WHEN JESUS SPENT TIME WITH UNBELIEVERS—like “tax collectors and sinners”—the people most upset by His actions were religious leaders. Matthew was a tax collector (a group despised for collaborating with the Romans) who became a follower of Jesus. After his conversion, he hosted a dinner party to introduce Jesus to his friends. When they learned Jesus ate with sinners, the Pharisees (top-level religious leaders) were aghast and indignant. They asked Jesus’ disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ … Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick…. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners’” (Matthew 9:11–13 NIV).
Jesus made this clear: His life would be marked by personal, direct contact with people the religious elite considered unworthy and inferior. He intended to connect with real people in unscripted life situations—as life happened.
Why were the Pharisees so upset about this? They had created an elaborate system of ritual hand-washing and personal cleansing to justify themselves before God, gain favor among their peers, and keep up appearances of holiness in their community. While the Old Testament called for careful food preparation and personal cleanliness (Leviticus 11–15), the Pharisees added to those requirements with man-made legalistic rules and regulations. Jesus, as a religious leader, was expected to toe the line and avoid eating with (and thus associating with) unclean people like Matthew’s friends. On another occasion, Jesus confronted the Pharisees for their duplicity saying, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and evil” (Luke 11:39). Jesus’ scandalous behavior (eating with unclean people) and rebuke of their legalism riled the Pharisees, fueled their jealousy, and ultimately contributed to their role in Jesus’ crucifixion (Luke 11:53–54).
This pattern is repeated throughout the Gospels. The most vitriolic opposition to Jesus was from religious leaders, including His own disciples who sometimes questioned His methods and approaches (Matthew 16:21–23). Unbelievers, even those who didn’t commit to Jesus, were drawn to Him and wanted to be around Him. The barriers to lost people following Jesus in the first century were largely erected by religious leaders and the religious community. It’s the same in our day. Religious people often put up barriers—often inadvertently—that limit our effectiveness in sharing the gospel and discourage people from committing themselves to Jesus. What kind of barriers do we erect? The following is a top-ten list of obstacles to people hearing the gospel, all put in place by Christians. The good news is removing these barriers is also within our control. After considering each barrier, key solutions will also be proposed at the end of each section in this chapter. As you read, ask God to make you part of the solution, not a perpetuator of the problems limiting the gospel’s expansion.
One problem that limits effective evangelism is defining witnessing as living a good life and allowing your example to be your witness. It’s important to live consistently, demonstrating integrity between your beliefs and actions to non-Christians. Your example is part of your testimony. Sometimes, this definition of witnessing is popularized by sayings like, “You may be the only Jesus another person ever sees” or “You may be the only Bible your friend ever reads.” While those sentiments may motivate you to live out your faith, they aren’t accurate statements describing an effective witnessing methodology.
No person—not even Jesus—has ever lived a life that spontaneously communicated the gospel. Jesus came as the Word (John 1), not the Example, and spoke the gospel. His ministry included explaining the gospel, preaching the gospel, and asking people to respond to the gospel—all verbal activities necessary for adequate and accurate communication. If Jesus had to verbally tell His story, despite His perfect life lived among unbelievers, how can you realistically expect to communicate the gospel effectively by simply living a godly example? It can’t be done. Lifestyle evangelism isn’t about living in such a way the gospel is communicated as others observe your behavior. Lifestyle evangelism is living in such a way that your verbal witness has credibility when you share it. In short, your walk with Jesus matches your talk about Jesus.
Another related redefinition of witnessing is serving others in Jesus’ name as your witness. Service is a powerful expression of Christian discipleship since, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Servant evangelism projects are growing in popularity today (more about this later in this chapter). Through service, love is demonstrated, and those who favor this definition conclude unbelievers “will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). They may know we are Christians by the love we show them and each other. But that doesn’t mean our service communicates to unbelievers how to become followers of Jesus. Service must be coupled with an explanation of the gospel to be an effective witnessing method.
One of the most effective methods of servant evangelism today is disaster relief. When volunteers show up after a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or tsunami, the love they demonstrate earns them a ready audience. Burt, a veteran worker, told me, “When we’re cleaning up a mess, we remember the people come first.” Disaster-relief workers are trained to initiate conversations, listen to concerns, process grief, and share the gospel with people often made vulnerable by their recent experience. Cleaning up fallen trees, mucking out after a flood, or serving hot meals all demonstrate the love of Jesus; but those actions don’t—in and of themselves—communicate the gospel. Servant evangelists set the stage for sharing the gospel by their actions; then tell the story of Jesus so hurting people can be saved.
Solution: Reject any redefinition of personal evangelism that doesn’t include sharing the plan of salvation. Adopt a definition of sharing the gospel that includes communicating these essentials: God’s love; humanity’s sin; Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection; and every person’s opportunity and obligation to respond.
Jeff Iorg, Unscripted: Sharing the Gospel as Life Happens (Ashland, OH: New Hope Publishers, 2014).
Check out our Bible Study on the book by Jeff Iorg, Unscripted: Sharing the Gospel as Life Happens.
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