Four Errors We Should Avoid in Evangelism

The following is a rough English draft of an article originally published in Spanish for The Gospel Coalition.

United States Ambassadors are appointed by the President to serve as his personal representative in their country of assignment. As diplomatic emissaries, ambassadors are granted executive authority to speak on behalf of the U.S. Government. At the same time, their authority extends only as far as is required for the successful execution of their mission. In other words, ambassadors exist to communicate only the message entrusted to them.


Similarly, God delegates Christians a specific mission and message. God calls every Christian to be a minister of reconciliation, an ambassador for Christ Jesus. God makes his gospel appeal to the world through us (2 Cor 5:11-21). So as representatives of the foreign power of God's kingdom, we proclaim the gospel message—the good news about Jesus—which is God's power to save all who believe and turn from sin to follow Christ (Rom 1:16-17). This is evangelism.


Four Common Errors

However, much of what is considered evangelism today does not pass the biblical test of evangelism. The problem is that wrong thinking and practice about evangelism prevents us from successfully executing our mission. In response, let's consider some avoidable errors that undermine our evangelism.


Distort the message.

As stewards of the gospel, we have no liberty to change the message or means of evangelism—to do so is mission failure (1 Cor 4:1-2). For example, a group of Christians recently held an evangelism campaign in my community. Night after night, different preachers shouted mostly unintelligible nonsense. The understandable parts were rebukes against Satan, demonic oppression, witchcraft, and alcoholism. Meanwhile, the other "Spirit-filled Christians" fell on the dirt streets, uncontrollably shaking in spasms—apparent manifestations of God's power.

One problem, among many others, however, was that the gospel was never proclaimed. Not once was the good news of Jesus shared. Not one time! As a result, all those in attendance who desperately needed the gospel walked away without any good news about Jesus. In fact, they are probably more convinced that they want no part of whatever "gospel" it was they heard. It was infuriating and saddening to watch evangelicals grossly misrepresent Jesus and the gospel.

Nevertheless, this method of evangelism is predominant throughout Latin America. But to proclaim liberation from evil strongholds without emphasizing the victory of God in Jesus is not biblical evangelism. Instead, it is a distortion of the gospel's primary purpose.

In fairness, we must be aware of Satan's schemes (2 Cor 2:11). He blinds the eyes of the unbelieving and wages war against the gospel (2 Cor 4:4; 1 Pet 5:8-9). But Jesus already has "disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them" through the cross (Col 2:15). So as Christ's ambassadors, we proclaim the good news of the completed work of Christ (Eph 1:7; 1 Pet 3:18). God is sovereign over Satan, and the redemptive work of Christ authenticates his identity as the promised Messiah who saves to the uttermost. There is no problem proclaiming a message of liberation from evil adversaries. But remember Jesus has overcome the world by becoming our propitiation so all who are in him will also overcome (John 16:33; 1 John 5:4-5).


Reduce evangelism to a prayer.

Many evangelistic encounters end by asking the person to pray a prayer, often known as "the sinner's prayer." The sinner's prayer is a salvation prayer based on Romans 10:9-10 that is repeated when someone wants to repent of their sin, ask for forgiveness, and put their faith in Jesus. Here is a popular example from the Four Spiritual Laws:

  • "Lord Jesus, I need you. Thank you for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life and receive you as my Savior and Lord. Thank you for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Take control of the throne of my life. Make me the kind of person you want me to be."

I don't question the motive of evangelists who use the sinner's prayer. But, even with the purest of motives, the resulting negative consequences necessitate reconsideration. On one end of the spectrum is a lack of assurance. Equating salvation with the sincerity or genuineness of prayer often results in a lack of assurance. On the other end is false assurance. Thousands of people live under the delusion that they are Christians because they prayed a prayer of salvation. When they actually remain dead in their trespasses and sins because the sinner's prayer is not a magical incantation. In fact, it potentially inoculates people to the truth of the gospel by giving them false assurance that they are born again.

That said, calling sinners to respond to the gospel is central to evangelism. Ambassadors implore people, "Be reconciled to God!” (2 Cor 5:20). In addition, I do not believe that utilizing the sinner's prayer always results in a false conversion. But I do think it does far too often. In response, let's avoid unbiblical phrases like: "Ask Jesus into your heart" or "Repeat this prayer." Instead, encourage people to repent, "turn to God from idols," and in faith, follow Jesus (1 Tes 1:9; Mark 1:15). By doing so, those who respond will base their assurance on the completed work of Christ, not on a specific prayer.


Pragmatism.

Pragmatic evangelism is arguably the most common mistake hindering evangelism. Pragmatic evangelists commit to doing whatever works to get results—to get people saved—regardless of the biblical precedent.

Variations of pragmatic evangelism include:

  • Measure success by the number of salvations. Yes, we desire people to know Christ, but our success in evangelism is not measured by counting the number of people saved. Our primary "aim is to please God" (2 Cor 5:9). Therefore, we measure evangelism success by our faithfulness as his messengers to deliver gospel truth. A person's response to Christ is ultimately a matter that depends on God's sovereign pleasure—something outside our control—but a person's hearing of the gospel is a matter we do have control over and for which we are responsible.

  • Add to the gospel. Pragmatists frequently add to the gospel to appeal to the natural desires of the flesh. For example, they encourage people to convert so that Jesus can restore their marriage, heal a family member, or supply financial provisions. This, of course, is a perversion of the gospel. We must avoid manipulating people by catering to their carnality. Instead, speak truthfully. The glory of the gospel is the person of Jesus (2 Cor 4:4). The prize of the gospel is an intimate relationship with Jesus (John 17:3). Any additions to the gospel corrupt the gospel, effectively voiding its salvific power.

  • Subtract from the gospel. Pragmatists also appeal to the unbeliever by excluding the difficult reality of human depravity and God's just wrath. But we must speak about sin to be true to the gospel message. After all, it is good news because there is bad news. As a result, we want people to see the horror of their sin, understanding that they face God's righteous judgment so that they come to Jesus knowing that he is their only hope of salvation. In short, people need to understand the severity of their sin to come to a fuller understanding of the depth of God's glorious grace.

Neglect the local church.

The majority of modern evangelism training emphasizes personal evangelism. But biblically, there is no healthy evangelism without the local church.

First, our evangelism efforts flourish when we're immersed in a gospel-saturated community—a local church. Communion with fellow believers fuels our evangelism as it refreshes our hearts and minds with gospel fellowship and teaching.

Second, the church is the outcome of our evangelism. Reconciliation with God results in reconciliation with his people (Eph 4:1-6). Assimilating new believers into local congregations is imperative to their growth in godliness (2 Pet 1:5-7). For this reason, the Scripture never conceives of a Christian existing on a prolonged basis outside the fellowship of the local church.

Third, the gathered church displays the gospel (John 13:34-35). We portray the gospel in baptism and the Lord's Supper. We proclaim the gospel in prayer and preaching. And we sing the gospel through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph 5:19). As Mark Dever says, "Christian proclamation might make the gospel audible, but Christians living together in local congregations make the gospel visible. The church is the gospel made visible."


Conclusion.

In the end, as Christ's ambassadors, we are responsible for our stewardship of the gospel. So let us remember that faithful evangelism means proclaiming the gospel message in its entirety, without compromise—even the unpopular truths (Acts 20:27). And may God consider us faithful, as he makes his gospel appeal through us, for the glory of Christ Jesus.