What Does it Mean to Evangelize?November 30th, 2023
“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.” Matthew 4:23
This year, our Centennial year, I have been exploring the key themes that have characterized the ministry and witness of Asbury Theological Seminary during the last 100 years. In 1923, H. C. Morrison and the founding board of the Seminary established the purpose of Asbury Seminary. The heart of that mission is in the phrase seen around our campus and on our website: “…to prepare men and women to evangelize and spread scriptural holiness throughout the world.” I would like us to give our attention to one part of this historic statement: “to evangelize.” What does it mean to evangelize? Furthermore, does the church have a shared understanding of the word “evangelism,” or is there a distinctive understanding that we might bring to the global church? So, I would like to revisit our historic understanding of the word “evangelism” and, in particular, what it means for us to share the “good news” – the “evangel” of Jesus Christ.
Some notable books have sought to look at the whole New Testament and clarify what exactly it means to evangelize. Jim Peterson’s “Living Proof,” Michael Green’s “Evangelism in the Early Church,” and Rodney Stark’s “The Rise of Christianity” are a few of many examples that could be cited. We have 11 examples in the book of Acts where the gospel is shared by Peter, Stephen or Paul in public settings. We have five important prayers for evangelism in the New Testament that shed light on the question. Finally, we have examples of personal encounters where the gospel or some facet of it is shared with individuals such as Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman, the Rich Young Ruler, Levi and friends, Nathaniel, the Ethiopian eunuch, Cornelius, Paul and Silas’ jailers, Felix, and Agrippa. These are also important passages to consider.
I had the privilege of being in Turkey in 1999 with the entire faculty of Gordon-Conwell, where I served at that time. We were retracing the footsteps of the Apostle Paul on what is sometimes referred to as his three missionary journeys, and we visited the site of each of the seven churches addressed in Revelation 2 and 3. Dr. Gregg Beale, who had just completed a major commentary on the book of Revelation, was giving a short lecture to the faculty at a historic spot and, in the process, made several references to the word “gospel.” I noticed that a significant crowd of Turkish men, women and children had gathered around our circle to listen in, so I asked Dr. Beale during a pause in his lecture if he would mind clarifying what exactly he meant by the word “gospel.” Dr. Beale, realizing my intention was to help the Islamic guests who had joined our group, pivoted and ended up sharing a beautiful summary of the gospel. He focused, quite naturally, on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and how He “died for our sins” and how we are called to respond to this “evangel” or “good news.” However, by his own admission later when we reflected on it, sharing the gospel was not as easy as one might think. The reason for this is that the gospel is multifaceted. The challenge inherent in all Christian communication is that we are often compelled to say two or more things at the same time, and omitting any of them ends up distorting the full meaning of the gospel.
This challenge is highlighted in the summary statement of Jesus’ ministry found multiple times in the book of Matthew, which seeks to describe Jesus’ own embodiment of and proclamation of the good news or the gospel. If Jesus stands as the primal embodiment of the “evangel” – you might even say that He is the first evangelist – then we must start with Jesus Himself in understanding the word “evangelism.” Our text says, “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.” The language of Matthew 4:23 and 9:35 is virtually identical. In these summary statements, we find three things Jesus did: He taught, He proclaimed, and He healed. The three key words would be “didasko” (to teach), “kyrusso” (to preach or proclaim), and “therapeuo” (to heal). Apparently, Matthew couldn’t summarize the gospel with one thing, so he gave us three things. This is the core problem the church has faced when trying to understand the word “evangelize,” and although it sits in our mission statement as a word without any clarifying footnote, it is important that we recognize the full import of the word.`
This challenge is compounded by two pressure points that have framed and, I think, distorted our understanding of evangelism, which our tradition has sought to address. First, the 16th century Reformation was, among other things, a tumultuous time in church history where the church was seeking to recover the core gospel message. In the process, they shined a huge light on the doctrine of justification. This doctrine had been lost and needed to be reclaimed. We do not want to disparage the particular challenges faced by our 16th century forefathers and foremothers of the faith. They felt that the doorway into the church had been lost, and they directed a huge light to shine on the front door of justification. While as Wesleyans we stand in broad appreciation of this, we also recognize that in the process a huge reductionism took place, which essentially conflated the word “justification” with the word “salvation” such that to this day when someone asks, “Are you saved?” we all know that what they really mean is, “Are you justified?” But the reductionism of salvation to mean only justification is a huge loss for the church. At the core of the Wesleyan revivals and the subsequent emphasis on holiness, sanctification, class meetings, band meetings, etc. was an attempt to shine a light not merely on the doorway into the house of salvation but on the whole house and the larger biblical meaning of the word “salvation.” Salvation does not only look back on our justification but also fully embraces the ongoing work of sanctification and even our future glorification in the eschaton when we are brought into full union with Christ. So, the word “salvation,” as it turns out, looks simultaneously in three directions: we have been saved, we are being saved, and we shall be saved – all three of those are taught in the New Testament. All three of those dimensions are integral to the “good news” and at the heart of what it means for us to evangelize.
The second major problem we have faced is more contemporary, as the church in the 20th century sought to commodify and simplify the gospel, boiling it down more and more to find its simplest form. This tended to reduce the gospel and what it meant to evangelize into something a bit more transactional and reductionistic. I will not criticize, for example, the Four Spiritual Laws tract or any Billy Graham crusade, because God has mightily used them both in personal and group evangelism. We need ministries that focus on justification, and the Graham association put enormous energy into incorporating those who responded into churches for appropriate follow-up and discipleship. The book of Acts is filled with examples of the early church presenting the gospel message of Jesus Christ to individuals or crowds of people. They presented Jesus Christ crucified, risen and ascended, expositing the meaning and power of this central redemptive act and the need to repent and believe the gospel. These are the inaugural words of both the ministry of Jesus and the church itself on the Day of Pentecost (Mark 1:15; Matt. 4:17; Acts 2:38). Revelation and response are key to the entire gospel framework. But the whole narrative of the book of Acts is also about the early church incorporating believers into redeemed communities known as churches – what today we would call house churches or micro-communities. This is why it is misleading to refer to Paul’s three major trips around the Mediterranean basin as “missionary journeys.” The text does not call them that. They are actually an exposition of Paul and his companions’ extended work in church planting or, if you prefer, church multiplication. They were sent out by the church of Antioch to multiply the church, not just lead individuals to a saving knowledge of Christ.
This contrast is reflected when comparing the revival work of George Whitfield and John Wesley. They each spent an enormous amount of time conducting evangelistic public meetings. But years later while reflecting on his ministry, George Whitefield made this statement: “My brother Wesley acted wisely. The souls that were awakened under his ministry he joined in societies, and thus preserved the fruit of his labor. This I neglected, and my people are a rope of sand.”
This is a crucial insight into our understanding of evangelism. Our movement was born in the cradle of revivalism, so we are as deeply committed as anyone to evangelism focused on justification and people receiving Christ into their lives in a personal way. But our movement also had a larger focus for not merely becoming a Christian, but being a Christian, which inevitably carries deep concerns about the more holistic work we believe is embedded in the rich and textured word “evangelism.”
The 20th century tended, quite tragically, to put a deep wedge between evangelism and social action and actually pitted them against each other. This further reduced the word “evangelism” to mean leading someone to justification and, in the process, made wider social concerns, including physical needs as well as the perennial longing for justice and reconciliation, ancillary to the gospel. This is a problem that was faced squarely by the larger evangelical movement in such important statements as the 1966 Wheaton Declaration, the 1966 World Congress on Evangelism in Berlin, The Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern in 1973, and the Lausanne Covenant in 1974 put out by the International Congress on World Evangelization. The Lausanne gathering was intended to be a focus on the “how” of global evangelism, but voices from the Majority World reminded the congress that the more profound question was not so much answering the “how” of evangelism but what evangelism entailed: the need to not merely address the spiritual condition of the world but also the social and political realities that trapped people in poverty, oppression and injustice. The result was to deepen and restore what it means to “evangelize” to the full biblical vision.
Indeed, we must keep remembering the summary statement of Jesus’ ministry as the protype “evangel” for all later Christian evangelism. It makes clear that teaching, preaching and healing are all intricately related to what is meant by the word “gospel” and what it means to evangelize. The core problem is that we have to examine the whole ministry of Jesus as well as the whole ministry of the early church in Acts to see the fundamental unity of word and deed in the Scriptures. In the Incarnation, God’s word and deed are one. On the one hand, the Scriptures teach us through precept and example about the central and abiding importance of proclamation. Paul says to the Corinthians, “we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews, foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (I Cor. 1:23, 24). Paul admonishes the church at Rome that the unbelieving world will not be saved apart from the public preaching of the gospel. He says, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:14, 15). The proclamation of the word is central to our identity as the church. If the church ever ceases to call the world to repent and to put their faith solely in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ, then we cease to be faithful to Christ and the Apostolic message.
On the other hand, Scripture also warns us against the perils of a “dead faith.” James asks, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (Jam. 2:14-17). James explicitly connects the witness of the church with the signs of righteousness in the Old Testament when he says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (Jam. 1:27). The church took their social responsibility seriously, as is evidenced by the dispute that broke out in the church concerning the daily distribution of relief for widows in need. The Greek speaking believers charged that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of relief in favor of the widows who were Aramaic speaking. The Apostles resolved this dispute by appointing the first seven deacons who were responsible for distributing the relief with equity (Acts 6:1-7).
From the earliest days, word and deed were united in the New Testament’s understanding of the life and witness of the church. The Apostle Paul, the great preacher, teacher and church planter, worked tirelessly in raising money for those in distress in Jerusalem due to famine and persecution (Acts 24:17, Rom. 15:25-29, I Cor. 16:1-4). Early in his ministry, when Paul met with the Apostles to discuss the gospel of grace and the propriety of extending the gospel to Gentiles, he comments that they reached an agreement but concludes by saying, “all they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” (Gal. 2:10). In short, it is a caricature of Paul’s ministry to see him as only committed to the preaching of the word. He was also committed to planting churches which were intended to be outposts of the New Creation and places where forgiveness, reconciliation and justice – both before God and our neighbors – prevail. Paul’s ministry reflects the ministry of Jesus in His commitment to preaching, teaching and healing.
So, when our mission statement uses the word “evangelize,” and especially as it connects it to “spreading scriptural holiness,” we are casting a wider vision for the word “evangelism.” We thank God for our counseling students who are committed to the deep work of healing in our society. We thank God for those of you who might be called “evangelists,” meaning you have a special gift in helping people find the doorway, the entrance, into the grand hall of salvation. We thank God for future pastors in our midst who are committed to walking into a community of believers and helping to disciple them. We thank God for those who are committed to the hard work of racial reconciliation. We thank God for those who have a heart to work among refugees who have no hope unless someone comes alongside them as their advocate. We thank God for those who stand in pulpits preaching the centrality of Jesus Christ and the need to come to Him in repentance and faith. We thank God for those who will spend their ministries feeding the poor, housing the homeless, or working for social justice for the disenfranchised. We thank God for every one of you whose life is committed to seeking justice and dismantling structural evils as much as helping to liberate men and women from the bondage of personal sins. We thank God that the attributes of Yahweh, “mishpat,” “hesed” and “rahmim” (justice, kindness and compassion), did not evaporate with the dawn of the New Testament but were embodied in the glorious Incarnation. We thank God that in whatever we do, it is all rooted in Jesus Christ crucified, resurrected and ascended. The reason is because none of us individually can fully embody the word “evangelism.” But collectively – through the aggregate of our various callings and ministries – we are all reflecting the power of the inbreaking rule and reign of God. And anything that is found in the New Creation, whether it be reconciliation, forgiveness or grace, has a place to be manifested in the here and now in full anticipation of the glorious eschaton. We thank God for all of these ministries because, like a beautiful diamond, they are all different facets of what it means to evangelize.
Thus, may it be said of us as it was said of Jesus. May we too go about in our cities and villages teaching and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction (bodily, structurally or socially) among the people. If we do, we will then be found resonating with our founding mission “to evangelize and spread scriptural holiness throughout the world.” Amen.
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