What Evangelism Isn’t…

I came across this Christianity Today article by way of the Daily Dish. I found the article to be a fascinating look at a strictly modernist portrayal of what evangelism is and isn’t. The author Mark Dever gets things started quickly with this excerpt:

It’s important to understand that the message you are sharing is not merely an opinion but a fact. That’s why sharing the gospel can’t be called an imposition, any more than a pilot can impose his belief on all his passengers that the runway is here and not there.

Is this the really the case? Is the gospel message an empirically proven fact? Is it of any significant importance that the Christian life be enveloped in certainty? Isn’t what we practice a belief in the unseen? Should I be a man of certainty or should I be a man of faith?

I believe that we can relay facts about our personal experiences in living lives of faith, but in the context of sharing our faith is it honest to treat or relay the Gospel message as fact? Maybe Mark Dever knows more than the rest of us do. Moving on…..

Displaying God’s compassion and kindness by our actions is a good and appropriate thing for Christians to do. But such actions are not evangelism. They commend the gospel, but they share it with no one. To be evangelism, the gospel must be clearly communicated, whether in written or oral form.

When I read this, I immediately thought of Saint Francis’ famous quote “Preach the Gospel-use words if necessary!”. I guess, based on the quote above, the author probably isn’t a big fan of Saint Frank. I find the author’s view here extremely limited, incomplete and not Biblical. Matthew 11:2-5 comes to mind:

When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy[a]are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t say “I’m passing out notes and talking about the good news and minds are being changed!”. Thank God for that. We see over and over that throughout the ministry of Jesus, his purpose and his message are directly tied to the compassion, justice, and mercy being shown to the lives of those close to Jesus and his followers. It simply can’t be missed. To suggest that the compassion and kindness (or justice) of God serve to merely commend the Gospel message seems to me to be out of sync with the Gospel accounts we have in the New Testament.

I think this is the inevitable downfall of the strict modern, empirical approach to sharing our faith. It over emphasizes the sharing of ideas by the verbal or written word. It trivializes the Gospel to a set of “facts” or ideas that need to be agreed with. This is why kids bible camps have “commitment cards” that they want the kids to sign in order to gauge how successful the camp was. I can understand the appeal of this approach. It’s much easier to measure comment cards in an offering bucket than it is to measure transformation in the lives of others through a mystical relationship to Jesus Christ. I’m not trying to demonize the use of an empirical approach to sharing faith, but I am suggesting is that maybe it’s time to broaden the horizons a bit in order to legitimize the sharing of the message of Jesus by the way of our hands and our feet while we give our vocal chords a rest.

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16 thoughts on “What Evangelism Isn’t…

  1. Pingback: DeafPulse.com
  2. God save us from those who insist that “sharing the gospel can’t be called an imposition.” They think that gives them permission to interrupt you no matter how busy or how distracted you are. After all, they’re armed with the facts.

    I don’t want to negate the importance of telling the story, either. But we need to remember Peter’s words: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone WHO ASKS …” I think Peter is implying that an evangelistic conversation is something we should be invited into. The best way to earn that invitation is by showing others the love of Christ.

    Where I do ministry Americans have a bit of a reputation for rolling in, doing some really awkward evangelistic events, and rolling out — without ever really investing in the community. When we arrived, it took a little time to prove that we weren’t just there to draw the occasional crowd. Now that we’ve been there a while (beginning our fourth year), and now that we’ve proven that we’re in it for the long haul, we never lack for those who are eager to hear more about the gospel.

    I really appreciate your words. May they go from your pen to the church’s ear.

  3. you know, just over a year ago i would have agreed with that article. now i discovered that evangelism isn’t just something you do, it is something you embody. is there a time and place for words? absolutely. very important. but we live the life of an evangelist with our actions as well.

    when one understands the kingdom of god, it isnt about evangelism, it is being faithful to the call of christ to be like him and to be salt & light.

  4. These days I’m more inclined to believe that “preaching” the gospel is nothing more than living the gospel. With that said, how does one respond when he/she reads things like, “actions are not evangelism?” At first I laugh to myself but then I feel almost sad that people put such rules on themselves and moreover on who God is. The gospel is far too powerful to be contained, it moves and breaths and reaches into corners of the world regardless if anyone has the guts to bring it there. In essence, I belief the gospel has no limits, it is as God says “I AM.”

    I think any idea suggesting that the gospel needs to be “clearly communicated” simply lacks humility. Does the Christian exist for the gospel? Or does the Christian exist because the gospel? Simply stating the gospel verbatim requires no real sacrifice. Christians need to take a hard look at the humility of Christ and realize his life of service, love, sacrifice and deep commitment to relationships is the backbone of our salvation, the gospel. It’s these writings that make me want to say that I am evangelical but I am not an evangelical.

  5. i used to subscribe to this “empirical approach” and it resulted in awkwardness, sometimes even arguments, both of which i can have less of in my life.

  6. Hi Zach Lind,
    My name is Katie Mayward and I work at Food for the Hungry here in Phoenix. We have some mail from your sponsored children that we have been trying to send you, but we seem to have the wrong address, phone # and e-mail. Could you give us a call at 866-307-3259 or e-mail me at katie.mayward@fh.org? Thank you!

  7. “I think this is the inevitable downfall of the strict modern, empirical approach to sharing our faith.”

    Am I naive in my concern that this unquestioning acceptance of ‘facts’ causes anything but a downfall? Declaring the gospel as fact that cannot be questioned leads to a hive mentality surrounding the evangelical church and as such keeps its members towing the line. Fear is a powerful motivator.

  8. to be fair, i don’t think dever was saying that the gospel is an “empirically proven fact.” however, the gospel (particularly the part about jesus being born, being a real historical person who was god and man, getting crucified, raising from the dead, and ascending to heaven) contains many historical facts. and that’s what dever was saying, it seems.

    but, of course, that doesn’t mean that i agree with his methods. the big problem with what dever says is that the historical facts are only a piece of what the gospel message is, what it means, and how we’re supposed to share it.

    because, as you’ve pointed out zach, sharing the gospel is more than talking about historical facts and abstract philosophical concepts.

    there was a time in my life where i would have cheered dever on, good reformed baptist that he is. sad but true. that’s a FACT that i hate to admit.

  9. dever says “the message you are sharing” is a fact. i don’t think he makes the distinction you say he does here, Sean. by “the message” i think i’m safe in assuming he means the Gospel. The Gospel isn’t just made up of an assortment of historical facts about the life of Jesus. I’m sure you would agree that it also includes items such as Jesus being the divine Son of God, that he was born of a virgin, etc…items that are difficult for us to categorize as “facts”.

  10. While, they may be items that are difficult for us to categorize as facts, they are foundational to our faith, so if we don’t believe them as such, it kind of weakens are argument about what we believe. How can we expect someone to believe something that we feel isn’t true or a fact.

    Thank being said, I think he’s a bit off on his analysis of evangelism.

    The example he used of the blind man wasn’t a good one, because if you keep reading, the healed blind man obviously was changed enough to receive the message that Jesus shared with him, which I think is Zach’s and many other’s point. It’s almost like he’s trying to box evangelism into one small box, when in actuality it really is a lot bigger than he probably is comfortable with. It’s a combination of all the things listed.

    The Bible says, and I’m paraphrasing, but that one man seeds, the other waters, but it’s GOD who makes the seed grow. We can’t change people and make them believe in GOD. It’s their choice, and that, with GOD’s help. So, if I help someone with social action and they know of my faith, maybe I planted a seed.

    If someone shares a story of how GOD changed their life, maybe they’re helping water that seed.

    Ultimately, GOD will be the one responsible for making it grow.

    IF we are motivated by GOD’s love, I think the truth will be evident in our lives and people can smell the truth just as easily as they can smell a rat.

  11. i didn’t say dever was making any distinctions. i said that he was focusing on the wrong portion of the gospel. i was essentially agreeing with your conclusions about what dever has to say.

    but i was also saying that you may have overstated dever’s meaning when it comes to what constitutes a historical fact for him. and this plays into your statement about the virgin birth and jesus’ divinity. we’re not talking about empirically proven facts.

    i can say that jesus was divine because it IS true. it is a fact. however, that doesn’t mean, as you seemed to assume, that i’m coming from modernistic approach. all pre-modern christians would have said that jesus’ divinity is a fact.

    i’m not talking about using post-enlightenment categories and empricism to prove the facts. i think you’re forcing philosophical categories onto things that don’t quite fit into them. you’re defining words in an ultra-modern fashion so as to set your view over and against dever’s.

    dever is right in that we should be a people of confidence. but that doesn’t necessitate that the confidence be in modernistic thought. we are supposed to be confident because, as paul said, jesus died and rose according to the scriptures (see, he was saying these things were fact). not confident in systems that we’ve set up. but confident that jesus did it right, because he did do it.

    now i’m not discounting all of your analysis. as i said, i agreed with your conclusions. i do think that dever comes from an overly modernistic viewpoint. and that’s bad. but that doesn’t mean that everything he says is so drenched in modernism that none of it is true or of value.

    it just seemed like you were misrepresenting some of the things he said so as to make your point more strongly (which was already a strong, valid point). instead of saying “here’s where we can agree, and here is where we differ,” you seem to be saying “we don’t agree, because he is totally offbase.”

    granted, there isn’t a whole lot for you and i to agree with dever on, but there is something. and it’s not like he’s purposely trying to be devisive like driscoll. dever is a genuinely nice guy, who is just plain wrong on some key issues.

  12. sean, you wrote:

    “now i’m not discounting all of your analysis. as i said, i agreed with your conclusions. i do think that dever comes from an overly modernistic viewpoint. and that’s bad. but that doesn’t mean that everything he says is so drenched in modernism that none of it is true or of value.”

    i never said that EVERYTHING he says is of no value or untrue. i think you’re putting words in my mouth here. i actually agree with him that the verbal and the written word have value, but their value shouldn’t be overextended.

    and you can say Jesus is divine because that’s true for YOU. but it’s not a fact that can be proven. that’s why it’s called FAITH.

    and if you agree with my conclusions, they why don’t you just do so and move on! 🙂

  13. no, it is a fact. it’s a fact that can evidentially and logically be proven. not beyond a shadow of a doubt, but no fact can be proven once and for all with scientific or philosophical proofs.

    but — and this is related to what you’re saying — logical and historical facts aren’t the same as existential truth. i’ve come close to denying the christian faith before, not because of a lack of evidence, but for existential reasons.

    as kierkegaard would say, the resurrection and christ’s divinity is an objective fact, but we need to move past that to a subjective truth.

    you didn’t say that he had nothing of value to offer, but you also didn’t say that he did have something of value to offer. and that coupled with the overall tone of the post seemed to imply what i had previously said. you seem to be taking a more combative stance reminiscent of brian mclaren, as opposed to a more generous stance of someone like scot mcknight. they both have important things to say, but i prefer mcknight, because he doesn’t try to “other” people that he may not fully agree with.

    and i don’t just move on because i thought that this was a forum to discuss ideas, not preach to the choir. if you want me to, i certainly can. 😉

  14. often when God would make himself known to the israelites in a unique way the israelites would set up standing stones as a monument. they did this in exodus 24 when they received the 10 commandments and in joshua 4 when they crossed the jordan river. they did this, as joshua 4:6 states to serve as a sign among you and also when your children ask “what happened here?” or in hebrew, “mazevot” you can tell them how God showed up.

    later on in the new testament, peter writes about the living stone and the chosen people. at one point he aludes to the idea of mazevot, when he says in 1st peter 2:12 “to live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”

    our lives can invite intrigue or disgust. when we live such compelling lives filled with mercy, compassion, love and justice…i believe people see that and are moved to ask “what happened there?” an earlier comment referred to peter statement about “always be prepared to give an answer…” if your life is forcing people to ask questions.

    which makes me think, does the life i live beg people to ask deep questions about God or spirituality? do people leave my presence and ask “what happened there?”

  15. Hey Zach,

    I guess it is Dever’s approach to the gospel that causes me such disenchantment with Christianity as it is so widely practiced in our culture.

    The empirical/objective approach to evangelism creates a right/wrong, in/out, us/them dichotomy that seldom cultivates love or understanding.

    The resurrection of Jesus can no more be empirically or objectively demonstrated than the reception of the golden plates by Joseph Smith. And the only difference between the two is that Dever believes one and not the other.

    We cannot see an electron, but we can see its trails or the effects of it in a cloud chamber. In the same way, the truth or falsehood of the claims of Jesus can only be verified in the lives of his followers.

    We could have video footage of Jesus emerging from the tomb, but if Jesus is not evident in my life, it doesn’t matter.

    That’s why when Christians bless those around them, it does not merely “commend” the gospel, it is the gospel.

    Unfortunately, I see Christians blessing those with whom they share the culture less and less, taking instead an adversarial and hostile posture.

    It is for that reason that I have stopped participating in the tradition that I have known for forty years, because its expression is increasingly ugly, allied and identified with the bad guys and more and more difficult to find Jesus in it.

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