Editorial

The E word

Even Adventists regard evangelism with pessimism and skepticism. They dislike tactics based on fear, intimidation, manipulation, and coercion that cause the message to be lost in the method. Such uneasiness accounts for the chiding references some employ in caricaturing evangelism as the E word.

Rex D. Edwards, D.Min. is an associate vice president and director of religious studies, Griggs University, Silver Spring, Maryland.

In thinking about evangelism, some call to mind Elmer Gantry, the anxious bench, sawdust trails, tent meetings, altar calls, and endless verses of "Just as I Am." Others picture the charismatic power of a Dwight L. Moody, Billy Graham, or C. D. Brooks. More than a few have memories of shouting, gasping hellfire preachers in white leisure suits and patent leather shoes. For baby boomers, evangelism evokes images of Mormons on bicycles, "I Found It!" buttons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Jesus freaks, Hare Krishnas in air ports, and faith healers.

Even Adventists regard evangelism with pessimism and skepticism. They dislike tactics based on fear, intimidation, manipulation, and coercion that cause the message to be lost in the method. Such uneasiness accounts for the chiding references some employ in caricaturing evangelism as the E word.

A recent study among ministers and laity published in Christianity Today revealed three basic conceptions of evangelism. The first comprises models that communicate a plan of salvation and a call for decision. About one fourth of those surveyed held this concept. Within the second category cluster various understandings of sharing the faith or communicating about Christ with no emphasis on outcome or result. This was the majority view. The third category involved building friendships or relationships; about one fifth of those surveyed mentioned this model.

Much dissent within the church over evangelism comes from isolating one model from the others and rejecting those who disagree. In reality, all three types are appropriate for different times and situations.

Evangelism must be understood as any form of communication or witness that influences someone toward faith or depth of relationship with Jesus Christ. At the same time, we must not abdicate responsibility to call people to significant decisions and ongoing growth in the faith. The operative assumption that biological church growth experienced through births within the church is the basic paradigm for many churches in the Western world is no longer valid. As pastors, church professionals, and congregations, we must foster an approach to evangelism that builds an active, inviting membership, one that presents a faithful, hospitable community open to Christians and non- Christians alike.

Think globally, act locally

Each congregation and each member must assume responsibility for evangelism in their particular locality, for neither denominational nor global evangelism has an incarnational reality until it becomes local evangelism. Evangelism and ecology are similar in that we must think globally but act locally. In a sense, evangelism is not a denominational issue, for it cannot be done by denominational boards, staff, or agencies. Rather, the particular congregation is the matrix within which evangelism can and must take place. The various governing bodies may serve a role of advocacy, providing resources, training, and networking, with conferences having responsibility for planting churches, but ultimately congregations must own the task of evangelism, or it will not occur. This has been the burden of the 12-part series "Evangelism in the Local Church" set forth in Ministry during 1993.

A vast body of literature provides insight into vital factors contributing to the deterioration of congregations. While this information is foundational, we must move beyond a pathology of the church. Rather than bemoaning the decline and decay of many congregations, we must work to better the health of the church by modeling a wellness approach to ministry and evangelism. This strategy includes proclaiming the gospel and its call to faith in Jesus Christ with integrity and clarity, vital worship and music, collegial ministry between pastor and people, spiritual growth, active outreach, and empathic pastoral care.

The Lazarus syndrome

In laying claim to the demonstrated strengths of our heritage, we must beware of what can be termed the Lazarus syndrome. Our attempts to reclaim the vigor of our tradition can entice us to resuscitate the past and a host of congregational corpses. Congregational revitalization and redevelopment can occur only as we allow the methods and mind-set based primarily on institutional maintenance or survival to die. The focus of the congregation's mission is resurrected in discerning its call to be evangelistic, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life and ministry.


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Rex D. Edwards, D.Min. is an associate vice president and director of religious studies, Griggs University, Silver Spring, Maryland.

May 1994

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