The Gospel and Evangelism (Part 1): Introduction
“Evangelism is not persuading people to make a decision; it is not proving that God exists, or making out a good case for the truth of Christianity; it is not inviting someone to a meeting, it is not exposing the contemporary dilemma, or arousing interest in Christianity; it is not wearing a badge saying ‘Jesus Saves’!
While I was in seminary I had the honor of taking a few courses under Dr. John Hammett, a Baptist theologian who ended up being one of the most influential professors in my own theological development. In his book Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches Dr. Hammett made a statement about evangelism that jolted my interest in the subject in a fresh way.
Hammett stated that “there is almost a total absence of commands concerning evangelistic involvement in the New Testament.” He then explains, “this is not to say that evangelism is absent from the pages of the New Testament. On the contrary, evangelism is everywhere…but it is almost hardly ever commanded.” In conclusion of that thought Hammett argues that, “the implication we are to draw from the New Testament is that evangelism should be a natural product of a healthy church.” Simply put, evangelism is never commanded because it is always assumed – interrelated with the whole of the Christian life.
I had always categorized evangelism as a specific type of ministry or a specifically focused activity. So the statement that there is a “total absence of commands concerning evangelistic involvement in the New Testament” did not initially sit right with me. I assume that many Christians would have the same reaction when reading such a comment. What should we make of such a reaction?
Perhaps our understanding of evangelism is unhealthily tied to specific outreach efforts or other compartmentalized endeavors that have an evangelistic thrust. If so, it is quite possible that we have developed the wrong criteria for judging and evaluating the success of our evangelistic efforts on a personal and corporate level.
I am very thankful for the emphasis on evangelism we have experienced in the contemporary Church. But I have my concerns. When I survey much of the material that we are using to train people in evangelism I come to the conclusion that we need a more balanced understanding of evangelism that moves beyond decision-oriented presentations to gospel-centered transformation. We need to move from an exclusive focus on the after life and include a thorough understanding of the mission-life. We also need to be careful not to confuse the method with the message.
It is quite possible for someone to equate evangelism with a particular method of sharing the faith. Method’s of sharing one’s faith are not bad “in and of” themselves. But, it is important to recognize that particular methods of ‘sharing one’s faith’ implicitly shape how we understand of evangelism, and how we evaluate those efforts. It would seem that we can safely categorize most forms of evangelism training into three categories:
- Cold-Contact Evangelism: street evangelism, tract distribution
- Mass Evangelism: crusades, outreach events, media broadcasts
- Visitation Evangelism: door to door outreach, visitor follow-up
These methods (illustrated in the categories above) are best suited for specific contexts. The problem is that the majority of our “day to day” living happens in situations outside of where these methods are focused. Yet most of the evangelism training in the American church is dependant on such programs, methods, and activities. Well, what about everyday living? I have been thinking to myself, how can we train our people to live evangelistically – or to put it another way, missionally – in the context of their everyday life?
This is where I think we need to spend our time. Not developing another nifty way to share our faith, or coming up with another gimmick to get people in the doors of our churches – we need to understand, and learn how to talk about the gospel in such a way that evangelism is natural to our everyday conversation. I whole heartedly believe that if we understand the gospel and its implications clearly we will learn how to live with “gospel intentionality.”
What Evangelism Is Not
I have often found that it is quite helpful to define ‘what something is not’ before you attempt to explain ‘what something is.’ An attempt to work towards clarity would be helpful as we begin to study evangelism. It is my opinion that once we strip away our misunderstandings of evangelism we can destroy our false assumptions and fears that have become our reasons not to share the gospel with others.
a.) Emotional Manipulation:
There are many well intentioned Pastors who never purposely mean to manipulate someone into repenting and believing in Jesus. But some of the methods that have been employed in corporate gatherings (and even in one on one conversation) to elicit a response have done just that.
In his book The Deliberate Church, Mark Dever argues that: “sometimes pastors will use service music in ways that play on the emotions…that draws out the listeners affections and misguidedly encourages a decision for Christ based on feelings.” It is quite possible to elicit a response out of someone when they don’t even know what they are responding to. I have seen many pastors call for an alter call without explaining the gospel clearly. How can someone respond if they don’t understand? Emotion is not bad – but when it comes to evangelism, emotion must be stirred by the truth of the gospel. Just stirring emotion to elicit a response is not evangelism.
In the scripture we are instructed to give a reason for the hope that we have. This is much of the work of apologetics. While apologetics allows us to answer questions and objections that people may have about the faith, and may present wonderful opportunities for evangelism – we should necessarily not equate apologetics with evangelism. Another way to put it is like this, “Apologetic arguments cannot generate faith, but the Christian can answer the false charges of the unbeliever so that obstacles to hearing the gospel are removed.”
By far the greatest danger in apologetics is being distracted from the main message. Evangelism cannot be equated with defending the virgin birth, defending the historicity of the resurrection, or proving a six day creation.
c.) Personal Testimony:
Personal testimony plays an important role in the witness of the Christian life, but one can give a personal testimony without ever presenting the Gospel. You will often hear things in evangelism training like ‘no one can refute what God has done in your life’, which has truth to it. But we must be careful. One can agree with your testimony without ever being confronted with the truth of the Gospel.
Dever writes: “It’s good to share a testimony of what God has done in our lives, but in sharing our testimonies we may not actually make clear what Christ’s claims are on other people.” The Gospel does not center on what God ‘can do for you’, or how ‘God can make your life better’ – yet many testimonies implicitly communicate that. The content of the message is the Gospel, not our journey to faith.
d.) Clean Living:
Certainly every believer in Christ will live a life that “is worthy of our calling.” Evangelism includes who we are, but it is much more. Saint Francis of Assisi once wrote “preach the gospel at all times, if necessary, use words.” I could not disagree with these words more. The danger is that someone can live a morally clean life around others and those people never hear the good news of Jesus Christ. Being a moral person does not proclaim the gospel.
e.) Social Action:
The desire to transform or redeem culture though Christian’s doing “good works” has become a very popular in recent years. As Christians we are told to “resist evil” and “let our light shine before others.” We are also urged to care for the poor, abandoned, and lonely. But doing these good things should not be equated to evangelism.
It is wonderful to be involved in ministries that improve society, but social action in and of itself is not evangelism. I can feed hundreds of starving children and yet the truth remains that I cannot satisfy their deepest needs with food, they will all one day die. I think John Stott said it well when he wrote that social action and evangelism are “partners.” See, these efforts may help commend the gospel, but are not evangelism.
Many people only feel successful in evangelism if they see the desired results. We shouldn’t want our gospel presentations and invitations to be finally molded by what we think will “close the deal.” If they are, then they reveal that we think conversion is something we can orchestrate, which is the furthest thing from the truth.”
This is a subtle but dangerous mistake. We should guard against misinterpreting the desired results of evangelism, the conversion of unbelievers, with evangelism itself.
Confusing evangelism with one of these categories above distorts and even hinders well meaning churches into a pragmatic and results-oriented approach to sharing the faith, which in turn “cripples individual Christians with a sense of failure, aversion, and guilt.”
The Church needs a biblical understanding of evangelism. We need to teach our people that effectiveness in evangelism “does not depend on eloquence, using the right mood lighting, emotionally sappy stories and songs, or high-pressure sales pitches.” We need to reach a place where we know how to live with gospel intentionality – a place where the content and implications of the gospel become so clear and understandable to us that it becomes part of our daily talk. I hope for the day that we see evangelism happen in the same way as historians tell us it did in the early church. Oxford professor Michael Green paints a picture of what the early evangelism must have looked like:
“This must often have been not formal preaching, but informal chattering to friends and chance acquaintances, in homes and wine shops, on walks, and around market stalls. They went everywhere gossiping the gospel; they did it naturally, enthusiastically, and with the conviction of those who are not paid to say that sort of thing. Consequently…the movement spread.”
- John Cheeseman, Saving Grace, 113.
- John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology, (Grand Rapids: Kregal, 2005), 253.
- Hammett, 253.
- J.I. Packer argues that “evangelism is one of the activities that the Father and Son have commanded.” Packer is building this argument from Christ’s Great Commission to his disciples in Matthew 28:19. But it has been noted that in this passage Christ is commanding the disciples to go and make other disciples by teaching them to obey all that he had commanded them. In the strictest sense of the word, evangelism is not commanded here. While evangelism should not be seen in isolation from discipleship it should be noted that it is only implied in this particular passage. (J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, 74.)
- Hammett, 254.
- These broad categories come from an article by Tim Keller titled Evangelism through Networking, July 1992.
- This verbiage is borrowed from Tim Chester and Steve Timmis, Total Church, 68.
- Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church, 56.
- 1 Peter 3:15.
- Joseph Rosas, Evangelism and Apologetics, 115
- Mark Dever, The Gospel & Personal Evangelism, 78.
- Psalm 66:16; John 9:25, 1 Corinthians 1:5-6.
- Mark Dever, The Gospel & Personal Evangelism, 73.
- 2 Thessalonians 1:11, Ephesians 4:1.
- Matthew 5:16.
- John Stott, Christian Mission, 27.
- Ibid., 56-57.
- Mark Dever, The Gospel and Personal Evangelism, 79.
- Thabiti Anyabwile, What Is A Healthy Church Member?, 58.
- Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, 173.