I was sitting in a multi-generational Sunday school class when the teacher asked us to raise our hands if we had “done any evangelizing” recently. Hands flew up across the room. I was overjoyed—and surprised—to think I was surrounded by people who were sharing their faith so fervently and frequently.
But as people began to share their examples, I realized we didn’t all share the same understanding of the word evangelism.
Around the room, I heard:
- I took a meal to a homeless shelter.
- I told the grocery clerk I would pray for her.
- I invited my neighbor to our church’s Christmas program.
- I tutor at a school for at-risk kids.
- I post Christian articles and Bible verses on social media.
Each of these is a good thing. But if we think everything is evangelism, we may not be doing any evangelism. I find it helpful to differentiate between three types of interactions: good deeds, outreach, and evangelism. Understanding the differences between them will help us do each for the glory of God, and allow us to make proclaiming the good news of Christ our ultimate goal.
When we cook a meal for a shelter or for a friend, pick up trash along the highway, encourage the grocery-store clerk, offer wise counsel, or take care of a neighbor’s yard or pet, we’re doing good—and this is good! These good works don’t save us (Eph. 2:8–9), but they are the fruit—or evidence—of our salvation. True faith always results in good works (James 2:17).
Scripture says that our good deeds serve many purposes. They bear visible witness to our own salvation (Eph. 2:10; 1 Tim. 2:10), can cause unbelievers to glorify God (Matt. 5:16; 1 Pet. 2:12), and testify to the character of God by showing the watching world what he’s like: generous, kind, compassionate, and hospitable. So “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24). It is good and right to do so.
Other interactions—the kind that build sustainable and ongoing relationships—are outreach. If you were to tutor the same student weekly for an extended period of time, you would build an ongoing relationship with that student.
If you didn’t just invite your co-worker to your church’s Christmas program but also started having coffee with her several times a month, you would build a sustainable relationship. Beginning a book club that meets once a month, or walking with a neighbor a few mornings a week—anything that causes you to cultivate a real relationship with someone outside the church—are all examples of outreach.
I have a friend who’s been faithfully present in her neighborhood for more than two decades. She takes meals to the sick, drives the elderly to doctor’s appointments, walks with the active, welcomes the lonely for coffee on her back porch, and cares for the pets and plants of those on vacation. She also hosts an annual Christmas brunch, where she shares a brief message about Jesus.
As a result, when crisis or suffering hits, the people in my friend’s neighborhood know two things: my friend cares about them and she knows Jesus. So who do they call? Her. She’s taken the time to build real relationships.
The third type of interaction is evangelism. Unlike the other two categories, this requires a clear presentation of the gospel. Evangelism requires words like Jesus, sin, cross, forgiveness, resurrection, and life—and it explains how those words relate to a person’s eternal good.
If outreach builds a bridge through relationship, evangelism walks across that bridge at the right time with the specifics of the gospel message. When you spend time getting to know someone, you’re better able to know when they might be ready to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.
If outreach builds a bridge through relationship, evangelism walks across that bridge at the right time with the specifics of the gospel message.
Take my friend as an example again. Because she knows and loves her neighbors, she has known when to share specific spiritual truths with them. She has been able to tell grieving friends about the God who comforts, sick friends about the God who heals, weary friends about the God who gives rest, and rebellious friends about the God who pursues, forgives, and redeems. She never forgets that, while her friends and neighbors appreciate her kindness and friendship, their greatest need is to know Jesus.
Look around and see who you can serve through your good deeds. Pray they will see the character of God as you do. Take the time to build sustainable relationships—invest in people for the long haul. And, when the Lord opens the door, walk through it boldly with the life-altering message of the gospel..