The Truth about Evangelism

When you are really familiar with something it is often hard to get surprised by it. When it comes to the Bible there are always new things to learn in terms of understanding what it means. Now when it comes to what is written in the text there isn’t really much new, especially if you have been reading it all your life. A few months back I was reading a fairly old article which drew my attention to something I had never seen in the text before. What was really interesting was not what was written but rather what wasn’t.

Over at Think Theology where the article in question was published, it basically consisted of a summary of a session in a conference of New Testament (NT) scholars. (You can read the full piece for yourself here.) This session was chaired by N.T. Wright and one of his initial statements according to the summary is,

“Paul never tells his converts to preach the gospel, and he never imagines that there are very many evangelists at any one time.”

Tom himself was “surprised by the counterintuitive reality” that “Paul just doesn’t talk about it.” I had honestly never noticed it before. I had always assumed we are supposed to evangelise more or less because the Bible tells us it is our duty. Though I did find it a very curious situation I quickly accepted it was true. Long before I had encountered that piece of information, I noticed the passages that are traditionally used to say we should all evangelise like Matthew 28:18-20 and 2 Corinthians 5:20, referred to a specific class of people, namely the apostles. It was really a plain exegetical point. Though it prepared me for this later surprise, when I first noticed things weren’t as we thought them to be I never dared to go down the rabbit hole and further question our assumptions of what the Bible says and means by evangelism. After all, telling people about Jesus is not a bad thing at all and you would think it is something the New Testament would like us to do.

My friends agreed with that sentiment when I pointed out a universal call to evangelism was not present in the text. They really found it hard to accept that it just wasn’t there. They automatically followed that logic and since they were so sure of it they did not actually think to search the scriptures to see if those things were so. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. I do not blame them at all since the necessity was drummed into us from early on as something explicitly said in the Bible. We have built entire theologies like the number of ‘souls we save’ will determine how many crowns we get in heaven based on something that is not there. It’s like a quota we have to meet, to at least preach to one unsaved person, which has given rise to the bad practice of tract bombing otherwise known as drive-by evangelism. Though I do not think the New Testament prohibits anyone from ‘evangelising’ as we call it, if we take God seriously we also have to take what his word actually says seriously and not just presume to know.

With this revelation crazier than an M. Night Shyamalan plot twist, I began to mull over why Paul made such a glaring omission. I first decided to survey the entire New Testament and I found out that it was virtually true everywhere. There are passages that sort of hint at evangelism or more accurately could be applied as an impetus to evangelise but frankly that is as close as it gets. What was required for every believer in terms of an oral presentation only in particular circumstances was to offer a good apologetic but not in the modern sense of the word, which is another topic to discuss later. So if this was a New Testament (NT) wide absence of the imperative for all Christians to evangelise then it was not just a peculiarity of Paul and we know he had a lot of quirks so to speak. It was a deeper question of how the first Christians understood their identity and purpose in the world.

When my friends finally accepted the exegetical reality the first response they gave was that it was so obvious there was no need to say it. As far as explanations go that is a non-explanation. It is more of a projection of our theological assumptions and attitudes onto the scriptures than a reflection of how the New Testament Christians actually thought. I also pointed out that there are plenty of pretty obvious things that are mentioned in the NT so that is no excuse. In fact, the various NT authors enjoyed reminding people of the most rudimentary things about the faith in their epistles (1 Corinthians 15:1; 2 Peter 1:12; Jude 5.)

Initially, I though it just made practical sense not to have every believer out in the streets preaching. By the time the first NT documents were written, Christianity was still a nascent movement only about 20 years old and they were very much a minority. As you can see in the NT they were still evolving and figuring things out, growing and developing as a community. [1]Now the early Jesus movement was seen as a strange, subversive and even dangerous movement that defied the usual categories of race, religion and society in the Roman Empire. This stage is a critical stage in any movement’s life therefore you need to do things that will maximise your chances of survival. It would not be a great idea for converts who belong to a very young faith, which completely reorients your life in a very dizzying manner, and are therefore still trying to make sense of it all, for them to go out in public proclaiming this very countercultural message. They didn’t have all the answers, neither did they pretend to, therefore most of them would not do the best job of representing the faith in public discourse. Plus, the responsibility and burden of such open proclamations would also be very great. If in doubt look at the lives of the early apostles (1 Corinthians 4:9-13.) The early Christian community needed to keep its head down and not draw any unnecessary attention. They already had trouble enough for being Christian so they needed to tread very circumspectly. It would make more sense to have authorised, equipped and specially dedicated people to publically communicate the faith while the rest of the Christian community concentrated on the task of being Christian. Though I do believe those concerns factored in, it still does not account for this strange absence.

Becoming a Christian would make you stick out like a sore thumb at least among your immediate social circle of family, friends, colleagues and peers. Inevitably the Gospel will come up in conversation. Aside from that, the NT does not have a problem with believers spontaneously sharing their new found joy in the Messiah. Whether you do it gladly or it is something you just cannot avoid, we find that in the NT church’s life it was naturally expected that the gospel would be communicated on some level by believers. The practical concerns they had did not and could not eliminate all Gospel talk to people outside to the church. The Gospel is of paramount importance to Christianity and the NT authors take great pains to emphasize it, over and over again. Since it is that central why then are only some people charged with preaching it?

In the New Testament era, the apostles were called to propagate the gospel and through the power of the message raise new faith communities in the Messiah (Romans 1:1-6.) The word apostle, in Greek apostolos, meant someone who is sent, a messenger, delegate, ambassador or an envoy. In the NT apostle usually refers to a missionary. The conference session in which Wright made the observation and chaired was title ‘Missional Hermeneutics.’ Paul and clearly his other ministry peers were convinced they had been authorised to go and fulfil a special God-given mission. Though we do see other people preach the Gospel the apostles were specifically dedicated to that task. It is within that missional context that we must find the answer to why the entire church isn’t called to preach.

The very simple answer to this question which Wright hinted at is in the very nature of mission which is of course inextricably tied to what the church is and supposed to be. If the apostle is sent out on a mission, then the people he preaches to who receive the message are the mission. There is a distinction between the mission and the missionary, the task and the one who fulfils it, the embassy and the ambassador. An ambassador along with his staff run a foreign embassy for his home country. The embassy is more than its administration but they are certainly a part of it. Likewise, the church represents God’s rule on earth. In Philippians Paul precisely uses that analogy where he tells them their citizenship is from heaven. Ancient Philippi was a Roman colony therefore the citizens of Philippi were actually citizens of Rome and duly enjoyed the privileges of Roman natives. Wright sums up the mission of the church as unity and holiness. These two words sum up what the epistles spend the most time talking about as the call of believers. They were to be a united holy people as a sign to the powers that there was a new way of being human under God’s sovereign rule. Paul writes in Ephesians,

To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. – Ephesians 3:8-10 ESV

He continues to say later on,

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. – Ephesians 4:1-3 ESV

This distinct between mission and missionary is made even more clear when you consider the gospel for what it is: news. When you hear important news you react to it in different ways. It may change how you see the world or alter your actions. You may share and discuss it among people you know and are acquainted with. No everyone who hears the news is automatically expected to become a newscaster. There are people whose job is to broadcast the news and keep the general public informed. As Paul said, not all of us are evangelists but we are all supposed to be evangelical, that is, good news people, a community which embodies what it means to receive and live this message. It is the very nature of news that even though it spreads organically in various ways, there are authorised communicators of it who are there to serve the entire public. As such “preacher” in the New Testament is a technical term in the NT designating an individual commissioned to publically proclaim the good news of Jesus the Messiah. [2]Furthermore, in Richard Bauckham’s seminal work on the gospel’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses he explains in oral cultures there are ways of faithfully passing on tradition in a community. In this case the gospel traditions were spread informally but in a controlled manner, being over seen by authoritative sources of the tradition i.e. the apostles and elders. If authorised teachers were needed in the community, it makes sense that there would be authorised messengers who would usher people into the fold.

The mission is to propagate the gospel so how we understand the gospel and our responsibilities towards it clearly affects how we do mission. Many churches are now very mission oriented. In the postcolonial era, many Western churches had a renewed emphasis on the mission field while many churches in the majority world, particularly in Africa, are sending missionaries to Europe to evangelise the continent that first evangelised them. The church I attend, the Church of Pentecost in Ghana, self describes as a mission and not a ministry and the leadership is very committed it.

With this new emphasis on mission in the global church and its theology there is a lot of energy and enthusiasm on that front. This eagerness I think gets us carried away theologically and we say things like every Christian is a missionary. Yes, mission does not necessarily mean moving to a completely foreign country and culture. It can be done right at home. I do understand the sentiment that the gospel is good news in every sphere of life. However, there is a distinction between being an evangelist and being evangelical which is present in the NT and we should not confuse the two. Not all of us can be missionaries in the full gospel sense of the word but we are all supposed to be missional. They are related but there is the missionary-missional distinction. In the same way we can’t all be prophets but we should be prophetic, so on and so forth. This is the relationship between special callings and what the entire church is called to do.

Being missional means embodying what it means to believe the gospel. While some are called to proclaim it, it is everyone’s job to demonstrate what living it out looks like, in every life setting. Peter, Paul and other NT authors were very concerned with accurately representing the gospel through the conduct of the believer. They were very aware that the wrong words and actions by professing Christians could seriously do damage to the credibility of the Gospel witness. The bad behaviour of Christians has perennially been a formidable challenge to the Gospel to this day. It is therefore imperative that we speak and act accordingly as a one consecrated people called by God in the Messiah whom he raised from the dead. The Irish Evangelist Rodney “Gypsy” Smith once said,

“There are five Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the Christian, and some people will never read the first four.”

I am certainly not agreeing with the popular quote that is wrongly attributed to Francis of Assissi, “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” Verbal communication is not secondary or unimportant but vital to Christian faith. There are people set apart just to be heralds of this glorious message. [3]Besides, the word in biblical thinking is not just a written or spoken symbol in a given language used to convey information. It is a creative, redemptive force flowing from God’s identity and authority. To get rid of the verbal gospel message, relegating it to the background, is to lose the very power of God which brings salvation. That being said oral proclamation must be commensurate with the right behavioural response. If you hear good news it is supposed to bring about a positive change or there is something wrong somewhere. So while some are called to preach it we all have the task of it interpreting the message through the way we live. As Lesslie Newbigin would say about the church, “we are the only hermeneutic of the gospel.”


[1] Destroyer of the Gods by Larry Hurtado provides a great overview for the general public of early Christianity and how it was perceived in the ancient Roman world. You can find great summaries of his work here on this blog.

[2] R. Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, chpt. 10, Eerdmans, 2006. You can find a brief summary of the chapter here.

[3] N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God, pp. 20, SPCK, 2013.


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