Jesus charged his apostles – and by extension, his church – with the great commission. The mission he gave us involves both the proclaiming of the gospel as well as the discipling of those who put their trust in Jesus.
If we are honest with ourselves, the American church is not great at either proclaiming or discipling, but we are doing worse on the proclaiming end, and it’s only getting worse. As our culture becomes increasing secular and as Christians increasingly buy into the notion that our faith is to be kept private, we are becoming increasingly reluctant to proclaim Jesus. There are a host of reasons for this, but I am not concerned to analyze them at this point. Instead, I want to focus on the type of evangelism we are opting for in its place. Some have called it “lifestyle evangelism.” Lifestyle evangelism entails the notion that the way we live our life is the best witness of Jesus. Our lives are a living gospel. This form of evangelism is summed up in the apocryphal quote attributed to Francis Assisi: “Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.”
There can be no question that the way we conduct our lives is a testimony to the truth of the gospel and can attract the unbeliever to follow Jesus. We are told that people will know we are Christians because of the love we have for one another. Indeed, a theology lived is always more persuasive that just a theology proclaimed. But is lifestyle evangelism in itself sufficient? Does lifestyle evangelism, in itself, fulfill the great commission? No. We need to both proclaim and live out the gospel. Neither is sufficient in itself. But it’s so easy to assuage our conscience for a lack of evangelism by subscribing to a mere lifestyle version of evangelism. It doesn’t take much courage, doesn’t require one to explain the gospel, doesn’t entail feeling awkward, etc. The problem is that it doesn’t fulfill Jesus’ command to proclaim the gospel. It’s also very ineffective. For every person one could point to that converted to Christianity as a result of someone’s lifestyle evangelism, there will be hundreds who were converted through the actual preaching of the Word of God.
We should continue to evangelize through the way we live (and do a better job at it), but we can never forego the actual public proclamation of the gospel. Lifestyle evangelism is good, but it must be coupled with proclamation as well.