26 Mar 2012

We need to focus on evangelism in the church in a major way. It isn’t even clear that the church has a good understanding of what evangelism is, let alone that it is a form of ministry we should be practicing at the center of our discipleship.

I am currently teaching a course at Memphis Theological Seminary called “Evangelism and Discipleship in the Wesleyan Tradition.” The course is divided into two main parts, one focusing on evangelism and the other on discipleship. In each half of the course, I have asked my students (many of whom are pastors) how their congregations would respond if they asked them to describe those two terms as they relate to life in the church.

The answers have been illuminating.

With regards to evangelism in particular, my students have described a situation that I would call spiritual illiteracy. Folk in the church tend to think of evangelism as solely wrapped up in the act of preaching, and they consider it something that it is the preacher’s job to do. From my students’ comments I got no sense that most laity understand evangelism as a central part of the congregation’s ministry — to which all are called as disciples of Christ.

I’ve been so struck by our conversations on evangelism that I devoted a recent column in the United Methodist Reporter on it. The good news for us is that there have been quite a few good studies on evangelism done by Wesleyan scholars in recent years. The best one is William J. Abraham’s The Logic of Evangelism, which is worth a close read.

I agree with Abraham’s view that evangelism should be properly understood as “that set of intentional activities which is governed by the goal of initiating people into the Kingdom of God for the first time.” He’s talking about particular kinds of ministry that introduce people to the gospel message, invite them into life in the church, instruct them in the rudiments of the faith, and begin to form them in the way of discipleship. This is what it means to know Christ, and it is the path to a living faith. It’s also – and this is crucial – a ministry that every Christian is called to practice. The vitality and faithfulness of the church depend upon it.

6 Responses to Grappling with evangelism
  1. Thank you for the post, Andrew. One of the areas under my purview as an associate pastor at a large UMC congregation is evangelism. As a pastor in the heart of the Bible Belt, I would like to challenge Abraham’s definition slightly. Many targets of our church’s evangelism efforts have already been baptized (I am, after all, in Alabama). Yet for a lot of these folks, their engagement with the church has been nominal at best. The people I have in mind are those who, in fulfilling Robert Wuthnow’s description of the average young churchgoer, return to the church after marriage and the birth of their first child. I feel that my goal as the pastor of evangelism is to connect them to the church and the life of discipleship after this reentry. This often includes the kind of activities you describe in your final paragraph- teaching, inviting, forming, etc. I have seen God work in these people in amazing ways and their response to that grace is often deeply felt in the church and in their families. Is this not, properly speaking, evangelism? Your thoughts?

    • Drew — Thanks for the comments. I’ve read Scott Jones’ book, “The Evangelistic Love of God & Neighbor” even more recently than Abraham’s “Logic of Evangelism,” so I am hesitant to try and reproduce Abraham’s argument from memory. (Jones’ book is a project that self-consciously builds off of Abraham’s and thus uses many same or similar categories.)
      That caveat in place, I don’t think either Abraham or Jones would disagree with your characterization of what you are doing on the front end as evangelism. As Wesleyans, we have a robust belief in the possibility of backsliding, after all. And if there are people who have fallen away from the faith, then ‘evangelism’ is surely the right word for that set of activities we use in ministry to re-introduce them to the Christian life. I believe Abraham would agree (and also wouldn’t quibble on the baptism issue, as I believe his view is that infant baptism is a form of evangelism even for that infant when seen as part of the larger constellation of practices that initiates him into the church over the course of time).
      I also think that one interesting question — for your situation as well as for a practical theology of evangelism in general — is the issue of when a ministry ceases to be evangelism and starts to become something like “discipleship formation.” For Abraham, I think the point has to be considered that in which the aim is no longer initiation into the faith and has now moved on to something intended to form the person in what we would consider holiness of heart & life.

  2. I agree that evangelism is the responsibility of everyone in the body of Christ. It’s not only what we say but how we live and behave. I also believe that you can quote scripture without it always sounding like you are quoting scripture. To have the word in your heart means that it becomes a part of your vocabulary, apart of who you are, and you speak Godly principles all the time.

  3. Andrew, you could do a case study of St. John’s. In the past five years, our average Sunday attendance has increased from 320 to 490, and most of that increase has come through The Gathering, our Sunday evening Eucharist, fellowship meal, and formation hour. We very much follow the invitation, introduction, instruction pattern that you mention from Abraham.

  4. jolinne balentine-downey March 28, 2012 at 5:21 am

    Seems to me our churches know what evangelism is. They just want someone else to do it.

  5. Evangelism as I know it is to tell ppl about the savior Jesus Christ who died for their sins. He became the sacrificial lamb. If they want their sins forgiven once for all, and to be one of God’s chldren, then they should call on the name of Jesus and believe in their heart that God raised him from the dead. They should ask Jesus to be their sacrifice for their sins. When they do this, the Holy Spirit comes into them. They are united to God as their Father. They may still sin after repenting from sin but they have an advocate with the Father. 1st John 1 :9 ” If you confess your sins he is faithful and just to forgive…”They also will have eternal life.This is the gospel.The good news. Then because we love the Father, and are so thankful for sending his son to make a way for us to be forgiven, we want to please him and learn about what his word says so we can follow him and do his will. The more we love the father , the more we can do his will. we can even have supernatural gifts working in us to minister to the ppl what their are. Giving food to the poor is great and all we do is good, but unless we first are knowing that Jesus’ shed blood is the most important thing we can tell, we are like a beautiful un used empty vessel… empty . PPL don’t have to be told to give to the poor or have mercy on ppl, it comes naturally when the Holy Spirit is working in a person and that person is loving God . They are led by the spirit not by the preacher or others.They are led because of their love for their Father .They want to be about their Fathers business.

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