OK, this one could get me into trouble, so let me state this up front: I believe that the Church should practice evangelism. OK? Please don’t forget that as you read the rest. The question is whether or not “the Church” means every single member equally.
The gospel is offensive to a world that thinks it is doing just fine and doesn’t want to have to deal with a sovereign God with demands that go beyond the world’s standards. Fair enough. But there is a growing animosity toward Christians today that was not the case 20-30 years ago that is making the evangelist’s job even more difficult. For many believers this makes the prospect of “going out witnessing” even more terrifying than than just its public speaking or objection answering aspects. Yet church members continue to be berated for their discomfort (because this is thought to indicate an unloving or uncaring heart!). The remedy is often training materials or classes, and some are quite good. Yet the problem remains.
I’ll be honest, when I evangelize (in the evangelical manner) it is usually out of guilt – plain and simple. I know many others would admit to having the same motivation. Why is sharing our faith such an issue? Is it just our flesh? (It’s not that I don’t want to talk to people about the truth – in fact I enjoy it. I just don’t want to have to start the conversation!) Is it fear of man? (For me at least it is not simply a lack of courage. I’d take on a room full of angry atheists over handing out tracts or knocking on doors any day of the week!) Do we just need better techniques? (A lot of us don’t like knocking on doors or approaching perfect strangers for any reason, so no matter how good the latest method seems it’s still very uncomfortable and unnatural – like something is just wrong with the situation.)
Sowing vs. Reaping
I have been doing some reading on evangelism that compares harvesting to sowing. Harvesting refers to the “soul winning” and focuses on the person who actually leads someone to belief in Jesus Christ. Sowing is the work done to prepare someone to come to faith and focuses on the work of the “pre-evangelist” (apologists, cultural influencers, friends, etc.). This is a biblical comparison (Jn. 4:35-38). The author’s argument is that the American Church’s typical evangelistic strategies are based on an outdated model that was only successful during a time when the fields were ripe. In other words, when America was a Christian-friendly nation (because of previous sowing), evangelism as an activity could be limited to harvesting – and the techniques of evangelism reflected that.
The time to begin re-sowing was reached nearly a generation ago but because the harvest was still going so well no one noticed. As the field began to show signs of barrenness, instead of preparing the ground for the next harvest time the Church simply asked for more (or better) harvesters. Meanwhile the world was busy sowing. It quietly undermined the foundations of Christianity so that today we are trying to harvest the “world’s field” so to speak. The typical non-Christian today is biblically illiterate, not open to absolute truth claims, and is sometimes even hostile to Christianity. Perhaps it is time to change tactics. Evangelistic strategy needs to be matched to the current cycle. If we don’t start sowing soon there may be no harvest in the future – and all the harvesters in the world won’t change that.
But many in the Church today still only see “true” evangelism as a proclamation / confrontation. After all, “gospel” and “evangel” are actually from the same root word – thus one is not truly evangelizing unless the gospel (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:1-11) is proclaimed right? So the goal is simply to get the word out and the job is done – what the hearer does with it is his problem. Now, this position assumes something that, just for fun, I’d like to question. The assumption is that all Christians are commanded to evangelize. (Before reading on, please remember my disclaimer from sentence one!). A good idea at this point might be to ask where we get this idea from (and maybe what evangelism even means).
Where We Get the Idea
In my typically academic manner I turned to that great bastion of scholarship, Google, and typed: “Are all Christians commanded to evangelize?” I read every web page on the initial search results page and found that discovering a universal command to evangelize is not as easy as one might think.
The Great Commission is often at the top of the list.
The first major issue that is often glossed over is that this commission was given to the disciples, not to any churches. Thus, an argument has to be made for universal application. But most of the time writers simply assert their conclusion: “Since the Great Commission is given to all Christians . . . (fill in the writer’s view of the Great Commission).” Argumentation is rarely offered as to how this command to the disciples equates to a general command to the Church.
It is also revealing that it is almost always the Mt. 28:18-20 version of the Great Commission and not Mk. 16:15-18 that is cited as a proof text (see also Luke’s version of the Great Commission: Acts 1:4-8 cf. Lk. 24:44-49). Are all Christians supposed to follow all these commands and have these miraculous expectations as well? Answering “no” would not seem to be out of line as there are plenty of specific commands that Jesus gave to the disciples that individual members of the Church feel free to ignore (practically if not theoretically). Here these include actually performing baptisms and discipling people. Of course, dereliction in some areas would not excuse further negligence – but it does call into question why only this command to the disciples is generalized to every member of the Church when the rest are not.
Finally, when argument is given for making this into a universal command it is usually based on the idea that the Great Commission was not fulfilled in the lives of the disciples. But this is debatable – more than once in the New testament the gospel is said to have gone worldwide (e.g., Rom. 1:8; 16:19; Col. 1:6, 23). So “world” here seems to indicate something less than the planet. Even if this were not the case, and should the disciples not be considered failures, this might make it seem as though it simply MUST be generalized. But this does not do a lot for the issue, because a generalized version of the command does not necessarily have to go to every member of the Church – it might (as I will mention again below) just go to the evangelists.
The second major problem is that the word “evangelize” is not used in the Great Commission. The command is to “make disciples.” Of course, in order to be made a disciple one has to have a Christian to work with, which means that at some point evangelism had to take place. But that does not necessarily mean that every phase of the process is every disciplers’ job. Technically, someone who never shared the gospel even once, but who stepped in right after people’s conversions and taught them would be fulfilling this command. Thus, the Great Commission does not seem to require that all Christians practice typical “evangelism” (even if the command is generalized to all Christians in the first place).
Other Proof Texts
- John 15:2 says nothing of evangelism. It is pure speculation that bearing fruit is “winning souls” and actually does not fit the context at all.
- Rom. 10:14-15 is specifying Jewish missions, not the world’s. Further, it is stated that in order to hear someone must be sent. If someone (rather than all) is sent then others are not. And this is what the Church did – it sent missionaries, not every single person in the Church. If nothing else, this scenario fits the evangelize-when-gifted view so it cannot be used against it.
- 1 Pt. 2:9 commands believers to proclaim God’s praises – this is not like typical evangelism methods.
- 1 Pt. 3:15 commands believers to give an answer to those who ask – a rare method indeed!
- 3 Jn. 5-8 is not praising Gaius for evangelizing (nor commanding him to do so), but for helping those who were evangelizing.
Now, bad arguments or misused proof texts do not make a conclusion false; but the fact that these seem to be the best people can come up with to support the idea that every Christian must be an evangelist (again, in the usual sense) make me wonder if maybe we’re missing something.
Spiritual Gifts seem to present something of hurdle as well. Some will point out that evangelism is a gift that not all believers have been given, and so reason that not all Christians need to practice evangelism. Now, it is clear that God commands certain people to do certain things based on their giftedness:
- Acts 6:2-3 And the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables.” But select from among you, brethren, seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task.
- Rom. 12:3-4 . . . we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function.
- 1 Cor. 12:7 To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all.
- Eph. 4:11-12 It was he who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ.
- 1 Pt. 4:10 Just as each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of the varied grace of God.
The usual response is that Christians are still commanded to do things outside their specific gifting (like giving), so not being gifted as an evangelist is no excuse for not evangelizing (especially if there is a command somewhere that all Christians do so). But there are a few problems with this response.
First, in this particular gift list (Eph. 4:11-12) Paul is naming offices – not simply spiritual motivations or skills. No one makes the argument that all Christians should teach, prophesy, or pastor churches! Yet these offices are included in the same list. (Note also that evangelist and pastor are not the same gift, although these seem to be confused on Evangelical circles. In truth, evangelism ability is not listed in the requirements for an elder or deacon – see 1 Tim. and Titus).
Second, are these gifts given for building up believers or making people into believers? The specific reason these particular gifts are given is to “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ.” What need is there for a gifted evangelist among those who have already believed? It may be that the gifted evangelist is a trainer too – one who helps believers evangelize. It all depends on what evangelism is, doesn’t it?
What Is Evangelism?
Maybe what we have been taught to think of as evangelism is too narrow a definition. Perhaps the activity of evangelism is a process that includes both preparation and proclamation. Neither Jesus nor Paul “evangelized” at every opportunity. In fact, for the last half of Jesus’ ministry He kept away from the unbelieving crowds (even discouraged understanding for some – see Mk. 4:10-11) and focused on discipling the twelve. Paul spent years at some churches training them before he left on other missionary journeys. Yet one would hardly claim that Jesus and Paul were not evangelists!
If evangelism as a general practice is more than just the last step (harvesting), then both proclamation and preparation (sowing) are important and might give rise to different giftings. And if the harvester and sower have different gifts, and thus different responsibilities, then the roles of the both should be equally encouraged, taught, and supported by the Church.
This is not to say that a sower coming upon ripe fruit should not know how to harvest it – but the opposite is true as well. Harvesters that do not know how to sow may be attempting to pick fruit that is not yet ripe (and note the potential result in Jesus’ other comparison of evangelism and farming in Mk. 4:3-9). For although the harvester gets more accolades (although he shouldn’t – Jn. 4:37-38) and perhaps more satisfaction, in the end both will rejoice together (Jn. 4:36).
This does not mean that any Christian should simply decide to not share the faith. What it does mean is that one is not necessarily in sin for not doing so at any given time. It also means that no particular means of evangelism is required. God has many means to reach the lost, and He does not need us to save the lost (in fact, I think evangelism helps the evangelizer).