Every Sunday morning I have the privilege of serving a small group of very enthusiastic believers who are relatively new to the faith. We’ve been plodding through the book of John and this morning, our discussion was John 4:1-45. The number of sermons or other messages on Jesus’ confrontation with the woman at the well is too many too count. But one thing I’ve come to discover, and especially in preparation for the lesson, is her proclamation of the Messiah was not so much prompted by the uncovering of her lifestyle but because of transformed thinking of who the Messiah was.
I think the common emphasis on her lifestyle is misplaced because when Jesus confronts her about it, she immediately begins to address the differences between Jews and Samaritans. Her statement of him being a prophet was born out of how the Samaritans viewed OT prophecy in that it did not carry weight. For her, Jesus was pulling out the Jewish card and she immediately resorts to defending her Samaritan-ness. Jesus goes there with her and confronts her wrong thinking. Her proclamation of him as the Messiah to the same people was based on him revealing himself according to the truth of God’s revelation. I think this is telling in her statement in that the Christ is the same one that told her her business. The significance is that the Samaritans believed the Messiah would be a teacher, yet she recognized the truth of who he was because of the prophetic function, which the Samaritans had rejected.
My point in all of this is that Jesus did not tell her to go tell the town’s people. When she learned the truth, she was motivated to make the proclamation. This planted the seed for the Samaritans to seek and find Jesus, which turned into their belief. I say this because I think sometimes we can put too much pressure on people to share their faith without the necessary transformation that motivates them to do so. Again with the counting, I really can’t count how many times I have heard the urgency to witness to the point of brow beating or laying guilt trips on Christians. But witnessing should be an outflow of our own transformation of the gospel.
What I fear is that we have turned the urgency of the great commission into campaign that gets reduced to the promulgation of a message detached from the concern of the individual that is being witnessed to. This is evident in some of the language we use such as “making a personal decision” or “soul winning”. We can dehumanize the gospel by making it strictly about the message. This is especially true when Christians are responding to the call to act without the internal encouragement of their own transformation. In some cases the insistence is so strong that can result in strong arming. I am grieved whenever I hear stories of Christians forcing a personal decision, as if conversion is based on us closing the deal. Rather, a person responds to the gospel message because the Holy Spirit has opened their eyes to do so. Sometimes we might just be planting the seed.
I actually have become increasingly disillusioned with the term “soul winning”. Souls come with bodies, hurts, experiences and needs. Since Jesus reveals God to us, his actions towards people should encourage consideration of how we engage with people. God does care for the whole person and not merely that a message has been accepted. Sharing faith should involve sharing life. This is what Christ modeled for us. He tended to their needs. He saw fit to heal and clothe people and put them in their right minds. That is not to say that acceptance of Christ is based on engagement of caring for human needs. We must believe who He is and put saving faith in Him. But neither should it be divorced from it. “Winning souls” is dehumanizing at least, Gnostic at worst.
I believe one reason the gospel message gets reduced to a dehumanized sound byte is because we’ve viewed in terms of heaven and hell and not based on God’s redemptive heart for His creation. Souls then become widgets to escape the horrors of hell instead of people that God wishes to redeem. Viewing humanity in these terms will most certainly disengage the Christian from human realities. We are never told to convert people but to make disciples. That does entail getting involved with people and not just seeing converts.
In terms of the great commission, I find it interesting that while the charge was made to the apostles (Matthew 28:19-20) the bulk of instruction to the church was their reflection of Christ as his body. This is particularly evident in 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians and the pastoral epistles. There was minimal instruction about them “going out” but a whole lot was said in terms of how they should be towards one another. I don’t negate the charge of the great commission but it seems reasonable to conclude that the church must act in concert according to who they are, which does entail an inward focused effort. When they do that not only do they model Christ, but also then can take Christ out to the world. Yes, we must me mindful of the needs for evangelism throughout the world. Churches should be engaged with the task of world evangelism as reflected in their commitments to unreached places. But mirroring the concern for evangelism done by individuals, so too the local church can engage in outward focused activities that do not match inward realities. This would be counter-productive to the purpose of the church of being what she should be.
So evangelism is about making Jesus known. It is not merely captured in a message but lived out when we share our life. We can only make him known to the extent that we have embraced Him for ourselves, both individually and corporately. When that happens, there should be little need to encourage evangelism and make Jesus known.