Lessons from Paul on Personal Evangelism

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I have always struggled with the calling to share my faith (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). Not because I have failed to see the need to do so. Not because I have lacked the desire to do so. It has always been because I’ve felt ill-equipped to do so. People are smart, after all; what if they ask me a question I cannot answer? What if I offend someone or get ridiculed?

If you have had those thoughts, rest assured that there is at least one guy with a blog who can empathize (and I suspect at least two or three others as well). So what’s the answer? Do we need to become experts on every area of theology and philosophy? I am sure that would not be a bad thing, but it’s probably not the most practical solution (although we should strive to learn more each day). Do we need to learn to speak in ways that will not offend? Well, sure, there is no reason to be offensive if we can help it, but the truth is that the Gospel is always offensive at its core (John 14:6; 1 Corinthians 1:18).

I’ve come to believe that fears about not being able to answer every question, or about being offensive, or about being ridiculed are not good reasons for failing to share the good news about Jesus. Christ commissioned us to go and make disciples. He told us to be his witnesses to everyone everywhere. He made it sound like such a simple command to follow. It’s as if we should just be able to go and do it. And when we consider that he assured us that he is always with us and that the power to witness comes from the Holy Spirit who lives in us, we can see why he made it sound so simple. Why do we complicate it?

When something incredible happens in our lives, we naturally want to share about it. I always said I would never be one of those parents who floods social media with pictures of my child. That flew out the window when my precious son was born. We gladly discuss our interests. We passionately tell each other which NFL team is better. For some reason, discussing our faith seems complicated. Perhaps we need to change the way we think about evangelism. Maybe it is simpler. Maybe it is as easy as just telling someone about the amazing thing that God has done for you. Maybe it is as easy as sharing about your interest in living your life for Jesus. Perhaps it is as simple as passionately telling people why Jesus is better. If we have the correct perspective, evangelism isn’t so scary, even when we are sharing with the most difficult of audiences.

In Acts 17:16-34, Luke (the author) gives us a glimpse into Paul’s evangelistic ministry to difficult audiences. The setting is first-century Athens, a city historically known for very smart and educated people. It’s an unlikely place to find success as a Christian missionary, but the story ends with people believing in Paul’s message.

Here are what I think are four lessons that we as Christians can take from this passage that will help us maintain the right perspective when it comes to sharing our faith:

  1. Be genuinely concerned for the spiritual needs around you

The driving force behind Paul’s evangelism was love for the unbelieving world. Paul began sharing his faith in Christ because he was burdened for the Athenians and their spiritual bondage. He saw their idols, recognized their need for Christ, and was compelled to share with them. And in sharing, he did not just go after the “easy” converts. He went to the marketplace and conversed with the philosophers, and was eventually invited to go to Mars Hill and present his message to the smartest of the smart. He went and talked to these smart and educated people, knowing it was going to be a hard sell. Why? Because he was concerned for their souls. Likewise, we should be concerned for those around us. If we are, we will be compelled to share our faith.

  1. Be confident in the Gospel message

Paul knew his audience, so he knew that preaching the resurrection would appear quite foolish. Even so, he does not shy away from proclaiming it. If the Gospel is the power of God for salvation to those who believe (Romans 1:16), then it follows that boldness in declaring it is required. If we are not confident in the message, we will never declare the strange parts of it. But if we are confident in the Gospel, we will be able to share with people everything that they need to know, including the stuff that sounds pretty weird. After all, if you honestly believe that a man came back from the dead, why wouldn’t you see that as a story worth sharing?

  1. Be gentle and respectful when discussing your faith with unbelievers

1 Peter 3:15 instructs Christians to be ready to defend their faith when the need arises. While many know of that mandate, the final instructions of that verse are often overlooked. Peter goes on to tell his readers to carry out that defense with gentleness and respect. Paul exemplifies those two things beautifully as he engages the Athenians. He is complementary rather than judgmental. He is never condescending. He acknowledges that the Athenians are trying desperately to embrace the truth, even pointing out that they got some things quite right. They thought there may be a God that they didn’t know, but wanted to acknowledge. Their own philosophers and poets had conveyed truths about this God. The fact that Paul was able to quote the pagan writers demonstrates that he did in fact respect these people enough to learn where they were coming from. He approached them by commending their honest pursuit of truth, then explaining to them what they were missing. Being argumentative and forceful may just enable you to win debates, but you will not win many people over to the faith that way. Scripture calls us to a better way. If you approach your witnessing as a gentle and respectful conversation, it will be much less scary than if you approach it as a debate to be won.

  1. Be prepared to be ridiculed

When Paul delivered the central Christian doctrine, the resurrection of Christ, some mocked him. Imagine being in the midst of the smartest people in the philosophical center of the world, and being mocked for your belief in the risen Christ. This is what happens to Paul here. The reality is that Paul already knew that they thought his message was crazy. This was the second time that day he told this group about his message, and the first time they called it strange (Acts 17:20). Luke does not go on to describe a defensive Paul who argues with the skeptics in his midst. That does not mean that the discussion simply stopped there. It just means that Luke assumes that the Gospel message is foolish to unbelievers and expects his readers to understand that. It will be easier to cope with being ridiculed if we recognize that the Gospel is what they are rejecting, not us. Don’t get angry and defensive when unbelievers fail to believe. We should expect as much. After all, our message is pretty hard to believe!

 

This story does not end with the whole assembly converting to Christianity. Some mocked Paul, some said they would give it more thought, and some believed. Some gave their lives to Jesus. In this situation where it appears very unlikely that Paul will gain converts, he walks away with new followers of Jesus. He was faithful to obey and share about Jesus, and God was faithful to save people. And that is ultimately why evangelism doesn’t have to be difficult or scary. The truth is that the salvation of our audiences is not up to us. It is completely up to God. Our job is to obediently share what we know, and the Holy Spirit’s job is to draw people to Himself. Who knows, that teammate, or coworker, or family member that you are too afraid to share with may just be the Dionysius or Damaris (Acts 17:34) of your story. Some may mock you, but some may believe. Isn’t the risk of being mocked worth it when people find new life in Jesus?

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