“Preach the gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words.”
This classic quote, misattributed to Saint Francis of Assisi, is both clever and catchy. It just isn’t biblical.
Evangelism—communicating the good news of King Jesus—always requires words. Christians are called to adorn the gospel with actions (Titus 2:10), to be sure, but our actions are not the gospel. No amount of righteous living can replace the necessity of verbally proclaiming God’s saving achievement in Christ.
But even though all evangelism involves sharing the same message, not all evangelism occurs in the same manner. Here are three kinds we see modeled in the New Testament.1
1. Family Evangelism
God intends gospel proclamation to take place within Christian homes as parents raise their children “in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). Children of believers, then, are specially set apart as front-row witnesses to and beneficiaries of gospel influence (1 Cor. 7:14).
The practice of family evangelism is seen in the life of Paul’s protégé Timothy. “I am reminded of your sincere faith,” the apostle writes, “which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also” (2 Tim. 1:5). Timothy’s faith in Jesus first bloomed at home, thanks to the witness of his grandma and mom. (His dad, Luke tells us, wasn’t a believer.) Paul proceeds to exhort Timothy:
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Tim. 3:14–15)
By God’s grace, Timothy could not remember a time in his life when he wasn’t acquainted with the Scriptures and their saving power.
2. Friendship Evangelism
Jesus was accused of many things; one was being a “friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34). Not a stranger, not a passerby, not an acquaintance—a friend. The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10), and he did so in the context of authentic relationships. Paul, too, modeled such “relational” or “friendship” evangelism:
Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. (1 Thess. 2:7–8)
The apostle was emphatic that his team’s ministry in Thessalonica wasn’t some hit-and-run gospel invasion. They were happy to stay, to form friendships, to invest their lives.
Friendship evangelism can be a beautiful thing—so long as the friendship doesn’t crowd out the evangelism. It’s easy to build relationships with unbelievers in the name of gospel witness without ever getting around to gospel witness. Intentionality, then, is vital. As Matt Chandler has aptly quipped, “Relational evangelism? Go for it, as long as it turns into actual evangelism.”
3. Contact Evangelism
The final (and least popular) type of evangelism involves initiating gospel conversations with people you’ve never met. When I was in college, my campus ministry would often gear its outreaches around this approach—always a surefire way to get eye-rolls from the friendship-evangelism-only crowd. Contact evangelism, they insisted, is cold, impersonal, even deceptive.
Anything can be abused, of course, so contact evangelism can no doubt become unloving and unhelpful. But it doesn’t have to be. In fact, this method is explicitly modeled in Scripture too.
In John 4 Jesus strikes up a conversation with a woman beside a well. Not only is she a complete stranger, she’s someone Jesus “should” avoid since she’s a woman and a Samaritan (double no-no). Nevertheless, he goes out of his way to meet her and turns their “natural” chat about water into a “spiritual” one about himself. He doesn’t waste much time, either, moving from “Will you give me a drink?” (v. 7) to “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would’ve asked him and he would have given you living water” (v. 10) in the span of just three verses.
And Jesus’s witnessing strategy here is not some New Testament anomaly. The earliest Christians also engaged in contact evangelism:
Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah. (Acts 5:42)
On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. (Acts 16:13)
[Paul] reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. (Acts 17:17)
The earliest Christians were apparently eager to initiate gospel conversations with “random” persons, with strangers—with whomever their sovereign Lord led them to encounter (Prov. 16:9; 20:24).
If the danger in friendship evangelism is never getting to the evangelism, the danger in contact evangelism is not caring enough to remember the person’s name. We aren’t manipulators, and we don’t work in sales (2 Cor. 2:17). God-honoring contact evangelism, then, requires healthy doses of social awareness, common courtesy, and authentic concern.
Deployed to Be Deliberate
People need to hear the good news about Jesus Christ, and there is no one-size-fits-all prescription for how that has to happen. It just has to happen.
Whether we’re hoping to witness to a child, to a friend, or to a complete stranger, may the Holy Spirit grant us the courage to live lives of gospel intentionality this week—humbly and prayerfully seizing opportunities to brag about our great Savior.
1 In this article I’m focusing on “personal evangelism,” not larger-scale categories like evangelistic preaching (e.g., various sermons in Acts) and a church’s corporate witness (e.g., John 13:34–35).
Editors’ note: This article originally appeared at Christianity.com.