Dispensing with evangelism

Evangelism is the Christian equivalent of paying tax: we dread it, we try to avoid it and we would prefer that everyone except us was obliged to do it. But somehow, despite our fear and resentment, we sense that it is a right and proper thing to do and, just as it warms your heart to see that tax refund smiling at you from the letterbox, it is so good to see someone converted and bubbling over with the new-found joy of new life in Christ.

I want to propose that we dispense with evangelism altogether. Before you get furious and start berating me with the multitude of God-centred, biblical motivations for evangelism—that God is a missionary God; that in his great love, he sent his Son to die so that people might not perish, but have everlasting life; that the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost; that the last day has been delayed so that more might come to repentance; that the purpose of being God’s people is to proclaim the marvels of the one who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light; that we are to put on the whole armour of God because we are engaged in a gospel battle; that—okay! I know all that! Or worse still, before you breathe a sigh of relief that you’ll never have to share the gospel again, let me explain!

You see, evangelism is not a biblical word. It comes from the word that we translate ‘gospel’ (in the original Greek, the word is evangel). The New Testament has a lot to say about the gospel, but it doesn’t mention the noun ‘evangelism’. It has a little to say about ‘evangelists’—that there were some, like Philip (Acts 21:8: recall his efforts with the Ethiopian in Acts 8); that they were a gift to the church (Eph 4:11) and that those who didn’t have this label were to do their job anyway (2 Tim 4:5). And when it does talk about the activity of proclaiming the gospel, it doesn’t use a noun, but it uses the verb (evangelizomai). So while we talk about ‘doing evangelism’, the New Testament writers talk about ‘proclaiming the gospel’.

I can already hear that most devastating of all criticisms on the lips of many readers: “So what? Thanks for destroying the cause with a display of academic pedantry. Now I’ll never get anyone to go doorknocking. Why bother telling us about nouns and verbs? A rose by any other name still smells.”

Let me get to the point. In our endeavours to describe biblical concepts, it is perfectly appropriate to adopt words and phrases and slogans that the Bible never uses—as long as we are still talking about the same thing as the Bible when we use our new language. Sadly, often our new language gradually introduces a subtle shift in meaning. Over time, it leads us slowly but surely away from what the Bible is talking about, and into the consequent dilemmas and pastoral difficulties that inevitably follow from the distortion of Scripture. From that point on, we keep reading our distorted concept back into the Bible instead of having it reformed by the Bible.

‘Evangelism’ is a case in point. What does it mean in everyday Christian language? Some still think that it refers to what happens when some great ‘evangelist’ (like Billy Graham or his local equivalents) tells the gospel to non-Christian people. Others think it is when someone shares a gospel tract with a non-Christian. Others may have different definitions, but the common factor in most thinking about evangelism is that it is defined by the audience. It is what is done to non-Christians—the occasional sortie into the enemy’s territory.

I don’t want to say that we should forget this dimension because its real strength is that it keeps our focus upon the fact that non-Christians must hear the good news and be called to believe it. (And, I confess, I have used it this way, and will no doubt continue to do so long into the future for the sake of convenience.) But there are a lot of problems with this definition. It encourages the common view that ‘evangelism’ is a peripheral and occasional thing. It, therefore discourages the view that it is the all-encompassing reason for Christian existence in this world—that it is the integrating feature of the Christian’s or a congregation’s life. It tends to separate ‘evangelism’ from what goes on in church, or at least introduces a tension between the two. It separates the gospel from Christians, and makes it something that is really only relevant to non-Christians. It makes ‘evangelism’ such a distant and special activity that the mere mention of the word fills the ordinary person with fear, even though they may be quite happy to “talk to people about Jesus”.

Let’s face it, the word, as it is commonly used, has big problems.

But these sort of problems don’t even appear to be there in the New Testament. When we read how the New Testament does it, we find that it does not define ‘evangelism’ by the audience, but by the activity. That is, whenever the gospel is proclaimed, we have ‘evangelism’. When we look at the New Testament, perhaps to our great surprise, we find that the gospel is not just directed to non-Christians. How are Christians strengthened? How do they grow? How is the church built up? What is at the centre of Christian worship? How are we mutually encouraged? It is by the gospel, “which is at work amongst you who believe” (1 Thess 2:13). In other words, the gospel needs to be proclaimed to humanity, inside and outside the church. The word of God is always addressed to the world—to anyone with ears to hear.

We also find that the gospel is talked of in grand, universal language. The New Testament presents the picture of the gospel at work in the world (Mark 4, Rom 15:25-27, Col 1:6); it is personified as someone who is running across the surface of the nations (2 Thess 3:1). It is the gospel word that bears the fruit of converts (Col 1:6, John 15:1-8, Mark 4). For it is the gospel that is the power of God for salvation bringing life to all who believe (Rom 1:16-17).

Who, then, is behind the work of the gospel? The New Testament is clear: the living God is behind this work. He started the whole thing, and sent his Son to redeem the lost world which he created in the first place. He has a whole new world planned (the kingdom of God), and Jesus’ death and resurrection are the key events in the construction of that new world that is now just around the corner. It is God’s gospel (Rom 1:1-4).

It is also Christ’s gospel. Jesus Christ died and rose again as the Son of Man, and now, as the reigning Lord, he is sending out his messengers to gather the elect. (That is what Mark 13:27 is all about, and Matthew 28:16-20.) He is conquering his enemies before the end comes (see 1 Cor 15:20-28).

And, of course, it is the gospel of the apostles. Here, in passing, is where another piece of modern Christian vocabulary needs to come under New Testament scrutiny. Many people talk about ordinary Christians being ‘witnesses’, but the New Testament reserves this language entirely for those who really were witnesses—that is, eyewitnesses—those who had seen, touched and heard (1 John 1:1-4, John 1:14, 1 Cor 9:1, Acts 10:39-43). The gospel is the message of the apostles, now found only in the New Testament.

And what of us? The New Testament talks about us too. For we are at the end of the chain begun with God himself. He sent Jesus, who sent his chosen witnesses, who sent others to pass on their word to yet others (John 17:6, 20) who can faithfully pass it on to others including us (2 Tim 2:2). So we too, can be people who speak “the very words of God” (1 Pet 4:11) as we pass on the gospel of the kingdom—the apostolic gospel, the gospel of Christ, the gospel of God. We are “co-workers with God” (1 Cor 3:9).

Let’s dispense with ‘evangelism’ as some peripheral thing that we are occasionally exhorted to do and are always feel guilty about not doing. Let’s dispense with ‘evangelism’ as the thing that only refers to non-Christians—those outside the church. But let’s dispense with it by “lifting up our eyes to see that there is a harvest” (Matt 9:35-10:1), and then by further lifting up our eyes to see that there is a Lord of that harvest who is very much at work in his world, working towards a new creation, working through his gospel gathering his elect. And let us lift up our eyes to his gospel, running across the face of this earth, powerfully at work to convert the nations—at work in those who believe. It is a global cause, but it touches individual lives—even through me!

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