THE CALL TO EVANGELIZE
Christ calls his church to evangelize the world. In his parting word to the disciples he stated, "You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8). These disciples whom he had chosen, trained, tested, and nurtured, he then commissioned with a simple statement of fact. Not a heavy command—"You ought to. . . you must.. . you should"—but a factual declaration of what his followers would do. Such a predictive statement could only be made in light of the promised Spirit who would empower the disciples' witness.
The early church understood the call: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, . . . and 10, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Matt. 28:19—20). This explicit instruction of our Lord left no room for confusion about direction; spreading the gospel held top priority for the early church. Christ's directive exempted no one from the task of disciple making, excluded no aspect of life.
What does this call mean to us? Do we understand its priority, its urgency? Christ calls us not only to believe in him but also to share in his mission of redeeming the world. In Jesus Christ God reconciled the world to himself. He invites us to proclaim the "good news" to all persons, that they may appropriate in their lives the love and forgiveness God has declared through Christ.
How Do You Respond?
Hearing Jesus Christ's call to evangelize the world demands decision. Confronted by his absolute claim upon our lives, we must decide for or against it. Such a clear directive, however, meets with resistance in the modern church. After presenting this priority to participants in an evangelism workshop, I asked them, "Why do you resist evangelism?" They responded candidly with the following:
1. "I don't want my friends to turn me off because I'm religious!" (Fear of rejection)
2. "Other persons are more gifted in personal witness than I." (Not gifted)
3. "I lack the depth of experience of the Holy Spirit who could enable me to witness effectively." (Lack experience)
4. "I'd rather not introduce emotionalism into the life of the church. It causes confusion and creates division." (Fear emotionalism)
5. "We mainline Christians are too sophisticated to engage in evangelism. Let the uneducated and the Pentecostals do it if they like, but not us." (Too sophisticated)
6. "I don't think I understand the gospel well enough to convince someone else." (Uncertain of the gospel)
7. "Even if I wanted to evangelize my neighbor, I wouldn't know where to start." (Lack skills)
8. "I've always felt that a person's faith was private, and I don't want to intrude. Besides, it's not polite to talk about religion in public." (A private affair)
9. "I think we hire the preacher to do the evangelizing." (Minister's job)
10. "Most evangelism I know about discounts persons by manipulating them to make decisions they later regret." (Fear manipulation)
These ten responses typify the modern-day Christian's hesitation to evangelize, and they touch sensitive feelings common to most of us. Because of our experience with aggressive evangelicals, many of us hold negative images of the word "evangelism." Some evangelism we've experienced does not respect an individual's needs or unique situation. And even if we had a different image of evangelism, we often lack a basic certainty about our faith. Add to this deterrent our fear of rejection, our exclusiveness, and our lack of adequate skills, and the waning of evangelism in most mainline Protestant churches becomes understandable.
Where Are You?
When Abraham Lincoln was facing the ruin wrought by division in this nation, he said, "If we can first learn where we are and whither we're inclined, we can better judge what to do and how to do it."
Where are you in your feelings about evangelism? Before you or I can respond faithfully to the call of Jesus Christ to evangelize, we must find a way through the barriers. Without a new image of the task and fresh ways of responding to the call, the church will likely continue to rationalize its declining evangelistic effort.
Negative image. A negative picture of evangelism dominates the thinking of most loyal church members. Announce a class on evangelism, and it probably will be canceled for lack of interest. Ask a group to free-associate with the word, and the unfortunate reactions previously identified surface. Yet, many persons also experience guilt for not doing the "primary task of the church." Evidence of this guilt emerges when church leaders identify "what ought to be the goals of the church." Evangelism nearly always tops the list, accompanied by a confession of failure.
Uncertain of our faith. In addition to our negative images, personal uncertainty fuels our reluctance. A distinct correlation exists between one's personal assurance of faith and one's engagement in the work of evangelism. Those with only a nominal commitment generally lack both the motivation and the clarity to communicate faith to another person. If guilt or inadequacy plagues our consciousness, either will paralyze our witness. How can a person mired in problems reach out to another? Too many members of the church do not understand the gospel. What is the Christian gospel? What does it mean to evangelize persons in light of it? Surely the answer to these fundamental questions would give both knowledge and assurance to many fearful, inadequate members of Christ's body.
A conversation with a seminarian illustrates the point. He said, "If I preached a sermon on 'Faith in Christ' and afterwards a person asked me, 'How can I receive Christ?'—frankly I wouldn't know what to say."
This seminary student's dilemma is shared by far too many lay persons. Very few can confidently reach forth a hand of support and guide an inquiring person into a vital faith in Jesus Christ.
Fear of rejection. Our fear of rejection stems from two sources: our ideas about persons outside the church, and our notions of how persons witness.
First, we assume persons outside the church have no concern about the gospel of Jesus Christ. We imagine the masses would feel insulted if we spoke to them about Christ. Are we selling the gospel short? Is it an alien message imposed upon unwilling persons, distorting their lives? Or, does it really answer the deepest questions of our existence?
Such a misunderstanding becomes acute when we consider the task of evangelism. Contrast this distorted image with a picture of lonely, hurting persons searching for answers to life's most crucial questions. They hunger for love, acceptance, and understanding. They wait eagerly for someone confident in faith to show them the way to fellowship with God. Imagine sharing your faith with a person who is deeply interested, keenly attentive, and warmly responsive to God's love manifested through you. Does that image conjure up fear of rejection? Certainly not. Persons outside the church wish to be heard, to be loved, to be accepted, and to be known.
Consider also the strong and successful people in the world. Do they not often wonder about the meaning of their lives? Why they are here? What they must do with their gifts? These, too, need and want our witness of faith.
The second source of our fear of rejection comes from our image of "witnessing" itself. Many have the picture of "knocking on doors," "standing on a street corner," or asking a stranger, "Are you saved?" Such approaches ensure frequent rejection for the witness. Surely the impulse of love and a creative imagination can produce a style of communicating the good news of God's grace that attracts, liberates, and affirms persons. Thus, our fear of rejection points to the necessity of a new way of seeing evangelism in the church and our lives.
Not our thing. Established denominations frequently say, "Let the evangelicals and the Pentecostals do the evangelizing. It's just not our thing. We're too educated, too sophisticated, and too polite to engage in evangelism." Often the conviction of being a "holy remnant" reinforces such religious snobbery. The "pure" believers say, "We're small and pure and don't want outsiders diluting the life of the church."
While in consultation with a governing board regarding the church's evangelistic ministry, a leader said, "We have a problem with these people joining our church from other denominations. They don't know what our church believes nor how it functions." Do we revere tradition more than obedience to the gospel?
In response to my expression of concern for church growth described in an evangelism newsletter, I received a communication from a long-time church member. No doubt the reader had positive intentions. Yet she wrote, "I do not share your concern for the continuing loss of members in our church. It is up to us to hold firmly to the principles of the faith, to worship God alone and not permit the worship of God to become mere entertainment." She suggested that if only we "sit steady in the boat" and do not let ourselves be lured aside by false teaching, "the growth of the church will take care of itself." Will it? Has it?
The conservatism contained in this letter mirrors the views of many traditional church leaders. The sincere worship of God and the pure proclamation of the Word will suffice. If God chooses to send new believers to us, fine, but we should not alter our style, change our approach, nor make any direct effort to reach persons outside the church. How can anyone harmonize this attitude with Jesus' directive to "go into all the world and proclaim the gospel"? Can we pretend to please God when we avoid the clear command of the gospel by our sophisticated rationalization and the preservation of our revered traditions?
Don't know how. While negative images of evangelism abound, not every church person holds such a perverted picture. Some believe evangelism heads the list of priorities in the church's ministry, but they do not know how to practice it. Whatever hesitancy these persons have arises from a lack of "know-how."
Evangelism at its best springs spontaneously from a warm, loving heart. Persons alive to Christ have an irresistible urge to express his saving love through their lives. "We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:20).
Unconscious witness. Since a great deal of effective evangelism occurs spontaneously, many exuberant Christians often witness without knowing they have witnessed. They care for persons, respond to them, share their faith openly but without design to gain some type of Christian profession. They constantly express the grace of Christ without being able to tally results. One such person described her view of evangelism thus:
Evangelism is a part of everything I do. I practice an incarnational style of evangelism. Of primary importance in this practice of evangelism is my lifestyle. This includes my willingness to listen to others, to care about them, and to share my experience of following Christ. Actions often speak with more validity than words. Thus, I practice a style of evangelism which is based more on actions than words.
Even these lofty intentions do not always guarantee the fresh, radiant glow of the Spirit. Times of dryness and personal struggle may stifle spontaneity. Dry times require courage to reach out to others.
To find a style, persons need information and options. Therefore, it is legitimate to have courses on evangelism in the curriculum of a theological seminary, to conduct workshops for ministers and lay persons in skills and techniques for communicating the faith, and to offer new concepts of the task. Positive images and helpful methods of communicating the gospel dissolve our fears and sweep away our unwillingness to evangelize.
Where are you with respect to evangelism? Are you resistant? Are you eager and enthusiastic? Are you too traditional to try new strategies and approaches? First discover where you are, then make new decisions about what to do.
Christ's Call and the Church
A stated commitment to evangelism characterizes every mainline denomination. Evidence for this commitment springs from tradition: "The world is my parish"—John Wesley's repeated affirmation has fueled evangelism in the United Methodist Church for two centuries. His dictum, "Preach as a dying man to dying souls," underscores the urgency of the task.
The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church (1968) asserts:
The aim of evangelism is to bring all persons into living, active fellowship with God through Jesus Christ as divine Savior and Lord, and through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit to gather them into the fellowship of the Church and lead them to express their Christian discipleship in every area of human life that the kingdom of God may be realized.
Further, the United Methodist Book of Discipline defines evangelism as the winning of persons to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. It is an attitude, a spirit, and a living faith that finds expression in a continuous cooperative effort on the part of the Holy Spirit and humankind to bring individuals into vital relationship with God and their fellow humans through faith in Jesus Christ, God's Son. It results in a definite personal experience of salvation, a growing sensitivity to the social relevance of the gospel, and a progressive building of Christlike character. It seeks to bring persons into complete harmony with the will of God, into the fellowship of the Church, and into involvement in the world to be God's servant of reconciliation. It helps persons to grow spiritually through the means of grace and to serve God in daily living.
The Lutheran Church in America believes evangelism to be the free and joyous telling of the story of Jesus of Nazareth, who both taught and brought the Lordship of Cod among people and the power of Cod to all. This message is for everyone, whether inside or outside the church. It is not only the person who has never heard of Christ who needs to be told good news. Church members need it to keep their faith strong. it is not the responsibility of evangelists to convert or convict. They are only responsible for telling the story straight, and showing by their manner that they believe it is true. Evangelism is two stories: God's story and our own story. It is a recounting of our experience of the power of Cod in Christ working in our world, and in our life, as well as a recounting of God's mighty works in our world and life.
The definition of evangelism by the Archbishop's Committee of 1918 has provided Anglicans a benchmark for over six decades:
To evangelize is to present Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, that persons shall put their faith in God through Him, to accept Him as their Saviour, and to serve Him as their King in the fellowship of His church.
The influence of this understanding of evangelism shaped Archbishop William Temple's definition: "Evangelism is the winning of persons to acknowledge Christ as their Saviour and King, so that they may give themselves to His service in the fellowship of the church."
For the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. evangelism is declaring the presence of God's kingdom among us, as revealed in Christ, in the context of an environment or events which substantiate that declaration and inviting people to welcome God's kingdom and participate in it.
The United Presbyterian Church sees the Christian's job in evangelism as declaring that God's rule of love is available both for persons and for social groups. On that basis we must invite people to turn from their selfishly motivated egocentric lifestyles and in faith turn to a lifestyle characterized by the control and rule of God's love. Having done so, they must continue to participate in what God's love requires and allows in all of the opportunities, challenges and relationships of life today, both for themselves as individuals and for the social groups in which they participate and through which they actualize their person-hood.
In my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in the United States, the Book of Church Order affirms the primacy of evangelism.
Jesus Christ has ordained the church, which is his body, for the edification of his people, their growth in unity, the propagation of the Christian faith and the evangelization of the world. The ordinances, officers and judicatories which Christ has given the church are means to these ends (BCO 1-1).
Additionally, the Book of Church Order says:
Evangelization is the primary and urgent task of the church. All persons are to be called to believe in Christ as Savior, to repent and to obey Christ as Lord of all. Christ's claim as Savior and Lord is to be laid on every individual and on the whole of society (BCO 217-1).
The official standard does not recognize fear, nor pseudo-sophistication, nor traditional purity as acceptable excuses for refusing the task of outreach. Historically, evangelism calls us to work toward the betterment of society and the conversion of sinners.
In 1975 the General Assembly adopted the following statement:
The General Assembly affirms that evangelism seeks to present Jesus Christ as the only Savior and Lord and that it aims at the conversion of sinners. it is both an invitation to receive salvation from God and a call to obey and serve Him.
1. The proclamation of the Kingdom of God is evangelism. (cf. Matt. 28:19—20; Mark 1:14—15; Luke 24:45—47; John 14:6; John 20:21; Rom. 10:14—17)
2. The love of Christians one for another in the fellowship of the Christian community is evangelism. (cf. John 13:34-35; John 17:20—23)
3. The lifestyle of the Christian person and the Christian community in radical obedience to the biblical mandates of the Kingdom of God in the world is evangelism. (cf. Matt. 5:14—16; Matt. 25:31ff; Mark 12:29—31; Luke 4:16—21; John 20:21; Rom. 12:1—2; Eph. 3:10)
Effective evangelism includes all three dimensions and is incomplete when any one of the three is not incorporated.
Let it be known that in all three dimensions it is Christ who is glorified and that it is in His name and by the power of the Holy Spirit that all these things occur.
In 1978, the General Assembly adopted the Mission Consultation Report. That report emphasizes "one mission under God." The first claim of that report calls for proclamation, that is, preaching the gospel. The report says, "We are called to proclaim in word and deed the Lordship of Jesus Christ and to invite all people to follow him. . . we believe the gospel. In it God declares his love for the world and his desire that all should be saved."
"God is at work in the world," the report declares, "calling individuals to himself, setting people free from all sorts of bondage, judging people and structures that resist his good purposes and moving toward the fulfillment of the kingdom of God. We are called to discern what Cod is doing in the world and to join God in that work."
This strong, evangelical statement proposed by the Mission Consultation has been ratified and reaffirmed by four subsequent General Assemblies.
Indeed, the churches of every denomination have a mandate from our Lord Jesus Christ to become evangelistic. Our ancestors in the faith heard that call and responded with dedication. Now, we must hear it anew in our particular churches and discover creative ways to act upon it.
Where can we look for the models, the message, and the motivation to enable us to respond faithfully? How can evangelism be defined so that we see it as relevant, practical, and possible? In the next chapter we will begin to answer these crucial questions.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
1. How can we today obey Christ's explicit commission to evangelize?
2. Which of the ten barriers to evangelism characterize you? Persons in your church?
3. What is your denomination's stand on evangelism?
4. Name one thing that would help your church become more evangelistic.