DoctrineEvangelismThe Vault

Evangelism: What is it?

‘Evangelism’ has recently risen to the status of what Stephen Potter would call an “OK word”: to utter it is to be ecclesiastically ‘one up’ straight away. (Things were different 20 years ago.) The term stands for something that the modern church knows it should be doing; indeed, we have reached the point where mere self-respect prompts us all to describe evangelism as our chief interest.

Yet it is apparent that we lack a common mind as to what evangelism is, and there is urgent need that this question be thoroughly ventilated.

We are in the habit of thinking of evangelism as a matter of making people do things. Some equate it with holding services the climax of which is a standard outline of extracting and recording ‘decisions’. Others would describe the mere prevailing on people to come to church as evangelism. There are better definitions of evangelism along these lines, the best, perhaps, being that of the Archbishops’ committee of 1918: “To evangelise is so to present Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit that men shall come to put their trust in God through Him, to accept Him as their Saviour, and serve Him as their King in the fellowship of His Church.”

No evangelism without the gospel

This formula states admirably the aim and scope of the evangelistic enterprise. As a definition of evangelism, however, it—and all other definitions of this type—are open to one fundamental objection.

Is it right to define evangelism in terms of an effect achieved in the lives of others? Is the essence of evangelism the actual production of converts?

Surely not. The evangelist’s aim is to convert; but the question whether or not a person is evangelising cannot be settled simply by asking whether he has seen conversions. There have been missionaries to Muslims who have seen no converts; should we conclude from this that they have not been evangelizing? There have been un-evangelical preachers under whom individuals have been soundly converted; should we infer that they have been evangelising after all? The answer is no in both cases. The results of preaching depend not on the intentions of man but on the will of an almighty God. This does not mean that we should be indifferent as to whether we see fruit for our witness to Christ. If fruit is not appearing, we should seek God’s face about it. But this truth does mean that we may not define evangelism in terms of achieved results.

In fact, the New Testament directs our thoughts another way. The verb euaggelizo means “declare the gospel” and the gospel of the New Testament is a clearly defined body of information. It looks, therefore, as if we ought to define evangelism in terms not of meetings held or appeals made or pews filled or converts gained but of a message delivered. Thus, whether or not our recruiting activities can rightly be called evangelism will depend not on the outward success they have but on what message we give to those whom we seek to win. There is no evangelism without the gospel. If what we say is less than the New Testament gospel, what we are doing is something less than evangelising.

It is surprising how rarely this point is grasped. As a rule, the only question raised in discussions about evangelism concerns the relative value of different methods—big central meetings in neutral halls or guest services in the parish church; courses of sermons or study groups; testimonies or expositions; and so on. But to discuss method before reaching agreement on the message is to put the cart before the horse. The assumption that all who care about evangelism are of one mind about the gospel is large and doubtful. Unanimity about methods and techniques may (and, it seems, often does) conceal radical differences as to the message to be conveyed. The modern debate about evangelism is unlikely to make progress till these differences are frankly faced and thrashed out. In any case, we shall abuse our own judgments if we try to evaluate rival methods without reference to the contents of our message, for we are in no position to see what methods are best for our purpose till we have asked ourselves what exactly it is that we want to get across.

What, then is the evangelistic message? What is the gospel that we have to communicate?

Five points must be made.

Foundations of true religion

First, the gospel is a message about God, telling us that he is our Maker, in whom we exist and move and in whose hands—for good or ill—we always are, and that we, his creatures, were made to worship and serve him and to live for his glory. These truths are the foundations of theistic religion, and the gospel is built on them. The Jews of the New Testament days, with the Old Testament faith behind them, knew these things, and when the apostles preached to Jews they could take this knowledge for granted. But when Paul preached to Gentiles, who knew nothing of the Old Testament, it was here that he had to start. So, when the Athenians asked him to explain what his talk of Jesus and the resurrection was all about, he began by telling them about God the Creator, and what he mad man for. “God… made the world… he gives life to all, and breath, and all things… and he made all nations… that they seek the Lord” (Acts 17:24-27). This was not, as is sometimes supposed, a piece of philosophical apologetic of a kind which Paul afterwards renounced, but the first and basic lesson in theistic faith.

Our thinking about evangelism today runs largely on rails laid down a century ago, when most Westerners, like the New Testament Jews, had some idea of religion. But modern men do not know these things; they are like the pagan Athenians, superstitious indeed but not religious. So, like Paul, we must start evangelising them by telling them of the Creator whom they have forgotten to remember.

Converted but not religious

The last-century evangelist could confine himself to the themes of sin and salvation without ill effect, but if we do this today, the best that can happen is that we produce Christians who, though converted, are irreligious, cocky and self-centred, interested in spiritual experience but not in God; ‘keen’ but not reverent; on fire to witness but seeing no point in worship. Indeed, the thing is happening: it is one of the unpleasant phenomena of our time that summons us to consider our ways in evangelism.

Secondly, the gospel is a message about sin; telling us that we are helpless slaves of our own rebelliousness, showing us ourselves under the wrath of God, and assuring us that nothing we do for ourselves can put us right. Not till we have begun to see what God sees wrong with us, and what God thinks of us, can we begin to grasp what it means to say that Jesus Christ saves from sin. Those who do not know their need to get right with God never come to know Christ.

There is a pitfall here. Everybody’s life includes things that cause dissatisfaction and shame. The evangelist’s temptation is to evoke thoughts of these things and make people feel very uncomfortable about them (which a skillful speaker can easily do), and then to depict Christ simply as one who saves us from these elements of ourselves, without raising the question of our relationship with God at all. But this is not preaching Christ—and such preaching, though it will cause crises and neuroses in plenty, will not bring about conversions. It is true that the real Christ, the Christ of the Bible who offers himself to us as a Saviour from sin and sets us right with God, give peace, joy and moral strength also. But the Christ who is depicted and desired merely as the giver of these things is a merely imaginary Christ, and an imaginary Christ does not bestow a real salvation.

Thirdly, the gospel is a message about the person and work of Christ; an interpreted story of the earthly life, death, resurrection and reign of God’s Son. Both the facts and the meaning must be given. Whether or not we use terms like “incarnation” and “atonement” we must teach the truths that they express—who Jesus was, and what he did. It is often said that it is the presentation of Christ’s person, rather than of doctrines about him, that draws sinners to his feet. It is true that it is the living Christ who saves, and that a theory of the atonement, however orthodox, is no substitute; but Jesus of Nazareth cannot be known as the living Christ if we are unaware that he was eternal God and that his passion, his judicial murder, was really his redeeming action of bearing away the sins of the world. We cannot see Jesus as a personal Saviour till we have learned Christ and understood the meaning of his life and death in the redeeming purpose of God. Nor can we know how to approach him till we have learned that the man of Galilee now reigns as God’s king, and must be hailed as such.

Big meetings not the only means

Fourthly, the gospel is a message about the new birth; telling us that our plight in sin is so great that nothing less than a supernatural renewing of our nature can save us. There must be a wholly new beginning, through the power of the Holy Ghost.

Fifthly, the gospel is a summons to faith and repentance. Faith is not a mere feeling of confidence, nor repentance a mere feeling of remorse; both are acts, and acts of the whole man. Faith is credence, and more; faith is born of self-despair, and is essentially a casting and resting of oneself on the promises of Christ to sinners and on the Christ of those promises. And repentance is a change of heart and mind, a new life of denying self and serving the Saviour as king in self’s place. As Luther put in in the first of the Ninety-Five Theses: “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent’, he called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” This is the demand of the gospel, and the evangelist may not gloss over it. We must teach our hearers to count the cost of receiving Christ. Evangelism is not a confidence trick, and we have no business to invite men to Christ under false pretenses.

Methods are a complex question

This, in outline, is the evangelistic message, and evangelism is communicating it. It is the Holy Spirit’s work to make men repent and believe; our task as evangelists is to make sure that they understand what the gospel is, how it affects them personally, and why and how they should respond to it. We could only in principle justify the special methods that we use—big meetings, little meetings, after meetings, organised counselling and the rest—as a means to this end.

How far current methods can be so justified is too complex a question to raise here. We would only say now that, whatever means are used, all the points listed must be made; and until we are sure that a person has grasped them all, we have no business to press him to commit himself to Christ, for it is not yet clear that he is in a position to do so responsibly and with understanding. And if we short-circuit the process of patient instruction and application and try to precipitate “decisions” by psychological pressure (a thing too easily done), we shall merely produce psychological upsets. People will come to our vestries and enquiry rooms in an agitated state; they will go through the motions of “decision” at our bidding; but when the shock has worn off, it will appear that the decision meant nothing save that now they are “gospel-hardened”. And if a few prove to have been truly converted, that will be despite our methods, not because of them.

The popularity of such methods in recent years seem largely due to the erroneous idea that the task of evangelism is by hook or by rook to reap a crop of converts; and idea which has led to the equally erroneous assumption that evangelism is better done through special high-pressure mass meetings than through the steady teaching and witness of the local church. But it is clear that these ideas are mistaken. And the sooner we learn to give ourselves, clergy and laity alike, to our own proper task of witness, instruction and application, and to eschew these unfortunate attempts to do the Holy Ghost’s work for him, the healthier it will be for the cause of evangelism today.

Originally published in The Australian Church Record, 10 November 1960.