Thursday, October 11, 2007

What is evangelism?


What is evangelism?

Actually, the specific word "evangelism" is not used in the Bible. This does not mean that the concept is not present, of course, but simply not this specific word. The term "evangelist" is found in Acts 21:8 in reference to Philip, who was one of the Seven, in Eph. 4:11, in a list of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, and in 2 Tim. 4:5, in which Timothy is told to do the work of an evangelist. The etymology of the word evangelist shows that this word came from the euangellion, or the good news. Based upon etymology, an evangelist is a proclaimer of good news.

The word for good news, the euangellion, is found in 27 verses in the NT (sorry, too numerous to list). The phrase "proclaiming the good news" (NIV) is found in Mk. 1:14, Luke 8:1, Acts 5:42. The phrase "preach the good news" (NIV) is found in Mt. 4:23, 9:35, Lk. 3:18, Lk. 4:43, Acts 8:12, 14:7, 14:21, 17:18. In contrast to what people think about a typical "gospel preacher," this proclamation was primarily to nonbelievers, and was found in non-worship settings. This is not to say that the good news should not be preached to believers--it is a matter of first importance (1 Cor. 15), and believers need to be reminded of the truths of the gospel. But when we point towards passages on "proclaiming the good news," we are pointing towards settings out in the world.

Based on the etymology, some have equated evangelism as merely proclamation, and not something that includes conversion or "service" (non-verbal) evangelism. However, William Abraham, in The Logic of Abraham, says that in looking at evangelism it is important to note "what evangelism has actually meant in the early church and in history, not judged by the etymology of the word evangelism and its rather occasional use in Scripture, but by what evangelists have actually done in both proclaiming the gospel and establishing new converts in the kingdom of God." (p. 69)

In other words, the actual practice of "evangelism" has included proclamation, doing of good deeds, call to conversion and initiation into the Christian community. This was what Philip did and what other "evangelists" in the early church did. It is important to not cut out the verbal proclamation of the gospel. This is where the etymology is helpful. However, these other elements surrounding this verbal proclamation are vital as well.

Right now, I prefer to define evangelism in terms of the overall process of proclamation, doing of good deed towards outsiders, call to conversion, and initiation into the Christian community, while emphasizing those with the gift of evangelism or "evangelists" as having the verbal gift of sharing the good news (this does not exclude the other elements). Remember, these definitions are merely helpful tools, and are always somewhat arbitrary. Both what is biblical (when it can be determined) and what is helpful should be emphasized in making these decisions.

What comes to mind when you hear the word evangelism or evangelist? Are these positive or negative images?

2 comments:

jerry said...

James,
thanks for pointing out that evangelism is more than what we have made it to be. In my studies, I discovered that the word "Go" in what we call the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19) actually carries the idea of how you are living, or as you are going. I take that to mean that our lives, in the world are to speak volumes as to whom we belong. I have told our teens so many times, if Jesus is not important enough for you to live for everyday, then you will never convince any of your friends to do the same. I want to be Jesus - to the people at Wal-Mart, at the gas station, the football stadium, etc. Evangelism, to me, is first being Jesus in my community so that my community will come to know and follow Jesus.

Well, that is my .02.

Keep praying, seeking and serving

James said...

Yes, Jerry, "Go" in the Great Commission is actually a participle, which leads to the translation, "Make disciples as you are going."

You are doing some great teaching for the kids. They--and we--need to see following Jesus as a round the clock lifestyle, rather than a Sunday only thing.