Question 3: What is evangelism?
Let me say that I’m a bit nervous about writing out my thoughts on this issue in particular. Not necessarily because I’m worried about some of you branding me as a heretic or anything. Rather, it’s because I know that the professor for my Evangelism class this semester, Steve Hayner (former President of InterVarsity), has my blog in his bookmarks, and I’m sure he’ll see this post. In fact, Steve, if you’re reading this, I’d love for you to join the conversation in the comments below if you’re interested.
Steve has actually given us numerous definitions of evangelism during class. One is below:
Evangelism, in Reformed tradition, is the church’s work of proclaiming the gospel in word and deed, inviting persons to participate in the grace of God and to join in the mutual care and public ministry of the community of God’s covenant people…unfortunately, evangelism has, so to speak, fallen among thieves in the church where it has been ‘beaten and robbed’ by an unfortunate constricting of its meaning to either a fundamentalist theology, a revivalist style of preaching, or a congregational campaign for new members.” (David C. Hester, “Evangelism & Education” in How Shall We Witness: Faithful Evangelism in a Reformed Tradition)
Many people mentioned that evangelism is as much about how we act as it is actually talking to people and “telling the story.” I think that’s important to mention; you know, the old St. Francis quote that Josh mentioned. I’ve known some folks that have real specific, concrete theologies of evangelism, and know “the story” by heart – but they aren’t the type of people that you really want to hang around. The two should probably match up better than that.
Dan wanted to make things complicated, but Nathan disagreed: “I agree with those above that evangelism is as much about living the life Jesus called us to as it is explicitly telling people about Jesus and the life He makes possible. Why we always have to inflate this stuff into vast theological conundrums is beyond me.”
I think the main reason that this is seeming perhaps a bit more confusing or complicated is that we just discussed “the gospel/good news” a few weeks ago, and to say that evangelism is simply “sharing the good news” isn’t as easy now that we see there are so many different versions of what the “good news” actually is. But to help us move on, I want to share a definition of evangelism that was recently adopted by the PC(USA)’s General Assembly Council:
“We are called to invite all people to faith, repentance, and the abundant life of God in Jesus Christ, to encourage congregations in joyfully sharing the Gospel, and through the power of the Holy Spirit to grow in membership and discipleship.”
The article talks about how it is a turn back toward more “traditional evangelism.” What I find interesting is the connection between calling people to faith, and growing in membership. I suppose if the growth in membership happens, that’s fine – but I wouldn’t want to make such a connection between them. Evangelism, in my opinion, is not about growing churches or memberships. Maybe the question isn’t as hard as I’m making it out to be. Perhaps, it is what I have thought it was for many years: sharing the good news.
I think the problem I have with evangelism is perhaps not that we are called to do it, but rather some people’s motivations for evangelism. What is the goal in evangelism? To bear witness? To share a story? To grow church memberships? To make converts? Those are also important questions that we need to think about. I think, for many, the emphasis is too often on making converts, “sealing the deal”, getting them to sign on the dotted line, that we miss out on other opportunities we may have in evangelism. Perhaps, we need to be open to conversion with evangelism, but perhaps it is our OWN conversion. I think there are some similarities between the types of dialogue that can occur during evangelism and interfaith or inter-religious dialogue. Two theologians who I think have some important thoughts along the lines of conversion are Catholic missiologist Vincent Donovan and Catholic theologian Raimon Panikkar:
“…the religious person enters this arena without prejudices and preconceived solutions, knowing full well that she may in fact have to lose a particular belief or particular religion altogether. She trusts in truth. She enters unarmed and ready to be converted herself. She may lose her life – she may also be born again.” Raimon Panikkar, The Intrareligious Dialogue (New York: Paulist Press, 1999), 62-3.
“When we enter this dialogue with all the cultures of the world…we must be open to conversion – conversion to a fuller truth…If we are not open to conversion, then we have no right to enter into true religious dialogue.” Vincent Donovan, The Church in the Midst of Creation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989), 116.
I think that conversion is a possibility within evangelism – perhaps one might convert to Christianity. Perhaps the one doing the evangelism might have a type of “conversion” experience themselves as they are involved in a Spirit-dialogue, something I would call any conversation between two people that are discussing God, spirituality or other manifestations of the Spirit in the world.
So, what is evangelism? Evangelism is bearing witness to what God has done, is doing and will do in the world and in one’s life, engaging others in Spirit-dialogue and inviting people to faith.