Evangelism is like going on a diet. If you’re like me, you know you need to do it. You think and talk about doing it. But after going months without taking the first step, you may finally guilt yourself into a desperate attempt. However, at the first sign of failure, you give up on the whole endeavor.
If our approach to evangelism resembles other New Year’s resolutions, we may be doomed to fail before we start. So perhaps we should adjust our perspective in 2018. Perhaps we should think about new and often overlooked ways to be a witness to our neighbors in the new year.
What follows is a short meditation on such an outlook, each of them taken from Peter’s first epistle.
Peter wrote to Christians who were exiles in their own land (1 Pet. 1:1). By virtue of their identity in Christ, they faced suffering of various trials (1 Pet. 1:6; 4:12). Persecution for them looked like social exclusion and slander, rejection, and reviling. As such, it mirrored in some ways our current American experience.
Into this fiery crucible Peter injects a word of hope, the hope of future grace and glory at the revelation of Christ (1 Pet. 1:7). This hope was obviously meant to be a balm for their suffering, but it was also an inspiration for active obedience. Peter even envisioned such abiding hope to be a powerful testimony to a watching world, drawing them into curious examination (1 Pet. 2:12).
As we encounter social pressures and even persecution, hope will be compelling evidence for our gospel. Or it will not. If the collective Christian tone is complaint, if we bemoan our lack of standing in politics or the culture, we will be worse than a squeaky wheel.
As freedoms slip away or suffering draws near, we must not be known as a people longing for the past but as one looking to a certain, glorious future. Then we’ll have opportunity to reason with others about the hope we possess.
Peter was also earnestly concerned for the holiness of his audience (1 Pet. 1:14–16). He repeatedly called them to be self-controlled and sober-minded, to abstain from worldly pursuits (1 Pet. 2:11; 4:7). Their lifestyle instead should represent a marked difference from the Gentiles around them.
In fact, Peter envisioned such holiness to be a testimony to the world. In a command that echoes the words of Jesus (Matt. 5:16), he calls us to keep our way of life honorable among the nations so that they will observe our good deeds and glorify God (1 Pet. 2:12). Put negatively, Christians living in sin betray the very message we would speak and besmirch God’s character.
But another motivation for holiness that Peter gives may surprise us—that our prayers might not be hindered (1 Pet. 1:17; 3:7, 12; 4:7). In other words, sin doesn’t simply undermine our evangelism; it may cause God to turn a deaf ear to our prayers. How many times do our petitions for unbelieving friends and family remain unheard on account of our ungodliness?
Another surprising, if not overlooked, way to be more effective in our witness is through honor (1 Pet. 2:11, 17; 3:7, 15). Peter repeatedly urged his readers to respectfully submit to others. Not the ones who had earned it, mind you, but ruthless emperors, unbelieving husbands, and harsh masters.
The motivation for such humility and respect is the example of Christ, the suffering servant, who endured similar hostility (1 Pet. 3:18–25). But a secondary stimulus is most certainly our witness. Peter envisions that wives who gladly submit to and serve their non-Christian husbands will win them—not so much with words, but with their way of life (1 Pet. 3:1–6).
This is crucial. Honor becomes increasingly difficult in the face of suffering, especially when the cause of that suffering are the powers that be. However, we’re called to honor despots and deadbeats, which I think means we should be willing to honor political rivals and ideological opponents. We should respect and dignify all races, religions, and persuasions, showing due honor to fellow image-bearers for the sake of their salvation.
Another significant way to enhance our witness is through hospitality. Peter only mentions it briefly, and his primary focus is clearly for such kindness to be expressed to fellow believers (1 Pet. 4:9). By sandwiching the command to hospitality between verses on love and service, it seems to be one tangible way we fulfill God’s law to serve one another in love.
But if that is the case, then hospitality is also a crucial part of our witness. If the world is to know that we are Christians by our love, then hospitality is a beacon of light to our neighbors, even when it is directed most specifically to the household of faith.
Of course, I don’t think Peter expects our generous welcome to be only for believers. Matthew invited a motley crew of friends into his home to meet the Savior. Jesus regularly ate and drank with sinners. In fact, we would be right to assume that many will come to the Table of the Lord because they are first invited to table at a Christian home.
5. Declare His Praise
Finally, we come to Peter’s most clear directive on evangelism. We have been chosen and called out as a holy nation, as kingly priests, with a primary function: to declare the praises of the One who called us out of darkness and into his glorious light (1 Pet. 2:9).
Again, we see corporate holiness and walking in light is integral to effective witness. But also striking is the content of Christian proclamation. No doubt we must reason with others on the identity of Christ, explaining the cross and resurrection in theological clarity. However, our evangelism must also be doxological.
A suffering Christian can easily witness in frustrated defensiveness or argue in a condescending manner. But the primary tenor of our evangelism should be praise, aerated by the beauty of our gospel and the glory of our King. Our witness should be compelling to others as much for our evident hope as it is for manifest truth. Not necessarily because we won the argument, but because we exulted in our Savior.
May God help us to hope in future glory, walk in holiness, honor our neighbors, show them hospitality, and declare his praise among the nations in this new year.
Elliot Clark (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) lived in Central Asia where he served as a cross-cultural church planter along with his wife and children. He is currently working to train local church leaders overseas with Training Leaders International.