so good at thinking up stuff to say after the fact? There’s lots of reasons, really. But before I answer, let me lay out for you some thinking that comes from years of blowing it and replaying my failures.
It’s Not Really Evangelism
First, just what is evangelism? I’m embarrassed to say that it took me 30 years to come to a good definition:
Evangelism is preaching or teaching the gospel message with the aim to persuade or convert.
Notice four things about this definition. First, it’s not really evangelism if you aren’t proclaiming the gospel by explaining, teaching, preaching, or otherwise talking. That’s because if you only do good deeds without proclamation, you’re lifting you up, not Jesus.
Second, it’s not really evangelism if you don’t talk about the message of the gospel. What is the gospel? The gospel is the message from God that leads us to salvation. This gospel message answers three huge questions: Who is God? Who am I before him? And what bearing does the life and claims of Jesus have on my life?
Third, it’s not really evangelism if it doesn’t have the right end in mind. It’s not just information transfer — a gospel dump from one hard drive to another. Evangelism is intentional and purposeful. We’re always ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15), because we want this person to have the hope that is in us.
Fourth, it’s not really evangelism if the aim isn’t to persuade or convert. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:11, “We persuade others.”
Without these four things we’re not doing the work of evangelism. I’m not saying if one leaves parts of this out that you’re bad, or unchristian; you’re probably doing wonderful, helpful things. It’s just not evangelism.
Proven Ways to Overcome Fear
So, why am I so slow of speech, so thick of tongue when it comes to evangelism? Why am I such a coward? Fear. We fear rejection. We fear looking stupid because we don’t know what to say. We fear making other people uncomfortable. Sometimes in the Middle East, I fear going to jail — or worse.
Most of you reading this don’t worry about going to jail (at least not yet), so let’s take that off the table for the moment. And besides, the actual fact is I’ve found the Kurdish people in Northern Iraq some of the most winsome, engaging, and willing people to talk to about spiritual life in the world — which makes it all the more maddening that I missed talking to the shop owner. Our reluctance to evangelize usually boils down to one thing, and that is our fears — and primarily one fear, what the Bible calls our “fear of man” (Proverbs 29:25).
If you, like me, struggle to speak up for Christ when the opportunity comes, here are three ways I have learned to fight the fear of man.
1. Just slay it.
If you find a scorpion in your kid’s bedroom, you don’t get to it tomorrow. You kill it now, and with gusto. Slay your fear of man the way you would slay a scorpion.
The way to murder our fear of man is to love God more — to be so in love with Jesus and what he’s done for us that we live for him anywhere, all the time. This is the way to put to death the fear of man. Evangelism happens most naturally not when we’ve psyched ourselves up with motivational sermons on evangelism, but when we have fallen so in love with Jesus that the gospel pours out of us. Because we like to talk about whatever we love.
2. Die to perfectionism.
Evangelism doesn’t spring out of us fully formed and perfect. It’s sensitive communication about deep things, with enormous ramifications for people’s lives. It takes effort, practice, and planning. Even after effort and practice and planning, it’s not perfect. Ninety-nine percent of the time I share my faith, I see things after the fact that were slips, fails, and just plain awkward mistakes.
But awkward is better than silent (it’s better than slick and canned, too). I take great joy in knowing that God is pleased with our embarrassing moments sharing about what he means to us.
Besides, how many people have come to faith through some goofy evangelistic effort? Praise God that he hits straight with a crooked stick when it comes to evangelism. He takes our efforts to share our faith and uses them to change eternity for others.
3. Share the gospel as a family.
There was a time when I thought it was a cop-out to bring people to church. “Hard core evangelists don’t need the church,” I thought. I don’t think that anymore. If the church is doing what the church is supposed to do — preaching the word, loving each other, pursuing unity in the Spirit, deepening our joy in God, rooting everything in the gospel — then that family is the most powerful witness we have.
Bring your friends to church. Talk to them about the sermon when it’s over. Or just meet people who have wandered into church with the aim to see where they are with Jesus.
When we overcome all the fears we face in evangelism — slaying the deadly fear of man, dying to our fears of failure, and inviting people into our churches — there are deeper joys lying on the other side of the awkward conversations we often dread.