The Evangelism Imperative

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?

12 thoughts on “The Evangelism Imperative

  1. I remember sitting on parish committees on evangelization, I eventually gave up attending because they never got beyond the talk stage. There was never any practical discussion either. one time I suggested that the parish employ the methods of one of the orginizations that already existed, i.e. the Legion of Mary, the Perigrinatio. That was laughed at, dismissed and the discussion continued and so it does today!

  2. Great ending question.

    When I teach at evangelism conferences, it’s often because people are afraid, and they want to no longer be afraid.

    Perhaps we should consider how we package training material so that evangelism doesn’t feel pushy and obnoxious, but as natural as breathing, and as regular a discipline as Bible Reading.

    Pastor Chris

  3. Good reflections, Bill. I appreciate very much how you bring to bear aspects of your own theological history. This is very helpful!

    One question: As you see it, are the various other things we Christians ought to do–feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked, etc.–inherently important or are they so only as a means of converting people? I’m not certain that I want to go so far as to say that evangelism is the sole purpose for which the church exists.

    But why should evangelism be do difficult in the first place? If we have “good news,” and others see this, why aren’t they banging on our doors?

    I think that we can find part of the answer in books like “God is not Great” by Christopher Hitchens. Though he stretches his points, he is able to demonstrate that we Christians have a legacy that is horrible in many ways and, I suspect, many people know this. Also, we ourselves are not always at are best.

    My pastor this past weekend reported on a survey of young people, those born since 1982. The thing they most know about us is that we “are against homosexuals.” The second is that we are narrow minded, or something like that. And the third is that we are hypocritical.

    One of my Deans in the School of Religion at LLU denies that he is a “Christian,” for these reasons. He says that he is a “disciple of Jesus” instead. I fear that I have to drag along with me a very stained heritage.

  4. Great post!

    I would add that there is a lot of work being done by Christian organizations with the unchurched which can’t be construed as evangelism but is most definitely worthwhile and Christian. Aid work is one that comes to mind.

    I agree with you that our primary purpose as a church is to preach and baptize. I think this comprehensive all-changing gospel is what keeps us a people of the word in the world working to change it for the better while resisting the pull to abandon the world in otherworldly contemplation.

  5. Thanks for the thoughts.

    Dave, let me tackle some of the points you raise ….

    One question: As you see it, are the various other things we Christians ought to do–feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked, etc.–inherently important or are they so only as a means of converting people?

    I’d agree that they are inherently important, and are definitely a part of what we are called to do in a life modeled after that of Jesus (see Parable of Sheep and Goats, for instance). But I would echo what Paul VI said–if we never get around to mentioning that we are doing it in his name, it isn’t evangelizing. I see several sub-groups in most churches–social justice types, evangelism types, doctrinal types, worship types, prayer types (think Dulles’ “models of the church,” perhaps). I think we need to keep them together, but I would say there is a hierarchy of values, and that evangelism needs to be the “golden thread” uniting everything and shaping everything else. I’d also point out that Jesus never saw healing as an end in itself–his miracles were signs which were intended to lead to faith in him.

    But why should evangelism be do difficult in the first place? If we have “good news,” and others see this, why aren’t they banging on our doors?

    That’s the key point, isn’t it? Do new parents have to be told and instructed to tell people they’ve just had a baby?

    As to having “a very stained heritage”–Adventists have a model for dealing with that. We see church history as the primary theater in which the struggle between Christ and Satan, between light and darkness, was carried out. That there were periods in which the light was buried, but that in even the darkest times, individuals arose to call people back. Hitchens is a cynic–he’s a guy who can find nothing good even in Mother Theresa.

    Liam, your experience is that of mine as chair of a an Archdiocesan evangelization commission–lots of talk, little interest in what was working, lots of preference for just calling whatever we might be doing “evangelization,” and congratulating ourselves for it.

  6. Yes, Bill- I remember those meetings well. Everyone thinking that what they were doing was “the bomb” in evangelization.

    So- where do you see good evangelization occurring?

    Not mentioning the name of Jesus certainly leaves out Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen, even though I do believe his ministry has the potential to bring folks to Christ. He needs to be more fearless in spreading the gospel, not just the “feel good” aspects of religion.

  7. An impressive sounding title that you and I both get to put on our resumes: Chair of the Evangelization Commission of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

    I think “good evangelization” (aka “evangelism”) happens whenever Christ crucified is proclaimed and people come to faith in him. I think that takes many forms, as I’ve indicated. I’ve seen it in many ministries I’ve been involved in over the years, and some I’m involved in today.

    I was prompted to reflect today because of some e-mail discussions I was observing . Since those were “off-line,” I don’t want to get into the details. Perhaps if some of those involved would post their further thoughts on their blogs, we’d be able to have a more public discussion. I’ll link to them if they do.

  8. I think if you define the gospel the way the Augsburg Confessions defines it – as a legal transaction between God and people that takes care of our sins, then a certain kind of evangelism is called for – one of proclaiming a highly private and individuals way of getting yours sins forgiven. I think this confessional statement is partly right. And I realize that you haven’t reproduced the entire AC here.

    However, I would offer this short quote, from the opposite end of the Reformation spectrum – from a contemporary theologian, but one from the Radical Reformation, John Howard Yoder –

    “The political novelty that God brings into the world is a community of those who serve instead of ruling, who suffer instead of inflicting suffering, whose fellowship crosses social lines instead of reinforcing them. This new Christian community in which the walls are broken down now by human idealism or democratic legalism but by the work of Christ is not only a vehicle of the gospel or only a fruit of the gospel; it is the good news. It is not merely the agent of mission or the constituency of a mission agency. This is the mission.”

    Therefore I would submit that a community of people who feed the poor and enact the peacable reign of Christ in the location where God has planted them IS, by it’s very nature, the good news to which the world is invited. The body of Christ itself is the invitation and the thing to which people are invited.

  9. Hi Ryan,

    Sorry for the delay in posting this; I was off at a meeting.

    First, I don’t see that the Augsburg Confession sees justification as a “legal transaction”–I think that’s reading into it a certain later interpretation of Lutheran teaching.

    And of course, whether a definition is in accord with a Lutheran or an anabaptist perspective isn’t really the question–the question is whether it is Biblical.

    So, to that end, let’s look at this question of whether the Christian community is itself the good news. Is that what Jesus preached in Mark when he said, “Repent and believe the good news?” Is this what the angel of Revelation 14 is proclaiming? Is that how Paul defines the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15?


  10. Yes, I think it is exactly the thing that Mark, John and Paul were talking about. The good news, according to the gospel writers, especially, was that God’s kingdom had arrived and that a new social existence was now possible because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The later idea that salvation is primarily an internal transaction without consequences for my life and the social ordering of my life in a community who are now living in the reality of God’s kingdom is, in my view, a accretion of modernity.

    This is why in today’s world the church is, at best, an application or a consequence of my salvation rather than the mode through which I learn what salvation means and live in the way Jesus has made possible.

  11. “The later idea that salvation is primarily an internal transaction without consequences for my life” — whoever said that?

  12. I’m not saying that you’re saying that. But this, I think, is the inescapable conclusion of most of what passes for evangelism today. The way the gospel affects my actual life is, at best, a matter of application or consequences of the gospel, not the actual substance of the gospel itself. The gospel remains a internal, private and transactional.

    That’s just my experience with the way conservative Christians do evangelism. You referenced Dulles above and I think his final model (can’t remember what it’s called right now – “community of disciples” or something like that) is an example of what I’m point to as a truer vision for evangelism.

    If the gospel is a way of life under God’s reign, then the form of evangelism commensurate with that gospel is the community that lives in that way. I guess that’s all I’m trying to say. We are learning in our congregation that people cognition is not the only way for people to become Christian. Over and over we are witnessing people find new life in the lived experience of the ekklesia and in that way are invited into the life of God – in community. That’s what I mean, and what I think Yoder means, that the community of God’s kingdom is the evangelistic offer. It’s about embodied witness rather than disembodied witness. Peace to you, Bill!

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