This is an adapted excerpt from Evangelism as Exiles: Life on Mission as Strangers in Our Own Land (The Gospel Coalition, 2019).
I first awakened to the importance of how we talk about evangelism while taking a language course in Central Asia. The instructor was a veteran missionary. In his class on spiritual vocabulary, he lamented a growing trend among local churches. They had begun to import a foreign phrase brought by American Christians; they now talked about evangelism in terms of “sharing the gospel.”
We might wonder what could be wrong with Christians sharing the gospel. Or we might think that only a tetchy, theologically narrow missionary would ever be so sensitive when it comes to specific terminology. But my teacher insisted that this phrase was problematic. It was, in his estimation, a concept foreign to local believers and foreign even to the Bible.
At the time, his evaluation seemed provocative. I’d never heard such an idea. Because “sharing the gospel” is the way virtually everyone in America talks about evangelism. Whether evangelicals or fundamentalists, Reformed or Arminian, Pentecostals or Preterists, Bible-believing Christians across almost all theological perspectives and denominational lines conceive of evangelism in terms of sharing the gospel.
So I left his class with a nagging question: What’s the problem with sharing the gospel?
Defining and Describing Evangelism
Our English word for evangelism derives from the Greek word euangelizo. It means, most basically, to announce good news. As Don Carson has helpfully demonstrated elsewhere, euangelizo involves heraldic proclamation. It assumes the authoritative declaration of the gospel. In other words, evangelism is an act whereby one cuts straight. You can’t hem and haw and do evangelism. After inviting a friend to church, you don’t get to check the box for doing evangelism. Being faithfully present in your neighborhood doesn’t equal biblical evangelism. Polite spiritual conversations at work or around the dinner table also don’t mean you’ve evangelized anyone. You must announce good news.
Being faithfully present in your neighborhood doesn’t equal biblical evangelism. Polite spiritual conversations at work or around the dinner table also don’t mean you’ve evangelized anyone. You must announce good news.
But beyond the biblical definition, it’s also helpful to consider how Scripture describes the act of evangelism. When we look at the apostles, for instance, we see the ways in which they communicate the gospel. They bear witness to Christ and exhort their hearers to be saved (Acts 2:40). Filled with the Spirit, they speak boldly before rulers and authorities, proclaiming the resurrection (Acts 4:1–2). When threatened and told to keep silent, they pray for greater boldness (Acts 4:29). After facing imprisonment, they continue to teach publicly (Acts 5:21). Throughout Luke’s retelling of early church expansion, the gospel advances as the apostles and others reason from Scripture, persuade others, and testify to Christ. We hear them preach good news and call sinners to repentance. What we don’t find them doing is “sharing the gospel.”
If you search the New Testament for this phrase, you’ll probably land on one reference in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. There he writes, “Being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves” (1 Thess. 2:8). So sharing the gospel is clearly not unbiblical. But even in that context, it’s instructive to see how Paul fills out what he means by this “sharing” or “giving” of the gospel. He repeatedly emphasizes that he spoke with boldness, making an impassioned appeal to them as he proclaimed the gospel (1 Thess. 2:2–9).
In short, the breadth of the New Testament clearly portrays Christian evangelism as verbal proclamation and summons. It’s news delivered as a persuasive plea, declaring the glory of Christ and calling sinners to repent. This is what it means to do biblical evangelism.
Sharing Is Not Declaring
I think this perspective should give us pause, then, when we recognize that the dominant, if not exclusive, way Americans talk about evangelism is in terms of sharing the gospel. Because words mean something. The words we use to describe evangelism help us understand our task and how to go about accomplishing it.
The problems with merely “sharing the gospel” are multiple. For one, sharing tends to be passive. We might share something with others, but only if they desire to have it. Sharing is clearly not the same as declaring. Not only that, but limiting our description of evangelism to this one phrase shrinks our conceptual categories for what “gospelizing” can and should entail. As a single word, “sharing” doesn’t have shoulders broad enough to carry all that the Bible communicates about evangelism. It lacks depth, clarity, precision, and nuance. And, if I’m brutally honest, it’s just lazy language that we wouldn’t settle for in other spheres of life.
The breadth of the New Testament clearly portrays Christian evangelism as verbal proclamation and summons. It’s news delivered as a persuasive plea, declaring the glory of Christ and calling sinners to repent. This is what it means to do biblical evangelism.
I like to think of baseball as a prime example. What if a baseball coach consistently described the role of his pitchers in terms of tossing the ball? In practice or a game, whenever his pitchers were struggling to get batters out, what if his dominant instruction was simply to toss the ball? Not throw strikes. Not work the corners. Not change speeds. Not pound it inside. Just toss the ball. Would his pitchers have an accurate understanding of their responsibility? Would they know how to succeed?
But that’s essentially the way we talk about evangelism. Our description is overly simplistic and potentially too passive. When that description of evangelism then becomes our default instruction—to simply share the gospel—we fail to convey the attitude, approach, and authority necessary for the act itself. What started as a subtle change in terminology results in a massive shift for our whole ethos of evangelism. And now, I fear, some Christians may no longer even have a category for proclaiming good news, especially when others are apathetic or antagonistic toward the message.