This article was originally part of The Paul Page, a site dedicated to academic study of the apostle, with special focus on the work of N.T. Wright.
In many current milieux (I would describe mine as 21st century North American post/modern, post/industrial, and post/imperial), views of evangelism must overcome at least three obstacles in order for the church’s witness to the gospel to flourish. One is the equation of evangelism with salesmanship—a construal that grates on many, both Christians who desire to witness to their faith, and on others who hear. The second is the tendency to bifurcate word and action as differently valued modes of proclaiming or enacting the gospel. The third obstacle is the baggage evangelism carries—its history of coercive or manipulative attitudes and methods.
This paper argues that the current practice and theory of evangelism could be well served by adopting insights from some recent biblical scholarship, especially from the “new perspective on Paul.” These insights help us through the obstacles evangelism faces and bring coherence to discussions and practices of ordinary Christians as well as theologies of evangelism. They will spring from re-imagining the link between evangelism and evangelion—its etymological and theological basis, extending our theological understanding of “gospel” through its New Testament-era secular usage, and reconstructing as far as possible its significance in Israel’s faith history and its definition in Pauline theology.
Sunday School Chaos
I recently asked a Sunday School class of Christian young adults to reflect on their experiences or impressions of evangelism. One person said she had no experience with active, verbal promotion of the faith, because her church emphasized service and social justice—witness through one’s way of life rather than through words. Another reported glowingly how he had turned to Christ after seeing a dramatic evangelistic presentation. In “Heaven’s Gates/Hell’s Flames,” a series of acts depicts people given an opportunity to accept Christ. The people all then die in various ways, and are either welcomed into heaven or sent to hell with the devil. An awkward silence followed these descriptions, as we all pondered how to respond to the diversity of experiences and viewpoints.
This Sunday School scene could be replicated in thousands of places around the country or the world. Evangelism, even more than many other aspects of Christian teaching and theology, is the locus of extreme diversity and even conflict in Christian experience and teaching. For contemporary Christians and others, evangelism is a loaded word, an emotional topic. Some Christians are passionate about proclaiming their faith to others by a variety of means, others are ambiguous about the process or at least the means, and still others are overtly hostile to evangelism as they understand it.
Turning to Biblical Theology
A definition of evangelion is elucidated by the surge of emphasis in the past 40 years on the socio-historical context of canon. While etymology is never a substitute for exegesis, in this case it can help us bypass quite a hill of historical theology. We know that “evangelism” comes from a transliteration of the Greek root evangelizesthai, “to proclaim good news.” In first-century Greek usage, “evangelizing” was heralding tidings of imperial change or information: an emperor has come to power, has had a son, has appropriated new territory.1 An evangelion is a political message, a message about who is king and what that means for the inhabitants of the region.
That the term evangelion was adopted for a Christian message about Jesus indicates a similar trajectory of meaning. But first we must return to relevant Old Testament vocabulary. Walter Brueggemann explores Old Testament paradigms of evangelism and argues that evangelism is the proclamation of the victory of Yahweh.2 One example is the return of Israel from exile.3 In Isaiah 52:7 we hear the Old Testament gospel: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” The good news is that God has triumphed—salvation is accomplished, the empire is defeated, exiled people will return. The gospel is the news of God’s victory.
It is not at all surprising, then, that the LXX, and Paul in Romans 10:15, both call this proclamationevangelion. Themes from Israel’s faith history and themes from secular usage are brought together in Paul’s theology. The “new perspective on Paul,” with its emphasis on the Jewish nature of Paulinetheology and relativization of the supposed law/grace antithesis, helpfully elucidates this trajectory.4 Jesus is revealed as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, bringing about final return from exile, the beginning of the end of times, of the resurrection of the dead, of the ingathering of the Gentiles, and of the Reign of God over all the earth. This message about Jesus, the fulfillment of Israel’s narrative and God’s promise, is “the gospel,” and its proclamation, evangelism.5
As an example, 2 Timothy 2:8 is an amazingly compact shorthand of “the gospel” in the early church,6 where the Hebrew faith tradition practiced Greek idiom: “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David: this is my gospel.” Jesus stands as the Christ, in David’s royal line. These promises were lost through Israel’s disobedience, which resulted in exile. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was a signal of the beginning of the final times, when God would reign supreme and vindicate his people. Jesus’ kingship is God’s kingship, the realization of promises of a true servant of Yahweh on David’s throne. A whole faith history is telescoped into Jesus’ character and actions. The recounting of the story of Jesus in this light constitutes the Gospel. As Wright says, “’the gospel’ itself, strictly speaking, is the narrative proclamation of King Jesus.”7
In contrast, the common conception of the gospel, as a message about how to be saved or have eternal life, flies wide of the trajectory we have been tracing, focusing instead on assuaging the guilt of “the introspective conscience of the west.”8 As N.T. Wright puts it: “’The gospel’ is supposed to be a description of how people get saved . . . . I am perfectly comfortable with what most people mean when they say ‘gospel,’ I just don’t think it is what Paul means.”9 According to Wright, the gospel is a message about who is king: Jesus. Kingship, in reference to the Christ, the anointed one of God, cannot be construed as a private, individual affair. Nor is it a baldly regional political event. Rather, in Christian perspective, the gospel carries the full force of Israel’s faith history, and the New Testament understanding of Jesus’ fulfillment of that history.
From Evangelion back to Evangelism
If this is the gospel, then evangelism must lead to the acknowledgement and actualization of God’s reign. True evangelism, then, will result in holistic transformation of those who preach and those who hear. In a similar vein as Pauline scholars such as Wright, Walter Brueggeman argues that evangelism is best understood as a message about a cosmic victory by God. He presents several examples from both Old and New Testaments where this message of victory is presented in a way that captures and transforms the imagination. Through this message, outsiders to the faith become insiders, the imagination and theological memory of forgetful insiders is renewed, and children are nurtured into believing adults.10 The gospel is glimpsed, expressed, and appropriated in ways that are always changing and ever new. When heard, the gospel requires personal appropriation which cannot avoid transforming the consciousnesses, the lives, and the societies of those who hear.
Evangelism is no safe church activity that will sustain a conventional church, nor a routine enterprise that will support a status quo . . . . The news that God has triumphed means that a transformed life, i.e., one changed by the hearing of the news, works to bring more and more of life, personal and public under the rule of this world-transforming, slave-liberating, covenant-making, promise-keeping, justice-commanding God.11
If the gospel concerns changed governance; that changed governance concerns all of life. The victory of God over death is not a victory in some selected zones, but over all of creation and against every threat of chaos.12
If, as I have argued, evangelism is about the gospel, and the gospel is the narrative of God’s victory and Jesus’ Kingship, then what does evangelism look like? I asked this question to my Sunday School class, and was amazed by the range of insight that was opened up, for my Heaven’s Gates/Hell’s flames buddy as well as the service-oriented church people.
One class member suggested that, as a narrative description of reality, evangelism does not imply salesmanship. Evangelism is not per se an attempt to persuade (though this is often included), but the proclamation of a reality—the story of how Jesus has come to be Lord of all. Story-telling is much less stressful then marketing—both for Christian preacher and non-Christian hearer—and allows for a bolder but less defensive approach.
Another student noted that if the gospel is a message about Jesus being Lord, then Christians need to be paying attention to every area of the church’s life as a part of our witness to the gospel. First, because the meaning of Jesus’ lordship is not self-evident, it needs to be explained and lived out in the lives of communities and individuals. Christians must learn to live in a way that explains and confirms the gospel, the reality of Jesus’ lordship. Second, credibility is crucial if the message is to be received. The whole life of Christians and of the church matters to credibility—witness the effect of the widespread charge of hypocrisy leveled against Christians.13
Evangelism conceived as the proclamation of King Jesus also circumvents many unproductive and ultimately illusory divisions between word and deed, “evangelism” and “discipleship,” proclamation and social action, preaching and serving, etc. The whole life of the church, that institution continually confronted and transformed by the gospel, both constitutes, enables, and requires evangelism, the proclamation of the gospel.
This holistic view of evangelism is affirmed by Joe Jones, who defines evangelism as “all those ways in which the church conveys to the world the good new of Jesus Christ and invites the world to respond to this news with renewal of life and new hope. Evangelism is practiced when the church intends its witness to the reality of God in Christ to be received in faith and the adoption of a new way of life.”14 Evangelism can be conceived as a set of practices. These include, but are not limited to, verbal acts of communication, all having as their intention an invitational witness. The proclamation of the gospel should be an intention behind many, many practices of the church which seek to enact, demonstrate and convey to others the lordship of Christ and the Reign of God.
In less than an hour of teaching and discussion, these Sunday School students were able to logically overcome two of the greatest problems facing evangelism—its connotation as a selling event, and the bifurcation between word and action. The solution to the third follows close behind. For many people, the idea of a reign or of lordship (especially in conversations about evangelism) is both abhorrent and deeply connected to coercion. The long history of the unity of Christian faith with political power has trained many to cringe at the mention of evangelism.
The paradox of the gospel is that it is for all the world,15 yet it must be freely appropriated or be no gospel at all. It is the message of a preacher who eschewed political positioning as a means of furthering his message. The lordship of Christ—and the proclamation of this lordship—is only understood in connection with Jesus, who washed his disciples’ feet and told them that his authority was antithetical to that practiced by the rulers of “the nations.” The allying of Christianity with violent or coercive power is both inimical to the gospel and damaging to its credibility. Jones states aptly that “’Coerced faith’ or ‘coerced church membership’ are grammatical oxymorons.”16 John Howard Yoder argues for the essential vulnerability of the gospel as a genre of communication. In a biblical view of evangelion, evangelism is not an advertisement for a product to be sold, nor a license for forceful proselytization, but the proclamation of the victory of the vulnerable, suffering Servant of God. Evangelism is the message of the Reign of the Servant.17
The sense of evangelism as coercion can ultimately be combated by the fruitful lives of Christians who make peace and who live lives of bold but vulnerable witness. On the other hand, in a liberal society,18 where proselytization is discouraged for any point of view except tolerance, part of the unacceptability of evangelism is unavoidable. We should not be surprised, the cross is a scandal from the beginning, and the kingdom of God is not primarily a lesson in citizenship for the kingdoms of the world. While some of the multitudes will listen to Jesus gladly, his message is at bottom opposed to the rulers of this world, based on a different kind of wisdom, which “none of the rulers of this age had understood, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory” (1 Cor. 2). The scandal of particularity remains, the scandal of vulnerability must be recovered from evangelism’s oxymoronic history of coerciveness.
I recognize that none of the foregoing arguments will put an end to conversations about what kind of culture we live in, what kind of evangelistic practices are most important within that culture, and so on. It is not the purpose of this article to pursue that stream more specifically for a particular context, for any of the various contexts in which I find myself. Others have done this work well.19 But I argue that the insights above can help us to re-envision evangelism in a helpful way, recovering better meanings for the words and practices we are engaged in, clarifying and energizing their witness to the evangelion. Perhaps appropriately, my argument about how to understand evangelism is most aptly expressed in a song.20
This, the biblical message of God’s victory, is the gospel; evangelism is singing this song with our voices, our storytelling to strangers, our vocational choices, our marital commitments, our economic practices, and even our suffering. From this perspective, I have hope that members of my Sunday School class can indeed learn to wholeheartedly embrace evangelism, to proclaim the gospel in powerful ways. One will study theology, and through his reflection and teaching lead the church to heed the call of Christ. Another will give years of her life to social justice in the name of Christ, blessing the single mother (our contemporary orphan and widow) with peace, nurture, physical resources, and the message of Christ. My Hell’s Flames buddy will play soccer with children, give them Bibles, and tell them about Jesus as best he can.
If they all do this faithfully, enacting and proclaiming the gospel, then their neighbors will believe us when told that God has broken into history. They have perhaps not thought that these lifeways are evangelism, nor about how they might strengthen those lifeways as deliberate proclamation of King Jesus. My lesson to them, and my argument in this article, intends that they and others will begin to think and act in this way. In my Sunday School class, and throughout the world, the reign of God has been inaugurated in Christ. We stand in and tell of this reality. This is evangelism.
The Barna Group, “Teenagers’ Beliefs Moving Farther From Biblical Perspective,”http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=74. Accessed April 19, 2005, Internet.
Bosch, David. “Mission as Witness to People of Other Living Faiths,” in Transforming Mission.Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991, 474-489.
Brueggemann, Walter. Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993.
Jones, Joe R. A Grammar of Christian Faith. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Vol. II.
Kallenberg, Brad. Live to Tell. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2002.
Kendrick, Graham. “Shout,” www.grahamkendrick.co.uk
. Accessed April 19, 2005, Internet.
- N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 43.
- Walter Brueggemann, Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993).
- The place of the return from exile in the narrative of Jesus is further developed by Wright, 42.
- While “the new perspective on Paul” is a broad category representing many points of view, the perspective of major writers such as E.P. Sanders or James D.G. Dunn would fit with my argument in this paper. N.T. Wright specifically discusses the Pauline concept of “the gospel” in a way that is helpful for the current project.
- Wright, Chapter 4, “Herald of the King,” 39-62.
- This narrative is also encapsulated in Romans 1:1-5, which Wright explores on 45f.
- Wright, 45.
- Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” in Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), 78-96. First published in English in Harvard Theological Review, 56 (1963), pp. 199-215. This extremely influential article took on the classic reformation view of Paul and paved the way for new views (or recovery of older views) on the law and Paul’s gospel. For some reason, there has not been a concomitant movement within theologies of evangelism.
- Wright, 41.
- Walter Brueggemann, Biblical Perspectives.
- Brueggemann, 129.
- Brueggemann, 44.
- A survey reports that fully one-third of teenagers in the United States feel that “most adult Christians are hypocrites. Whatever this research may not tell us, it does say that Christians have a long way to go in building credibility that will enable their distinct narrative to be heard. The Barna Group, “Teenagers’ Beliefs Moving Farther From Biblical Perspective,”http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=74. Accessed April 19, 2005, Internet.
- Joe Jones, A Grammar of Christian Faith, New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Volume II, 628.
- Leslie Newbigin speaks of holding particular beliefs “with universal intent.” They are not available to all; that is why revelation is necessary. But the test of our faith is that we seek to share it with all people everywhere. See especially Chapter 8, “The Bible as Universal History, in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989).
- Jones, 630.
- John Howard Yoder, “On Not Being Ashamed of the Gospel: Particularity, Pluralism, and Validation,” Faith and Philosophy, July 1992.
- I use the word “liberal” here only to denote democratic liberalism as a socio-philosophical system that exalts the freedom of the individual.
- Leslie Newbigin’s Gospel in a Pluralist Society takes up the philosophical issues related to evangelism in pluralistic context. In Live to Tell, Brad Kallenberg discusses a postmodern environment and paths to a faithful, gracious, appropriate witness in that environment (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2002). David Bosch gives a concise and insightful treatment of inter-religious evangelism, “Mission as Witness to People of Other Living Faiths,” Transforming Mission (Maryknoll: NY: Orbis Books, 1991), 474-489.
- Graham Kendrick, “Shout,” www.grahamkendrick.co.uk. Accessed April 19, 2005, Internet.