Imagine a friend posted the following statement on Facebook: “Evangelism is/is not a spiritual discipline. And go….” How might you enter the discussion? For or against?
While you ponder which side of the online debate to weigh in on, you notice someone else is already typing. The new comment appeals to authority: “Neither Richard Foster nor Dallas Willard include evangelism on their lists of spiritual disciplines.” Since these two are experts, you’re inclined to agree.
You glance over at a couple of books on your shelf. You check and sure enough, evangelism makes Donald Whitney’s list of ten spiritual disciplines. Scanning one of his book’s chapters, you read: “We must discipline ourselves to get into the context of evangelism; that is we must not just wait for witnessing opportunities to happen.” You nod your head in agreement, knowing from personal experience that this statement is all too true.
“It takes discipline to maintain a rhythm of intentional witness.”
You select a second volume and scan the surprisingly long table of contents to discover that Adele Calhoun includes “witness” as one of seventy-five disciplines. Well, that settles it. But something doesn’t feel quite right about counting evangelism as merely one of seventy-five.
You flip to Calhoun’s brief chapter and read: “Every disciple has the very life of God pulsing through his or her body. . . . Testifying to this good news requires no strategy or program. It depends on responding to the Spirit’s nudge to open your mouth and heart for the sake of others.” Hmm. John 15:5 comes to mind: “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.” (ESV) But how is that a discipline? Now you’re confused.
Is Evangelism A Discipline?
Bearing witness to Jesus is more than just one among many spiritual disciplines. It’s part of our basic identity as believers; it’s who we are. Jesus promised his followers, “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8 ESV), and “I will make you fishers of men” (Matt. 4:19 ESV). Evangelism is also our basic task; it’s what we do. Our commission is an extension of Jesus’s own mission (Matt. 28:18–20; John 20:21). We are a sent people.
So, is evangelism a spiritual discipline for missionaries? Yes? No? Maybe? To borrow a familiar phrase: it’s complicated.
Perhaps the following categories, inspired by Wilbert Shenk, may help bring clarity. Shenk identified two modes of mission in Acts. The first, which I call a “spontaneous mode,” was the heartbeat of the early church. When persecution forced believers to flee from Jerusalem, they continued to live out the spiritual reality of Christ’s abiding presence wherever they went.
This magnetic lifestyle resulted in spontaneous witness, producing a harvest among the Gentiles and a church in the city of Antioch (Acts 11:19–26). This same church also exemplified a “planned mode,” which calls for structure. Led by the Spirit, the church in Antioch set aside Paul and Barnabas as missionaries, sending them to share the gospel in key cities in specific regions (Acts 13:1–3).
These two modes help inform our task of evangelism. The spontaneous mode requires intentionality as we meet with Jesus every morning and surrender the day that lies before us. We humbly implore the Lord of the harvest: “Would you please use me to share the gospel today?” We ask for his heart of compassion for others. And then we simply go about our day, walking in the Spirit, attuned to his prompting. We get out in the community to meet new acquaintances. We frequent the same venues to develop relationships.
“Both spontaneous and planned gospel witness were critical in the spread of early church, and both should be part of every Christian’s life and witness today.”
Similarly, the planning mode requires intentionality as we regularly—weekly, monthly—lay out our calendars before the Lord. We ask the Spirit to guide us as we build in structure to our witness. Prayerfully, we schedule appointments to meet with people to share the good news of Jesus.
We make plans and strategies that become increasingly more detailed as we move from our own individual witness to large-scale, coordinated outreach events. This discipline of purposeful missional planning is every bit as spiritual as the discipline of a vibrant relationship with Jesus that overflows in spontaneous witness.
Both spontaneous and planned gospel witness rely on the Spirit and require intentionality. Both modes were critical in the spread of early church, and both should be part of every Christian’s life and witness today.
Examples of Spontaneous and Planned Evangelism
The following examples may help illustrate the two modes.
- This past week my calendar was already full of deadlines, all-day meetings, houseguests, and wedding festivities. No room for more! Still, I asked God to use me and he did. I chatted with a fast-food server and invited her to church. When I walked the dog, a neighbor’s son, who was visiting his mom, called me over: “You’re the one who likes to talk religion, right? Well, I’ve got a question for you . . .” Organic gospel conversations happen spontaneously.
- As I lay out my calendar for the coming weeks, I pray through my “impact list” of names. Asking the Lord for direction, I schedule appointments—a walk, a phone call, a coffee date with a friend, or a Bible study with a neighbor. Planned gospel conversations take shape.
Whether we call evangelism a spiritual discipline, it takes discipline to maintain a rhythm of intentional witness. The amount of discipline required can grow exponentially on the mission field in the face of learning language, maintaining visas, adjusting to climate extremes, navigating transportation, educating children, etc. Missionaries who serve with the IMB have built-in accountability as they set both personal and team goals and report monthly on new contacts, gospel conversations, conversions, and baptisms.
Ultimately, however, witness flows from an authentic spirituality that results from time spent with the Lord.1 When Peter and John boldly proclaimed the gospel, the Pharisees “recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13 ESV). Warned to keep quiet, Peter declared, “[W]e are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20, CSB). May that same passion for witness flow through each of us today.
Susan Maxwell Booth (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as the Professor of Evangelism and Missions at the Canadian Southern Baptist Seminary & College in Cochrane, Alberta, Canada. Susan and her husband Steve are under appointment with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. They lived in Budapest, Hungary, for seven years before transferring to Canada in 2000. Susan is the author of The Tabernacling Presence of God and Longing for Home: Tracing the Path of God’s Story to Find Your True Home.
1 For more on the integration of spiritual formation and a missional life, see Nathan Finn and Keith Whitfield, eds., Spirituality for the Sent: Casting a New Vision for the Missional Church (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017).