"Preach the gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words."
This classic quote, misattributed to Saint Francis of Assisi, is both clever and catchy. It just isn’t biblical.
Evangelism—communicating the good news of King Jesus—always requires words. As believers we are called to “adorn” the gospel with our actions (Titus 2:10), to be sure, but our actions are not themselves the gospel. No amount of righteous living can replace the necessity of verbally proclaiming God’s saving achievement in Christ.
But even though all evangelism involves sharing the same message, not all evangelism occurs in the same manner. Here are three kinds we see modeled in the New Testament.
1. Family Evangelism
God intends gospel proclamation to take place within Christian homes as parents raise their children “in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Children of believers, then, are specially set apart as “front row” witnesses to and beneficiaries of the positive influences of the gospel (1 Corinthians 7:14).
The practice of family evangelism is pictured in the life of Paul’s protégé Timothy. “I am reminded of your sincere faith,” the apostle writes to him, “which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also” (2 Timothy 1:5). Timothy’s faith in Christ first bloomed at home, thanks the witness of his grandma and mom. (His dad, Luke tells us, wasn’t a believer.) Paul goes on to exhort Timothy:
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3:14–15)
By God’s grace, Timothy could not remember a time in his life when he wasn’t acquainted with the Scriptures and their saving power.
2. Friendship Evangelism
Jesus was accused of many things, one of which was being “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34). Not a stranger, not a passerby, not an acquaintance—a friend. The Son of God came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10), and he did so in the context of authentic relationships. Paul, too, modeled such “relational” or “friendship” evangelism:
Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. (1 Thessalonians 2:7–8)
The apostle is emphatic that his team’s ministry in the city of Thessalonica wasn’t some hit-and-run gospel invasion. They were happy to stay, to build friendships, to share their lives.
Friendship evangelism can be a beautiful thing—so long as the friendship doesn’t crowd out the evangelism. It’s very easy to build relationships with unbelievers in the name of gospel witness without ever getting to gospel witness. Intentionality, therefore, is crucial. As Matt Chandler has aptly quipped, “So, relational evangelism? Go for it, as long as it turns into actual evangelism.”
3. Contact Evangelism
The final (and least popular) type of evangelism involves initiating gospel conversations with those you’ve never met. When I was in college, my campus ministry would often gear its outreaches around this approach—always a surefire way to get eye-rolls from the “friendship-evangelism-only” crowd. Contact evangelism, they insisted, is cold, impersonal, even deceptive.
Anything can be abused, of course, so contact evangelism can certainly become unloving and unhelpful. But it doesn’t have to be. In fact, this form of evangelism is explicitly modeled in Scripture too.
In John 4 Jesus strikes up a conversation with a woman beside a well. Not only was she a complete stranger, she was someone Jesus “should have” avoided since she was both a woman and a Samaritan (double no-no). Nevertheless, he goes out of his way to meet her and deliberately turns their “natural” conversation about water and thirst into a “spiritual” conversation about himself. He didn’t waste much time, either, moving from “Will you give me a drink?” (John 4:7) to “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would’ve asked him and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10) in the span of only three verses.
Jesus’ witnessing strategy here is not some New Testament anomaly. The earliest Christians also engaged in contact evangelism:
Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, [the apostles] never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah. (Acts 5:42)
On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. (Acts 16:13)
[Paul] reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. (Acts 17:17)
The earliest Christians were apparently willing and eager to initiate gospel conversations with “random” persons, with strangers—with whomever God’s sovereign will led them to encounter (Proverbs 16:9; 20:24).
If the danger in friendship evangelism is never getting to the evangelism, the danger in contact evangelism is not caring enough to remember the person’s name. We aren’t manipulators, and we don’t work in sales (2 Corinthians 2:17). Effective contact evangelism, then, requires a healthy dose of social awareness, common courtesy, and authentic love and concern.
Deployed to Be Deliberate
People need to hear the good news about Jesus Christ, and there is no one-size-fits-all prescription for how that has to happen. It just has to happen.
Whether we’re hoping to witness to a child, to a friend, or to a complete stranger, may the Holy Spirit grant us the courage to live lives of gospel intentionality—humbly and prayerfully seizing opportunities to speak of our great Savior.
Matt Smethurst serves as associate editor for The Gospel Coalition. He and his wife Maghan have two children and live in Louisville, Kentucky, where they belong to Third Avenue Baptist Church. You can follow him on Twitter.