Justin Thompson is a missionary in Lima, Peru. I asked Justin to write because I know him to be a humble disciple of Jesus and the Littleton Church of Christ happens to partner with the Thompsons. Justin is blessed to walk this life with his wife Alison. They have three children - Cailyn, Corban and Carter - and are set to welcome Chloe to the family in July. As Christ followers and missionaries, the Thompsons are committed to sharing the gospel with the Peruvian people, desiring to make disciples of Jesus.
As a foreign missionary in Lima, Peru, most people would probably assume that I'm a gifted evangelist. Most would probably figure my abilities in this area are sharp and refined. If only that were true. Evangelism, believe it or not, is one of the biggest things that has caused me to feel guilt in my calling as a missionary. I know that evangelism is important, yet there are times when I attempt to justify my struggles with evangelism as a means for leaving it to the folks who are clearly gifted to be evangelists.
Now please don't misunderstand me. I've grown as an evangelist in my five years on the field. Would I call myself a "gifted" evangelist? Not yet. Hopefully someday. But I've certainly learned a few things that have helped me become a better evangelist. Even more so I think that I've learned to ask for the Lord to gift me more in this area.!
So what is it that I have learned about evangelism as a foreign missionary?!
I have to be a student of society and culture. As a stranger in a foreign land, I daily face a plethora of societal and cultural differences that force me to consciously deal with issues and scenarios. When I lived in the States, culture was more subconscious and was something that I reflected on less. So why should I be a student of society and culture? Because the good news we have in Jesus is something that we should aim at the heart. Society and culture reveal the accepted norms surrounding us, whether good or bad, and give us a better idea of how to share the gospel. Allow me to give two examples.
Example 1. Peru is a very familial culture. It's not uncommon to see multigenerational homes. There is certainly a core to their identity that revolves around family. In contrast, American culture is more individualistic. While there is generally a familial core, there can be great distance between members. In the States, my approach to evangelism has been much more individualistic while my approach in Peru leans more towards a familial type of evangelism. We (my teammates and I) have evangelized in both ways during our time in Peru, and it is overwhelmingly obvious that our evangelism among families has been vastly more potent compared to our evangelism among individuals. Neither way is better except when we take into account the societal and cultural forces that define our contexts. By studying society and culture, we come to understand our surroundings better, and thus we formulate methods of evangelism for our particular context.!
Example 2. Peruvian education lacks the breadth and quality of an education from the States. By education I am specifically speaking of public school education. Peruvian education teaches students the answers without teaching the methods or invoking the creativity to arrive at those answers. The education in many ways is a regurgitation of whatever information is presented. The States, in a much more holistic way, teaches us to question and experiment. There is a more of an experiential degree to learning when compared to the Peruvian context. I have seen culturally shaped evangelistic methods in Peru that reflect their educational system, which cause people to speak about the Bible as something to be regurgitated as opposed to God's redemption story. In most of these cases, however, I fail to see the evangelist's concern for heart transformation. In my humble opinion, we cannot fail in this same way. Jesus cares more about our heart's transformation than he seems to care about our ability to blindly regurgitate the Law.
Thus, in my humble opinion, being a good evangelist requires that we be students of society and culture. We certainly are creatures of our environment, and this environment can teach us many things about speaking to the hearts of others.
In general, my methods of evangelism have been far too complicated. What I mean here is that I tend to overthink how I should present the good news. Good news does not need build up. It does not need me to make it better news because it is already good news. I don't give the Good News it's power. It has that without me. Also, it's not just my tendency to overthink, it's also my propensity to think that what I am teaching needs to impress others. This, for me, is simply a lie. I have been struck time and time again by Paul's words to the Corinthians, "When I came to you I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God... My message and my preaching we're not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power." Paul understood the Corinthian culture. Moreover, he didn't overdress the Good News to "give it it's power," he was resolved to know nothing except for "Jesus Christ and him crucified." We don't need to doctor up the Good News. We simply need to share it.
What I think is clear about evangelism is that it is proclamation. It is something that requires us to speak. It requires that we share the Good News wherever and whenever. I, for one, am not great at doing this. I tend to overanalyze and overthink situations before I share the Good News. I don’t think it should be this difficult.
Evangelism needs relationship. In evangelism, I believe my desires in sharing the Good News should reflect what Jesus desired. He desired repentance (turning away from an old lifestyle to live a new one) and participation in the kingdom (the kingdom here and now). This is where I think my own personal actions and lifestyles carry their weight. My words should proclaim who Jesus is. And then my actions should validate those words. Thus, as I proclaim the Good News to others and allow these same people to experience life and relationship with me, the message I share will be more potent and find more validity. (I am not saying that the potency or validity of the Good News comes from me. I am only trying to speak towards a practical understanding of doing evangelism, though I hope this goes without saying.) We see the same type of evangelism taking place between Jesus and the disciples. He proclaimed to them the Good News and allowed them watch him as he proclaimed the Good News. This is the same Good News that he later commissions them to carry into all the world. The disciples’ desire to evangelize came from their experiences of proclamation and observation. Jesus invited them to repent and participate in the kingdom. Relationship fused the two, and this gives us practical insight into the nature of what I consider to be good evangelism.
I have primarily spoken here in the first person because I hesitate to make implications that others need to do evangelism as I do evangelism. In actuality, I would rather people evangelize better than I do. However, I do hope that we can sharpen each other to grow as evangelists. Sharing the Good News with others can be intimidating. Yet, we can’t overlook our need as a church to better do evangelism. We have good news to share and a world that wants to hear it (whether they know it or not).