What is the Difference between Evangelism and Missions?December 5th, 2022
All Christians should understand that the good news of the gospel that Jesus Christ is Risen from the dead and universally offers redemption and reconciliation to the entire created order is central to our identity as the people of the Risen Lord. The challenge comes is knowing what this actually looks like in a local church and how we think about the privilege which is ours to share this good news.
One of the ways to frame the challenge and the opportunity is to distinguish between our “evangelistic” mandate and our “missions” mandate. How are these two terms different? Simply put, our evangelistic mandate is our commitment to share the gospel with everyone within our normal reach. This should be viewed quite broadly since there are countless ways we can testify to the Risen Christ through the various ministries of our local church. I do not think we should, for example, unduly separate our social witness from our more specific gospel witness. If, for example, your church runs a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter, or a refuge home for women seeking to escape from the evils of sex traffic, this is fundamentally an evangelistic effort since it is bearing witness to the liberative power of the gospel in very specific ways. In the New Creation, for example, no one will be hungry or homeless or living in fear. Therefore, all the ways the church provides food, shelter or refuge are inherently bearing witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. These are example of the New Creation breaking into the present order. Of course, the church must also provide specific testimony to the gospel which calls people to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. Since sin has left us dead in our trespasses, and new birth is perhaps the greatest testimony to the Resurrected life of Jesus Christ, we must call men and women, boys and girls to repent and believe the gospel. This aspect of our evangelistic mandate also happens in a myriad of ways. It should, of course, be central to our preaching ministry in our churches. It should be found at the heart of our catechesis with children (both in our homes as well as our educational programs) and people exploring what it means to become Christians, as in a new members class. The Alpha course, especially when joined with a meal and good conversation, is just one example of a very effective means for introducing people to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and I highly recommend it. All of these efforts, and dozens more, are crucial for a church committed to its evangelistic mandate.
How is this different from missions? Missions refers to the various ways we extend the gospel across cultural, linguistic or social lines in a way which brings access to the gospel by people who otherwise would have no way to hearing the good news of Jesus Christ. The church is the most diverse, multi-ethnic movement in the history of the world. The reason it became so global and so diverse is precisely because the church has always taken seriously the call of Jesus to go to the “ends of the earth” with the gospel of Jesus Christ. But, let me make the point more pointedly. What if every Christian on the planet was transformed into a Billy Graham type evangelist (fairly optimistic, right?). But, furthermore, what if we went even beyond the amazing results of Billy Graham’s crusades and said that every single person any Christian witnessed to immediately became a follower of Jesus Christ. The result of this would be a massive growth of Christian identity which would result in the church doubling in size. Currently, there are about 2.2 billion Christians in the world. After this amazing evangelistic thrust, the church would grow to approximately 4.5 billion Christians globally. But, even after this, there would still be over 1 billion people who had never even heard the name of Jesus Christ. There would be billions more who have heard of his name, and maybe even know something of the gospel, but had no one to witness to them. The point is, the church should never confuse our evangelistic mandate from our missions mandate. We must share the gospel with those in our social, linguistic and cultural sphere. But, we cannot forget those who currently have no access to the gospel of Jesus Christ. There are thousands of languages which do not have even one verse of the Bible in their language. There are thousands of people-groups who do not have any Christians inside their group, or so few that they cannot reliably be counted on to share the gospel with everyone in their people-group. These are called “unreached” peoples because they have fewer than 5% Christians and they need specific, intentional gospel penetration into their group. The Church cannot forget these people, even as we see so many needs and opportunities around us.
It is true that the United States is quickly becoming post-Christian. We should feel the burden of this every day. We must launch thousands of new churches to re-present the gospel to the people of the United States. But, this is not to be confused with people-groups who have never heard the gospel a single time and have no access to the gospel in any meaningful way. Thus, a healthy church will think strategically about both our evangelistic mandate and our missions mandate. We must embrace both. This is not simply a call for the “west to reach the rest,” but, rather, it is a deeper call for the entire global church to work together to give every single person on the planet the opportunity to hear the gospel in their own language. This task is so big it will take the whole church in the whole world to accomplish it. In the end, of course, this is not “our work” but it is the work of the Risen Christ in the world. But, He does call us to join Him in this mission and to never lose sight of our Lord’s vision for the climax of history when he says, “this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to every nation, and then the end shall come” (Matthew 24:14). The word for “nation” used in that passage is not the word for political country, but the word for ethnic group or people-group. Our daughter, Bethany, has dedicated over 12 years of her life to working among an unreached peoples group in Tanzania. They had no witness to the gospel when she arrived. They did not have a single word of Scripture in their language, since they do not speak Swahili (the national language). Today, they have 38 story sets which tell the broad biblical story in their language. They have the books of Luke, John and Acts in their language. They have the Jesus Film in their language. This is just the beginning, but there are now hundreds of people in that group who now have heard the gospel of Jesus Christ for the first time in their own language. There are still thousands of groups like this all over the world.
Every church must think seriously about these realities. The Empty Tomb demands nothing less.
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