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The Emotional Baggage Of Evangelism

Michael Gatlin

Michael Gatlin

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“Our most important priority as it regards God is worship. And our most important priority as it regards people is evangelism.”

As people engage with the quote, I generally get a whole range of responses, from enthusiastic agreement, to questions, to arguments, to plain old discomfort. I ask these people to expand on their responses—to explain what they like and what they don’t like. What often emerges is that we all love the part about worship, but many of us take issue with the second half, and specifically with one word—evangelism.

I help unpack why that word makes us uncomfortable. Sometimes people feel guilty because we’ve been taught that we should evangelize, but aren’t doing it. Many times we’ve been turned off by all the ineffective and high-pressure forms of evangelism we’ve seen or been taught over the years. We’ve met some pushy or manipulative “evangelists” who just want to argue or bully others into agreeing with what they say.  All these experiences add up to a whole lot of negative emotional baggage associated with the word “evangelism.” No wonder we don’t like it. Personally, I even referred to it as “the E word” at one point in my life!

But is that what evangelism really is? Bullying and manipulation? An unpleasant duty? If you dig a little, you’ll find that almost none of that negative baggage has to do with the word’s original meaning. The English word “evangelism” actually comes from a Greek word, “euangelion,” which literally means “good news.” Evangelism is supposed to be good news. And it is found in again and again throughout the New Testament, including in some of the very first recorded words of Jesus.

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” —Mark 1.14-15

Mark was the first gospel to be written, and right at the beginning of it we find Jesus talking about the good news, the euangelion. This theme of evangelism is there at the outset, setting the stage for the rest of the book of Mark, and really, for the rest of the New Testament. That probably means we should sit up and pay attention.

Jesus clearly considered this message of the kingdom of God to be positive—something people would want to hear. He didn’t hesitate or hold back in declaring it. Compare that to our obvious discomfort with evangelism. This attitude about euangelion didn’t stop with Jesus, it was transferred right on to the apostle Paul. He states that he was both obligated and eager (Romans 1:14-15), and even compelled (1 Corinthians 9:16) to proclaim this good news. There’s a major gap between their view and ours, isn’t there? That is a pretty good indicator that something has gone wrong with how we think about evangelism and the gospel.

Let’s reexamine what good news really is—the good news that led us to follow Jesus in the first place. The good news is that the kingdom of God—his power and personal presence—is now available to absolutely anyone who will put their faith in Christ. We just have to repent and believe. And that’s what makes us uncomfortable.

Jesus’ good news is exclusive. It’s challenging. Jesus invites us into the kingdom by inviting us into a complete reorientation and restructuring of our lives. That’s what repentance is. A total life renovation. It’s evaluating the direction your life is going and deciding to turn it around 180 degrees so that you are heading toward Jesus. It’s worshiping God instead of worshiping any and every other thing.

The gospel is also incredibly inviting and inclusive. In fact, Jesus’ message remains both as inclusive and as exclusive as possible. It is inclusive because anybody who puts their faith in Jesus gets in to the kingdom. It’s exclusive, because Jesus really is the only way in. The cost is high—it’ll cost everything we have. And that is confronting. But the value of what we receive in exchange far outweighs the price. This is a good deal for us. It’s good news.

My invitation to you, then, is to continue to wrestle with that quote we started with—making evangelism your highest priority toward people, just as your highest priority toward God is worship. Continue to think about it and mull it over, meditate on it, and ask God if it might be something he wants to help you grow in as a local pastor or leader. You might discover that walking people through the first stages of connection with God becomes both your highest priority and your favorite part of being a pastor, too.

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Michael Gatlin co-pastors the Vineyard church of Duluth, with his wonderful wife Brenda. The Duluth Vineyard is an amazingly creative and diverse community of disciples who are learning to live out the reality of the presence and power of Christ in northern Minnesota. Michael is also the national coordinator for Multiply Vineyard: a team of men and women located throughout America that encourages, trains, and empowers local churches as they multiply disciples, leaders and churches.

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