Friday, March 19, 2010

Go Fish!: What is Evangelism?

So what is this thing called "evangelism?" Last month I wrote about why we as mainline Christians should not fear the word, or the practice. It's what Jesus commanded us to do. It's one reason he gave us the Holy Spirit, to work in partnership with us as we go and make disciples of all nations. But what is it?

From the Greek "euangelion" comes "good news" or "gospel," making an evangelist one who shares the Good News to others. Some pastors I've talked to adhere to a narrow definition of evangelism: it's proclaiming the truth of the Gospel and helping non-believers cross over the line of faith to accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior. Any other activities that don't include proclamation and invitation are not evangelism and should not be labeled as such.

In a world where the word "google" can become a verb almost overnight, we can open up the definition of evangelism a little wider for the 21st Century. Here's my short definition, followed by a breakdown:

Evangelism is partnering with the Holy Spirit to reach out in a relational way to non-believers around us, either in words or deeds, with the ultimate purpose of pointing them toward Jesus.

"Partnering with the Holy Spirit" - I accept a wide definition of evangelistic activities to include such things as praying silently for others, performing small acts of kindness, asking people I encounter throughout the day how they are doing and then really listening to their answers, etc. But since non-believers can do the same, it becomes evangelism when I ask the Holy Spirit to clue me in to opportunities and guide me in my interactions.

"Reach out in a relational way" - Author of the evangelism classic, Out of the Salt Shaker & Into the World, Becky Pippert, tells a great story of being pelted in the head with an evangelism tract while sitting in her car at a red light. A woman in the next car over was trying her darnedest to share the Gospel. As well-intentioned as the woman was, she missed the mark (but not Becky's head) because she had no relationship with her target! Reaching out in a relational way includes things like getting to know cashiers we see over and over again at the market, talking to neighbors, and so on. It's offering to listen, to help, to be a friend. It means not seeing people as "targets," but as actual people who God seeks to be in relationship with.

"In words or deeds" - A few of the deeds we can perform in our efforts to evangelize to others have already been mentioned. I've found my fellow congregation members are fine with deeds, it's the "words" part that makes them nervous. The reality is we have to be prepared to speak about Jesus if the opportunity arises. It doesn't have to be "The Conversation" where we seal the deal with a conversion. It can be a simple conversation about how faith impacts our own lives. Each of us may be one touchpoint along the journey for a non-believer whom God is pursuing.

"Ultimate purpose" - Day One of talking to the supermarket cashier is probably not the time to break out biblical truths. Again, it's one touchpoint. It may be Day 502 when you talk about Jesus with her. It may be Day Never, because your only job is to be the touchpoint, and it's someone else in the cashier's life to lead her into a life of faith in Jesus.

"Pointing toward Jesus" - Our lives can be signposts to non-believers. We're not the destination, Jesus is; we can use our words and deeds to point them toward that destination.

Now, "don't hear what I'm not saying," as one of my favorite authors and speakers, Reggie McNeal, would say. I'm not saying that we only seek to be nice to others with the purpose of evangelizing. If it's Day 503 and it's pretty clear the cashier is not interested, we don't switch stores to find a new "target" for our efforts. It's a way of living as disciples of Jesus.

Randy Siever, a pastor and Executive Director of Doable Evangelism, sums up the definition of evangelism nicely this way:

"Evangelism is the whole process by which people who are missing get found. It includes everything and anything that nudges someone in the direction of Jesus. It does include verbal proclamation, but also such small and invisible things as noticing someone, praying for people behind their backs, and listening to them. These things, which are simple and doable ways of paying attention to others, are like a cup of cold water in our culture (Matt. 10:42). They are not just some "pre-evangelism" tactic used to get to the real business of evangelism. They ARE evangelism. And ANYONE can do this." (Read the entire blog entry here)

For a thorough discussion of the definition of evangelism, see Chris Walker's blog at Evangelism Coach International. He has a great series on the subject here. An excellent book about evangelism for the 21st Century is Rick Richardson's Reimagining Evangelism; Inviting Friends on a Spiritual Journey.

What's your own definition of evangelism? What would "pointing toward Jesus" look like in your everyday life with the people you encounter?

1 comment:

Randy Siever said...

Thanks, Pam. I can also recommend another new book that I recently reviewed and endorsed: "Contagious But Not Quarantined" by Timothy Fisher. Doug Pollack's new book, "God Space" is also pretty fresh.