Evangelism: It Takes a Church.
Smith Hopkins | April 11, 2019
Do you remember the line from Inigo Montoyo in The Princess Bride? "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." I think that about evangelism.
When you picture evangelism, what does it look like? For many, it looks like door knocking, personal Bible studies, crusades, or mass media efforts.
Now picture how you were evangelized. What do you see? For me, I can’t tell you the first person to share the name of Jesus with me, but it was probably my mom. Or my dad. Maybe my grandparents. The point is, I was surrounded by followers of Jesus. I was taught the gospel by nursery class songs—Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Ms. Marliyn shared the gospel in Bible class. I learned it from her husband Jimmy too. He taught me how to lead songs. At his funeral I realized that the gospel can give you joy and even laughter that can outlive death. My brothers showed me the gospel in action when they studied with my parents and decided to follow Jesus in baptism. Ms. Kay did too when she taught me to sing, I have decided to follow Jesus. My friend’s dad, Vince, taught me the gospel through Romans. His son Jacob, who has Down’s syndrome, showed me the gospel when he gave his life to Jesus in baptism and lived the fullest life of love and joy I had seen. Friends and even teachers at school played a part. And, get this, even preachers helped to evangelize me. I had notebooks full of sermons and references. But it was one sentence written by my preacher, Kevin, on a sheet of paper that changed the trajectory of my life to ministry—“You should seriously consider becoming a preacher.”
Which one of these people evangelized me? I cried tears of joy as I remembered the people who shared the gospel of Jesus with me. They all did.
I believe there is a major difference between our perception and our experience of evangelism. In this series I want to expand our perception to align with the reality of evangelism. The reality is that moms lead more people to Jesus than evangelism ministries. The reality is that evangelism is communal, not individualistic. The reality is that evangelism includes dozens of people in a variety of roles all pointing to the same Jesus.
The reality is this: evangelism takes a church.
What is evangelism?
Evangelism comes from the Greek word for good news or gospel, euangelion. So evangelism means to share the good news. But what kind of good news?
What many don’t realize is that, Biblically, evangelism is associated with a specific kind of good news—kingship. Slow down and read that again because I don’t think this is often observed in Christian teaching.
Evangelism and good news are technical terms in the OT and the NT which refer to the securing of a king’s reign, throne, or kingdom. For example, notice how the OT (LXX) uses the language of evangelism: At the death of Saul David is told the good news that he is now truly the king (1 Sam 31:9; 2 Sam 1:20; 4:10; 1 Chron 10:9). At the death of David, the good news is shared with Solomon that he is now king (1 Kings 1:42). David was told the good news of the death of his son, Absalom, securing his throne from revolution (2 Sam 18:19, 20, 26, 31). It was good news when David was delivered from the enemies to his kingdom (Psalm 40:9; 68:11). When their enemies in Nineveh were destroyed, good news was announced in Judah (Nah 1:15). Did you notice the sad irony of the good news in the OT? Many of these evangelistic announcements are tear-filled, sorrowful stories of death, including friends, family, and fathers. The good news doesn’t always feel very good, but it does always point to the king.
We also see evangelism in the OT refer to the kingship of God Himself. In the Psalms, the good news is that God reigns over all creation and all nations (Psalm 96:2). Isaiah describes the good news is the announcement that “Your God reigns!” in the coming Christ (Isa 40:9; 52:7; 60:6; 61:6). For Joel, it is good news that God will return to pour out His Spirit to save all nations (Joel 2:32).
The OT backdrop for evangelism carries into the Gospels in the NT. It shouldn’t surprise us to find evangelism refer to the king and the kingdom in the NT as well. Here are several examples just from Luke. The angels announce the birth of the true King, calling it, “good news” (Luke 1:19; 2:10). In Jesus’ ministry he describes the good news as the arrival of “the kingdom of God” in word and deed (Luke 3:18; 4:18; 4:43; 7:22; 8:1; 9:6; 16:16; 20:1). The early church continues the announcement of King Jesus and his kingdom (Acts 5:42; 8:4, 12, 25, 35, 40; 10:36; 11:20; 13:32; 14:7, 15, 21; 15:35; 16:10; 17:18).
The OT and NT background reveals a solid biblical definition for evangelism that I will use in the rest of this series. Evangelism means sharing the good news of the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ.
Christian evangelism is the announcement of the reign of King Jesus. This is about more than mere conversion; it’s about discipleship. Evangelism confronts the perception of one kingdom with the reality of the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ.
Based on this understanding of evangelism, I have three reflections for the church today.
We need evangelism.
Evangelism needs churches.
We needs churches with a culture of evangelism.
1. We need evangelism.
There are two reasons why I think we need biblical evangelism today. First, there is a major problem in Christian evangelism today. In Ancient Future Evangelism, Bruce Webber shares observations from leaders at an international evangelism conference. There is “growth without depth.” An African theologian put it like this: the church is “one mile long, but only one inch deep.” Another said, “Many within the church are not living lives of biblical purity, integrity and holiness.” Do you see the common thread? The contemporary approach to evangelism in many Christian circles is failing to see people transformed into the image of Jesus Christ.
But there is a second major problem in evangelism in Churches of Christ today. There isn’t even growth. Since 1990, the adherence rate of Churches of Christ in the U.S. has plummeted by 34.8%. In Shelby County, TN it’s actually worse. The rate has dropped by 38%. We are shrinking. Fast. And it seems to be speeding up. I can criticize “growth without depth” when I look at other movements, but when I look at our own I think, “at least they have growth!”
We need true, transforming evangelism. The good news of King Jesus is the power of God to salvation for all who believe (Rom 1:16).
2. Evangelism needs churches.
The spread of the gospel grows churches. From the Great Commission onward, the mission of making disciples assumed churches in the process. More often than not, it is churches who baptize. It is churches who teach disciples to obey the King in all things. And it is churches who send out workers to go into the next community and to all nations. This is exactly what we see in the book of Acts. Where the gospel goes, churches grow. It is churches who evangelize, and it is churches that result from evangelism.
Consider one of the earliest churches—Corinth. Who practiced evangelism in Corinth? Well, it took Paul and his team sharing the good news of Jesus Christ in the synagogue and the marketplace. It took Priscilla and Aquila. It took Apollos. It took Chloe and Phoebe and their houses. It took a church. A whole host of people played a part in sharing the seed of the Kingdom in Corinth, and God gave the increase (1 Cor 3:6). The church all together partners with God in the sharing of the gospel (Phil 1:5).
3. We need churches with a culture of evangelism.
If we need evangelism, and if evangelism takes a church, then we need a culture of evangelism in this church. It takes a church to do evangelism, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is an evangelist. Sure, there are a few evangelists mentioned in the NT (Phillip in Acts 21:8, Timothy in 2 Tim 4:5; 1 Thess 3:2, the leaders in Ephesus in Eph 4:11). But for the most part, Christians are simply called to be the church. I believe that healthy, Christian evangelism flows naturally out of the life of a church sold out for the mission of God. I believe when each member does their part in the body, disciples are made.
Part of the issue is that many churches seem to think a program will accomplish evangelism. But that reduction reduces evangelism. Evangelism is the announcement of Jesus the King. Everything the church does must be evangelistic, not just one program. The word for this is alignment. Churches need aligned around the importance of sharing the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, from members to ministries to missions.
In his book, Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus, Mack Stiles makes an important observation about culture. “In one sense, all churches have a culture of evangelism of one kind or another. Even churches that reject evangelism have a culture of evangelism, though an unbiblical one. The question is not, ‘Do we have a culture of evangelism?’ but ‘Is our culture of evangelism sick or healthy?’”
What’s to come in this series?
This series is aimed at growing a healthy culture of evangelism within Oliver Creek. We will look at one of the earliest letters to a Christian church, 1 Corinthians, and we will observe how each chapter shows a culture of evangelism that we too can adopt. Instead of going verse by verse in order through the letter, we will instead frame this series around our mission at OC: to transform people to glorify God, love one another, and bless the world.
Next time: evangelism and holiness in 1 Corinthians 5-6.