I originally posted this as “A Definition of Evangelism” back in February, 2016. Some comments elsewhere led me to re-posting it with some additional thoughts.
What is Evangelism?
In today’s world, the term evangelism has taken on a very negative meaning, especially when it comes to the interaction of faith and science.
While evangelism can be defined as declaring the good news about all that God is doing in the world, it is much more than simply challenging individuals to yield to Jesus, letting Jesus into their lives, and allowing the power of the Holy Spirit to transform them into new creations. It is also about proclaiming what God is doing in society right now to bring about justice, liberation, and economic well-being for the oppressed (From Tony Campolo’s forward to Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel: Luke and Acts).
For me, an evangelical Christian is one who presents the Gospel message of hope, justice, and freedom from oppression to the world. If that means taking action to relieve poverty, heal the sick, feed the hungry, house the homeless, give aid to the needy, and free the oppressed, so be it. It isn’t what you say but what you do that tells the world you are a Christian.
There is also a reason why you take such actions but we will discuss that at another time. In a world of despair, anger, hatred, and violence, evangelism has to bring hope, not add to the problems.
The State of Biblical Literacy in Today’s Society
Let’s face it, despite all the claims to the contrary, this is not a Christian nation and we are not a Biblically-literate society. We may claim to be a Christian nation but it is a Christianity developed from non-Christian sources. It is a Christianity based in part on a lack of understanding of what is written in the Bible and in part on a reliance of the thoughts of others who are as woefully lacking in understanding but who cover up their lack of understanding by the pronouncement that they are experts.
It is a Christianity that makes God’s Kingdom a province of America’s Kingdom and in doing so justifies anger, hatred, violence and war in God’s name (which, by the way, didn’t work in the Crusades so why should we expect it to work today?).
It is a Christianity that does not allow free thought, that says the opinions of a select few matter more than the thoughts of all the people. It is a Christianity anchored in the past and without a modern view (in fact, I would suggest that those who support this form of Christianity would much rather turn the clock backwards in time). The precepts and ideas of Christianity are timeless but have to be viewed in the context of the world today, not the world of Israel two thousand years ago.
The Great Commission
When you hear an evangelist speak of the Great Commission, they are referring to Matthew 28: 19, which essentially says that we are to go and make disciples of all the nations. This idea, in my view, also tends to have a negative connotation.
It has a negative connotation to me because it suggests that those who have accepted this commission have the right and authority to force people to accept Christianity as their faith and that 1) they are giving no options and 2) there are no other options.
But history tells us that the belief in one God is not limited solely to the Christian faith and that brute force as a means of conversion probably doesn’t work and, in fact, has never worked. In fact, the use of brute force as a means of proselytizing has always failed and is one of the leading reasons why Christianity is having problems today.
Now, if we read Matthew 28: 19 from Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel version of Matthew, we read that we are to make students of all the people and teach them to live in the manner that Jesus taught the Twelve. I think that because Dr. Jordan was working with the original Greek version of Matthew when he made his translation, it is a more reasonable interpretation of the original work and speaks to what we are to do as evangelists in today’s world, teach the people.
We are not to lecture people, not brow-beat them, not shame them into becoming followers of Christ but to show them an alternative way to a better life. In a world where it is quite easy to become cynical, one’s actions and deeds carry far more weight than do one’s words. An ancient Chinese proverb points out that when you give someone a fish, you have feed them for the day but if you teach them how to fish, you have feed them for a lifetime.
Jesus was first a teacher, teaching those he chose and teaching those who followed. He did his teaching in a variety of settings and using a number of approaches. Using a modern analogy, he accomplished his goals by wandering around, going to the people rather than expecting that they would come to Him (though many did do just that).
The question has to thus be, “How do I teach the people about Jesus in today’s society?” And the answer is very simple. I teach the people where they are and in a way that helps them learn and understand. And it begins with teaching those who wish to be disciples.
When Jesus began His ministry, He proclaimed that he had come to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, heal the sick, and free the prisoners. We have to understand that no one is going to listen to a message of hope and promise if they are hungry, naked, sick, or imprisoned (physically and mentally). So our acceptance of the Great Commission means that we have to find ways of changing the world so that people can hear the words of Christ.
That has to be our goal.