One of the great misconceptions in the church is that evangelism is a practice that is saddled by what I call “para-practices.” It is my evolving argument that if evangelism is to be practiced with both integrity and effectiveness, we must understand what it is and also what it is NOT.
I remember talking with the leadership at the local church where I serve as I was coming on board as the Associate Pastor of Evangelism. Through our conversations it became very clear that this title was to be understood in terms of recruiting new church members. It’s a fine practice to seek to grow the church. But if evangelism is riddled with membership growth alone, then one is judged by the measurable growth of the local congregation. Growing a local congregation is a very worthy task that we should take seriously. But it’s NOT primary to the practice of evangelism.
To combat my apprehension to embrace the “church growth” mentality, I’ve worked to intrinsically link discipleship to the practice of evangelism. Before one joins a local church it’s vital that they are linked into some sort of small group that focusses on discipleship. However, we have to be clear that discipleship, while incredibly vital to the life of the local church, is NOT primary to the practice of evangelism.
A third misconception of evangelism is rooting it in the practice of initiation into the Christian community. William Abraham makes a wonderful case for this in his classic textbook, “The Logic of Evangelism.” But this view inherently goes against the Wesleyan belief in prevenient grace. If God is already present and active in the world and in the lives of all people (universality of grace), then evangelism is not properly defined if initiation is the primary concern of evangelism. Initiation begins the process of recognizing one’s self as the person God intends them to be and then learning the language of life in the world of faith lived out in the church. But initiation is always a secondary concern to the practice of evangelism.
Another misconception of evangelism is riddling it with the primary concern of converting others. This is a classic idea of what evangelism is and it always comes with countless destructive stories laced with judgment and misplacing the importance of the gospel as an assurance (insurance?) of where a non-believer will spend the after life. Conversion is very important in the life of faith. One must learn a new orientation to life if one is to grow in discipleship. But this is not a primary concern of evangelism.
So what is the primary concern of evangelism?
The root of “evangelism” is the noun “evangel.” This word comes from the Greek word, “euangelos,” meaning “messenger bringing good news.” This root stakes the claim that the primary concern of evangelism is two-fold: 1) Know the story; and 2) Tell the story.
My new friend, Dr. David Lowes Watson, told me the story of his work with a church evangelism team. He said that this team met on a weekly basis and had a single task that they observed each week. They were to find two examples: one example of God’s kingdom breaking forth into the world and one example of God’s kingdom being stifled in the world. The group would meet and choose one example of each type every week. These examples were printed in the church’s weekly newsletter. This practice eventually raised the consciousness of the local congregation in that it helped them develop a lens to discern the presence of God around them as well as ways that presence is ignored or stifled.
On a larger level this story has challenged my perspective on the primary concern of evangelism. Too often I’ve allowed the practice of evangelism to be saddled with issues of discipleship, initiation, church growth, and conversion. While these are important, it’s equally important to treat these areas as secondary to the practice of evangelism.
Evangelism is at its heart primarily concerned with announcing the reign of God in the world as a means of identifying God’s vision FOR the world. Therefore the role of the evangelist, or the evangelizing community, is one of discernment. If evangelism is to have any integrity at all it has to separate itself from a transactional understanding that seeks to convert others to a particular way of believing through the means of manipulation. We also haveto be suspicious of linking the practice of evangelism too closely with growing and sustaining the organization we call the church.
Evangelism is, first and foremost, an announcement. Plain and simple evangelism announces to the world the good news that God, through Jesus Christ, is reconciling the world and making all things new. That’s a high and holy call to tell that sort of news through word and deed. We have to trust that the Holy Spirit will be present and work through this pronouncement in ways beyond our finite imaginations. This isn’t about growing the church, although the church’s growth ensures that more and more can be empowered to tell this story and participate in God’s ongoing work of reconciliation. This isn’t about deepening people’s faith in discipleship, although people will surely be called to a deeper understanding of faith upon hearing this kind of news. This isn’t even about converting or initiating others to a particular way of believing and living, although through the power of the Holy Spirit this kind of good news compels others to see their lives in a new way–through the eyes of a loving and holy God.
What’s the primary concern of evangelism? Learn the story of God’s mighty acts of reconciliation with the world and find ways to live and tell this incredible story because it’s of vital concern that the world hear this story. That seems to be a good place to start to me.