Evangelism does not enjoy good press. It literally means the sharing of good news, but for most people there is little good news about it. It conjures up images of strident, perspiring preachers, of smooth-talking televangelists, or of strange characters at street corners urging passersby to repent and meet their God.
In a word, evangelism seems some thing no self-respecting person would want to be involved in. It has overtones of manipulation. In a permissive age it smacks of wanting to change the way another person is. And that is an insult. It is unacceptable.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that in many mainline churches evangelism is in eclipse. It belongs to the demimonde. It is what unbalanced enthusiasts, with no theology about them, get up to. It is emphatically not respectable. A balanced, thoughtful church should have nothing to do with it. And yet those same churches have second thoughts when they see bare pews where once there were people in their services. Sometimes they wonder afresh about evangelism when they reflect on the godlessness, materialism, and selfishness that are becoming more and more rampant throughout society. And if their vision stretches to the fast growing churches of, for example, East Africa, they may say, as David Jenkins, the bishop of Durham, said to David Gitari, the bishop of Mount Kenya East, after the 1988 Lambeth Conference, "I need to learn from you."
I find it very significant that no church has taken evangelism more seriously in the last decade than the Roman Catholic church, and that the most institutional and respectable of all denominations! Perhaps the rest of us ought to take a leaf from their book.
What springs to mind, I wonder, when the word evangelism is used? Do you think of a preacher, a Billy Graham, coming to take your town by storm? Do you think of a program, carefully designed to reach all parts of your local community? Or do you think, perhaps, of two people (both looking a shade uncomfortable) locked in earnest conversation over open Bibles? And how do you feel when major world churches, including the Roman Catholic and the Angelican, designate the last 10 years of this century as a decade of evangelism?
Maybe it would be a help, initially, if we were to clear our minds of some of the misconceptions that commonly cloud them when the subject of evangelism is under consideration. Let us at least recognize what evangelism is not.
What evangelism is not
Evangelism is not the same as filling pews. Among pastors who are normally suspicious of this kind of thing, it springs to short-lived popularity only when the numbers and the finances of their church sink low. But the motivation of such "evangelism" is suspect, and the results are not likely to be lasting.
Evangelism is not what is euphemistically called in Canada "sheep-shuffling." A great deal that passes for evangelism in fast-growing churches is nothing more than transfer growth from some other section of the fractured church of God. And that serves nothing but the self-esteem of the minister of the new church.
Evangelism is not an occasional raid by a visiting celebrity. If that happens, many of the congregation will vote against it with their feet, will keep their heads down while it happens, and will emerge at the end when the coast is clear. Such an invasion is more likely to polarize the church membership than to unite it in mission. Visitors can, of course, do much to mobilize and encourage evangelism, but not if they are regarded as the experts who have all the answers and are going to "do evangelism" for the local church.
Evangelism is not a matter of impassioned and repeated calls for decision. If such challenges are repetitive, they be come powerless. If they do not rest on clear teaching, they are shallow. I recall seeing a poster on a wall, "Jesus Is the Answer," to which someone had not unreasonably appended a graffito, "But What Is the Question?" The simplistic repetition of cliches or the issuance of biblical challenges unsupported by biblical teaching and unrelated to contemporary needs is not evangelism, however orthodox it may sound.
Evangelism is not a system. Too often it is presented as a package involving three clear points, four spiritual laws, or five things God wants you to know. I have no quarrel with such aids to the memory of those who are communicating the good news. The danger arises when the gospel is shrunk to the dimensions of such limiting and selective formulae. In the name of simplicity the door is opened to misconception, shallowness, and even heresy.
Evangelism is not an activity proper to ministers alone, nor is it only a matter of preaching. But we often think it is. If evangelism is to happen at all, it should, we feel, happen in the church building on Sunday, and it should be done by the minister. It is healthy to recall that in the days of the greatest advance of the church they had no special building and no clearly defined ministers. It was seen to be the calling of all Christians, and it was realized that the good news could be communicated in a variety of ways--and not necessarily, or even primarily, in church.
Evangelism is not proclamation alone or presence alone. During the twentieth century, both in Europe and in the United States, a disastrous chasm has widened between those who think of evangelism in terms of proclamation and those who, tired of the hypocrisy and exaggeration encountered in a good deal of such preaching, maintain that it is our presence as Christians in the midst of a hurting world that counts, not our words. A very similar dichotomy separates those who think in terms of a spiritual gospel or a social gospel. In each case, the distinction is either illusory or mischievous. To separate word from action is to put aside two things that God has joined together. To separate the spiritual from the social is to be blind to the fact that they are the outside and the inside of the same thing. As ever for Christians, Jesus is the supreme example. His social concern and His spiritual concern went hand in hand. His presence embodying the kingdom of God was matched by His words explaining the kingdom. The two are not op posed to each other; they are complementary. It is encouraging that "liberal" and "conservative" Christians are not realizing as much and are beginning to act in concert on this matter.
Evangelism is not individualistic. In the fragmentation of Western culture it often comes over that way. But so often in the history of Christian expansion, evangelism has been a societal thing; whole villages, towns, and communities of various sorts have, to a greater or lesser extent, been brought over into the faith together. This is in the past how whole countries have been won: currently, how whole tribes are being brought into the faith, be it the Aucas in Latin America or the Sawi in Indonesia. If secularized Europeans, strong in the brotherly solidarities of their trade unions, are to be brought to Christianity, it will be necessary for the church to engage with this corporate aspect of evangelism. For evangelism can not and must not merely be "plucking brands from the burning," but changing the direction of society toward the living God instead of away from Him.
Evangelism is not an optional extra for those who like that sort of thing. It is a major part of the obedience of the whole church at the command of its Lord. He told us to go into all the world and make disciples. It is hard to see how we can realistically acknowledge Him as Lord if we take no notice of what He tells us to do. The church, Peter reminds us, exists not least to "declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy" (1 Peter 2:9, 10).* Such good news is for sharing, and any church worthy of the name must ensure that it happens.
It is sad but true that so much that passes for evangelism is nothing of the sort.
Evangelism is often too institutionalized and can be seen, not inaccurately, as the church out to gain new recruits.
Evangelism is often too atomized, with the spiritual side cut off from the rest of life. Emphasis on the response of the spirit to Christ is not matched by care for the physical and moral well-being of the whole person.
Evangelism is often too fossilized: the package in which the good news is wrapped becomes mistakenly identified with the good news itself, and the result is culture-bound Christianity. This has happened all too obviously in the export of European trappings and denominations, along with the good news itself, to Africa and Asia.
Evangelism is, moreover, far too clericalized. Evangelism is generally seen as the preserve of the clergy. If a person is contemplating ordination, folk say: "Oh, so you are going into the church, are you?" This virtual identification in many minds of the church with its ministers is one of the most serious distortions of Christianity hampering the spread of the gospel in our generation.
In some circles evangelism has be come too secularized. As a reaction against simplistic, pietistic calls to repentance, many of the more radical Christians of our day have identified evangelism with taking the part of the poor and oppressed. That identification is utterly right and praiseworthy. But when it ex tends to supplying them with arms and embracing terrorist liberation movements, the case is much less clear. And when such action is described as evangelism, we have moved a long way from the Jesus who refused to take the sword and yet was crucified upon a freedom fighter's gibbet.
At the other extreme, and more commonly, it is easy to see a Christianity that is "pasteurized." Like milk, it is treated and bottled before being served out. You get an evangelism that is not definite, annoys nobody, challenges nobody, trans forms nobody. An evangelism that is not about radical change, but a gradual osmosis into the ecclesiastical system. That is a very far cry from Jesus, the most extreme radical the world has ever seen, who was always challenging men and women to leave the cherished areas of their selfish lives and come, follow Him. The church has often domesticated Jesus and emasculated the good news.
These are all expressions of impoverished evangelism. We need to get back to the breadth of the good news as Jesus Himself proclaimed it to an astonished home synagogue in Nazareth: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord" (Luke 4:18, 19). Jesus shut the scroll of Isaiah 61 from which He had been reading this passage and amazed His hearers by informing them "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (verse 21). This was no ordinary good news and no ordinary messenger. It was nothing less than God's long-awaited salvation, proclaimed by the Messiah Himself. God had indeed come to the rescue of a world in need. No wonder, then, that it became known in short as to euanggelion, the good news.
The passage in Isaiah was highly significant. It relates to the period after the Babylonian exile; and the messenger, anointed with God's own Spirit, announces God's signal victory, His kingly rule. It betokens nothing less than the dawn of a new age, and one from which the heathen are not excluded. The days of salvation have arrived. The people of God are ready and waiting for Him like a bride for her husband, their unworthiness covered by a robe of righteousness, their relationship with their God established by an everlasting covenant. These are days of liberation, days of healing, days of great good news, which is meant to spread like wildfire. God is reaching out from a rebuilt Jerusalem to make His ways known to the Gentiles. All that, and more, is contained in the chapter of Isaiah from which Jesus read this manifesto at the inauguration of His good news for the world. Evangelism is a many-splendored thing.
What is evangelism?
There are three definitions of evangelism I have found helpful.
The first is one word: overflow. It gives the right nuance, of someone who is so full of joy about Jesus Christ that it overflows as surely as a bathtub that is filled to overflowing with water. It is a natural thing. It is a very obvious thing. Accordingly, it has the quality that so much evangelism lacks, spontaneity. Incidentally, "overflow" is a very passable translation of a Greek word that occurs a good deal in the New Testament to describe the liberated confidence of the Christian, plerophoria. Paul reminds the Thessalonians that "our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and [in much plerophoria}," much confident overflow (1 Thess. 1:5).
The second definition is a phrase attributed to C. H. Spurgeon, the famous nineteenth-century British preacher and evangelist. Evangelism, he maintained, "is one beggar telling another beggar where to get bread." I like that definition. It draws attention both to the needs of the recipient and to the generosity of the giver. God will not give us a stone when we ask Him for bread. I like the equality it underscores. There is no way that an evangelist is any better or on any higher ground than the person to whom he is talking. The ground is level around the cross of Christ. The only difference be tween the two hungry beggars is that one has been fed and knows where food is always available. There is no great mystique about it. Evangelism is simply telling a fellow searcher where he can get bread. But there is another touch that is important in this definition. It reminds us that we cannot bring this good news to others unless we personally have come to "taste and see that the Lord is good" (Ps. 34:8).
But perhaps the most all-embracing definition of evangelism, and one that has won the most wide-reaching acceptance, belongs to the English archbishop William Temple. It comes at the outset of the report entitled Towards the Conversion of England, and it runs as follows: "To evangelize is to present Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, that men shall come to put their trust in God through him, to accept him as their Saviour, and serve him as their King in the fellowship of his church." If we accept that definition, it says some very important things about evangelism.
First, evangelism is not the same as mission. Mission is one half of the reason for the church's existence; worship is the other. In these two ways we are called to display what it means to be "a colony of heaven." But the mission of the church is, of course, much broader than evangelism. It embodies the total impact of the church on the world: its influence; its involvement with the social, political, and moral life of the community and nation where it is placed; its succor of bleeding humanity in every way possible. This mission includes evangelism. The greatest thing we can do for people is to bring them face-to-face with the Christ who died for them. But it is clear that evangelism is one aspect, and one only, of the total mission of the church.
Second, evangelism is good news about Jesus. It is not advancing the claims of a church, of a nation, of an ideology, but of Jesus Himself. As Pope Paul VI put it, "There is no true evangelism if the name, the teaching, the promises, the life, the death, the resurrection, the kingdom, and the mystery of Jesus Christ the Son of God are not proclaimed." At the time of the 1960 Olympics a magazine carried an amazing cartoon showing the celebrated runner from Marathon arriving in Athens and falling exhausted on the ground while he mumbles, with a blank look on his face, "I have forgotten the message." Alas, that often seems to be the case with the contemporary church. Unless Jesus Himself, who became the gospel through His death and resurrection, is the essence of our message, whatever we are doing is not evangelism.
Third, evangelism is centered in God the Father. Jesus Christ shares God's nature and ours. He is a reliable indicator of what God is like. But He does not exhaust the Godhead. He said, "The Father is greater than I" (John 14:28). Accordingly, any evangelism that is so Jesus-oriented that it leaves us with a forgotten Father is less than fully Christian. The Jesus movement of the 1960s, for all its strengths, had a notable weakness in this area. It was a Jesus religion. But the religion of the New Testament is firmly trinitarian. It brings us to the source of the Godhead, the Father Himself, through the agency of the Son, and at the instigation of the Holy Spirit.
And that is the fourth characteristic of evangelism, as defined by William Temple. It is something that depends entirely for its effectiveness on the work of the Holy Spirit. We human beings are quite unable to draw others to Christ. It is the prerogative of the Holy Spirit to convict people of their need of Christ, to make Him real to them, to bring them to confess that He is Lord, to baptize them into Christ's body, the church, and to assure them that they belong. All this is the Spirit's work, not ours. That must never be forgotten. We can speak and challenge, urge and encourage, as we will, but we are totally unable to bring anyone "from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God" (Acts 26:18). That is God's sovereign work alone.
Fifth, evangelism means incorporation into the church, the body of Christ. And here we encounter one of the very worrying features of so much televangelism. Viewers are invited to put their hands on the TV set, to open their lives to Christ, and so forth; but only a tiny fraction of those who make some profession of faith in this setting ever come into the family of the church. Yet evangelism in the New Testament is shamelessly corporate. You may come to Christ on your own, but as soon as you do, you find yourself among a whole family of brothers and sisters. It has been well said that a Christianity that does not begin with the individual does not begin: but a Christianity that ends with the individual ends. This is something that Protestant Christians have to learn from their Catholic brethren. As Pope Paul VI expressed it:
"Evangelization is for no one an individual and isolated act. It is one that is deeply ecclesial. When the most obscure preacher in the most distant land preaches the gospel, gathers his little community together or administers a sacrament, even alone, he is carrying out an ecclesial act, and his action is certainly attached to the evangelizing activity of the whole church."
Sixth, our definition makes it very clear that evangelism challenges decision. It is not enough for people to hear the preaching of the gospel and to be moved by the quality of Christian lives among them. They have to decide whether or not to bow the knee to Jesus as their king. The decision may be slow or sud den; that is not the point. It may be implicit if the person has grown up and been nourished from early years in a believing home and community, or it may be very explicit. In either case it has to be made. It does not matter whether or not I can recall the day of my surrender. What matters is whether or not I am in that relationship of commitment and obedience to Him now. The teaching of Jesus and of the apostles, the evangelistic preaching of Christians down the centuries, has always had this element of challenge. There are two ways a man may travel. There are two foundations that a life may rest on. There are two states, darkness and light, that we may inhabit. Two, and not more. There is a choice that we cannot evade. Not to decide is, in fact, to decide. And that decision carries immensely important and far-reaching implications. Shall we or shall we not come to put our trust in God through Him? Shall we or shall we not accept Him as our Saviour? We must choose.
Finally, the definition that Temple adopted makes the important point that true evangelism issues in discipleship. It is not simply a matter of proclaiming good news, or of eliciting decisions for Christ, getting hands raised, or a cry of commitment made. The goal in evangelism is nothing less than fulfilling the Great Commission and making disciples of Jesus Christ. A disciple is a learner. And evangelism that is truly evangelism issues in a life that is changed from going my way to going Christ's way. There will be many a fall, of course, but the direction is what matters. And the direction of the Christian is to be headed Christ's way and to seek to serve Him as our King in the fellowship of brother and sister Christians in the church. The evangelist has no business to be looking simply for decisions, important though the element of decision undoubtably is. He is out for disciples--and not for himself, his church, or his organization; he is out for disciples of Jesus Christ.
Such--and nothing less--is evangelism. And the earliest Christians were always at it: in the shops and the streets, in the laundries and on the seashore. In many parts of the world, especially Africa, Asia, and Latin America, they still are. But in much of Europe and North America we hang back from forthright, warm, enthusiastic evangelism. Why is that?
* Texts in this article are from the Revised Standard Version.