Elliot Clark on Why It’s Time to Retire the Phrase ‘Sharing the Gospel’

Elliot Clark works to train local church leaders overseas with Training Leaders International. This article is adapted from his book, Evangelism as Exiles: Life on Mission as Strangers in Our Own Land (The Gospel Coalition).

For some time now, American Christians have conceived of their witness in terms of “sharing the gospel.” Read any book or listen to any talk on personal evangelism, and you’ll inevitably encounter the phrase. On one level, the terminology is positive, conveying the gracious act of giving others a treasure we possess. However, if by “sharing” we imply a kind of charity where we only give the gospel to willing recipients, then our Christian vernacular has become a problem.

I first awakened to this reality while doing language study in Central Asia. As I took a course in spiritual terminology, a missionary teacher bemoaned the fact that many Westerners had imported the idea of sharing the gospel into the vocabulary of the local church. He asserted that such a concept was completely foreign—to their context and the Bible. Scripture, instead, spoke primarily of preaching the gospel, declaring and proclaiming a message.

But what, you might ask, could be wrong with sharing the gospel? Isn’t the greater problem that people aren’t sharing it at all? However, I’ve come to wonder if these dual realities aren’t somehow related, with the way we speak about evangelism imperceptibly affecting the way we do evangelism.

More Than Semantics

Throughout the Book of Acts, we find repeated examples of authoritative witness—even in the face of suffering—from the apostles and early church. We find them proclaiming the gospel and speaking boldly. We read of them persuading others. We see them reasoning from Scripture, both expounding and applying it. We observe them testifying before rulers and governors, bearing witness before civil crowds and angry mobs. What we don’t find them doing is “sharing” the gospel.

So it’s more than a bit curious that the dominant way American Christians describe the act of evangelism is in terms of sharing. And I believe this lack of clarity is more than an issue of semantics.

What if a baseball coach instructed his pitchers simply to toss the ball? Not to throw strikes. Or work the corners. Or change speeds. Or pound it inside. Just toss the ball. Would the pitchers have an accurate understanding of their responsibility?

Our conception of evangelism is similarly lacking in precision and nuance. When simply sharing the gospel becomes our default instruction, we fail to convey the attitude, approach, and authority necessary for the act itself. What begins as a subtle change in terminology results in a massive shift in our whole ethos of evangelism.

That’s because “sharing” typically involves giving something to someone who desires it. Children share (or don’t share) Legos with other kids who want them. Friends share a great cookie recipe with another friend who asks for it. In each case, we share with others because they’re asking for what we possess. But the reality is, few people are ever begging us to share the gospel with them.

We must ask ourselves, then, whether casual Christianese has influenced the way we view the gospel mandate. Why are we only willing to speak the gospel when we perceive openness on the part of the hearers? Do we even have a category for proclaiming a message that other people actively oppose?

To evangelize is to preach good news. Far more than just sharing, evangelism involves testifying to Christ—warning, persuading, defending, pleading, and calling. Such authoritative witness need not be in opposition to gentleness and respect. But sadly we often value certain relationships more than a clear statement of the truth. Rarely do we engage people with a sense of authority or urgency.

Sensing the Urgency

Last year I had the privilege of teaching 2 Timothy to church leaders in a South Asian country. Our focus was Paul’s exhortation to faithfully preach the good news. Throughout the week, I reminded them of Paul’s farewell to his young apprentice, encouraging Timothy not to be ashamed of the testimony of the Lord but rather to embrace suffering and persecution—like Paul and Christ—for the sake of the gospel (2 Tim. 1:8–9).

Less than a week later, a story popped up in my newsfeed from the same South Asian country: Christian conversion and evangelism were now banned. Suddenly, the previous week’s teaching took on a greater significance.

In such situations, some might sympathize with those South Asian leaders and encourage them to avoid confrontation. Better to lay low and maintain your presence in the community. Better to remain quiet so that you can provide for your family. Better to witness to others through your good reputation. But that’s not what the apostles practiced (Acts 4:20), and it’s not how Paul charged Timothy. So with a grieving concern for my students, I prayed they wouldn’t be ashamed of the gospel but would boldly fulfill their ministry.

I faced my own test of boldness with Meryem, a teenage girl who wanted me to explain the gospel to her. We met inside a shopping mall, where my wife and I had gone to connect with her after she had requested a copy of the Bible. This wasn’t my first time setting up a blind rendezvous for this purpose (those curious about Christianity in our country could request a free copy through newspaper ads and various digital channels). But I had been expecting someone much older, not this baby-faced teenager.

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Source: Christianity Today