Evangelism is a constant struggle for the church, especially the small church, despite our focused attention on this area. For some, evangelism is simply inviting people to church, where hopefully they will hear about Jesus. For others, evangelism is something that takes place only in the world, with the church playing a minimal role in the spreading of the gospel. I would suggest that in the beginning of Acts 3 we find a third approach, a melding together of the approach that says to meet people where they are, with the method that says to bring people to “the church.”
Isn’t it fascinating to see that in this story, the miracle happens before the church service even begins! The real conversation about God, healing, and the gospel of Christ takes place not in the temple, but by the gate outside of the temple. Only when the man has been healed, does he enter into the temple with Peter, James, and John and join the community of faith in worship. Is this to say that people can only enter church after they have received the gospel? Of course not! It does bear witness however, to the fact that for many healing will happen before—sometimes necessarily before—they ever darken the door of a church. To insist that people can only hear the gospel within the four walls of a church, or can only worship in a sanctuary, flies in the face of everything the Christian faith professes concerning our transcendent God.
The gospel by its very nature is personal, rather than institutional. We see in this story a personal encounter between Peter and John, and the lame man. He isn’t reached via mass mailing, Facebook, or a tract left at the doctor’s office. He is reached through conversation, which leads to conversion. Where did Peter and John learn to engage people on such a personal level? They had watched their Lord participate in countless personal encounters—Jesus engaged people from whom others recoiled. Gentiles, tax-collectors, sinners. For all of these people Jesus’ words were an acknowledgement of their humanity, and his attention was a miracle in and of itself. Are we willing to engage people on this level, in the process reminding them of how precious they are to God their creator? Or, would we rather keep our distance, hoping the message reaches them through the mailbox, television, or computer screen?
When we understand that evangelism can happen anywhere, and that by its nature it should be a very personal thing, we still must be sure of what we are offering. When Peter speaks to the lame man, the very first words out of his mouth are “silver and gold,” to be followed only by the disappointing revelation that there was none of these precious metals to be had. Lest the man think that hope rests solely on material blessing, Peter re-engages him immediately with an altogether different offer. The man would have been happy with silver and gold, and yet he receives something of far greater value. The church, particularly the American church, does have a great deal of silver and gold at its disposal, with which we can provide access to healing, food, water, clothes, and other necessities that so many in our world do without. However, we should not forget that even without all of these things, the church can still provide the greatest blessing of all. It takes no money to bring someone before the Great Physician. Without any resources, we can provide others with the living water that will permanently quench their soul’s thirst. Whatever God has blessed us with—whether it’s knowledge of the gospel, a passion for prayer, time, or even money—all these things should be brought to bear in our mission to reach others with the good news of Jesus Christ.
When we look around at our world and see the hatred, violence, greed, lust and all the other things that tear our communities apart, we realize that collectively we are as lame as the man sitting in front of the Beautiful Gate. And if we realize how similar we are to this man, then perhaps we can also realize that neither can our cure be found in silver and gold. What the world needs is far more precious than any material object, yet also far more accessible. The redemptive love of Christ is not limited to the steps of the temple or the church. It can be found wherever and whenever someone is allowed to engage with the gospel. So when it comes to evangelism, let’s focus less on a certain place—on meeting them where they are, or getting them to come where we are—and more on a person, the person of Jesus Christ.
Justin Simmons has served as minister for the Glenmora Church of Christ in central Louisiana since 2011. Previously he studied at the University of South Carolina (BA, MA), and the Candler School of Theology at Emory University (MDiv). He is blessed to call Melissa his wife, and has three wonderful step-children. He enjoys reading about history and practical theology, listening to Gregorian chants, and passionately following Braves baseball and Gamecock sports.