Thursday, 27 September 2007

What is Evangelism?

This post is the first of a series I want to do on the subject of Evangelism, and among other things I want to examine the questions:
What is evangelism?
Why should we evangelise in the first place?
How is God involved in this work?
What does the New Testament tell us about these things?
Why do we as conscientious Christians feel guilty when we don’t evangelise?

For those Christians who hate the very idea of evangelism I must remind them that at one time or another someone shared the gospel with them,in other words, evangelised them.

Evangelism: What is it and would we want to do it?
Positive impressions of evangelism and evangelists :
 John Wesley preaching to thousands of coal miners and seeing them respond in faith to the gospel.
 David Wilkinson working among the street gangs in New York made famous in the book ‘The cross and the switchblade.’

Nicky Cruz the famous convert of David Wilkinson

 The quiet witness shown through the love and patience of a Sunday School teacher, B.B. Officer, mother, father, aunt or uncle that God used to draw you to Christ.
Negative impressions of Evangelism
 The button holer, the pushy evangelist who is arrogant and rude and says to all he meets ‘Are you saved?’, and will not believe you if you say you are already a Christian.
Roger Carswell writes: ‘ The popular caricature of the evangelist is of someone sweeping into town in a blaze of glory:; extravagant dress, luxurious lifestyle, exaggerated claims and charismatic personality. Brash, belligerent, beguiling and boastful are the characteristics of the evangelist picked up and promoted by the media in films like Elmer Gantry and Leap of faith.’

Certainly, if we have been touched by the love of God and experienced his forgiveness we will want to share it with others. But we often find it difficult: even Paul spoke of the conflicts he had in trying to evangelise.

But read what Matthew Parris,a former M.P. and one of the 'grumpy old men' in the programme with that name, wrote in the Times:

The New Testament offers a picture of a God who doesn't sound at all vague to me. He has sent his Son to earth. He has distinct plans both for his Son and for mankind. He knows each of us personally and can communicate directly with us. We are capable of forming a direct relationship, individually, with him, and are commanded to do so. We are told this can be done only through his Son. And we are offered the prospect of eternal life - an afterlife in happy, blissful, …glorious circumstances… Friends, if I believe that, or even a tenth of that, how could I care which version of the Prayer Book was being used? I would drop my job, sell my house, throw away my possessions, leave my acquaintances and set out into the world with a burning desire to know more and when I had found out more, to act upon it and to tell others.

Do these words not challenge even the most fervent of evangelists?

In his book Evangelism through the local Church Michael Green lists three definitions which I would like to look at. By examining these different definitions we can view evangelism from different perspectives as one would hold up a diamond to be examined from different angles.

The first one is Evangelism as OVERFLOW
He writes
‘overflow gives the right nuance,of someone who is so full of joy about Jesus
Christ,that it overflows as surely as a bath that is filled to overflowing with water. It is a natural thing. It is a very obvious thing.’
One has only to think of some new born Christian who is full of excitement and joy. He wants to tell the world. He is often unashamed of what he says or does.

A few years ago I organized a school reunion for my fifth year class mates who were with me in 1975. That makes me middle aged! One of the former pupils I contacted had been a Christian when I had been at school. He recalls, as I had forgotten, how I used to talk to him each day as we walked home from school together. Despite my amateurish efforts he still become a Christian then. However he later got involved in a very strict authoritarian fellowship and was burnt off and ended up far away from God.
When we met at the reunion Thirty years later his many years in the military service had taken its toll, he had become physically very unwell and also suffered from post traumatic stress.
To cut a long story short. After an initial rejection of my invitation to find comfort and help in certain Scriptures (his email which I still have reads:
‘I don’t want to go down that road’)he later became positively warm towards the things of God when we went out for coffee a month later. Within weeks he was sharing his new found faith and even asked his boss, who was having business problems had he tried about praying it. He told me he couldn't help it: it just came out. It had become so natural for him to tell all and sundry about his faith in God and he believed everybody could have the same relationship.

He even sometimes would get distressed about his wife and tell her that she was not right with God,even though she had been the one who had gone to church before I had met up with him again. I obviously had to encourage him to be patient with her and let her see from his life how he had changed. Nevertheless, all this came from the overflow that was in his heart. Later his wife came to have a strong faith and they both now led a fellowship group in County Down.

It is often true that some new Christians make the best evangelists. They more readily know what they have been saved from and want to tell others. Remember the demoniac in Mark 5 who had been delivered of a legion of demons? He begged Jesus to let him go with him .
Do you remember what Jesus said to him ?
"Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you."
So the man went away and began to tell everyone in the towns where he lived how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.’
That is evangelism as OVERFLOW.
What an amazing encouragement to tell our story of how much God has done for us. But what if you don't feel that you are full to overflowing? Don't worry, the Master evangelist himself has promised us this: 'If any man thirsts, let him come on to me and drink and out of his belly will flow rivers of living water'. You can come now.

The second definition that Michael Green quotes is by the missionary D.T Niles :

‘Evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread’

This is a very well known definition of evangelism and there is certainly a sense in which it is true : We are like beggars being wholly dependant on God and we are to tell similar beggars who are without food where they can find spiritual food.

Nevertheless, those who have found the bread of life lose their beggar status and will have become ‘children of God’. We therefore don’t go out as beggars, we go out as children of the King, but who still are nevertheless dependant on our heavenly Father.

Having known this definition for many years I often wondered where he got it from and if it had any biblical story. If there is one I think it must be from 2 Kings 7.
In this story Jerusalem had been under siege and the people were about to die of starvation. Meanwhile

3 ..there were four men with leprosy [at the entrance of the city gate. They said to each other, "Why stay here until we die? 4 If we say, 'We'll go into the city'-the famine is there, and we will die. And if we stay here, we will die. So let's go over to the camp of the Arameans and surrender. If they spare us, we live; if they kill us, then we die."

Anyway they went over to the Camp and discovered that God had done something to frighten the attackers away leaving food and precious possessions behind.

It says 'They ate and drank, and carried away silver, gold and clothes, and went off and hid them. They returned and entered another tent and took some things from it and hid them also.

9 Then they said to each other, "We're not doing right. This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves. If we wait until daylight, punishment will overtake us. Let's go at once and report this to the royal palace."

We are like these beggars, only in our case we are spiritual beggars and have found spiritual food. Then,like the lepers we then decide not to keep this 'good news' to ourselves but to share it with our starving neighbours.

Whether D.T. Niles the famous missionary had this in mind when he stated that evangelism was ‘one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread’ I can’t be sure. But it certainly is the closest biblical reference I’’ve found.

The question is :Do we consider those whom we meet each day as mere beggars without Christ? As regards evangelism, they often don't realise their great spiritual need. We need therefore to pray that God will reveal their need to them.Then as we set apart Christ as Lord of our hearts, be prepared to give an answer to those who ask us the reason for the hope that we have, and as Peter encourages us:to do this with gentleness and respect.

I will look at a more comprehensive definition of evangelism.

William Temple the late Archbishop of Canterbury wrote:

'To evangelise is so to present Jesus Christ 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’

This statement is good in that it differentiates evangelism from 'mission'. Mission may be defined as ‘everything God sends the church into the world to do.’ Mission will of course include evangelism but it will also include social action, social justice, fighting for the rights of the poor, the weak and the voiceless.

Some would also include caring for God‘s world as part of Mission and that the Church should be 'Green' and involved with environmental issues. This has been championed by Tony Campolo and now even George Verwer of O.M.

But here Temple defines Evangelism as presenting Jesus Christ and the Good news which is in Him (through his life death and exaltation)so that people can put their full trust in God through Him as their saviour.

In a similar vein John Wesley defined saving faith as:
'not only(mental) assent to the whole gospel of Christ, but also a full reliance on the blood of Christ; a trust in the merits of his life, death, and resurrection; a full dependence upon him as our atonement and our life, as given for us, and living in us; and as a consequence, a closing with him, and cleaving to him, as our "wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption," or, in one word, our salvation'.

John Wesley

Temple’s definition also shows that Jesus is not to be seen in isolation from the Father. As it states ‘we put our trust in God through Christ.’
It is clear that the God of the New Testament is thoroughly trinitarian.
’For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.’ The Son did not come of his initiative but went in willing obedience to the Father.
Likewise Temple adds the work of the third person of the Trinity, emphasising that it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that enables men and women to come to Christ. The human evangelist can not do it alone. Even though they may be used by God’s Spirit. As Jesus tells us in the gospel of John
'When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment'. John 16:8

Neither can we bring regeneration or spiritual enlightenment to the man or woman who is spiritually blind. Again it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Of course we can persuade, encourage and challenge people :but it only by the Spirit of God that can save men and women. Jesus told the disciples ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses.’ If we are filled with the Holy Spirit surely the Spirit will also stir us to tell others about Christ. Spurgeon was right when he wrote:‘God has only one worker’ and that is the Holy Spirit.We must always rely on His power and leading.

This definition also points out that those who hear are brought to the point where at last they must make a decision. Will they bow down and serve the King or not. The process before they make a decision may have been short or a long one. This does not matter; what matters is that they are brought to the point where they will decide.
It shows that the goal of evangelism is not that they sign the Church membership roll or that they go twice on a Sunday:the goal is that they become disciples of Christ. As disciples the young Christians are learners and it is primarily in the Church that they will be taught. God has put various ministries within the Church in order to build up the disciples. In Ephesians 4 Paul tells us that when Christ ascended on high

'he led captives in his train
and gave gifts to men'.
" It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

As Green states, the evangelist is not out for mere ‘decisions’ .. He is out for disciples --and not for himself, his church or organisation, but disciples of Jesus Christ.’ The goal of discipleship is become mature, in other words: to be like Christ.

Though this is a well known evangelical definition of evangelism it has come in for some criticism. Jim Packer the Reformed theologian disagrees with the form of this definition because it defines evangelism in terms of success. It begins ‘To evangelise is so to present Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, that men SHALL come to put their trust in God through him’.Packer argues: 'The way to tell whether you have been evangelising is not to ask whether conversions are known to have resulted from your witness.It is to ask whether you are faithfully making known the gospel message'.
In other words we should faithfully proclaim the message and then leave the results with God.

Nevertheless the goal of evangelism is that men and woman will be persuaded and souls will be saved. Later in this series we will hopefully look at what is a faithful proclamation of the gospel.In a post-modern culture persuasion is very much a dirty word,however as we shall see in a future post it was part and parcel of Paul's method of evangelism. Remember 'the almost Christian' in Acts when Agrippa says to Paul in Acts 26:28
'Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian'.
Other translations have it:"Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?" Either way a strong element of persuasion was used by Paul.

Paul preaching in Athens

Perhaps the fullest definition of evangelism is found in the Lausanne Covenant of 1974 which was edited by John Stott.As is often the case with regard to Stott's writings it is the most thorough and probably the best I've come across.It should be noted that in the proclamation of the 'Good News', he stresses that the Christian life should not be presented to the non-Christian as a 'bed of roses' stating:'In issuing the Gospel invitation we have no liberty to conceal the cost of discipleship.Jesus still calls all who would follow him to deny themselves, take up their cross, and identify themselves with his new community'.

How often the gospel is presented in a way that makes the the hearer think that if they come to Christ all their problems will vanish, and not only that, they can expect good health and great wealth all their days.What a travesty of the truth this is bearing in mind that the gospels clearly show that Christ was not only a poor man but died in pain at the age of thirty three. Our Lord also told his followers:'Remember the words I spoke to you: "No servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also".

To make it easier to study I have broken this definition down into 5 subsections.

a) To evangelize is to spread the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures, and that as the reigning Lord he now offers the forgiveness of sins and the liberating gift of the Spirit to all who repent and believe.

b) Our Christian presence in the world is indispensable to evangelism, and so is that kind of dialogue whose purpose is to listen sensitively in order to understand.

c) But evangelism itself is the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Saviour and Lord, with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and so be reconciled to God.

d) In issuing the Gospel invitation we have no liberty to conceal the cost of discipleship. Jesus still calls all who would follow him to deny themselves, take up their cross, and identify themselves with his new community.

e)The results of evangelism include obedience to Christ, incorporation into his church and responsible service in the world.

All these definitions( including those in the previous post) take for granted that the 'evangelist' first of all knows Christ himself. We can not share what we do not have ourselves! The OVERFLOW is a result of first of all being filled with God ourselves: ( If any man thirst, let him come to me and drink and out of his belly will flow...) The beggar has already been fed and then tells others where to get bread. Presenting Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit takes for granted that the 'evangelist' or 'witness' knows Christ and is living by his power.Our presence in the world is also important.In the world we must be prepared to mix with people and listen to them in order that we might understand their angst and concerns. Then when the opportunity arises to faithfully proclaim the message of grace and forgiveness through Christ. That is why the motto 'To know Christ and make Him known' is most apt for those who seek to reach the lost for Christ.


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