ASK 2 – What is Evangelism?
There is considerable confusion about what evangelism is. For those outside the Church it is largely a negative term. It is too often confused with the term evangelical – which people unfairly associate with a rather simplistic US style political fundamentalism. For many in the Church it also has negative connotations. Whilst we think it is a good idea and of course all Christians want to share the good news, sometimes those who are ‘into’ evangelism are seen as a little eccentric and odd. Nonetheless every evangelical church is for evangelism. But what is it?
The Communication of Christ
It is the communication of Christ – the Good News – to a world that is in desperate need of him. It is one beggar having found bread, telling the other starving beggars where the feast is! It is not a methodology, a course or a means to fill churches – although these may result. At one level it is remarkably easy – but at another it is the most difficult task the Church today faces. We all know we should do it – and most of us make some effort – but if we are honest – communicating Christ in a post-Christian world, is something that many Christians find really difficult. It’s like a doctor trying to give medicine to a person who thinks that they are not sick. Or providing food to someone who feels full. Or education to a person who thinks they know it all. As Jesus put it; “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”(Luke 5:31). Our problem is that we live in a world where, in the sinners’ own eyes, the only sinners are other people.
The Easy Option
When churches see evangelism as being about growing their own church – they go for the easy option. The easiest way to grow a church is to attract people who already go to church. I recall driving down a street in suburban Memphis with a pastor friend. Every second building seemed to be a church – each one larger than the one before. I asked my friend about one particular building –“That’s massive – they must have a congregation of thousands!”. “Oh no – they have about 300 – it’s so big because they have offices, a basketball court, a school, concert hall etc” “Why do they have all that?” “To keep their people – if they don’t have all the facilities then people will go to a church that does”. Millions of dollars of real estate on one street – not for reaching out, at least not in the biblical sense; but rather to beat the competition. That may be an extreme case – but in reality, many churches grow, not through conversion growth, but rather transfer, or through birth.
Church Growth by Conversion
I was deeply challenged by hearing Sinclair Ferguson speaking at the Crieff Conference. He told the ministers present “Churches in Scotland have given up expecting to grow by conversions”. Sydney Anglicanism is justly famous throughout the evangelical world for its combination of good theology and effective evangelism. Philip Jenson and John Chapman being the most well-known of a much larger group. But the question we need to ask ourselves is whether that is true in today’s complex world? Feeling under siege from a hostile culture there is a danger that we become inward looking, lose our confidence and find ourselves competing for the few scraps left on the declining table. I suspect that could be true for every denomination or network in Australia.
When I left the Free Church college to go to a rural charge in the Scottish Highlands – I was confronted with the urgent need for evangelism. Even in that small congregation I calculated that we needed ten new people per year to stand still! The elders’ immediate response was to wonder where we would get them from – ten Christians would not be moving into the village each year. The answer was of course that we had to grow by conversion or die. In the providence of God – that happened.
A few years later we moved to Dundee, to St Peters, the famous church of Robert Murray McCheyne. It had a great history – but that history had gone. In a building that could seat 900 people, we had less than nine! We were never going to grow by attracting Christians – we were after all a declining church in a declining building in a declining culture. Most Christians want to join a church they perceive as successful, not one that is dying. The only way to grow was through new birth! And again the Lord was merciful. It was a long slow process, involving a lot of ploughing, sowing and reaping. But when we left 27 years later the congregation was a group of 250 diverse and largely united people!
The Primary Motive
But again – filling declining churches, or maintaining our numbers is not our primary motive for evangelism. If it is – we will fail. Evangelism comes from a deep conviction that people are lost; a burning desire to see them saved; and a real zeal for the glory of God to be seen in the conversion of sinners. Such a desire to be a body that communicates the goods news should be in the DNA of every local church – in every thing that we do.
Evangelism in the Church DNA
The trouble is that big churches often don’t see a need. They are after all successful and they want to maintain their success by keeping the people they already have. Smaller churches don’t have either the critical mass or the resources – and they too want to keep the few people they have. To be honest in both cases people just prefer things the way they are. They don’t like change – and evangelism which works changes everything.
Another mistake that is often made with evangelism is to compartmentalise and sideline it. We associate evangelism with the ‘simple’ gospel, which we often turn into ‘simplistic’. We think it is limited to one methodology – a kind of soundbite ‘elevator pitch’ presentation and then we don’t understand why that is not working. We have ‘mission weeks’ – which are in themselves a good thing; but become harmful if we substitute them for the fact that the church is always on mission. We have outreach events, forgetting that every event is outreach in some sense. We think that we have specific times of witness – forgetting that all we do is a witness to our Lord (whether good or bad!).
Depth and Creativity
This reductionist view of evangelism misses out on the depth and creativity that biblical evangelism requires. When the communication of the Good News of Christ is in your DNA, then everything the church does is evangelistic. We become all things to all people (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). Evangelism is apologetic – seeking to give people reasons to believe and removing the defeater beliefs (Acts 17). Evangelism is bible teaching – proclaiming the wonders of Christ from all the Scriptures in such a way that people will desire him (1 Corinthians 1:21) . Evangelism is prayer – as we pray for and with those who are in such need (Colossians 4:3); Evangelism is mercy ministry – as we proclaim Christ by our deeds as wells as our words (Matthew 5:16). Evangelism is public worship – so that unbelievers come in and sense the presence of God (1 Corinthians 14:25). Evangelism is the deep fellowship of the Lord’s people – so that all people will know that we are Christ’s disciples because of our love for one another (John 13:35). Evangelism is bible reading and sharing – that people may find Christ in all the Scriptures (Luke 24:27). We could go on. Evangelism is youth work, Sunday school, pastoral ministry, teaching, etc. There is not one part of the Church’s life that does not involve and impact evangelism.
And this is where ASK comes in. We are not the answer – Christ – his Word, Spirit and church are. But what we want to do is help by partnering with churches. As a church pastor myself I was always grateful for any support and help we could get in order to help us fulfil the great commission Christ has given us – ”go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20).
Next week we will look at some of the ways we can help. But meanwhile let us all pray that the passion of the Christ who wept over the lost souls of Jerusalem, would be the same passion that causes us to sow with tears, and reap with songs of joy (Ps 126).
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:5-8)