“Secure your own oxygen mask first before assisting other passengers.”
This directive is familiar to anyone who has traveled in recent years on a commercial airplane. In the event of an emergency (“a sudden loss of cabin pressure”), we’re told that an oxygen mask would descend from the plane’s ceiling for each person.
Naturally, in such a scary moment, parents would instinctively try to get the air to their children first, husbands and wives would want to ensure that their beloved spouses could breathe, and adult children would focus on preserving the life of elderly parents seated next to them. Such altruism might be instinctive, but it isn’t wise, the airlines warn.
A passenger who is herself wheezing is in no condition to rescue others. If she passes out from lack of oxygen, neither she nor her helpless seatmates will survive.
In our evangelistic efforts, we should take counsel from the flight attendants. We are in an emergency situation: All around us, people are gasping for spiritual breath. But in order to best assist them, we must have our own supply firmly affixed.
Nearly 2,000 years before the advent of commercial air travel, the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy with these words: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16). If you want to labor effectively for Christ, secure your own soul’s oxygen mask first.
The oxygen that nourishes us and fuels our evangelism is largely composed of four things.
1. Knowing Christ
As evangelists, our first and most essential resource isn’t something we can secure for ourselves. Instead, someone else secured it for us. While we were yet sinners, while we were enemies and strangers to God, while we were far off and lost and blind and ignorant and dead, Christ died for us.
And knowing this Christ—loving him, worshiping him, meditating on him, enjoying him and becoming more like him—is the primary resource every evangelist must have.
You may have met Christ when you were obviously rebellious or when you were seemingly upstanding. You may have met Christ in a crowded worship service or in the solitude of your own bedroom. You may have met him suddenly and unexpectedly or as the inevitable answer to your persistent questions. But somewhere along the way, you met Jesus. And you haven’t been the same since.
It’s because of our own experience with Christ that we invite others to meet him too. Like Philip, we have been found by Christ, and so we hurry to find others (John 1:46). Like the woman at the well, we have heard the voice of Jesus, and so we speak to others (John 4:29). Like Paul, we affirm, “I know whom I have believed” (1 Tim. 1:12) and like Peter and John, we insist, “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).
We know Christ in our experience, and we know Christ through his Word. A thorough knowledge of Christ in the Scriptures equips us to answer our neighbors’ questions and objections. Scripture is “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16).
The second resource of the evangelist’s heart is prayer. Though outwardly unremarkable, our prayers are a spiritual weapon in a spiritual war (Eph. 6:10–20) that God uses to accomplish both judgment (Rev. 8:3–5) and also salvation (2 Cor. 1:11). And by the prayers of his people, God sends out gospel laborers into his abundant harvest field (Matt. 9:37–38).
Prayer humbles our hearts, shapes our desires, spurs our obedience and invokes the mercy of a God who delights to save sinners. For the work of evangelism, we have no better tool.
The prayer of every evangelist is an act of dependence on God. We know that one may plant gospel seed and another may faithfully sprinkle gospel water, but God is the one who makes soul seedlings grow (1 Cor. 3:6–7).
On our knees, we acknowledge our own weakness and ask the sovereign God to work in our hearts and the hearts of our neighbors. When we pray faithfully for our neighbors to come to Christ and be saved, our naturally indifferent hearts are continually stirred with compassion for their souls.
The next resource evangelists need is a life of personal holiness. The Bible exhorts every believer: “As he who calls you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct” (1 Pet. 1:15).
Our daily acts of obedience can be used by the Lord to awaken faith in our neighbors. As your car pulls out of the driveway every Sunday morning on its way to church, you reinforce the existence of an unseen God to your watching neighbors. As you speak kindly to your children on the playground, you demonstrate the Spirit’s power before the other moms. As you refuse to participate in office gossip, you bring honor to Christ in the break room. Even in your response to your own sin—admitting wrong and asking forgiveness—you testify to the truth of the gospel you proclaim.
Sadly, the opposite is also true. If we’re unkind to those around us, if we dismiss the needs of others and speak harshly to our family members, if we’re more often at the ballpark than church on Sunday, if we ignore our sin and fail to repent, we communicate to our neighbors that God isn’t important and his Spirit is impotent. As Al Mohler explains, “We shouldn’t expect that the gospel will have credibility if we don’t look like gospel people.”
4. Commitment to a Church
Commitment to the local church is also one of your vital resources as an evangelist. In the church, you are yourself discipled. You join with God’s people to receive his Word, offer him worship, use your gifts for his glory and serve his saints. Two skills that you most need—handling God’s Word rightly and talking easily about it with others—are modeled, encouraged and practiced in the church.
Moreover, to invite someone to church is to invite them to hear the gospel proclaimed with power and to see the gospel lived out in the lives of a diverse group of people. As we obey God’s commands in the context of the church, we bear witness to the power of the Spirit to transform all kinds of people into a holy community—and we invite our neighbors to join us.
The whole life of faith equips and compels evangelism. These things aren’t particularly flashy, and they certainly aren’t new. And yet they are the spiritual supply that God gives to equip evangelists for their spiritual task.
Megan Hill is an editor for The Gospel Coalition, an author and a pastor’s wife at West Springfield Covenant Community Church in West Springfield, Massachusetts.