What is evangelism?

Posted on March 5, 2009


Someone told me yesterday about a book – it doesn’t matter which – on personal witness, that included chapters such as ‘preparing to evangelise’ and ‘what to do after you’ve evangelised’. The language grated, and I’ve been trying to analyse why.

The implicit assumption in the language (and, it seemed clear from the description, in the book) is that ‘evangelism’ is a discrete, verbal activity that consists essentially of stating a small number of particular theological propositions (concerning universal sinfulness; atonement in Christ’s death; and the need for personal appropriation of that atonement) in the hearing of someone who is not yet a Christian believer. Now, I am not, of course, opposed to doing this thing. But to restrict ‘evangelism’ to this seems to me to be unbearably limiting, and patently obviously unbiblical.

I wrote an article recently for the Evangelical Alliance magazine IDEA on mission. In part, I wrote this:

Does this mean that anything that is not proclaiming the gospel directly is not mission? I would rather ask the question a different way: when Jesus touched a leper, or ate with a tax collector, or healed an outcast, was he not proclaiming the gospel directly? Was Peter not proclaiming the gospel just as much when he went to eat with Cornelius as when he preached to him? Christian social action is, or should be, a living out of the message of reconciliation that God has committed to us. Actually, every aspect of our lives should be a living out of that gospel. Our activities, our values, our decisions about work and family—and about shopping and voting—are, or should be, decisions that are incomprehensible except for the truth of the atoning sacrifice of Christ. Mission is not something we do; it is what we are. The word literally means ‘being sent’. Christian mission means being sent by Christ, being sent by Christ to live out the truth of his atoning sacrifice. And living out that truth means proclaiming it, joyfully and reverently, to all people at all times and in all places. And it also means living in patterns of love and service that would be incomprehensible had Christ not lived and died. It means raising our children and spending our money differently to those around us, eating and drinking, even, only to the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31). There is no part of an obedient, properly lived Christian life that is ‘not proclaiming the gospel directly’.

I don’t think St Francis of Assisi ever said ‘Preach the gospel always, and use words if you must’ (the closest in the authentic writings is, I think, ch. XVII of the Rule (1221), which is actually about Brothers who have not been licenced to preach). I’m not even very comfortable with the quotation, which is rather too often used as an excuse to not speak when words are demanded. But the idea the evangelism is a constant, continuous duty and reality of an authentic Christian life, not one confined to the speaking out of certain concepts, is surely vital. If so, any account of personal evangelism that suggests it is not a 24/7 duty and reality should be rejected as inadequate – and, indeed, simply faithless.

There is no preparation for evangelism (other than the catechumenate); there is no ‘apres evangelism’ (other than the rest of the saints in glory); there is only the constant call to follow, to live and speak at every moment in such a way that the truth of what God has done in Christ is luminously clear.

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