‘Evangelism’ (and its subsidiary terms, like ‘witnessing’ and ‘outreach’) is a word that gets used a lot. Christians are to be doing it, churches should engage in it, the growth of Christianity depends on it. But what is ‘it’? What is evangelism?
In the first part of this blog post, we’ll be taking a look at the principles and examples of evangelism as we find them in the New Testament and coming up with a basic biblical understanding and framework for evangelism. Then, in part 2 of this post, we’ll be thinking about three ways that a biblical understanding and framework for evangelism might shape and even challenge our current concepts and practices.
The word ‘evangelism’ gets used so much without any frame of reference or clarification of meaning. As we all know, familiarity breeds contempt… or rather, familiarity breeds misunderstanding. Using the word without defining it means that what we mean by ‘evangelism’ becomes assumed, and that is where the trouble begins. After all, assumption makes an ass out of ump and tion… or something like that.
Any hoo, the point is that when we assume we know what we mean by ‘evangelism’, the term begins to slip in its meaning. You and I could be having a conversation about ‘evangelism’ where we are both saying that the church should do more of it, but both have drastically different understanding on what ‘it’ is.
Indeed this is not a hypothetical situation. I have had many conversations with people where we both agree that the church should actively seek to reach (evangelise) young people. Yet, it became obvious that what I mean by ‘evangelism’ was quite different from what the other person meant. I was talking about helping young people to share the good news of Jesus with their peers, whereas they were talking about putting on a big event to attract lots of young people into the church building – two very different concepts of ‘evangelism’.
By not clarifying what we meant by ‘evangelism’, we were in danger of seeming like we agree whereas in reality there are two (or more) different views that maybe even disagree or stand opposed to each other. Yet this is not the greatest danger of never bringing in a frame of reference for evangelism. The greatest danger is that we move away from what the LORD says about evangelism; we lean on our understanding, rather than heeding the wisdom of God – something we are commanded not to do (Proverbs 3:5-8). The upshot of this is that we begin to build a view and approach to evangelism that starts to stray from what the LORD actually wants us to do. Over time, we end up labouring in vain (Psalm 127:1), and the work of our hands may end up being shown to be shoddy workmanship, fit for being torn down and chucked on the scrap heap (my paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 3:10-15).
So, what follows is a survey of evangelism in the New Testament (evangelism is also a concept in the Old Testament, but requires more careful explanation and presentation than I have time and space to do here). My aim is that this might serve as a primer to help us ensure that when we talk about evangelism, we have principles and examples from God’s own Word ringing in our ears and echoing round our heads.
Before we begin, a few notes. First, this survey is arranged into broad categories. That is, I have gone through the various texts and have tried to group them together where they offer similar principles/examples. Second, this is not an exhaustive survey. The passages given are illustrative of the principles/examples rather than the sum total of what the Bible says. Third, most of the passages are from the book of Acts. This is because the book of Acts itself is a survey of how all that Jesus began to do and teach was continued by his people, the church, once he had returned to His Father; it is a gold mine of principles and examples for the church to follow and live out.
With all the fine print out of the way, let’s begin.
A survey of Evangelism in the New Testament
Evangelism as a gathered church
Preaching in Christian gathered worship
Acts 2:42, 1 Corinthians 14:23-25, Colossians 3:16
Whenever the church gathered, the Gospel was proclaimed through the preaching of the Word and the apostles teaching. This is the ‘staple-diet’ of corporate whole-church evangelism. Whenever the church gathers, the Gospel should be preached as the Word is taught, and people will turn to Christ in the church gathering.
Commissioning evangelists and people for specific missions
Acts 11:22-24, Acts 13:1-5
Occasionally we see some of the apostles and other believers being commissioned or acknowledged as being set aside for a specific evangelistic purpose, mission or journey in order to build up the church and take God’s Word to unreached people. Such people are simply called to devote themselves intentionally and often vocationally to do the work of sharing the good news of Jesus that all believers are to do.
As individual Christians in the world
Personal witness and testimony among unbelievers
Acts 8:4, Acts 8:34-35, Colossians 4:5-6, 1 Peter 3:15
This is bar far the overwhelming assumption and focus of the New Testament in terms of evangelism: one person telling one (or more) other people about Jesus, and doing this wherever God may lead us and whenever the opportunity may arise.
Acts 16:34, Acts 18:8, 2 Timothy 3:14-15 (Acts 16:1), Acts 16:14-15
Wherever children hear the Gospel and believe in the New Testament, it is always in the context of their family – either someone sharing the Gospel with the whole family, or else parents, grandparents and family members leading and teaching their children to turn and trust in Jesus.
Lives that commend the message
Matthew 5:16, 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5, 1 Peter 2:11-12
Whenever the Gospel is shared and proclaimed, it is commended by the lives and character of those who share and proclaim it (for example, the incident with Philip the Sorcerer in Acts 8:9-25 shows how seriously Peter and John thought it was that someone’s motives and morality matched the message they proclaimed).
Evangelisms by commissioned evangelists and church leaders
Preaching in public forums
Acts 2:14ff, Acts 5:42, Acts 8:5, 2 Timothy 4:2
Paul and his companions (as those dedicated for specific missionary journeys and visits) devoted most of his time preaching the Gospel of Jesus in public forums, first to the Jews and then to the gentiles.
Philosophical reasoning in public forums
Acts 17:17, 22-23, Acts 19:8
Preaching of the Gospel in public places often led or generated philosophical discussion in those public places. Those dedicated for specific evangelism both preach the Gospel and contended for it.
Acts 19:9-10, Acts 28:30
In addition to preaching and contending for the Gospel, those commissioned as evangelists took time to teach and present the Gospel to individuals and small groups of people, often on a regular basis over a period of time.
Going to those ‘close’ to the Kingdom first (but never exclusively)
There is a pattern that emerges as we observe Paul doing the work of an evangelist: he goes to the Jews first, and then to the gentiles. As those who had been given the Law and the covenant promises of God, the Jews were close to the Kingdom (Mark 12:32-34). But this was never at the expense of preaching the Gospel to the gentiles. Both were on Paul’s to-do list, but preaching the Gospel to the Jews came first, followed by preaching it to the gentiles.
A survey of principles and practices of evangelism that are given to us in the New Testament show us that a biblical understanding of evangelism means…
- Preaching and speaking about Jesus as defined by the Word of God in order that people might turn to Jesus in faith is central and fundamental.
- Collectively as the church, evangelism is simply to be part of our regular church gatherings. It is not a separate ‘ministry’, activity or focus for the church.
- Individually as believers, we should regard evangelism as a personal privilege and responsibility carried out in everyday life wherever opportunities present themselves (and our lives should commend the message we share and proclaim).
- Where people are comissioned to be set apart for evangelism, they are in essence simply doing what every believer is called to do but in a way that is more explicit, more focused/strategic or as their vocation (so as to be without the distraction of earning a living apart from their ministry).