What is evangelism?

Someone told me yesterday about a book – it doesn’t matter which – on personal witness, that included chapters such as ‘preparing to evangelise’ and ‘what to do after you’ve evangelised’. The language grated, and I’ve been trying to analyse why.

The implicit assumption in the language (and, it seemed clear from the description, in the book) is that ‘evangelism’ is a discrete, verbal activity that consists essentially of stating a small number of particular theological propositions (concerning universal sinfulness; atonement in Christ’s death; and the need for personal appropriation of that atonement) in the hearing of someone who is not yet a Christian believer. Now, I am not, of course, opposed to doing this thing. But to restrict ‘evangelism’ to this seems to me to be unbearably limiting, and patently obviously unbiblical.

I wrote an article recently for the Evangelical Alliance magazine IDEA on mission. In part, I wrote this:

Does this mean that anything that is not proclaiming the gospel directly is not mission? I would rather ask the question a different way: when Jesus touched a leper, or ate with a tax collector, or healed an outcast, was he not proclaiming the gospel directly? Was Peter not proclaiming the gospel just as much when he went to eat with Cornelius as when he preached to him? Christian social action is, or should be, a living out of the message of reconciliation that God has committed to us. Actually, every aspect of our lives should be a living out of that gospel. Our activities, our values, our decisions about work and family—and about shopping and voting—are, or should be, decisions that are incomprehensible except for the truth of the atoning sacrifice of Christ. Mission is not something we do; it is what we are. The word literally means ‘being sent’. Christian mission means being sent by Christ, being sent by Christ to live out the truth of his atoning sacrifice. And living out that truth means proclaiming it, joyfully and reverently, to all people at all times and in all places. And it also means living in patterns of love and service that would be incomprehensible had Christ not lived and died. It means raising our children and spending our money differently to those around us, eating and drinking, even, only to the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31). There is no part of an obedient, properly lived Christian life that is ‘not proclaiming the gospel directly’.

I don’t think St Francis of Assisi ever said ‘Preach the gospel always, and use words if you must’ (the closest in the authentic writings is, I think, ch. XVII of the Rule (1221), which is actually about Brothers who have not been licenced to preach). I’m not even very comfortable with the quotation, which is rather too often used as an excuse to not speak when words are demanded. But the idea the evangelism is a constant, continuous duty and reality of an authentic Christian life, not one confined to the speaking out of certain concepts, is surely vital. If so, any account of personal evangelism that suggests it is not a 24/7 duty and reality should be rejected as inadequate – and, indeed, simply faithless.

There is no preparation for evangelism (other than the catechumenate); there is no ‘apres evangelism’ (other than the rest of the saints in glory); there is only the constant call to follow, to live and speak at every moment in such a way that the truth of what God has done in Christ is luminously clear.

6 Comments

  1. Glen
    Mar 5, 2009

    Doing Saying and Being. Amen

  2. Andy
    Mar 7, 2009

    I think you’re right on the money with this, Steve. When I started working in sales, I was surprised at how close the selling strategies we were given were to what I’d read in popular books on evangelism. That is: highlight the customer’s need, sell the features and benefits of your product, and emphasise the ways in which the customer can apply these features and benefits to their own situation (and the consequences of ignoring them). I’ve noticed when working with students, particularly those heavily into the neo-Reformed movement, that there is a focus on the three theological positions you discussed in your post as THE way of “doing evangelism”, and I’m not sure its hugely helpful. I think, counter to this, somebody like NT Wright does a good job of emphasising the importance of missional living, and getting us out of the mindset that everything, evangelism wise, can be put in the same mould.

  3. Mark L
    Mar 9, 2009

    Yes, but….

    I completely agree with the thrust of this, Steve, and share your unease at the way “evangelism” (or any area of the Christian life for that matter)is neatly reduced to a technique, a moment in isolation. That said, in the day to day of pastoral ministry it seems to me unavoidable to talk about discrete activities in the Christian life, whether evangelism or worship etc. On one level, the risk is always that these activities are “reduced” in this way, but it seems to me that ordinary Christians need to have things broken down into bite-sized chunks (very modernist though that may be), and then to put a label on them. The challenge for those of us who pastor and preach is maybe to set these things in the larger context, and to try and keep the boundaries as fluid as possible.

  4. Steve H
    Mar 12, 2009

    Thanks for the comments, Andy, Mark – sorry not to reply before now. This seems to have been ‘meetings week’ in St Andrews…

    @Mark: I hear what you say, of course. The conversation that prompted this post involved a faithful Christian who pours out his life in service for disadvantaged kids lamenting that he ‘never had a chance to evangelise them’. The comment made me very sad, from several angles…

  5. ross
    Mar 28, 2009

    I’m not in any way seeking to undermine the importance of loving and serving in Christ’s name, but isn’t evangelism, sharing the ‘Good News’, the ‘euangelion’? I’m not sure that News can be effectively shared without words.

    I think mission is broader than evangelism, I also (of course) agree that our lives as well as our lips must display something of the Lordship of Christ, but if the Good News is not shared with words then people will not be confronted by who Jesus is, or by what he has done for them- I wouldnt be happy with any definition of evangelism that could allow for this.

  6. John Harris
    Sep 23, 2010

    Great post. Much of what is categorized as “evangelism” isn’t. Evangelism is the proclamation of the gospel. Discipleship, begins with evangelism, and continues by “closing the circle” so to speak and creating followers of Jesus who reach out to create new followers of Jesus as they themselves become better disciples.

    A great mission statement for a church that I recently heard was “Making more and better disciples” I’d say “followers of Jesus” in stead of “disciples” because most people don’t use that term properly

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