Evangelizing is a popular issue among Christians. In fact, it is the word used for the particular tradition from which I come (evangelical). If it is so important, it would follow that we should be interested in understanding and studying it. It’s interesting how often a conversation among christians will turn toward an evangelical bent, either in how the subject matter will be perceived by nonbelievers, or how effective it might be in convincing them to become christian. While it is certainly talked about often, evangelism is often misunderstood in my opinion. Our current teachings on evangelism have left us largely ineffective and feeling guilty. For me personally, evangelism begins by reforming the church. I write here in hopes of bringing a more clear understanding of this topic to the reader. We cannot be more effective if we continue to see evangelism in a distorted way. Effectively evangelizing those outside of the faith requires more accurate understanding of this subject. I hope that this paper will help the church become the light that it is designed to be.
Problem: Focus on the Individual
Most current debates about a method of evangelizing come down to two sides. Should a person evangelize more through actions, or ought he/she be more vocal and/or “offensive”? The problem here is that the focus in both cases is on the individual. It is a significant shortcoming of the English language that there is no differentiation between a singular and plural subject when using the word “you”. It is therefore made more difficult when reading the bible in the English language to understand who the authors are writing to. Nonetheless it is clear that the individual is stressed much less in the bible than what it is today. One example, the Lord’s prayer contains no “I”, “me”, “my”, “myself”, etc.
I believe that our modern focus on the individual has caused us to lose our understanding of how we evangelize. We have reduced evangelism to simply something that an individual believer does. “What should I as one person do?” has become our question. When we have thought beyond the individual, it’s typically has only been seen as a need for chrisitans to politically and socially stand for/against certain issues. While this is seen as being a witness, I would argue that it is quite different than evangelism, and in fact can be quite counterproductive. (From my understanding of history, this political agenda is rooted not strictly in biblical understanding, but in the moralism movement of the early/mid 19th century middle class.)
Misunderstanding of Evangelism
Beyond that, I believe evangelism has been over emphasized, or at least incorrectly emphasized. Many leaders/groups teach/pressure every individual person to go around evangelizing. In fact some will say that this is the whole or primary purpose of the christian life. The problem is, if the reason for being a christian is to get others to become christians, why do they become christians? In order to have more christians? This is obviously circular reasoning with no conclusion. There must be another greater purpose. The fact is, I can’t find one place in all the new testament epistles where evangelism is directly commanded! The primary scripture reference for those who hold to the importance of evangelism is what is known as the great commission. This however is given in the context of a narrative story. The words of the great commission were spoken to a specific group of men (the apostles), without specific indication in the text of it being a command to a broader audience. That omission alone doesn’t mean it may not be for others as well, but it can’t be proved from this passage alone that it is a directive for all believers either. My view is that all believers, as part of the church, are called to be involved in evangelism in a general way, while some are gifted and called to evangelize more specifically.
So, what is a better, more accurate way to think about evangelism? I believe that we must first look at the big picture, in part because this is perhaps currently our biggest weakness. In our society, christianity has a long history and has had a large influence on our culture. Few people in our country will be completely devoid of any knowledge of christianity. They see traces of it in different places, and will certainly at times run into it in our culture today. So while interaction with a single individual christian may be the most important for a person, it will not be their only interaction with it. In addition they may experience personal interaction with more than one individual christian. This is why I believe we must first take a look at the face of the church at large, before we can return to look at how an individual christian can witness.
One problem with the fracturing of Christianity (primarily within protestantism) is that we can no longer provide a unified front of what is and isn’t Christianity. Anyone can go out and do anything or believe anything, and claim that they are christians. Since we have little unity in Christendom, they have as much right to say that as any of the rest of our groups or denominations. If we had a more unified church, we could more easily show who was in and who was out. The “christians” who act with more hate than love we could say are outside of the bounds of faith, and pursue discipline through the church. But as it is, there is little way for someone outside of the faith to tell what is really believed, for indeed, there are so many different beliefs. This is one reason I’m in favor of returning to the use of the early creeds.