Practical Theology of Evangelism: An Integration

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During the course we have read three evangelical authors presenting their views on evangelism, one of the central marks of evangelical Christianity.

Introduction

Rick Richardson’s Reimagining Evangelism: Inviting Friends on a Spiritual Journey invites Christian evangelists to make use of all kinds of their gifts from God to proclaim the gospel message in a culturally relevant way. Gordon Smith’s Beginning Well: Christian Conversion and Authentic Transformation proposes a fresh understanding of conversion as a response to an encounter with the Trinitarian God, expressed by both internal convictions and external manifestations through holy sacraments. Mark Mittelberg, through Becoming a Contagious Church: Increasing Your Churches Evangelistic Temperature raises his call for « an outwardly focused, evangelistically active churches…that proactively partner with their members » for evangelism (p.17).

In this paper, the strengths and weaknesses in each of these positions will be outlined and evaluated. Particular attention will be put on their reliance on biblical passages in support for their theses. Finally, I will combine particular strengths of their arguments to format a philosophy of evangelism that is personally applicable in my coming years of ministry.

I.
Reimagining Evangelism can be understood of what is charactering the ’emerging church movement’ in the recent decade. Richardson offers the new travel guide metaphor for evangelists to replace the old salesperson imagery that people get when encountering télé-evangelizing, door-knocking, and porte-à-porte styles of outreach. The key concepts that make this book stand out from others’ are fourfold:

Richardson

  1. Collaboration with the Spirit versus activism: We first slow down and try to see what God has already been doing. Since the Holy Spirit has initiated the work, we do not have to be activists to get our evangelistic cause publicized. His primary scriptural supports are from the gospel and Acts. While Jesus told the disciples in his farewell discourse that they would do greater things than he after his ascension because the Holy Spirit would come (Jn. 14; 17), in Acts Luke makes also sure to point out that the Holy Spirit is the one working at every turn.
  2. Friendship verses Agenda: what many people need know about Christ is that those who follow him can be trusted. The foundation of this trust is genuine friendship rather than an agenda, no matter how compelling it may seem. However, I have to disagree with Richardson if this leads to the rejection of the necessity of having an agenda altogether. Jesus does have an agenda He comes to give lives (Jn. 10:10). He is not here to befriend everyone, but to warn this world about the judgment of God and command men to repent (Acts 17:30-31). Friendship is a good thing, but this does not mean we are about to be as non-offensive as possible in our evangelism as if fearful of the sword that the right conviction of the world’s sinfulness might entail (Mat 10:34).
  3. Outside the Box Jesus verses cliché Jesus: this particularly applies to post-Christian society, in which people have gotten enough the dull and pale Jesus image, church-portrayed. The historical Jesus made known himself with more than one image (the Transfiguration in Matt 17:1–6; Mark 9:1–8, and Luke 9:28–36; also arguably in his post-resurrection appearances), and he surprised people often. In the same manner Rather than showing a cliché Jesus people already know, we share a Jesus people have yet to discover.
  4. Journey verses Event: to be Christian is to follow Jesus Christ our leader along the journey. The old model focuses on a one-time decision to get a one-way ticket to heaven, an event which marks who’s in and who’s out. The new model sees everyone as at different points along (or away from) the Way. He includes Acts 2:1-41 as an example for different dimensions in a person’s spiritual journey: Repentance, faith, baptism, forgiveness, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. This only minor issue I have about this analogy is his omission of the fact that every journey has a starting point, as there are also important intersections where a transition based upon a one-time decision needs to be made. Paul’s conversion narratives (Acts 9:3-19; 22:6-16; 26:12-18) indeed illustrates that there are ‘events’ within journey.

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II.
That being said, Gordon Smith’s Beginning Well is indeed a book that specifically addresses the issue of Christian conversion. The aim of this book is threefold: 1) to help believers’ better personal self-understanding; 2) to fuel effective Church ministry; 3) to undertake the [contemporary] theological task (10-11).

Smith

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Drawing his thesis from a thematic biblical study of conversion in the Synoptic gospels, John, Acts, and in Paul’s epistles, Smith analyses seven elements to be observed in authentic conversion (pp. 138-141):

  1. Belief (intellectual);
  2. Repentance (penitential);
  3. Trust and assurance of forgiveness: (emotional or affective);
  4. Commitment, allegiance, and devotion (volitional),
  5. Water baptism(sacramental);
  6. Reception of the gift of the Holy Spirit (charismatic);
  7. Incorporation into the Christian community (corporate).

It is also noteworthy that he understands conversion from the vintage point of eschatology: it is past (Titus 3:5), present (Phil. 2:2), and future (Rom. 8:24) (p.24); conversion doesn’t just pertain to the afterlife (p. 28). He reminds readers that transformation is not merely spiritual, but holistic (1 Thess. 5:23-24) (p. 28).
For it various strengths I find this book immensely helpful. It is clearly written, biblically sound, and the author wouldn’t hesitate to cite theological thinkers, such as Francis Schaeffer (213), Karl Rahner (29, 59), George Lindbeck (40), philosophers, such as Wittgenstein (40), and prominent exegetes to elucidate his points.

III.
In Becoming a Contagious Church Mittelberg has made explicit his practical concern, which is clearly the strengths of this book. Early in this book the author delineates the limitations of individual evangelism to solidity his appeal for doing personal evangelism in tandem with the local church (p. 18). The rest of the book thereby surrounds the issue of « how to » on building a « contagious church ». Mittelberg lays out 6 stages. These steps each have a scriptural support.

Mittelberg

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The first three stages serve as the backbone of building a contagious church.

  1. Live and Evangelistic Life (1 Cor. 11:1; 1 Tim. 4:12): If we really understand the evangelistic potential of the church well enough, we will naturally get excited about it.
  2. Instill evangelistic values in those around you (2 Tim. 2:2): A contagious church has much more power than a contagious individual, whereas it is from a contagious person who shares this evangelistic vision that a contagious church starts to be build. This is the vision casting piece which needs to be revisited all the time.
  3. Empower an evangelism leader (Eph. 4:11-12): The only qualifications for leadership are a demonstrated gift and a passion for evangelism. If there is already an existing mission, use it as a spring board for justifying evangelistic action. Instead of simply launching evangelism training in an undiscriminating manner, start from where the fire of evangelism is already kindled (94)! The point is this person must be empowered, which may includes the (re)allocation of human and financial resource.
    The second three stages are more practical in nature.
  4. Train the whole church in evangelism skills (Acts 20:20, 27, 31; 1 Cor 7:7)— the 100 percent: « For if there is first a willing mind, it is accepted according to what one has, and not according to what he does not have » (2 Cor 8:12).This takes the view that it’s everybody’s responsibility to do evangelism. One of the strategies listed in this chapter was to help people discover their evangelism styles. I consider this to be the greatest contribution of Mittelberg’s thoughts, of which I shall turn to more discussion in the end.
  5. Mobilize the evangelism specialists (Eph 3:7)—the 10 percent: this is what logically and practically follows step 3 and 4.
  6. Unleash an array of outreach ministries and events: after all the previous organizing works are done, the last— but not least— step is to get out of the lab spending time with real non-Christians and enjoying the adventure—Risks, Rewards, and all.

While I applaud for this book’s thoughtful instructional guide for building a contagious church, I feel the last two points leans less on sound biblical support than Willow Church’s own successful evangelist model. Although Mittleburg spends the last two chapters (ch.8-9) of this book describing the « contagious vision » to reassure his readers about strong correlation between life-transforming effects of the undiluted gospel, his emphasis on organization and events nonetheless seems a bit too programmatic and mechanic that it prevents the promising prospect he opens in stage 4 (ch.5) concerning types spiritual gifts from developing into a full-fledged philosophy of evangelism.

IV.
Modern evangelicalism promotes many different methodologies for accomplishing the biblical mandate for the Great Commission. A good philosophy of evangelism asks about three things: God, us, and the world.

Philosophy of Evangelism: A Proposal

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We start with God. Modern revival of the biblical notion « missio dei » recognizes that mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God. Thus The Church must not think its role is identical to the missio Dei as it is participating in the mission of God. Many Christians today tend to inadvertently think of evangelism in terms of the Church’s need for expansion, but a closer examination of the scriptures reminds us of the fact that it is entirely God’s plan for the redemption of His creation and God’s invitation for the Church to participate in His plan (Mat 28:18-20: « All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me, go therefore… »). The ramifications of missio Dei in our practicing of evangelism are threefold: 1) we discern what God has already been doing in world history and individual’s lives (Richardson). 2) We pray to God for His guidance and empowerment, individually and collectively, before ever speaking to anyone about the Gospel. 3) We constantly read ourselves through the redemptive history in the Bible to remind ourselves of the refreshing grace of the Creator-Redeemer God.

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Secondly, we seek to understand ourselves within the great framework of the missio dei. The identification of spiritual gifts and personal calling falls into this category. Modern evangelists have observed at least six styles of Evangelism in the scripture (Confrontational Style; Intellectual Style; Testimonial Style; Interpersonal Style; Invitational Style; Serving Style). In light of our modern culture, there are a variety of forms that communities and individuals can engage in evangelism (mass evangelism, personal evangelism, evangelistic preaching, literature evangelism, church evangelistic crusades, evangelistic counseling, radio and television programs, entertainment, Sunday school evangelism, and evangelistic bible study). The church today must discern what kind of gifts and resources we have been given from God (while we can still ask God for needed resources and empowerment of spiritual gifts) and be a good steward of them. This means that each organ and limb of the body of Christ will do its job and support each other according their respective functions, while following the instruction of Christ the head. The model of organic ministry— as opposed to mechanic or programmatic evangelism— allows for inter-denominational and cross-type evangelist collaboration in a given parish.

Lastly, we investigate the world. If we are to address those people in our generation with cultural relevance and demonstrate a sensitivity to the audience’s needs and tastes, then our examination of the biblical narrative and search for scriptural guidance inevitably leads to the evangelist type of incarnational ministry. In 1 Corinthians 9:22 the apostle Paul speaks of challenging people within their own cultural reference frames, meeting them where they are at. The gospels tell us that Christ Jesus was a « friend of sinners, » (Matthew 11.19). Evangelism is all about transformation of souls through the incarnated word of God, and at the heart of being incarnational is simply loving people like Jesus loved people; loving people enough to be with and empathize with them. In our context today, I propose that the church’s general lack of interest in studying culture and communication has become a great obstacle against evangelism, and it is due to spiritual pride and insensitivity. It is unfortunate that the church has most forgotten the fact that it possesses neither Jesus’ inexhaustible and unconditional love nor His special spiritual insights into human souls (Mat 9:35-26; Jn. 2:24; 6:15). Therefore, a translation of the significance of « Immanuel » into our philosophy of evangelism would be a calling that we be companions with and cultural exegetes for those souls we deem too precious to let alone unsaved.

Reference

Gordon Smith, Beginning Well: Christian Conversion and Authentic Transformation. InterVarsity, 2001.
Richardson, Rick. Reimagining Evangelism: Inviting Friends on a Spiritual Journey. InterVarsity Press, 2006.
Mark Mittelberg, Becoming a Contagious Church: Increasing Your Churches Evangelistic Temperature. Zondervan, 2007.

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