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COMMENTARY: The meaning of evangelism Andrew C. Thompson, Mar 20, 2012
By Andrew C. Thompson UMR Columnist
If you were to ask members of your church what “evangelism” means, what would they tell you?
I asked my students this question recently in a class I’m teaching on practices of Wesleyan evangelism and discipleship. Their responses were illuminating.
Most of these students are pastors themselves. They shepherd congregations while they’re working through seminary. So the question was significant for them in more ways than one.
Many of them said their church members thought of evangelism as preaching—whether in the church itself or out on the street corner. Others said their congregations just thought of evangelism as “what the preacher does.”
Some students said that their church members saw the content of evangelism as simply introducing people to Jesus—informing them that Jesus died for their sins and that he has opened the way for them to have eternal life through faith in him.
When talking about the method that most people believed was central to evangelism, my students said the operative idea is just confronting outsiders with the gospel message of repentance and faith in Christ in the hopes of a conversion.
But almost all of them reported that their church members don’t often feel personally compelled to be evangelistic. If it’s “something the preacher does,” then by definition evangelism is not the work of the laity.
Work in Progress
These reports from the ministry field show how far down the list of priorities evangelism has fallen. The very idea of what evangelism is supposed to be is watery thin. And it’s just assumed that any necessary evangelistic work will be taken care of by the preacher.
We’ve got some work to do.
Fortunately, we’re also living in a time when some of the best pastors and theologians in the connection are already ahead of us.
Since about 1960, a movement known as the “neo-Wesleyan revival” has attempted to recover the vital aspects of the Wesleyan tradition for contemporary Methodism. And what began among academics has filtered down to the local church level in remarkable ways.
John Wesley is now being taken seriously as a “theological mentor” (to use a phrase favored by Albert Outler and Randy Maddox), someone more than just a “movement founder” whose theological views can inform our own.
Moreover, the methods and practices of the early Methodists are in a state of recovery as well—perhaps progressing in fits and starts but nevertheless seen as important in seminary classrooms and local churches alike.
Wesleyan evangelism has not been as highlighted as some other aspects of our Wesleyan heritage, but the work that has been done is significant. The best book to date is William J. Abraham’s The Logic of Evangelism (Eerdmans, 1989).
Abraham’s view is not slavishly Wesleyan—he does not cite Wesley as a non-negotiable authority to be followed. (His actual citations of Wesley himself are relatively sparse.) Instead, Dr. Abraham writes as a theologian who has been informed by Wesleyan thinking and shaped by a lifetime of Wesleyan practice.
Dr. Abraham counters the idea of evangelism as simple proclamation, and particularly as the work of the preacher alone. He also rejects the notion of evangelism as identical with church growth approaches popular in recent decades.
Instead, his definition of evangelism is “that set of intentional activities which is governed by the goal of initiating people into the Kingdom of God for the first time.”
Going beyond the definition itself would take us into a rich but many-layered discussion of what “initiation” looks like. For Dr. Abraham, it must involve the mind, the heart, the body and the habits of daily life. This begins with conversion and baptism, as we might expect. But it must also include instruction in doctrine, participation in worship, discernment of spiritual gifts and commitment to a life of discipleship.
These are all still within the realm of evangelism exactly because they are on the front end of the Christian life: they are about initiation into life in God’s kingdom.
Another good resource on evangelism is Henry H. Knight and F. Douglas Powe’s Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith (Discipleship Resources, 2006). Written for a wider audience, the authors include a study guide and thus offer a resource that could be used by small groups and Sunday school classes.
Dr. Knight and Dr. Powe also offer their own definition of evangelism: “Our sharing and inviting others to experience the good news that God loves us and invites us into a transforming relationship through which we are forgiven, receive new life, and are restored to the image of God, which is love.”
Their approach is complementary to Dr. Abraham’s (and in many ways influenced by it). And they do a particularly good job in showing how effective evangelism is dependent on the Christian community having a certain kind of character – one that is inviting to outsiders and transformative for its own members.
What both these books do is draw on the resources of the Wesleyan tradition to fill out our rather thin conceptions of evangelism. They make it clear that evangelism is a full-bodied practice of ministry, something clergy and laity alike are called to embrace, and that it requires the whole church community to do well.
A needy world
Our classroom conversation in the seminary that evening about evangelism was an animated one. My students already had a grasp on how shallow the general idea of evangelism is in the church. And they were ready to talk about how to change it.
It’s important to be aware of the best literature that is available on a given ministry topic. And evangelism is no different than any other in that regard. So we need to be actively reading and considering what is available to us.
Beyond that, we’ve got to get busy. There’s a message to proclaim, there’s a world that needs to know Christ, and there’s an evangelistic ministry to pursue.
Can there be a more urgent calling that God is giving us in this day?
The Rev. Thompson is an instructor in historical theology & Wesleyan studies at Memphis Theological Seminary. Reach him at www.andrewthompson.com.