Our Calling - Evangelism

Was it coincidence that I received the invitation to write this article on the day I returned from a conference on 'What is evangelism'? I don't know, but sadly the conference offered little to answer the question, making the error of drawing no distinction between mission, evangelism and witness. The three were therefore consistently confused, even treated as synonymous - which they are not!1

To try to avoid the same confusion, let us make an attempt at a definition of evangelism, which may share some characteristics in common with mission and witness but which as a whole makes it distinctive from them:

Evangelism is an intentional activity aimed at inspiring conviction regarding the truth of the gospel, introducing Christ as Saviour and Lord and inducing a response of faith.

Such a definition may not suit everybody but it does highlight the fact that evangelism is more specific than mission (which includes social action and the pursuit of justice) and more volitional than witness (which should be the almost unconscious behaviour of all believers all the time).

With this definition in mind, what will be the key characteristics of future evangelism? I suggest four. Evangelism will be:

1. Prevenient

Some research from America suggests the determining factor in evangelistic effectiveness is not so much the behaviour of the church (what it does or doesn't do) but the character of the surrounding culture. If the cultural environment is alien, as it is increasingly in the UK, then no matter what evangelistic activities or programmes are engaged in, the impact will be negligible. 'Evangelistic activity' in our communities will therefore need to begin before the actual evangelism, with Christians communicating gospel stories (increasingly unknown), campaigning for gospel principles (increasingly unheeded) and working to alter the cultural environment (increasingly inhospitable). Writing in 1976 David Watson identified the prevailing mood of the day as apathy2. There are indications to suggest that this has turned to antagonism over the last 25 years, with Christianity as one of the prime targets. Post-modernism's judgement regarding the incredulity and danger of metanarratives potentially allocates to the church, one of the chief exponents of a metanarrative, a future role as whipping boy and our Lord's advice in Matt 10:16 ('Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves') will therefore need to be heeded more than ever before.

2. Relational

Effective evangelism has always contained a strong relational element and I must say I felt pretty close to Dr Billy Graham when I responded to one of his appeals in the 1960s, even though my encounter with him was through the medium of a cinema-projected satellite connection. Equally, however, I am aware I would never have been at that gathering and in receptive mood if it had not been for the prayers and influence of believing brothers. So I am happy to re-affirm Bishop Finney's research indicating the crucial nature of close relationships in evangelism, and I wholeheartedly endorse Margaret Parker's observation in the Spring issue of Headline, that for most people 'belonging comes before believing'3. Significantly, however, future evang-elism will need to take a much more radical approach to relationship building. It will require an approach not unlike our Lord's in which we purposefully engage with those whose opinions, values and lifestyle differ from our own and are even distasteful to us; in which there is potential for partnership and co-operation where we have common cause and in which we are committed to a lengthy sojourn rather than a swift raid. CT Studd offered the appropriate perspective in a few lines of doggerel:

Some want to live within the sound

of church and chapel bell;

I want to run a rescue shop

within a yard of hell4

3. Experiential

The demand for experiences is not one that should always be humoured, as suggested in Matt 12:39, but when the temper of the times is to judge reality on the basis of what I feel and see for myself and the experience of an encounter with the living Lord is at the heart of Christian faith, there is no reason to demur in offering what is sought. Propositional faith that invites individuals to discover our truth will need to take a back seat to the invitation to come and encounter he who is the truth. Hence the question at hand when our definition of evangelism refers to 'inspiring conviction regarding the truth of the gospel' will not be the capacity of the evangelist to know and state the gospel with conviction, but rather the authenticity of the evangelist's life lived according to the gospel. Reality in the future will be more than ever judged on the basis of the lives of those who profess to be experiencing it, and effective evangelism will therefore be about embodying abundant life as much as about proclaiming it. Here Newbigin's ref-erence to the church as the 'hermeneutic of the gospel'5 is more than ever apposite. For if the church is incapable of identification as a body that is living out meaningfully and joyfully the promised experience, then with some justification Christian evangelism will be suspected of lacking substance.

4. Diverse and Dynamic

While the message remains constant, the models, methods and mechanics of evangelism in the future will need to be as diverse as those we are trying to reach. Like Paul we will need to be willing to 'become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some (1 Cor 9:22). Moreover such diversity will need to be invested with inherent flexibility so that when one approach is found to be unfruitful another is at hand. It is not always recognised that persistence with irrelevant and ineffective forms of evangelism not only undermines the messenger, it also brings the message into disrepute. In a constantly changing world the medium must possess the same dynamic image as the message. Here is where the church is of concern, for however much of an attempt is made to separate the offer of Christ from an invitation to join the church, in the mind of the culture (and indeed to some extent theologically), the two are inseparable. Evangelism therefore carries the baggage of engagement with what is perceived by many to be an outmoded and irrelevant institution. It is not easy baggage to carry and our only hope of doing so is by facing head on the fact that many future converts will be held only if we create new ways of being church to nurture them.

While all these characteristics have not yet been fully realised it should be said we may be hopeful about evangelism in the future, partly because Christians in this country are showing signs of hearing the call and responding to it, but mostly because the Lord is already engaged in it (missio dei).


Bibliography...

  1. See discussion of this distinction DJ Bosch - Transforming Mission p.409ff Orbis 1991
  2. D Watson - I Believe in Evangelism p.15 Eerdmans 1976
  3. M Parker - A Vision for Learning and Caring, Headline p.6 Spring 2001
  4. CT Studd - from W Barclay - Letters to Timothy, Titus and Philemon St Andrew Press 1975
  5. L Newbigin - The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society p.27 SPCK 1989
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