In the Christian circles in which I grew up, evangelism was considered something like a Christian duty. People are in danger of hell. If they are not given the opportunity to repent by being preached the Gospel, they will not stand a chance at the Judgment. Evangelization was the way in which a Christian fulfills his or her duty to obey the commandment of Christ: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20).
Still, for many people evangelization is an embarrassing and difficult task. Some people are afraid of the ways others will react. Others are afraid of the questions that they might encounter when the share the Gospel with their friends or family or coworkers or even strangers. “Why should I believe in God? What about all the evil in the world?” “How could a good God send people to Hell? I am a moral person even though I do not believe in God.” Some Christians might even feel that the challenge of evangelizing others is too great for them. They might worry that they do not themselves have any good reasons for being Christians, or at the very least they don’t know what they are supposed to say and how to support it so that others will listen.
I think that this is an unfortunate state of affairs. If we look at the example of the Apostles of Jesus themselves, they did not think about evangelism in this way. I would especially like to consider this passage from the First Epistle of the Apostle John:
We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.1 John 1:3-4 New Revised Standard Version
I think we can gain a new perspective on and passion for evangelization if we learn to think about it from the perspective of the Apostle John.
There are a few things worth noting in what John has written.
First, notice that John writes: “We declare to you what we have seen and heard.” This means that evangelism is about sharing something we have experienced with others.
Of course, John and the other apostles all lived with Jesus for around three years. They sat at the table with Him and enjoyed the privilege of learning from Him directly. They saw Him when He was taken in the Garden. John was there when He was crucified. They also saw Him after He was resurrected. They even sat down at the table and ate and drank with Him after His resurrection. They have experiences with Christ that none of us living in the present day can have.
But that doesn’t mean that we do not also have experiences to share! What Christian has not experienced joy at the Gospel announcement of the forgiveness of sins? What Christian has never experienced the presence of God in acts of worship or prayer? What Christian has never experienced the guidance of God offered through the words of Scripture? All these are experiences which a Christian can share with others in evangelization. They are not even profound, life-changing religious experiences — although some people have experiences like those, as well. They are ordinary experiences that can be a part of everyday Christian life.
But suppose you cannot think of any such experiences to share. That does not mean you cannot evangelize. In the first place, the most important experiences are precisely the ones that the Apostles share. Christianity is not a religion we made up. It is a religion that was received from Christ Himself and from His Apostles. They were the ones who learned from Him, who received His teaching and passed it down to others, who saw Him and spent time with Him after His resurrection. More than anything, when we evangelize, we are simply picking up where the Apostles left off, so to speak, and sharing their message with others. But beyond this, we can also all pursue such experiences in our spiritual life. We can do this very simply: by attending Church; by praying; by reading from Scripture and asking God to speak to us; and so on. If a person has no experience with God whatsoever to share with others, it may be better for him or her to seek God first before sharing the message with others.
The second noteworthy thing John mentions is this. He writes “so that you may also have fellowship with us.” In other words, evangelism is an invitation into a community. Sharing the Gospel with others is aimed at bringing those others into the fellowship of the Church, the people of Jesus. The point of evangelism is not merely to get people to say a prayer on a street corner or to share a message of doom and gloom with passersby. The goal is always that of expanding the community of believers, by inviting people into this group voluntarily. Evangelism is about spreading the friendship and communion of the Church throughout the whole world. Just as those in the Church are friends with one another and with God and His Son Jesus Christ, so also all people are called into this friendship which knows no boundaries or limits.
This means, of course, that we cannot evangelize properly if we are not ourselves in this same fellowship. Who is the “lone wolf” evangelist who belongs to no Church, is accountable to no person, who maintains no friendship with any other Christians? There is something wrong with this image. The Apostles did not try to create their own churches. They did not compete with one another. They had a single fellowship, the Church. They were all in friendship and communion with one another. Their evangelization was a matter of inviting others into this friendship and communion.
The third notable thing that John writes is this: “We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” How to understand this?
John has said that he and the other Apostles are in fellowship with one another and with God and His Son Jesus Christ. This is a source of joy for them. It is a joyful thing to be in friendship with other people. It is an even more joyful thing to be in friendship with God and Jesus Christ. But at the same time, what John says seems to imply that this joy of friendship is incomplete. It is not enough for John merely to be friends with the other Apostles, nor even with God and Jesus. No! The joy that these friendships bring wants to expand itself. It wants to grow more and more. And it grows precisely when other people are also included in it, as well.
Perhaps we can think of it like this. I know that when I find a good thing, I can’t wait to talk about it and share it with others. Whether it is a great movie, or a catchy song, or a pleasant restaurant, or a surprisingly good store, I don’t want to keep good things merely to myself. They seem even better when others can enjoy them alongside me. In the same way, John and the Apostles came to know a certain profound joy when they entered into fellowship with each other through their fellowship with God in Jesus Christ. God brought them together through His Son, and this was a source of joy for them. And this joy is so powerful, so wonderful, so impressive, that one cannot help but to want to share it with others as well. The joy of friendship with God in Jesus Christ wants to spread itself to others, as well.
This is the true meaning of evangelism, according to the Apostle John. Evangelism is about sharing the joy of a life lived in friendship with God through Jesus Christ. It is about inviting others into this joy which every Christian lives, indeed, which is the very substance of Christian life. Being a Christian means enjoying the friendship of God and His Son Jesus Christ in fellowship with others, and evangelization is about inviting others to participate in this same joy. If we learn to think about evangelism in this way, I think that it will stop seeming like a burden or an impossible task and rather become an expression of a joy that will not let itself be contained.