A Protestant Christian Thinks about Evangelism

by Allan R. Brockway

When I set out to write what I thought would be a brief, concise, and--of course!--insightful piece on the Decade of Evangelism (that had been declared by the Churches in Britain), I had no notion it would become a more or less personal credo. But that's what happened. I trust the reader will recognise and accept it as such. I also hope it may be read as a fervent hope for what the Decade is all about. --ARB

Twenty years ago--or was it thirty?-- the Methodist Church in the United States undertook a quadrennial programme labelled "Crusade for Christ." Today I doubt that anyone would even consider calling an evangelism effort a "crusade" but, that aside, the point was pretty much the same as the point of the Decade of Evangelism will probably turn out to be: to renew the Christian faith of Christians. The Decade of Evangelism looks more and more like an old-fashioned Christian revival than it does a foreign or even home missionary campaign. And there is much good to be said for that.

What is evangelism, anyway? The word itself can be traced etymologically through Middle English, Old French, and Latin to the Greek word for "messenger" (aggelos.). The Greek meaning was more or less strictly retained for the word "angel" but "evangel" came to denote the content of the message, that is, "good news" or "gospel". Just for the record, "gospel" also stems from the same Greek root, but this time through an Old English rendering (god=good + spel=news) and ecclesiastical Latin, evangelium.

Thus we can say that an evangelist is the bearer of good news, specifically the good news of Jesus Christ. (That the strict etymological meaning can be utilized in other ways is evident from the fact that someone who spreads the good news about its products for a computer company may be known as an "evangelist"!) And evangelism is the activity of bringing good news. In itself the term is merely descriptive. It becomes interesting when further questions are asked, such as "What does the message actually say?" and"To whom is the good news brought?" and "Who or what is the messenger?"

The Gospel
Let's start with the content of the good news, the gospel. Curiously enough, often those who would be messengers couch their message in a kind of "private" language that is basically unintelligible to their hearers, and sometimes even to themselves. For instance, "Believe in Jesus Christ and be saved!" is code language that needs to be translated in order to be comprehended, for each of its three components may well be obscure to the uninitiated.

The least problematic, of course, is "believe." Interpreted, belief is trust that something is true even though it may not be supported by empirical evidence. "I believe in her" is generally understood to mean that I have confidence that what she says is true and that she will do what she says she will do, a confidence that can only be confirmed by subsequent events.

Jesus Christ
So it is with belief in Jesus Christ. But, unlike "her," Jesus Christ is not immediately available to any and everyone. And, despite the testimony of many Christians to a personal relationship with him, "Jesus Christ" is far more than a "person." It is a whole theological category that includes, particularly, the gospel. To believe in Jesus Christ is to believe in the gospel, the good news, that.... Well, just what is that good news?
The answer to that question has been, and will be, the subject of huge libraries of theological tomes but just because Christian theology or, in this case, the particular version of it known as christology, may be complicated is no excuse for reluctance to translate it as best one can. Let me give it a try.

First of all, the good news is not an abstract message, but is, instead, very personal. And in a nutshell it is this: "You are important. You are significant. You are valuable." As Paul Tillich put it, "You are accepted." Tillich went on to say that to ask who it is that accepts you is premature. Perhaps, he suggested, the answer to that might come later, but for the moment, "Simply accept the fact that you are accepted."

At first glance there is nothing exceptional about such "good news". But a moment's reflection reveals how radical and startling it is--for each of us, as we acknowledge to ourselves in our most private moments, is convinced that we are unacceptable. No matter how often we try to convince ourselves that we are significant, we are unable to do so; the good news must be brought to us by others, evangelists who, themselves, continue to hear the message from still others.

That's all very well and good, you might say, but what has this "good news" got to do with "Jesus Christ"? Why not just speak about self-esteem and not confuse things with Christ talk?For one thing, "Jesus Christ" is a verbal symbol that cannot be exhausted by any "translation" or interpretation. (The same is true of the Jewish verbal symbol, "Torah," which is much more than "teaching" or "way," not to mention "law.") And, as such, belief in the good news of Jesus Christ is not, to use a catch phrase once current in theological circles, "intellectual assent to a proposition." In this regard, the distinction between "belief" and "faith" is relevant, for it is quite possible for us to believe that we are significant without having faith in Jesus Christ (which means entrusting one's entire existence--past, present, and future).

It is the possibility of such faith that the evangelist offers. Note that word, possibility. Evangelists do not--cannot--guarantee anything. All they can do is offer a possibility, which they assuredly guarantee is a possibility through their testimony that it is very and truly real for themselves.

Which brings us to the third component of the evangelistic statement, "Believe in Jesus Christ and be saved"--salvation. Arguably, there is no word in the Christian lexicon that is more frequently spoken, yet so infrequently examined, than "salvation." As a consequence, or perhaps corollary, of faith in Jesus Christ, salvation is a term that presupposes a particular understanding of bondage, namely Sin--a theological concept that also is often misunderstood.

There is a difference between sins, which are violations of specific moral or spiritual norms, and Sin, which is refusal to acknowledge what the Christian tradition understands to be the truth about life and its Creator. It is not necessary to postulate metaphysically about a primaeval Fall from Original Righteousness in order to explain the reality of Sin; it is quite sufficient to note that, whether we will it or not, every time we wake up to ourselves, as it were, we find we are caught in Sin. That is to say, we find that we deny that our lives are good and are so because of creation: "And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good" (Gen. 1:31). In other words, "original rightgeousness" is still the truth about life. The problem is that we, not God, refuse to believe it.

Thus, when evangelists offer the possibility of faith in Jesus Christ they assume that their hearers, just like they themselves, do not "accept the fact that they are accepted." Or, in other words, they refuse to acknowledge the fundamental goodness of their lives and as a consequence vainly struggle to create that goodness themselves. The evangelists' testimony, therefore, is that faith in Jesus Christ offers the possibility of "salvation" from this futile struggle, from being bound to the "power of Sin".

To sum up: An evangelist (messenger) brings the gospel (good news) that it is possible for those who hear to accept themselves as accepted and thereby be freed (saved) from the necessity of trying to make themselves ultimately significant.

Before thinking a bit more about who might be the intended audience for the good news, I'd like to go back to Paul Tillich's remark about the prematurity of asking who does the accepting. That is strategically wise in the first instance, but inevitably the question comes up. It may be addressed meaningfully, I think, in the context of our discussion about the symbol, "Jesus Christ."

Christians believe that God revealed the divine purpose for us human beings in Jesus of Nazareth, indeed, that divinity itself shines forth in Jesus Christ. Thus, for Christians to assert that salvation is in Christ is for them to affirm that it is God, the creator and sustainer of all that is, who declares us to be significant. The doctrine of the incarnation is complex but we need not be overly concerned about its metaphysical difficulties. After all, evangelists are not in the business of convincing people that they should believe such things as the metaphysical (not to mention physical) nonsense that the creator of the universe became encapsulated in a Palestinian Jew almost nineteen hundred years ago. The task of the evangelist is to offer the good news that...

More years ago than I like to think about, a theology professor told me that the greatest hymn every written was the children's Sunday school ditty: "Jesus loves me/this I know/for the Bible tells me so." At the time I thought he was being ridiculously simplistic. Now, I'm not so sure.

The Audience
The good news, the gospel, most obviously is addressed to sinners. As we have seen, everyone is understood to be a sinner, for, as Paul said, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:32). And that means that there is no way any one could possibly be excluded from the company of those to whom the gospel is addressed, including Buddhists, secularists, Hindus, traditional religionists, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs--and Jews.

This inescapable conclusion causes problems for Christian devotees of interreligious dialogue such as myself. Indeed, I have written elsewhere that "the next step [for Protestants] may be to proscribe all proselytism of Jews on the theological ground that it is rejection of Israel's valid covenant with God."

Words are tricky and the temptation to make a great deal of subtle distinctions in word meaning that obscure genuine intentions is alluring. Nevertheless, the difference between "proselytism" and "evangelism" is important. "To proselyte" is to attempt to make a convert. "To evangelise" is to testify, to witness, to something one has seen or experienced. This is no mere semantic distinction. It points to the validity of Christian evangelism at the same time it leaves the field wide open for interreligious dialogue.

"Evangelize", technically at least, is a neutral term, but in reality, it is not neutral at all, because, at least in the popular mind, it has become synonymous with Christian proselytism. It is time now for that linkage to be broken so that "evangelist" may apply to all the messengers who come to the dialogue table.

I would not presume to detail the content of the "evangel" of religions other than Christianity, but I have had enough experience in interfaith dialogue to know that that content is often not too different from that of my own faith. The symbol systems may be radically different, to be sure. But once they are "translated" we sometimes discover that the messages point in similar directions. That is not to say, however, that all religions are the same. Far from it.

The question for the Christian evangelist concerns the extent to which the gospel in Jesus Christ is incompatible with the testimony of other religious belief systems. And there is no legitimate way to determine that apart from honestly entered into interreligious dialogue, dialogue in which representatives of each religion are totally free to make their distinctive testimony. The kind of testimony I've been making in this essay must be laid on the table by everyone. At that point the dialogue can begin, but not before.

Karl Barth emphasised the radical distinction between "religion" and "faith." Faith, for him, was what I've called the gospel. Religion was the form faith takes in the life of individuals and society. And for Christianity, no less a religion than any other, the form is the Church. There is no clear assurance that the gospel will be embodied in the Church, for, despite some types of Christian doctrine, salvation does not come from the Church. Salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ, an observation that leads us to the finale of these reflections. Who or what is the messenger?

The Messenger
The ultimate question about the Decade of Evangelism concerns who or what is conducting the evangelistic endeavor and for what purpose.

The churches of Great Britain, Protestant and Catholic, are the sponsors of the program, certainly. But what is the ultimate goal?

If the purpose is evangelism then the consequence can only incidentally be increased church membership and attendance. But if the purpose is to enhance the institutional power of the churches, then it may be temporarily successful, but at the expense of the gospel, of the message that all creation, and, specifically, each human being is good, valuable, important.

Jews and members of other religious communities have become concerned about the Decade of Evangelism because they fear it will be a campaign to lure them into the church. They need not fear. For if the focus is the gospel, then that good news is good news for them, too. If the focus is church growth, the Decade will fade away, as have so many others, leaving no trace.