3 Things Evangelism Isn’t

In missions, if we get the gospel wrong, it doesn’t matter what else we get right.

From Message magazine issue "Save Me"

When I was a youth pastor, I interviewed a woman seeking to volunteer in the student ministry. As was my custom, I began with a seemingly simple question: “What is the gospel?”

Her answer took me aback. “It’s basically God’s rules for how to live your life,” she proceeded to explain. I was stunned. This kind, helpful church lady had just exchanged grace for law.

In another more recent conversation, I asked a young woman why she was interested in cross-cultural ministry. “I just feel like the Bible has a lot of great guidelines that can improve life, and I want to share those and help people,” she replied.

I have conversations like this more often than I care to admit. We’d like to assume every self-identified Christian understands the gospel as the message of Christ’s death and resurrection to save sinners by faith (1 Cor. 15:1-4), but we can’t. Definitions matter—especially when the gospel is at stake.

If we don’t accurately define our task, our efforts are wasted. It’s important we know what evangelism is—and isn’t.

1. Sharing Your Story

Sharing your personal testimony can open doors for spiritual conversation, turning awkward monologues into friendly dialogues.

But unless you explicitly unravel the nature of God, the problem of sin, the redemptive work of Christ, and the call to repent and believe, simply sharing your testimony isn’t evangelism. To evangelize is to proclaim God’s good news, not personal insights (Gal. 1:11-12).

2. Showing Mercy

Both testaments command God’s people to serve the poor and marginalized (Deut. 6:5, 15:11; Matt. 22:39; James 1:27). Even the Apostle Paul—preacher, theologian, evangelist—saw this as his responsibility (Gal. 2:10).

But however much we may adorn social justice and mercy ministries with spiritualized labels—“demonstrating the gospel,” “showing Christ’s love,” or Assisi’s “preach(ing) the gospel with words… (only) when necessary”—meeting physical needs is not evangelism.

Compassion can open doors to gospel conversation, and the gospel produces compassion, but acts of compassion themselves don’t “tell” the world anything. The “telling” is still our job.

3. Sharing the Benefits

In our evangelical zeal, we’re often tempted to goad our hearers into making a decision. “Won’t you give Jesus a try?”

We risk confusing the gospel with its benefits. “Jesus can change your life,” “Jesus can save your marriage,” or “Jesus can heal your wounds from trauma” may or may not be true statements, but they don’t tell me how to be saved. Those who profess faith after hearing claims like these often fall away when life gets hard, having never grasped Christ’s redemptive work.

We are to tell people the gospel—understandably, with words—and trust the Spirit to open hearts (1 Cor. 2:1-5). When we do this faithfully, we have obeyed our evangelistic mandate.