“‘The kingdom of God is like this,’ he said. ‘A man scatters seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day; the seed sprouts and grows, although he doesn’t know how.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
What role do we play in the process of salvation? How do we actually contribute to the growth of the kingdom? If you would claim the name of Jesus as your Lord and savior, those are perhaps questions that have at least occurred to you. We often hear about evangelism and are chided over its lack in our lives and in our churches. What Jesus says here helps to frame out a bit what evangelism actually entails and what should be our focus in it in a way that may help give us more confidence in doing it. Pay close attention.
For my money, one of the worst things someone can do who is feeling some spiritual pressure to incorporate evangelism into her life more is to go listen to an evangelist talk about it. Now, that may seem counterintuitive, but hear me out.
Evangelists are a special kind of people. I was talking with a ministry partner the other day and over the course of the conversation he told me that his main ministry passion is evangelism. My response was that I had already guessed as much. He chuckled a bit at this and I told him that evangelists are a special breed of Jesus follower and are usually pretty easy to spot.
Because of the way God gifted them, evangelists are usually there at the moment when a person is ready to accept Christ into his heart as Savior and Lord. As a result, when they tell personal stories of evangelism intended to be encouraging to others to get in on the game more, they often unintentionally give the impression that doing evangelism is all about being there when people accept Jesus. That is, it’s all about conversions.
The trouble with this is that for non-evangelists (like me…and maybe you too), we don’t wind up being there at the moment of conversion very often. The result is that we feel like we’re not doing evangelism well. Well, if you experience the feeling that you’re not doing something well very often, the end result is usually that you quit doing it. But if we leave evangelism only to the evangelists, not much evangelism is going to happen because there aren’t all that many of those guys and gals out there. That’s obviously not a good thing and for a number of reasons, but most notably because less evangelism means the kingdom of God is not growing.
Enter this parable. Bear with me, though, just another minute before we get into it directly. Often, exhortations to evangelism are focused on the Great Commission. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if the person making the exhortation isn’t careful, it can become a misleading one. Here’s why: What is the basic command of the Great Commission? It’s to make disciples as we are going through our lives.
Here’s the trouble: If we are taught that the Great Commission is the fundamental theme verse for evangelism, but we have been led over the years to think about evangelism only in terms of conversions, we’re going to wind up feeling like we can’t fulfill the Great Commission. This puts us in a place where we feel we are stuck living in perpetual disobedience to our Lord. That’s not healthy for our spiritual growth. In fact, it usually leaves us in a place where we spend most of our lives feeling at least a bit disconnected.
The simple truth, though, is that the real work of Jesus’ followers is not conversion. It is making disciples. The real work of Jesus’ followers is making disciples. Conversion, while of the utmost of importance, is not our primary goal by itself. Dragging someone (sometimes kicking and screaming) across the line of faith and leaving them lying there does no one any good. Without intentional discipleship to help her grow in Christ, being there at the moment of apparent conversion can leave us thinking we’ve accomplished something significant when we haven’t really. The faith never really took. It was just seed in rocky ground.
At the same time, evangelism is critical to the growth and expansion of the kingdom of God. Please don’t hear me saying anything other than that. No one will become a follower of Jesus in the first place unless someone shares the Gospel with them. As Paul said in Romans 10, “How, then, can they call on him they have not believed in? And how can they believe without hearing about him? And how can they hear without a preacher?” That’s evangelism. As followers of Jesus, evangelism is one of our basis duties however we happen to feel about it. This is the case whether we are gifted with the spiritual gift of evangelism or not. Sharing the Gospel can–and needs to–happen in a number of different ways and the great variety of gifts God gives helps make sure that can happen.
This, though, leads us around to an important question: What exactly is evangelism and what is involved in it? As I answer this question, I’m going to stick closely to what we see in the Scriptures because this is admittedly an area in which I am personally weak. That being said, let’s look at what we see here in Jesus’ parable.
Jesus said the kingdom of God is like a man who scatters seeds on the ground. While he waits, the seeds grow…and he doesn’t have any idea how. Then, when the harvest is ready, he collects it. And that’s it. That’s what the kingdom of God is like. So, what do we see here? We see the unfolding of evangelism. Okay, but what do we actually see? What does the man do? Pay close attention. He plants seeds…and then he harvests them. That’s it.
Think about what this means. For everything we put on and into evangelism, it is really a very simple thing. It comes in two parts: planting seeds and harvesting them. That’s the whole of evangelism. What comes in between is God’s work, not ours. Now, any good farmer knows that the time between planting and harvesting is not idle time. We don’t do nothing. We tend the soil. We add nutrients. We pull weeds. We make sure it’s getting plenty of water. There is much to do. But that’s not evangelism. That’s discipleship. It may be pre-conversion discipleship, but it’s discipleship all the same. And, it’s work that ultimately is the Spirit’s prerogative. He’s the one who does that work. We help make the growing conditions as favorable as we can, but any growth that happens is God’s work, not ours.
And here’s one more thing to keep in mind: Planting and harvesting may not be done by the same person. A person may do a whole lifetime’s worth of evangelism and never be there at a single moment of conversion. Now, God probably won’t let that happen so we are able to experience at least a bit of the fruits of our labors, but even if He didn’t give that bit of grace, we would still have been faithful in evangelism. On the other side of things, a person who happens to be there at the moment of conversion each and every time is probably not the one who planted any of those seeds. Whereas the challenge in the first instance is discouragement, the challenge here is pride. These are equal, but opposite, pitfalls to avoid.
In the big picture, though, this may change your understanding of evangelism in ways that make it more accessible for you. Evangelism, while certainly glad for conversions, is not solely focused in that direction. And, evangelism is not the whole of the Great Commission either. It is only the entrance point to it. When it comes to evangelism, much of the work can be fairly categorized as planting seeds. It’s offering a word of encouragement and hope to a person who is struggling. It’s reminding them that the Gospel offers a path back to life if they want to take it. It’s sharing and showing Jesus’ love with the people around us. It’s engaging bad ideas with truth. It’s bringing Gospel relief to people who are struggling in life. It’s inviting people to come to church with you so they can experience the Spirit’s moving there. Conversions come from this, but they are only part of the work.
What this means for you and me is that evangelism is something we can do. It doesn’t have to be the fearful, pressure-laden thing we often make it out to be. And it happens best in the context of a relationship with a person we genuinely care about anyway which should make it even easier to consider. You can do this. And, if you’re a follower of Jesus, you must. More importantly, though, you can. You can do this.