Evangelism Part I

One of the greatest difficulties we face as a team is inexperience. As with most vocations, inexperience makes it hard to get a job in the first place—or in our case, raise funds to get to the field in the first place—which in turn leaves us asking how we will get experience. This is only the initial hurdle, since inexperience really matters most for the very reason employers are hesitant to hire novices: we've got a lot to learn once we finally do get in the field. It's the initial hurdle that we've been dealing with, though, and it has caused us to ask pointed questions of ourselves. 

One church in particular had a very firm criterion that prospective missionaries demonstrate evangelistic zeal before going to the mission field. Their question is: "If you're not evangelistic here, why should we expect you to be evangelistic there?" I can't say that this is a bad question, and it comes more to the point than some ridiculous we-send-veteran-missionaries- only policy. Experience in this case is not so much about being ahead of the learning curve as it is demonstrating that you're a match for the job. A handyman needs to be handy, so we don't send a lawyer to fix the faucet unless he is a particularly handy lawyer. The person with the leaky faucet asks, "So, have you seen this problem a lot," and the lawyer replies, "No, I've never worked on plumbing before, but I really feel it's what I should be doing." The question, then, is whether or not we are evangelistic, and experience in evangelism would indicate that we are. Since, frankly, we have been found wanting in the area of evangelistic experience in the usual sense, I have pondered what it means to be evangelistic, and I'll share some of those reflections here. 

Let me say up front that we feel a legitimate humility when we look at the opportunities we have missed to proclaim God's good news in the lives of those around us. We are very earthen vessels, and that is no excuse. It is also, as far as I can see, the farthest thing from a contradiction of the calling we believe God has given us for Arequipa. 

Now to the main point: What does it mean to be evangelistic? I suppose I could not answer that without thinking some about what the gospel (or "good news") is. I like to start with Jesus' own understanding of the gospel message: “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mk 1.14-15). For Mark, "The kingdom of God has come near" is the best summary of both Jesus' preaching and God's good news. There is a well-known transition in early Christianity from the good news of Jesus to the good news about Jesus; that is, from the message Jesus preached to the message preached about Jesus. As Jesus' disciples came to realize that the kingdom of God being near had everything to do with God drawing near in Jesus, he became the focal point of proclamation. We should not lose sight of the fact, however, that the good news is inseparable from the nearness of God's reign. Though it may surprise some of us who are used to christocentric (Christ-centered) language and preaching, even Christ did not preach himself, so to speak. His theocentric (God-centered) message was about the breaking in of a kingdom where God rules--a place where his will is done on earth as it is in heaven. As difficult as it is to imagine such a place, this is fundamentally the good news. This kingdom is breaking in, and it's the place you want to be, because God is setting the world right, fixing the broken places, reconciling ruined relationships. Of course, as the earliest Christians recognized, there is no separating Jesus from the in- breaking kingdom, but Jesus is not the part we struggle with. I want to highlight that part we do seem to overlook.

As we consider theologically what it means to be evangelistic, we must not lose sight of the fact that the gospel is the kingdom of God. It may, therefore, be unbalanced to think of evangelism strictly as "telling people about salvation in Jesus." I hope that shocks some readers, because shock ultimately indicates the reality of the lopsidedness in our theology. I guess if we are going to err in one direction, Jesus is the best option. All I am saying, though, is that we should look at Jesus' own understanding of the gospel. He points beyond himself to God. Phil 2.6-11, one of most christocentric passages of the NT, is exemplary. Have you ever noticed that all of it--incarnation, obedience, death, resurrection, exaltation, authority--serves one end: "the glory of God the Father" (v. 11)? What about 1 Cor 15.24: "Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power"? I hope these are thought-provoking passages. We Westerners have often been too wrapped up in our individualistic salvation to appreciate fully that the gospel is about the kingdom of God and, ultimately, the glory of God. Salvation--reconciliation with God--is necessarily part of that bigger picture, but we are wrong to believe that proclaiming the good news just means telling people that Jesus can save them from hell and get them to heaven. The message is bigger, deeper, and richer than that. The reign of God is at stake! Therefore, we might not be surprised to find out that evangelism is also more than bringing people to “personal salvation” (stay tuned for Part II). 

This is Part I of a two-part series. Evangelism Part II appeared in the November 2007 issue. You can read that here