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.