Evangelism in the 21st Century is intriguing subject. In a society so often at odds with Christianity - for a whole host of reasons - how can and should we envision this “sharing of the good news” so implicit to Christianity?

In this age of expertise there is a tendency to seek just the right techniques or strategies in an effort to “maximize the return” on our evangelistic efforts. Thus for many people, evangelism often elicits a negative image or idea encountered or participated in (e.g. door-to-door ministry or sharing your “testimony” with a stranger). These stereotypes, however, are part of what makes it hard to envision evangelism in our time. Stuck with stereotypes, evangelism can seem anything but sharing good news.

I’m convinced that the “how-to” of evangelism can’t be about technique or expertise. Evangelism is the creative process of God’s people living out the good news in concrete ways - loving God and neighbor in whatever time, whatever country, whatever way. Which is why a recent look at stories of evangelism in history has given me hope - good news comes in many forms through many people. Take a look:

Polycarp of Smyrna - evangelism unto death: He led a church under the persecution of the Roman Empire in the 1st Century. Facing martyrdom, he asserted: “80 and 6 years have I served him, and he never did me wrong; and how can I now blaspheme my King that has saved me?”

Saint Francis of Assisi - evangelism in all of life:
Simplicity and devotion were his good news to others. He was even known to preach to animals!

“Preach the gospel at all times, if necessary use words” (attributed to Saint Francis)

Dirk Willems - evangelism by love of enemy:
Fleeing his persecutors across frozen water, he turned around to help a soldier drowning in the frigid waters. He was arrested and shortly after executed for not renouncing his Anabaptist Christian faith.

Nikolaus von Zinzendorf - evangelism in joy:
He emphasized the joy of the Lord in the all of life. He displayed a zealous, if not naive, optimism in dreaming as a boy that the ‘pagans’ wouldn’t all convert before he got a chance to convert the rest. “My joy until I die...is the win souls for the lamb.”

John and Charles Wesley - evangelism as marathon:
I’m not a fan of statistics evaluating faithfulness, but these at least reflect an immense commitment and effort in sharing their faith: John - 250,000 miles (most on horseback), 40,000 sermons, 200 written works; Charles - 8989 hymns.

William Wilberforce - evangelism as justice:
His faith led him to work tirelessly in the British parliament towards the abolition of slavery. “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.”

These stories should be our evangelism handbook - a testimony of the saints through ages seeking to share of the good news of Jesus for their time and for their place. As Jesus would say, “go and do likewise.”


Greg Harris said...

Hey David,

Thank you for your eloquent thoughts. I often come to your blog and leave encouraged - sorry I don't comment more often to affirm you and the gifts that God has given you. I am glad you are doing what you do and have always appreciated our conversations face-to-face when we cross paths.

I too think it is unhelpful to equate evangelism with particular models (i.e. door-to-door) and I agree that too often the conversation of evangelism gets hi-jacked and thrown to the side because of less than ideal evangelistic strategies.

My quibble is that I think there is a distinction between evangelism and the good works that necessarily flow from a life transformed by the Gospel. I hold a narrower view of evangelism; I think evangelism is verbal proclamation of the Gospel - the evangel. Living lives that seek to reflect Christ's lordship over all areas of life and society (i.e. the legacy and examples of Wilberforce and Willems) is the necessary implication of the Gospel, but is not it's verbal proclamation.

Many important people were highlighted in this post, people that ought to be emulated by all who call Christ their Lord and Saviour, but I think it is unhelpful for us to equate evangelism/gospel proclamation with actions.

Christians ought to walk in the footsteps of our Lord and talk about what He has done for us - but not confuse or amalgamate the two.

If you're interested, I did a post on evangelism myself about a year ago. http://greg-harris.blogspot.com/2011/02/evangelism.html

I'd love to continue the conversation sometime over coffee if you'd like to discuss further.

All the best to you and your ministry David, I am deeply thankful for you and hope this post doesn't come across as condescending - that was not my intention.

David Warkentin said...

Hi Greg,

Glad you enjoy the blog - and thanks for the addition to the conversation. Definitely not condescending!

I agree the specific biblical definition of evangelist is one who proclaims the good news (or bearer of good news). I also agree my proposal could leave the impression that proclamation is optional (especially the St. Francis quote). Thanks for pointing out this risk.

I'm just suggesting we take a both/and approach to evangelism as words and deeds. I don't think we can separate the message from the messenger (e.g. "they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven" Mt. 5:16). Our lives provide the credibility for our proclamation (along with the Holy Spirit's work as you helpfully mention in your post). To say you can have evangelism without words is incomplete (e.g. "lifestyle evangelism"). But you could say the opposite too, that proclamation without the corresponding life of faith is inconsistent with model of Jesus and the Apostles (my current favorite verse on Gospel is Mark 1:14-15 as it lays the foundation for the whole mission and ministry of Jesus as summing up the "good news" (evangelion). What Jesus proclaimed implied the following years of life, ministry, death, and resurrection representing the Kingdom of God. Also, I think individuals like Willems and Wilberforce were ridiculed (or killed - Willems!) for the way they proclaimed a contextualized gospel in the public sphere (e.g. personal confession of faith or freedom for slaves). Proclamation was a big part of their ministry.

So while I agree proclamation must be a part of faithful evangelism, I prefer to keep a broader definition.

Let's be in touch about coffee!

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