What is Evangelism?
Evangelism: Do We Really Need to Define it?
With all of the excitement surrounding evangelistic activity today it may seem unnecessary to assume one needs a precise definition of it. We live in a day and age where you will hardly find an evangelical church that does not place a heavy emphasis on evangelism and missions. It may not be the very thing that stands out on their website, or in their weekly ministries tab, but nonetheless a sure way to offend any Minister of the Gospel today would be to tell them you perceive that they do not prioritize evangelism. Next to attending church every Sunday, evangelism seems (to evangelical Christians in America) to be one of the most obvious duties that believers are called to. But in the midst of all this excitement and activity, can it be said that we have maintained a pure and stable definition?
Next time you have the opportunity, ask your Sunday School class, or Bible Study, ‘What is evangelism?’, and pay close attention to the answers that people will provide. You will typically hear very noble answers such as, ‘evangelism is winning people to Jesus Christ’, ‘evangelism is growing the church’, or ‘evangelism is advancing the kingdom of God.’ Quite often, evangelism is simply referred to as ‘soul-winning’; most believers would readily accept ‘soul-winning’ as a sufficient synonym for evangelism. In some circles, evangelism is defined or measured by a church’s positive impact on the city or surrounding culture. Now, while we may find many of these definitions quite exhilarating (I know I do), what if I were to tell you that these common definitions fall short of properly defining evangelism at all?
Defining and Distinguishing
The subtle reason why these common definitions (mentioned above) are defective is that they are all attempting to define evangelism by the fruit of evangelism, rather than by the activity of evangelism itself. The late JI Packer observed this tendency when he wrote, ‘It is our widespread and persistent habit of defining evangelism in terms, not of a message delivered, but of an effect produced in our hearers’. We are prone to define evangelism in terms of the outcome or responses, rather than in terms of simply delivering the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Recognizing this tendency to confuse the two, is the biggest step forward in properly understanding evangelism. The most basic and accurate definition of evangelism is sharing the biblical Gospel with the lost. Period. Positive responses, results, decisions, influence, conversions or numbers that may come about as a result of evangelistic activity should not even come in and contribute to our definition. Any time the Gospel is faithfully communicated to the lost, whether it is from the pulpit or in a one-on-one conversation, whether it is at the dinner table, or through the form of a written tract, the person communicating God’s Gospel to those who need it is already evangelizing. This explicitly means that evangelism is evangelism prior to, and even independent of, the fruit that comes from evangelism.
Why Does This Matter?
In a pragmatic world obsessed with well-tried formulas and calculated results, I admit that it may sound like I am going against the grain by stating this. Am I implying that we are disinterested in results? Not at all. What we should be interested in is true results: Results brought about God’s way, by God Himself, and in God’s timing. God’s way of catching lost sinners is by the net of the Gospel, and God’s timing is solely, and sovereignly, determined by Him. While it is healthy to desire true results, I need to point out that it is unhealthy to assume evangelism is unsuccessful when they are absent. Constantly maintaining this in our minds will save us from great discouragement when fruit appears to be non-existent. Not only that, it should steer us from that temptation to alter the message in order to make it less offensive, and more palatable, to unregenerate man.
No matter what conditions we face, our orders from Him always consist in maintaining the purity of the message and prayerfully looking for opportunities to communicate it. Changing hearts and securing converts is not only outside the definition of evangelism, it is also outside the job description of an evangelist. As William Gurnall put it, “God never laid it upon you to convert those He sends you to. No; to publish the gospel is your duty.” Rather than discouraging us to evangelize, reminding ourselves of what our duty specifically entails frees us from worrying about things that are out of our control to begin with. If you have ever talked yourself out of a perfect witnessing opportunity because you had already made up your mind that nothing good would come from it, then you know exactly what I am referring to. Having your eye on something that was outside your ability and job description is what kept you from obeying God with the simple task He specifically assigned you to instead. We need to always remind ourselves what evangelism is, and what an evangelist does; we share the Gospel, God brings about results.
Some will say that this is not an urgent enough attitude considering the dark and desperate times we live in. Biblical illiteracy and rampant immorality abounds everywhere, and everyday we resonate more and more with the psalmist’s words, “My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law.” Nonetheless, that is not a call for us to stretch forth our hand in blind, pragmatic zeal and steady the Ark of the Covenant. God will revive His church and the honor of His name, as I said, His way and in His timing. In our evangelism, we must cast ourselves on Him alone who can raise the dead, and abandon all innovative attempts to supplement the message or manipulate the outcome. “This is our comfort,” says Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “God is always in control. And whether we understand it or not our business is to go on preaching the gospel...That is always our position (even in dark and desperate times). Not to say, Do this, and that will happen.”
The Message, Not the Method
It’s important to point out that there are many noble methods one can cling to according to their personality and gifting, but the sole qualifier for calling any activity “evangelism” is the message being communicated, not the method being employed. Contrary to modern opinion, evangelism is best understood as message-centered rather than method-centered.
The message of evangelism is centered upon Jesus Christ: His deity, His incarnation, His perfect life, His voluntary death to satisfy divine judgement for sin, His resurrection, and His ascension to the right hand of the Father. Since the backdrop of this Good News is every listener’s utter need of it, our work is incomplete without clearly defining sin by the Law of God, and issuing out loving warnings about eternal punishment. The benefits of the Gospel are also useless to our listeners without personal application of them, so we must tell them that God commands a specific response from every hearer: faith and repentance. Any Christian communicating these things, despite the outcome, is already evangelizing.
The litmus test we must always apply to our witness is this: Am I sharing the Gospel? Since evangelism is most accurately defined in terms of gospel-sharing, not result-securing, we do not need to appeal to public approval, church membership, or a list of converts, in order to establish the fact that we are doing it properly or successfully.
Up Next: What is the Main Goal of Evangelism?
 JI Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, Pg. 46  See Ryan Denton, Even If None: Reclaiming Biblical Evangelism, Pg. 6  William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour (1862 Printing), Pg. 810  Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans, Volume 11: To God’s Glory, Pg. 43  Methods may include: Preaching (the primary method), distributing gospel tracts, church outreach, one-on-one conversations, door to door evangelism. Other methods may include using hospitality, caring for single parents, providing for those in need, visiting the sick or elderly, or feeding the homeless to set the stage for the opportunity communicate the gospel with words. Please note, we must do our utmost to compliment our Christian witness with good works, Christian conduct and even acts of kindness, but these things in themselves are no substitute for the Gospel.
James Dorman IV is a street evangelist and a member of Mt. Rose Reformed OPC in Reno, NV. He is husband to Janet and father of four. You can follow him on Twitter @alfredsparks.
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