How Should We Define Evangelism?

Article
09.05.2014

I don’t think Christian people set out to write books on evangelism based on unbiblical principles. But it happens. It happens because there are wrong ideas about the critical components of evangelism. Usually, these wrong ideas are based on marketing principles or on human understandings about how to argue someone into the kingdom. It has more to do with results and effect, which is the realm of the Holy Spirit, rather than faithfulness in proclaiming the truth, which is our job description.  If we don’t have biblical evangelism nailed down, we tend spend much time doing things we call evangelism, but may not be evangelism at all.

For example, a housewife meeting with a friend over coffee may be evangelizing, while a brilliant Christian apologist speaking to thousands in a church sanctuary may not be. Few see it this way, but that’s because we have false understandings of what evangelism is. Defending the faith is a fine thing to do, but it is easy to give apologetics for Christianity without explaining the gospel—and we cannot evangelize without the gospel.

We need to know what we’re talking about when we say “evangelism,” “conversion,” or even “gospel.” Those words raise different definitions in people’s minds and often come with question marks. If Christians don’t understand these basic concepts, we will quickly spin out of biblical orbit.   So, we define evangelism in a biblical way to help align our evangelistic practice with the Scriptures. Here’s a definition that has served me well for many years:

Evangelism is teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade.

Sort of dinky, huh? I bet most people would expect much more from such an important theological word. But this definition, small as it is, offers a far better balance in which to weigh our evangelistic practice than looking at how many people have responded to an appeal.

Here is how the Amplified Bible might have expanded my definition:

Evangelism is teaching (heralding, proclaiming, preaching) the gospel (the message from God that leads us to salvation) with the aim (hope, desire, goal) to persuade (convince, convert).

Notice the definition doesn’t require an immediate outward response. Walking an aisle, raising a hand, or even praying a prayer may tell us that evangelism has happened, but such actions are not what evangelism is. Notice, too, that if any of the four components (Teaching, Gospel, Aim, or Persuade) are missing, we are probably doing something other than evangelism.  Let’s look at two of these: teaching and aim.  We’ll spend time on gospel and persuade in the next post.

Teaching

Many of us think of preaching when we think of evangelism, as we should. I, for one, want any sermon I give to contain the gospel. Certainly Paul did his share of evangelistic preaching. But often when Paul describes his ministry, he says it is a teaching ministry (1 Tim. 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:11). J. I. Packer, in his survey of Paul’s evangelistic practice, says that Paul’s method of evangelism was primarily a teaching method.1

This is good news for those of us who don’t get to preach every Sunday. Not all of us can be preachers, but we can all teach the gospel as opportunity comes. I often wonder whether more people come to faith over lunch when someone asks, “What did you think about the sermon today?” than during the sermon itself. Great things happen when we can teach the gospel.

Aim

An “aim to persuade” also reminds us that people need more than a data transfer. Some who think of evangelism as only teaching do a good job of explaining, expanding, and answering questions, as we all should. All Christians should apply themselves to think through reasons for the hope we have in Christ, reasons that sweep aside the objections and questions. But as we set out the facts of the gospel, remembering evangelism’s aim helps us to be compassionate, understanding, and loving (1 Pet. 3:15).

Having an aim helps us keep perspective on what we’re doing. It steers us toward an end. Our aim helps us remember that much is at stake: to see people moved from darkness to light, from bondage to freedom. Aiming for something bigger helps us know which fights to pick and which to avoid.

Editor’s note: This article is a lightly adapted excerpt from Mack’s most recent book from 9 Marks Building Healthy Churches series: Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus (Crossway, 2013).