Evangelism Part II

Part I of this series appeared in the October 2007 issue. You can read that here. 

Having suggested in my last article that the relationship between gospel and God's kingdom points toward a notion of evangelism that moves beyond simply bringing someone to personal faith and salvation, I want to look at the way we use some related words. The verb "to evangelize," which is a Greek word borrowed into English, entails proclamation in the original usage. In this sense, it will be difficult to be "evangelistic" without being prone to proclamation. Of course, "evangelist-ic" is an English adjective created to describe a particular kind of person. In a literal sense, to ask whether I am evangelistic should be to ask whether I have a habit of proclaiming the good news, but I don't think that's the way we tend to use the word. The connotation I perceive is instead something like: "the kind of person who is proactive and effective in bringing people to faith in Jesus through Bible study." That is why such studies are referred to as "evangelistic Bible studies." It would be silly to argue that proclamation of the good news should not result in faith. The appropriate reactions to the nearness of the kingdom from Jesus' perspective were repentance and belief. Still, in light of the larger view of gospel in relation to the kingdom, the "personal Bible study evangelism" definition feels narrow.

This notion of evangelism is symptomatic of our tendency to systematize church, in which the evangelizer is assigned a clear, specific job description, and then "evangelist" becomes an official title that designates those who uniquely do those particular tasks. In this way the evangelist is not confused with the preacher, who has a different job, or the shepherd, or the apostle, and so forth. Nonetheless, the NT challenges these strong distinctions. Of the three places that "evangelist" is used, only one lends itself to the typical definition.

1. Philip is described as an evangelist in Acts 21.8, and the stories in Acts 8 are thought to contribute to the meaning of the word. In Samaria he "proclaimed the Messiah," and to the Ethiopian eunuch he "told the good news about Jesus." 

2. The next mention of "evangelist" is Eph 4.11: "And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers." It is widely recognized that these were not yet official titles or clear church positions so much as descriptions of ministry giftedness. Verse 12 clarifies that these especially gifted ones are given "for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, to the building up of the body of Christ." In our church vernacular, equipping the saints is the province of the "pastoral" ministers (not the evangelist), but these equippers are gifted to empower the whole church to be apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, pastoral, and instructive. These qualities clearly overlap in the life of the early church. The evangelist is hardly pigeonholed here as the one who converts unbelievers. Furthermore, if anyone in our contemporary church setting fills the role of one who proclaims the kingdom and equips the saints for the same job, it would be the preacher. That we would not call him "evangelist" unless he was having Bible studies with unbelievers (or "gospel meetings" under an older paradigm) says something about our assumptions. 

3. 2 Tim 4.4-6, our last instance of "evangelist," furthers this point: "But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry." Timothy's role was obviously to be an apostolic proxy in Ephesus, and we would describe the tasks Paul lays out for him as pastoral ones. Yet, it is clear that "evangelist" is broad enough in scope to describe his overall work. There are many other ways to discuss this issue, but these passages are more than sufficient to make the point at hand: the titles used in the NT are often fluid and non-technical, and "evangelist" is not used in precisely the way we use it. 

So, what does all this contribute to our question? It allows us to be freed from an American-church concept of what it means to be evangelistic. There is room to understand the evangelist and the evangelistic saint as people who live and serve (minister) in a way that is centered upon God's kingdom and its Messiah. We return to the issue of proclamation, because even under this broader definition, it is impossible to separate evangelism from proclamation. St. Francis of Assisi proved to be very insightful in his famous saying: "Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words." But Paul also states poignantly, "It is written: 'I believed; therefore I have spoken.' Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak." Proclamation is not reduced merely to verbal witness, but neither can it do without the spoken word. Not surprisingly, Jesus is our paradigm here as well. His proclamation was a message about the kingdom, but the very reason that he became the message was that his whole life communicated the kingdom. Where Jesus went, the kingdom happened, far beyond words. And if that is not evangelistic, what is? The gospel is the kingdom, and where a servant of God manifests the kingdom, it is necessarily gospelistic--evangelistic. Yet, this will look different in different contexts. For Jesus, evangelism was revealing to the people of God what the kingdom is like and showing them what it means to live in it. Similarly, in Timothy's context, evangelism was keeping the good news before the Ephesians and equipping them to live and serve centered upon the gospel. The church is always in need of reminding; it must always be evangelized. For Paul, evangelism was often proclaiming the kingdom's Messiah to unbelievers in accordance with the Scriptures, bringing people to faith, and establishing new congregations of God's people. 

Our ministry in Peru will be much like this, but I reject the idea that this is the sum total of evangelism. So, as people endeavor to measure how evangelistic we are, simply asking whether we have been involved in converting unbelievers is inadequate. The better question, I think, is whether we have been living the gospel in our situations, centered and focused on the kingdom. If so, regardless of whether those situations have involved many receptive unbelievers and regardless of whether you or I have sharply honed evangelistic Bible study skills, we have been evangelistic. And if we go to Peru living that way, kingdom will happen there too, resulting in repentance and faith. 

The question, then, is this: Does kingdom happen where you go? Because that's evangelism.