I recently had to organise a small conference for the World Council of Churches on the issue of ‘Evangelism in the City’. I am also teaching Mission, Evangelism and Apologetics at Uniting Theological College this semester. It’s fair to say the issues of mission and evangelism have been very much on my mind over the past few weeks, which led me to ask, ‘How do we, as a Church, engage with the world around us?’
Our Church is often characterised as one which likes the ‘doing’ side of mission more than the ‘proclaiming’ side of evangelism. As the great missiologist David Bosch said: ‘The relationship between the evangelistic and the social dimensions of Christian mission constitutes one of the thorniest areas in the theology and practice of mission.’
But it remains true, as all leading thinkers attest at this time, that we must try to hold them together. Evangelism is important. I suggest four elements:
- Words are required. The message is necessary. It is unique. It cannot be replaced by unexplained deeds.
- Words must be backed up by lifestyle and action. If lives are unchanged (unconverted) how can they call others to ‘conversion’?
- Church membership cannot be the primary aim of the announcement. The gospel is news about God’s reign and action not about an institution. The Church growth movement often thinks the success of mission correlates directly to church membership growth.
- There is no perfect set of words that captures the gospel. Again, Bosch famously said: ‘We may never limit the gospel to our understanding of God and salvation. We can only witness in humble boldness and bold humility to our understanding of that gospel.”
What has also become clear to me is that we cannot forsake the personal nature of the gospel message which we have received. Principalities and powers, governments and nations cannot come to faith – only individuals can!
Making prophetic statements to governments may be mission but it is not evangelism, for evangelism is always addressed to persons. However, the personal response cannot stay on the religious surface of a person’s life. It has to penetrate all the way down to the core of a person’s being, uncomfortable as that may be.
It cannot be motivated by social respectability, upward mobility, or cultural conformity. It cannot aim at satisfying rather than transforming people.
Granted, the gospel does come as peace and comfort to people in tragedy and emptiness, but only within the context of it being a word about the Lordship of Christ in all realms of life. This personal response that is called for is a call to service. Jesus’ invitation to follow him is asking people whom they want to serve.
Evangelism is therefore call to service – to win people to Jesus is to win their allegiance to God’s priorities… Evangelism then, is calling people to mission.
Have we lost confidence in these basic truths? Are we willing to be a church that can both act out our faith and speak about our faith? The latest edition of Insights magazine covers many areas where we hear stories of the Church engaging with the community around it.
I hope that our engagement includes both words and actions, and that our proclamation is always filled with joy.
As Pope Francis recently said: ‘There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter.’ He encourages those who share the gospel to let their lives ‘glow with fervour’ as people who have first received the joy of Christ.
May it be so for us!
Rev. Dr Andrew Williams, General Secretary