Evangelism: What is it? Do you have to do it?
What is Evangelism? Do you have to do it? Read on… perhaps you already do!
Jesus’ “Great Commission” of Matthew 28:18-20 is, without doubt, the assignment of a primary role to the church: “to evangelise the world”. The degree to which this is “the” primary role, however, is not universally agreed. There may be other primary roles.
On one extreme, the instruction is interpreted as a commandment for each and every Christian rather than for the church as a whole, to engage in proclaiming the kerygma. On the other extreme it is almost ignored because it is taken as a command given only to the early church.
The real question relates to what Jesus Christ considered to be the “role of the church” in the world. By looking at that question we end up needing to assess the definition of the verb “to evangelise” in his terms before we can answer the question. Having done so, “to evangelise the world” can be said to be “the primary role of the church”, only in terms foreign to the definition under the Lausanne Covenant of 1974.
All of what follows should be understood against the backdrop that the Kingdom of God is already active, and evangelism relates to advertising that fact (which is good news) to the world.
This is the conclusion (If you don’t want to read the whole piece below…):
To Jesus, spreading the evangelion was a whole-of-life (including death and resurrection) exercise, and was precisely equivalent to “making disciples”. When he did it, he focussed his efforts on his followers and it took about three years to “evangelise” all of them (John 20:27-28). This “evangelism” which the Church has as its primary role is therefore not merely verbalising the kingdom of God, but manifesting it both individually and, importantly, as a community.
Having written this, it would hardly be fair of I didn’t act on it. I have a series of blog posts documenting of my journey in Street Evangelism.
What was Jesus thinking?
Jesus presented a message that affects everyone (John 3:16). He established a church (Matt 16:18), and he sent that church to take a message to the world (Acts 1:8). But was this the “primary role” of the church? Were there other roles that Jesus had in mind? And what about “function” – Does the church function primarily as an evangelistic society? Should it?
We need to comprehend the role(s) assigned to the church by Christ in order to ensure that the church functions in the way he intended.
If we consider “evangelism” to mean something like “proclamation” (of the features and consequences of the kingdom of God), then it cannot be denied that Jesus depicted the evangelism of the world as one primary role for the church. It is expressed unmistakably in every Gospel (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47; John 20:21) and famously in Acts 1:8.
Importantly though, Jesus did not identify proclamation as a distinctive visible feature of his followers in the same way that he did regarding love (John 13:35, for instance). Indeed, to “love one another” is called the “new command” (John 13:34) given to the church, and it, more than proclamation, can be said to characterise the lives of the very early believers in Acts 2:42-47 (for all but the apostles). Furthermore, when Jesus ultimately returns and deals with the “sheep and the goats”, it is acts of charity and mercy that are considered true acts of relationship with him (Matt 25:31-46). Proclamation and other ministry is not always necessarily “the will of my Father”, and is not valuable in every single case (Matt 7:21-23).
Proclamation plus other things
Proclamation is therefore apparently not the only “primary role” of the Church. Jesus commissioned the church in a “primary” sense, also into roles of community building (John 13:34-35), service (Matt 10:8), forgiveness (John 20:23), and arguably social justice (Matt 12:18-21, Luke 11:42).
How has the Church behaved in the past?
The Church has functioned throughout the ages as a proclaiming entity; through the Apostles, the Moravians, the Jesuits, revival preaching, the Protestant missionary societies, tent meetings, and in the altar-call style of church service; but the Church has also functioned in a primary sense as community centre, charitable organisation, monastic cloister, sacrament dispensary, quasi-governmental authority, social justice agent and more, at various times and in various places. It may be said that these functions represent secondary roles which are contextualised by the act of proclamation because, for example, the serving commission of Matthew 10:8 is actually part of the preceding instruction to “proclaim this message…” (Matt 10:7). But is social action merely part of making proclamation more effective, or is it the other way around, with proclamation providing the “spiritual needs” at a complement to other work, which provides “temporal needs”?
We can consider several, sometimes conflicting, opinions:
making evangelism a part of everything we do is different from making evangelism the only thing we do.
She is recognising evangelism as primary, and even normative, but not exclusive. In her case it relates to worship music but the sentiment can equally be applied to charity work and all manner of the Church’s interaction with the world. These activities can be seen to be contributing to the proclamation of the kerygma, which remains the primary focus.
Most churches try to evangelize the lost and edify believers in the same service. When you send mixed signals, you’re going to get mixed results. Trying to aim at two targets with one gun only results in frustration.
This conviction led Warren to hold “evangelistic” services on Sundays, and “edification” services on Wednesdays. Evangelism is primary, in that the church defines its goals around evangelism, but Warren implicitly recognises that worship is also a vital role of the church by allocating a weekly time for it.
Wayne Cordeiro says:
“Everything we [New Hope Church, Oahu] do is connected to a soul”
By this he means the opportunity to win that soul to Christ. He says that other, socially oriented roles of the church could improve the world, but “we’d better make sure people aren’t going to hell”, which makes “evangelism”, in his view, not only primary, but exclusively the role for his particular local church. His rationale, including the suggestion that if “disease, poverty and crime” were eliminated then “probably less” people would turn to God, suggests that his view would be the same of the Universal Church. This seems sharply at odds with all of the other functions that Jesus laid out for the church.
The role of evangelism in an individual context is for each and every believer, rather than as a role for the Church as a whole entity. He says:
“Anyone who has the Spirit of God and who knows the Word of God as we do, knows that he should be engaged personally and actively in taking the gospel to people”
But he overlooks the example in the early church, of setting-apart people “full of the Spirit and wisdom” to “wait on tables” (Acts 6:2-3), so that certain others could be devoted to “the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). This seems directly to contradict Chapman’s assertion.
Hybels similarly considers evangelism to be important at an individual level, but ultimately talks of “Contagious Churches”. He describes 15 characteristics of such churches, none of which relates to social justice or service to the community. The controlling characteristic is that “evangelism is a basic value” of such a church.
Sider argues against the separation of “evangelism” from other aspects of Christian responses to the Gospel, focussing on “social action” as also being indispensable. He quotes a sardonic quip:
There is no greater menace in the church than a born-again Christian without a social conscience.
Could he be talking about some of the church leaders I have quoted above…?
He cites the unmistakable emphasis throughout Biblical revelation, of God’s “heart for the poor”, even saying:
The Bible says more about God’s concern for the poor than it does about prayer or the Atonement or Jesus’ resurrection.
But Sider is quick to caution against “liberation theologians” who “make [‘social action’] the central biblical truth”, saying “that, too, is wrong”.
Social Concern need not be pre-evangelism
Sider’s view is that “social concern need not be pre-evangelism to be legitimate”, but that social concern arises from “our doctrine of Creation”. He says that Jesus “summoned the whole Jewish community to adopt his kingdom values on economics, marriage, women, leadership, enemies—in short, everything”, in which case sharing his message necessarily involves far more than merely proclaiming the Salvation dogma of the church.
The Lausanne Covenant of 1974 expresses contrition for “our neglect and for having sometimes regarded evangelism and social concern as mutually exclusive”, but goes on to define evangelism and social action as being at least definitely distinct from one another.
This raises the question of the definition of “evangelism”, which has often (particularly in the Protestant tradition) been taken narrowly to mean verbal or other proclamation of the features and consequences of the kingdom of God. However, this fails to accommodate the teaching that the “truth” is a “life”, which is the “way”, as exemplified in Christ (John 14:6).
What is it, “to Gospel”?
The message to be proclaimed, the “evangelion” of God, is not represented in the Bible merely as a factoid to be articulated. When Philip requested to see the Father, Jesus said that the Father was “living in me … doing his work” (John 14:10), and therefore he asks, “How can you say, ‘show us the Father’?” (John 14:9). In the same way, a Christian living “led by the spirit” (Romans 8:14) is making a proclamation about that spirit, because a believer living such a life can turn someone else to Christ (1 Peter 3:1).
In fact, in Matt 10:7-8, Jesus commissioned his followers to proclaim the message with instructions on what actions would be appropriate (“heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons” – Matthew 10:8). The message was therefore not isolated from the activities but to some extent expressed by them.
Hybels seeks “maximum impact”, but in his vernacular this refers to the maximum number of people confessing Christianity. Is it really conceivable that Jesus intended the only impact of his teaching to be a personal one, which is infectious, but which makes no other difference to the world? Sider talks about other “impacts” under the headings, “relief, development, and structural change”. But Jesus did not explicitly define his mission in those terms.
The evangelion could not be imparted merely by words (2 Cor 3:6). Jesus would likely have found the modern, reductionist understanding of “evangelism”, as distinct from holy living, charitable acts, social action, and political engagement, quite a foreign way of thinking. For Jesus, imparting the evangelion naturally included all of these things (Luke 7:22), expressed together as exemplary of a concept he called “the kingdom of God” (Matthew 12:28; Luke 10:9, 11:20, 21:31; Acts 1:3).
Therefore, if we define “evangelism” as “spreading the evangelion of God”, where that “evangelion“ has distinctive characteristics and values, for example as listed in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:2-47), which the Church is commissioned to exemplify (Matt 5:48), as a form of proclamation (Matt 5:16), then whether the members of the church are more generally living according to those distinctives, or evangelists are more particularly “preaching” them, the evangelion of God is being spread. An “evangelist” is given to the Church (Ephesians 4:11) to articulate the features of the kingdom, but the community is to demonstrate them.
Making Disciples is Evangelism
Therefore it is possible, but only with a much broader definition of “evangelism”, to define this as “the primary role” of the Church, but the definition is very important. To Jesus, spreading the evangelion was a whole-of-life (including death and resurrection) exercise, and was precisely equivalent to “making disciples”. When he did it, he focussed his efforts on his followers and it took about three years to “evangelise” them (John 20:27-28). This “evangelism” which the Church has as its primary role is therefore not merely verbalising the kingdom of God, but manifesting it both individually and, importantly, as a community.
Chapman, John C. Know and Tell the Gospel : The Why and How of Evangelism. Sydney: Hodder and Stoughton, 1982.
Cordeiro, W. Doing Church as a Team: The Miracle of Teamwork and How It Transforms Churches: Gospel Light, 2009.
Hybels, B., and M. Mittelberg. Becoming a Contagious Christian: Zondervan, 1994.
“The Lausanne Covenant.” http://www.lausanne.org/en/documents/lausanne-covenant.html.
Morgenthaler, Sally. Worship Evangelism : Inviting Unbelievers into the Presence of God. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House, 1995.
Sider, R.J. Evangelism and Social Action: Uniting the Church to Heal a Lost and Broken World: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993.
Warren, Richard. The Purpose Driven Church : Growth without Compromising Your Message & Mission. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub., 1995.
 Sally Morgenthaler, Worship Evangelism : Inviting Unbelievers into the Presence of God (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House, 1995), 88.
 Richard Warren, The Purpose Driven Church : Growth without Compromising Your Message & Mission (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub., 1995), 245.
 W. Cordeiro, Doing Church as a Team: The Miracle of Teamwork and How It Transforms Churches (Gospel Light, 2009), 198.
 “Anyone who has the Spirit of God and who knows the Word of God as we do, knows that he should be engaged personally and actively in taking the gospel to people.” – John C. Chapman, Know and Tell the Gospel : The Why and How of Evangelism (Sydney: Hodder and Stoughton, 1982), 56.
 R.J. Sider, Evangelism and Social Action: Uniting the Church to Heal a Lost and Broken World (Hodder & Stoughton, 1993), 137.
 “evangelism itself is the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Saviour and Lord, with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and so be reconciled to God” – ibid.
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