Jesus told his followers to be about the business of making disciples not the enterprise of making excuses. The marching orders of the Church are found in the Great Commission, which requires the Church to disciple the nations by baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything Christ commanded. The Great Commission is therefore self-perpetuating. The duty of world evangelism is an obligation that rests upon the Church in each generation. This much is obvious to every careful reader of the New Testament.
But if we compare a classical Protestant approach to this task with that of modern evangelicalism, we begin to differ on our shared commitment to this central principle. The differences between us become apparent at the practical level—what tactics should be employed in this effort? We agree that the gospel must be taken to the world, that the gospel must be preached to “every creature.” But in contemporary evangelicalism there is a widespread assumption that this must be done by the following means: each individual Christian must acknowledge that his personal walk with God rests upon certain foundation stones—and they include obvious things like prayer and bible-reading, but also some not-so-obvious things like “witnessing daily.”
Average Christians, as they are first discipled, are routinely taught that being a faithful Christian means telling someone about Christ every day. And of course, as young people are taught the pattern (usually in Bible College), some who are naturally gifted and very outgoing do very well. They take to it like birds to the sky. But others, and their number is great, have no desire at all to go up and down the hallways of the dormitories, knocking on doors, and asking people to take a spiritual survey. But it is their spiritual duty, or so they have been taught, and so they sweat bullets and beat down doors anyway.
After they graduate, they enter another phase of their lives, one where there is a lot less free time and where witnessing opportunities are not so abundant. With a strange mixture of gratitude and guilt, they stop telling people about Jesus everyday. The guilt is stirred up occasionally by a missions speaker at church, but they make their peace with that guilt.
This compromise means the evangelistic zeal of the entire Church has been wounded. This is not because one individual has stopped sharing his faith daily, but rather because he was forced into sharing it in the first place under false pretenses. This produces a horribly bad reaction and evangelism loses importance.
Of course, every Christian should be ready to answer questions when non-believers ask them. We should (all of us) know what we believe and why. We should (all of us) live in a manner that provokes the occasional question about how we believe. Peter is explicit on this point. “But in your hearts honor Christ as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (I Pet 3:15).
But the work of an evangelist, which Paul exhorts Timothy to keep after, is demanding work (2 Tim 4:5). A man should no more appoint himself to this task than to other callings in the church. Jesus Christ ascended into heaven and gave gifts to men—apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor/teachers (Eph 4:11). If we were to adopt this approach in the other offices the result would be total chaos.
The giftedness bestowed by Christ is important and reveals his authority as Head of the Church. Not everyone is gifted in the same way. Is everyone a teacher? No. Is everyone an evangelist? No. To insist that everyone share his faith daily in verbal, propositional form is to directly contradict what Paul taught us about the nature of body life. Not everyone in the body has the same function.
This is not to deny the centrality of the evangelistic mission in the life of the Church. But say a man is going to a concert hall to play the piano—we should not consider him a failure if his kidneys are unable to thump out Rachmaninov. They support him in what he is doing, but they don’t actually play anything themselves. Without those kidneys, he would be off in a hospital, nowhere near a piano. They don’t play a single note, but without them, he wouldn’t either. Attempts to make them try are attempts that will harm the man’s ability to play well.
When David’s men pursued the Amalekites who had sacked Ziklag, some of his troops were unable to keep up the pursuit, and so they stayed behind and guarded the bags, After the battle, certain churlish men with David wanted to withhold any portion of the spoil from them. But David said no, and made it an ordinance in Israel that they were all “in it together” (I Sam 30:24). The supply officer in the Pentagon, the cook on the submarine, the infantryman on the front lines—are in it together, as each does his part. But suppose we made this rule: every cook has to fire at least one round at the enemy daily. Somebody goes hungry…
The task of evangelism is assigned to the Church. Many Christians are not gifted as evangelists. Such men should do an honest day’s work, say, as an auto mechanic, be the best mechanic in town, attend church faithfully (a faithful church engaged in the task of world conquest), and give to further the work of the church. What shall we say about such men? We should say that they are evangelical men, whether or not they say a word. But if they excel in their vocational work to the glory of God, the chances are good that they will have to answer the kind of questions that Peter mentions. Their witness will prompt them.