For some Christians, evangelism has to do with distributing gospel tracts at an MRT station or some other public place. For others, Christians evangelise by collaboratively organising huge gospel rallies—such as the Billy Graham Crusade of 1978 or the upcoming Celebration of Hope—at public venues like sports stadiums.
While such activities arguably do have their proper place, it would be a serious mistake to think that Christian evangelism is reducible to them. So, how are we to understand this activity in which all Christians are called to participate?
In order for us to come to a deeper understanding of what evangelism is about, we must begin, not with the Church’s programmes and activities, but with God and His purpose for the world. This is because evangelism is nothing less than participation in the mission of the Triune God (missio Dei), whose purpose it is to bring fallen human beings into a saving relationship with him.
As the sent people of our missionary God, Christians are to be His co-workers, empowered by the Spirit to draw people to the divine kingdom. Christian mission is not grounded in the ambition or entrepreneurial ingenuity of the Church, but in the commissioning God.
Evangelism and mission is therefore the obedient and grateful response of the people who are redeemed by the unmerited grace of the loving God they worship. As Lesslie Newbigin puts it, mission is “the spontaneous overflow of a community of praise… [as we experience] the superabundant riches of the being of the Triune God, in whom love is forever given and forever enjoyed in an ever-new exchange”.
The purpose of evangelism and mission is communion.
In Churches That Make a Difference, Ronald Sider and his co-authors state that “evangelism, or proclaiming the Good News, means announcing that individuals can share in Christ’s cosmic redemption by submitting themselves to Christ’s Lordship”.
But evangelism is not only about announcing the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ. Sider et al adds: “It [also] means an invitation to join Jesus’ community, the Church, which is now making the kingdom visible by caring for those who are poor, restoring communities and creation, and loving the whole person the way Jesus did”.
To evangelise, then, is to communicate the Gospel in the fullest sense: it is to invite the hearer to enter into communion. The word “communicate” means to share, to exchange, to relate and to converse. From the same root comes the word “communion” or “community”, which has the same meaning as the Greek word koinonia (fellowship) in the New Testament.
To proclaim (communicate) the Gospel is therefore not only to share the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ with our family and friends. It is also to invite them to enter into koinonia, first with their Lord and Saviour, and consequently, by virtue of their being “in Christ”, with Christ’s Body, the Church.
There is a profound ecclesial dimension to evangelism that some modern approaches have sometimes either neglected altogether or downplayed, due not least to the subtle influence of a pietistic individualism.
Now, if Christian evangelism is to be in sync with the work of the missionary God, it must be “incarnational”.
As witnesses of the incarnate Word, Christians can never stand aloof from the people they hope to reach, but must immerse themselves in their “worlds”. There is therefore always a “kenotic” (self-emptying) element in any work of evangelism, a willingness to humble oneself.
But there is another sense in which evangelism requires humility. In evangelism we speak about the spiritual blessings that are not in our power to bestow. Thus D. T. Niles has arrestingly described evangelism as “a beggar telling another beggar where both could find something to eat”.
Triumphalism simply has no place in Christian mission!
But if evangelism is to be truly “incarnational”, then the Christian must proclaim the Gospel not only in word, but also in deed, that is, in the way he lives his life. The Christian witness must match what he says with the way he relates to family members, colleagues, friends and even strangers.
True evangelism therefore has to do with so much more than handing a gospel tract to a stranger or inviting a friend to a big evangelistic event. It has to do with living our lives as Christians before others, authentically and faithfully, trusting only in the grace of God that is at work in us.
Arias, Mortimer. ‘That The Word May Believe’, in Gerals H. Anderson and Thomas F. Stransky (Eds.) Mission Trends No. 3: Third World Theologies (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976).
Newbigin, Lesslie. Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986).
Sider, Ronald, Philip N. Olson and Heidi Rolland Unruh. Churches That Make a Difference: Reaching Your Community with Good News and Good Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing House, 2002).
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg).
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