There are two fundamental truths about outreach that we must remember, and we must teach to one another.
If we don’t, we—and our churches—will hold back from fulfilling our Lord’s Great Commission to “go and make disciples” (Matt. 28:20).
Here’s the first truth: People are hostile to the gospel—sometimes politely, sometimes not, but hostile. So if we are going to talk to people about Jesus, we are going to get hurt. It is going to risk our relationships and lose us respect. So we will face the temptation either to stop saying anything, or to change what we say. I think that’s the main reason (other than complacency) why we don’t do personal evangelism. Most Christians, when they first come to faith, want to tell others. Why wouldn’t you? But sooner or later—and in the West, it’s happening increasingly sooner—someone mocks you, wounds you, or dislikes you. And so we think: I don’t want to get hit, and this keeps getting me hit, so something must be going wrong here. I’ll stop doing this.
But Jesus said this hostility is normal. When he sent his disciples out on their own for the first time to tell others about him, here’s how he described their mission: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves” (Matt.10:16).
Jesus says this is precisely what is going on when Christians in the workplace or the coffee shop or at the meal table open their mouth to talk about him. You don’t see pictures in children’s Bibles of what happens when sheep are surrounded by wolves. But that’s the image Jesus uses.
Despite this hostility, we are all to be witnesses, reverencing Christ as Lord in our hearts: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet. 3:15).
At first glance, this looks great. I live with Jesus as my King, and I get ready for people to say to me: “What’s different about you? I want to have what you have. Please tell me about your hope and where it comes from.” We sit down, I tell them the gospel, and they come to Christ and thank me for telling them about him.
But that’s not what 1 Peter is about at all; it is about how Christians suffer for being Christians. In the next verse Peter speaks of being prepared to give an answer, and he mentions people who “speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ.” Verse 14 says these Christians will “suffer for what is right.” Peter is speaking of us being ready and willing to talk about our gospel hope when people are hostile because of our faith.
Evangelism provokes hostility. Often, we keep this fact quiet, or think there is some technique that can get us around it. There isn’t. When we forget this truth, evangelism is weakened or ceases because it hurts, we’re surprised, and we stop.
Thankfully, hostility is only half of the story. There is increasing hostility, but there is also increased hunger. The same rising tide of secularism and materialism that rejects truth claims and absolute moral standards is proving to be an empty and hollow way to live. And this means we’re more and more likely to find people quietly hungering for the content of the gospel, even as our Western culture increasingly teaches them to be hostile toward it. To some extent, it’s always been this way. In fact, it’s what Paul discovered in Corinth. We might imagine Paul rampaging unstoppably around the eastern Mediterranean, confidently proclaiming Christ, joyfully accepting the beatings, knowing his message was unstoppable and churches would spring up wherever he visited.
When Paul visited Corinth—a city built on trade with a culture that prized chasing experience and promoting religious pluralism—he was in a place not unlike the world in which we live. He was there on mission. Here’s how he felt: “I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words” (1 Cor. 2:3-4).
It would have been easy for Paul not to stand up and evangelize, not to risk the hostility and face the mockery. Instead, he wrote, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” and a church began. The people to whom Paul wrote this letter proved hungry for his message, not hostile toward it.
Paul knew his words were not sufficient. But they had come “with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.” The Spirit had worked as he spoke. Paul also knew that his words were necessary. As he “proclaimed to [them] the testimony about God,” the Lord worked through his Spirit and people became Christians, even as Paul was abused and rejected (Acts 18:5-11). Paul was a sheep among wolves. Wonderfully and miraculously, God worked through him to turn some wolves into sheep.
Risk Hostility, Discover Hunger
When we talk to a non-believer about Jesus, we cannot know what response we will receive. We have to risk the hostility to discover the hunger. Sometimes we will face a hostile audience, just as Paul did. Sometimes we will find hunger, just as Paul did. That’s been my experience over the years.
And we need to remember and teach both truths clearly. If we are not honest about the hostility, we’ll have and teach wrong expectations, and we and our church members will be tempted to quietly give up on evangelism. But if we are not also excited about the hunger—about what God can and does do through his people to reach his people—we’ll have no expectations and never begin evangelism.
Two truths—hostility and hunger. One’s easy to ignore, the other’s hard to remember. But we must hold on to both if we are to help each other go and make disciples for our Lord.