The Bible uses many different terms to describe evangelism – such as, proclaiming the gospel, making disciples, preaching Christ, fishing for men, bearing fruit, the aroma of Christ, the ministry of reconciliation and declaring the wonderful deeds of God.
However, so complex is the subject and so varied are the means, that Christianity has no universally accepted definition of evangelism. Moreover, as J. I. Packer argues, ‘There is confusion about evangelism in the modern church. The trouble comes from our habit of defining the activity institutionally and behaviourally rather than theocentrically and theologically.
‘Some give the name of evangelism to any kind of meeting in which the leader works up an altar-call of some sort, never mind what has or has not been affirmed before the call comes. Others will equate evangelism with any activity that expresses goodwill to persons outside the church’.1
The following definitions of evangelism will illustrate the point. A 1918 Anglican definition affirms that, ‘To evangelise is so to present Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, that men shall come to put their trust in God through him as their Saviour, and serve him as their King in the fellowship of his Church’.2
One of the most quoted is D. T. Niles’ 1951 definition: ‘Evangelism is witness. It is one beggar telling another beggar where to get food. The Christian does not offer out of his bounty. He has no bounty. He is simply a guest at his Master’s table and, as an evangelist, he calls others too’.3
The 1977 Church Growth definition argues that ‘To evangelise is to proclaim Jesus Christ as God and Saviour, to persuade people to become his disciples and responsible members of his church’.4
The Lausanne Covenant defines evangelism as follows: ‘To evangelise is to spread the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures, and that as reigning Lord he now offers the forgiveness of sins and the liberating gift of the Spirit to all who repent and believe.
‘Our Christian presence in the world is indispensable to evangelism, and so is that kind of dialogue whose purpose is to listen sensitively in order to understand. But evangelism itself is the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Saviour and Lord, with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and so be reconciled to God.
‘In issuing the gospel invitation we have no liberty to conceal the cost of discipleship. Jesus still calls all who would follow him to deny themselves, take up their cross, and identify with his new community. The results of evangelism include obedience to Christ, incorporation into his church and responsible service in the world’.5
Setting people free
Much in the same vein, George Hunter gives the following definition of evangelism in his 1979 book, The contagious Faith: ‘Evangelism is what we do to help make the Christian faith, life and mission a live option to undiscipled people, both outside and inside the congregation. Evangelism is also what Jesus Christ does through the church’s kerygma (message), koinonia (fellowship), and diakonia (service) to set people free. Evangelism happens when the receiver … turns (1) to Christ, (2) to the Christian message and ethic, (3) to a Christian congregation, and (4) to the world, in love and mission – in any order’.6
Delos Miles in his Introduction to evangelism gives the following definition: ‘Evangelism is being, doing and telling the gospel of the kingdom of God, in order that by the power of the Holy Spirit persons and structures may be converted to the lordship of Jesus Christ’.7
Evangelism and the local church
In spite of the different theologies of evangelism enshrined in these definitions, there is some worrying common ground – especially in regard to the relation between evangelism and the local church.
Firstly, the local church is perceived almost exclusively as the place where converts should be directed for fellowship and discipleship after evangelism.
Secondly, evangelism is defined either in impersonal or individualistic terms and not in corporate terms.
Finally, evangelism is defined in the context of the Kingdom of God and the Lordship of Christ with no clarification regarding the relation between the Kingdom and the church.
Moreover, because some fail to understand the relation between the local and universal church (or between the ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ church), many evangelists seem to have no clear church affiliation and accountability, and many churches have no commitment to evangelism.
Coherent theology needed
A coherent theology of church and evangelism could avoid some of these problems. Dr L. A. Drummond has made significant steps in this direction in his book The Word of the Cross: A contemporary theology of evangelism – in which he explores evangelism both theologically and practically.
From a theological perspective, evangelism is rooted in the being of the triune God. A Trinitarian perspective on evangelism not only re-emphasises the richness of the Trinitarian gospel, but also offers the perfect foundation for an evangelism that is simultaneously personal and corporate.
Unfortunately, most definitions fail to see evangelism as a practical extension of the Trinitarian Christian faith. Yet, as we have seen in my previous articles, the church derives its nature from the nature of the triune God. A Trinitarian theology of evangelism therefore provides a much-needed balance between the personal and corporate approaches to evangelism.
A description of evangelism that is both Trinitarian and ecclesial could be expressed in a modified form of Drummond’s definition thus: ‘A concerted effort of the church, both corporately and as individual members, to confront unbelievers in the power of the Holy Spirit with the truth about and claims of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:22-24, 31) – with a view to leading unbelievers into repentance toward God the Father and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 20:21) and thus into the fellowship of his Church so they may grow in the Spirit’.
1. J. I. Packer, ‘Foreword’, in L.A. Drummond, The Word of the Cross: A Contemporary Theology of Evangelism (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), p.5.
2. Towards the Conversion of England (Westminster: The Press and Publications Board of the Church Assembly, 1944), p. l.
3. D. T. Niles, That They May Have Life (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1951), p.96.
4. Donald A. McGavran and Winfield C. Arn, The Steps for Church Growth (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1977), p.51.
5. J. D. Douglas, ed. Let the Earth Hear His Voice (Minneapolis: World Publications, 1975), p.4.
6. George G. Hunter III, The Contagious Faith (Nashville: Abingdon, 1979), pp. 26, 28, 30-31.
7. D. Miles, Introduction to Evangelism (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1983), p.47.