I don’t exactly know why, but throughout this internship I keep coming back to the idea of evangelism. Though I have not been involved in any explicitly evangelical events nor read any books centered upon that idea this summer, the topic continues to resurface nonetheless. It manifests itself randomly in conversations, when browsing the web and in my daily internship experience. As I continue to subtly encounter it, I find my own paradigms and assumptions changing as I observe a novel phenomenon: silent evangelism.
Up until this summer, I had a very limited view of evangelism. If you had asked me what evangelism looked like I probably would have stood there racking my brain for minute and then rattled off something about handing out tracts, inviting people to Church, preaching the gospel to strangers on the street and telling stories of missionaries who converted whole tribes in Africa. Essentially, evangelism implied verbally telling another person a scripted version of the gospel (and ultimately converting them to Christianity).
If you asked me now what I think evangelism looks like I would paint a very different picture for you. Frankly, it would be a much quieter one. It involves mostly actions, you see. It looks like the students in Nueva Vida, Nicaragua who are striving to educate their community. It looks like CFC holding a pool party for children of local prison inmates. It looks like church members packing 500 backpacks full of school supplies for kids of soldiers and disadvantaged schools. It looks like LLC volunteers befriending immigrants and refugees in times of need. It looks like families packing 290,520 meals for Stop Hunger Now on a single Sunday morning in June.
I am not claiming that my initial perceptions were flawed or that street evangelism is wrong. I am just observing that evangelism can still take place without uttering a single word or handing out a gospel tract. It is like the quote by Saint Francis of Assisi that says “preach the gospel at all times, when necessary use words.” Usually the word “preach” indicates verbal communication, but in this quote Saint Francis clearly implies that words are not always needed. If anything, they should follow actions not precede them. Most everyone has heard the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Well, I am going to revise that to say, “an action is worth a thousand words.” This is especially applicable when it comes to international aid and cross-cultural interaction. Two people may not share the same language, but they can still communicate nonverbally through actions.
However, I also do not mean to discount the power of words. As I talked about in prior posts, stories and literature can be potent agents of transformation. In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell explains how an idea, trend or social behavior can “spread like a virus” and cause a widespread “epidemic” simply through word of mouth. Words can be strong, no doubt. However, when it comes to evangelism, sometimes the most effective and influential method by which to spread “epidemics” of love and compassion is through our actions. In all of the examples I listed above people were loving and being loved, regardless of any subsequent conversion experience or immediate verbal acceptance of the gospel.
This week, in an attempt to further define evangelism, I turned to Internet dictionary resources. However, my efforts proved to be futile. No two definitions looked alike. Wikipedia even had an official dispute occurring over its page titled “evangelism.” A small notification in the heading advised me to visit the “talk page” where people of different backgrounds debated about the meaning of evangelism. Clearly, people had very different experiences and opinions on the matter. Individual denominations within the Christian faith even disagree about evangelism. It is my personal belief however, that despite all of these theological and ideological differences, the underlying motivation should remain the same. Evangelism, however it is done, should be done in the name of love. For the gospel is a message of love, and it is because of love that we even have this good news to share (John 3:16). In the end, love is a message that can be sent through both words and deeds.