Evangelism is not an option for Christians. It is the primary imperative of Jesus, the “great commission” he gave to the church prior to his ascension: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” To evangelize is to call people to faith in Christ, to invite them to “repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15), to proclaim “Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23; 2:2) as the hope of the world.
There is no one way to do this that is necessary or even appropriate for every time and every place; Paul recognized this when he said to the Corinthians (1 Cor 9:19-23):
For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.
When Paul was with Jews, he showed them how Jesus was the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. When he was with Greeks, he reasoned with them on the basis of Greek philosophy. To all people, he preached Christ. How we do it is not important; our methods will differ based on times, places, and audiences. The one non-negotiable is that we must evangelize! We must be able to affirm with Paul that necessity is laid upon us: “Yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16).
Having said this, let me acknowledge concerns I’ve heard expressed by some people; they are worried that some methods may border on manipulation, or that we may become so obsessed with numbers that we might forget the people we are attempting to reach or the integrity of the message we are called to proclaim.
I think of the words of the Augsburg Confession, articles 4 and 5. Article 4 tells us what the Gospel is:
men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight.
Article 5 is about how we come to such faith:
That we may obtain this faith, the Ministry of Teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel, to wit, that God, not for our own merits, but for Christ’s sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake.
This makes clear, first, that the Gospel is about Jesus–it is, as Paul said, the good news of “Christ crucified” for us. Second, our only responsibility is to preach this good news faithfully–God alone causes the word we preach to become fruitful in those who hear it.
Though I am no longer a Catholic, I can still affirm some key points made by Pope Paul VI in his encyclical, “Evangelization in the Modern World.”
Evangelization is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize ….
There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the promises, the Kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, are not proclaimed. …
This message is indeed necessary. It is unique. It cannot be replaced. It does not permit either indifference, syncretism or accommodation. It is a question of people’s salvation. … It is able to stir up by itself faith—faith that rests on the power of God. It is truth. It merits having the apostle consecrate to it all his time and all his energies, to sacrifice for it, if necessary, his own life.
Evangelism is not one thing among many that the church might be doing–it is the sole reason the Church exists. While it can be done in many ways, the one common denominator is that in all ways, Christ himself is preached–and this explicitly. We can be charitable, and engage in community building projects, and run hospitals, and care for the poor–and these things are necessary–but if we never get around to calling people to believe in the Jesus who inspires us to do these loving deeds, what we are doing cannot be called evangelism.
This is the question for each church, each minister, each Christian to consider–are you evangelizing, or are you making excuses?