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What Do We Mean by "Evangelism"?
Word Made Flesh presently ministers in nine countries where we live among the poor and long to communicate the Good News of King Jesus and His coming Kingdom. Typically, the term we ascribe to this activity is "evangelism." But as we minister among the poor, we wrestle with the limitations and follies of our traditional understanding of the concept.
The word "evangelism" often conjures in the contemporary mind images of televangelists, traveling preachers or zealous proselytizers. When we define evangelism, we usually talk about "getting people saved1" or "making sure you know where you are going when you die." Although we do long for people to come to know God and to have eternal security, this view is a narrow and truncated form of biblical evangelism. Such a view creates a gospel that is mere word, void of content. It secularizes and domesticates the gospel, which constrains it to the private realm and withdraws from social and political sin. It turns the gospel into a consumer product by aiming to satisfy the individual’s needs while lacking the commitment to transform humanity. This gross individualism has mutilated our concept of evangelism and fed the atomization of humanity and society.
This faulty understanding, propagated by many American evangelicals, has been successfully exported to evangelical churches around the world. Consequently, when telling our fellow Christians that we evangelize, some think we’re only talking about biblical paper dolls moving across flannel boards or PowerPoint presentations. Worse yet are the unsatisfied frowns we often see when explaining that we do not simply evangelize through our words. Therefore, we want to take this opportunity to reflect on the meaning of biblical evangelism so that our concept and practice of mission may be radicalized.
We must ask ourselves what biblical evangelism is, and how the tradition of the church can correct our currently deviated understanding. The word "evangelism" is derived from the Greek euangelion, "good news, gospel, evangel." Likewise, "evangelization"means "to announce the good news." However, since the early 19th century, church and mission circles have changed and increasingly distorted the meaning of the verb "evangelize" and its derivatives (David Bosch, Transforming Mission). In this article, we will attempt to outline an understanding of evangelism as differentiated from contemporary definitions and in line with its original meaning.
Evangelism is often described as the proclamation, presence, persuasion and prevenience of the gospel. Let us outline each of these aspects of evangelism, then look at their implications.
Evangelism is Proclamation
Evangelism is proclamation, but it is not synonymous with verbiage. It is helpful to distinguish between euangelion (gospel) and kerygma, the Greek word that refers to preaching or proclaiming that which is fundamental and all-embracing in the New Testament. Kerygma was the event of being addressed by the word. Some have suggested that there was a particular kerygmatic formula about Jesus—that is, the "language of the facts," and the facts being that God came in Jesus Christ, was crucified, resurrected and ascended. But evangelism cannot be reduced to verbalizing the Good News. Proclamation from the pulpit or mass-media tends to be a monologue, detached from relationship. Evangelism that is reduced to only proclamation is extremely individualistic. It often leads people to an interior repentance that is merely felt or pondered in thought without becoming real repentance (See Jon Sobrino, Christology at the Crossroads).
Biblical evangelism is personal. The Word was made flesh. The gospel was embodied in the person of Jesus. That is why the expression "gospel" is used in the New Testament to refer both to the apostolic proclamation of Christ and to the history of Christ. The gospel is the message; the gospel is also the life of Jesus. In Christ, the message and the messenger are indivisibly one. Jesus desires to disclose Himself; He is the Evangelist in that He continually is communicating and drawing humanity into dialogue with God. He communicates personally to persons, and He commissioned persons to continue communicating personally.
To evangelize is to communicate this joy; it is to transmit, individually and as a community, the good news of God’s love that has transformed our lives (Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation).
Therefore, the proclamation must be made in relationship and in the power of the Spirit. Paul says, "For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction" (1 Thess. 1:5).
Evangelism is not just proclaiming otherworldliness. Either to justify the status quo or to anaesthetize our inability to change it, we often preach about the "pie in the sky." Of course, we do believe and proclaim the wonderful day when God will consummate His creation, when justice and righteousness reign, and when God’s people dwell forever in His presence. But God wants us to experience abundant life even now. He wants us to experience the in-breaking of His presence and to participate in the anticipatory celebration. Jesus invites us to pray: "Let Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven" (Matt. 6:10). An overemphasis on otherworldliness causes us to detach ourselves from creation and from history. Consequently, evangelism does not speak about the promises for creation, that God will make all things new, nor does it seriously confront historical sins. That is why it is important to remember that we do not emancipate ourselves from history altogether, but we take the past promises of God up into our hopes of the future consummation as disclosed by the gospel (Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit).
The other side of otherworldliness is this-worldliness. But evangelism is not synonymous with the gospel of progress or any other socio-political movement. The martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero pointed out,
The danger of reductionism as far as evangelization is concerned can take two forms. Either it can stress only the transcendent elements of spirituality and human destiny, or it can go to the other extreme, selecting only those immanent elements of a kingdom of God that ought to be already beginning on this earth (Voice of the Voiceless).
Unfortunately, human projects have identified themselves as the coming Kingdom of God. Much of modern mission has piggybacked on the colonization of the world by Western powers. The message of the gospel of Jesus Christ was adulterated with the promises of Western culture, which assumed itself to be better and more advanced. Often in the name of civilizing, the church transplanted a foreign god and a foreign religion that not only failed to keep its promises but also actually led to cultural regress (See Jonathan J. Bonk, Missions and Money). The gospel cannot be identified with any cultural, social or political movement. In fact, it must confront and challenge them (Mortimer Arias, Announcing the Reign of God; Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society). True evangelism is Good News. It rings true in an indigenous environment because the people exist through the Word (John 1:3) and because the Spirit has already been there preparing the hearts of the people (Rom. 2:15).
If this article is right, then it seems that as Christians we would have to find some way to be involved in "social action." For most of us that means we would have to put another thing in our already busy schedule. How in the world can we fit another thing in?
Hi Martyn, if we read our bibles how can we imagine leaving social justice out?
I believe you sense a problem. The thing to do is pinpoint it.
I am new to Q, and so far I am impressed with the attempts made to explain a Christian worldview from various perspectives, and I do find myself confronted with some new and useful thoughts, ideas that challenge, and sometimes, encouragement.
What concerns I have begin with what I see to be a postmodern (which is nothing new--"there is nothing new under the sun") approach to doing theology.
First of all, this "new" way of doing theology appears to hold that anything traditional or conventional is automatically bad. The burden of proving it bad is fulfilled by offering what one perceives the traditional definition of a thing to be.
In the case at hand, evangelism is "mere words."
"We can no longer understand evangelism as mere words."
Who ever understood evangelism as "mere words"? No examples are given.
So, what we have is a red herring.
Second, there is an obvious confusion in the authors quoted (why Christians are so easily sucked in to N.T. Wright's confusion has always baffled me).
And, the confusion of these authors is to mistake the Gospel of justification by an imputed righteousness with the fruit of believing that Good News, which is sanctification.
Romans 1:16 is quoted in part.
Interesting, because in that section Paul makes no mention at all of social justice. Actually, he speaks of God's justice and the revelation of His wrath against unrighteousness, and how the gospel is a revealing of the righteousness of God (this is a biblical definition).
This brings me to a third observation: the red herring allows the author to get to his agenda, which you caught on to, the social ramifications--consequences of--the gospel.
The proof for this is found throughout the article, but rears itself for the first time in the second paragraph. Assertions, sweeping ones, are made about a deficient ("truncated" was the word used) understanding the Church suffers from, based on a definition nobody cited (we are not referred to anybody) holds.
I want to hear when the gospel is believed, and I want to hear how that belief transforms the lives of people--what I do not need is a confusion of biblical terms and concepts.
The peace of God be upon you all.
I think part of what Mr Chronic is sharing is that some conceptions of the work of evangelism aren't as "traditional" as we might think. Dating back to the apostles we see them, for example, healing people in the power of the Holy Spirit, in the name of Jesus, as an inextricable part of sharing the Gospel.
You say "there is obvious confusion in the authors quoted (why Christians are so easily sucked in to N.T .Wright's confusion has always baffled me)".
If you sense confusion on the part of N.T. Wright you are probably reading some of the more simplistic works on the matter by popular writers such as of John Piper. Wright graciously addresses Pipers confusion in his book "Justification",which is clear and will go a long way toward addressing your confusion.
Ron and Martyn,
I am surprised to see that you and I could read the article very differently. I would rate this article as among the best I read in recent times. It is a good wake up call to reasses our understanding of evangel.
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