“What must I do to be saved?” Every evangelist is prepared for the question. Few are asked it. Still, we’re ready. We’ve polished our rifles, loaded our silver bullets, and lain in wait to ambush our unsuspecting prey. The minute they fall into our trap we’ll let ‘em have it, right between the eyes.
It rarely occurs to us that the battle is actually being fought with different weapons, on another hill, in a distant country. The questions people are asking are more like this: What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with my family? How can I overcome these fears? Why can’t I get my act together? How do I handle a bullying boss? And the list goes on. This is where the battle rages and where our evangelism must engage.
Unfortunately, we miss these opportunities, largely because we’ve divided our forces. We recruit the hard-headed for evangelism and send them to (what we imagine to be) the front lines. We recruit the soft-hearted for pastoral care and put them in the field hospital.
While such a divide seems natural to us, it’s alien to the Bible.
In the Bible evangelists are bringers of good news, given by God to build up the church (Eph. 4:11). Pastors (shepherds) are hardy fighters who battle wolves and save the lost (Acts 20:28–29; Luke 15:6). Evangelists and pastors are far more similar than we usually believe. Both are ministers of the Word, applying the same gospel to the same set of human problems.
So how can we keep together what the church so often puts asunder? What would truly pastoral evangelism look like? Perhaps Peter can show us the way.
Simon Peter was the original “fisher of men” (Luke 5:10). For years he fit the crude caricature of an evangelist. He spoke out of turn, acted without thinking, and exemplified an inflated self-confidence. At the evangelists’ conference in the upper room he whipped up the crowd in undying allegiance to Christ: “I will never disown you,” he boasted. And all the other disciples said the same (Matt. 26:35).
This Peter could have written a bestselling paperback on evangelistic strategy. Yet it was precisely this self-confidence that made him a terrible witness when the heat was on. Post-resurrection, it was Peter the failure who showed the world how a spokesman for Jesus should be. In John 21 he was reestablished on the basis of mercy, restored in the context of love for Christ, and recommissioned as a pastoral preacher: “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17).
The self-confident fisherman was reborn as a Christ-loving shepherd—the evangelist learned to be pastoral.
But he never ceased to be evangelistic. His first letter is all about the church’s true character as a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9). The church is a priestly body with an evangelistic mission to bring God to the nations and the nations to God.
Yet Peter was clear that the context for this mission was suffering and struggle. The letter’s recipients were a bedraggled mob of despised refugees, and Peter’s essential message to them was to suffer well and cling to Christ. This pastoral reality is the backdrop for the Bible’s most famous verse on evangelism:
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. (1 Pet. 3:15)
How do we imagine this kind of evangelism taking place? Is Peter telling us to train ourselves in philosophical arguments? Are we to prepare for intellectual combat, readying ourselves to out-argue the pagans?
This verse is aiming elsewhere. Peter is telling us: “Endure hardships with an undeniable spiritual buoyancy, and when people ask you how you do it, be ready to say: ‘It’s Jesus.’”
If we saw 1 Peter 3:15 in action, what would it look like? We would tell our friends and neighbors, “I couldn’t have gotten through this year without Jesus. The illness/unemployment/family breakdown has been unbearable, but I’ve known his presence and peace through it all. How do you cope in dark times? Do you know Jesus? Would you like to?” Such an approach is the heart of evangelism, taught by the original “fisher of men” in Scripture’s clearest verse on personal witness—and it is inescapably pastoral.
Evangelism is pastoral. It must be. When we get this point we realize a few things:
1. It’s not calculating.
Evangelism is not seeking to “score” a convert but to pastor a lost soul. My motivation is ministry, not manipulation.
2. It’s not confined to a few.
Evangelism isn’t about a small band of motormouths. Few believers can win arguments about the faith, but every believer can finish the sentence “Only Jesus got me through . . .”
Few believers can win arguments about the faith, but every believer can finish the sentence ‘Only Jesus got me through . . .’
3. It’s not cringeworthy.
My goal isn’t so much to spiritualize a conversation as to humanize it. I’m not trying to turn trivial conversations into trite presentations. I’m trying to speak of the things that matter, knowing Jesus undergirds it all.
4. It’s not compartmentalized.
The Sermon on the Mount ranges across issues like sex, money, power, anger, forgiveness, and worry. Jesus’s teaching on these topics can’t be divorced from their kingdom context. But the reverse holds, too: The gospel of the kingdom makes sense as we ground these truths in the pastoral realities we all face. To “gospel” someone is to pastor them and vice versa.
The divide between pastoring and evangelizing is misconceived. Pastoral care is evangelizing Christians, and evangelism is pastoring non-Christians. Once we grasp this essential unity we can properly pursue both disciplines to enrich the church and to reach the world.