The Study of Evangelism — Reflections

In the book, The Study of Evangelism: Exploring a Missional Practice of the Church, thirty essays are gathered from a variety of contributors (such as biblical scholars, theologians, historians in Christianity, and practitioners of evangelism), for the purpose of laying “a solid, scholarly foundation for future discourse, speaking to all who practice and study evangelism from a vast array of Christian perspectives and encouraging reflective and open dialogue about this practice within the community of faith.” In this brief critique and examination of the work, I hope to show what has particularly impacted my thinking and challenged my life.

At the outset, one of the main things that impacted my thinking, is the editors’ contention that although books on evangelism abound, only a few exist which contain “serious theological engagement and reflection.” In contrast with popular “how-to” manuals on evangelism, this book not only shows the necessity of a serious Biblical/theological study of evangelism, but also admirably exemplifies just how such a study should look.

In David Bosch’s first essay, he examines the relationship between the terms “evangelism” and “mission.” His findings proved deeply transformative to my own life’s deformed reflections of evangelism, and the deficient practice thereof. He challenged my narrow view of evangelism with the action-provoking truth that the activities of evangelism and mission are intimately interrelated. For example, evangelism must include social action (i.e., mission), and vice versa. He says, “Evangelism is the core, heart, or center of mission; it consists in the proclamation of salvation in Christ to nonbelievers.” On the other hand, to suggest that “soul-winning is the idea that evangelism is concerned primarily with the inward and spiritual side of people” is “a Gnostic interpretation of the Christian faith,” since it “denies the corporateness of salvation as well as the incarnational character of the gospel.” So, I am learning that the gospel itself must address not only the spiritual needs of a person, it must also include its own relevance for the psychological, emotional, and bodily needs of the whole person and the whole community in which the recipient inhabits.

Though in different ways and from different sources, Lesslie Newbigin, George Hunsberger, and David Bosch argue that Jesus’ so-called Great Commission of Matthew 28:16-20 is not itself a command. Instead, as these contributors show from various New Testament texts, the mission of Jesus’ followers is an overflow of their new identity rather than a mandate to share the gospel with unbelievers. These serious reflections on the texts and theology of the New Testament have challenged my life in a profound way. For instance, as Hunsberger says, “Being witnesses is not our assignment; it is our identity.” Applying this truth to us, he quotes Darrell Guder, who says, “When the Spirit comes to [the disciples] and gives them the gift of power, their very identity will be transformed into that of witnesses. As such, they will carry out the ministry of that witness throughout the world.” When the activity of sharing the gospel once felt like the “carrying of a great burden” to me, Newbigin exhorts me with the truth that mission is instead “gospel and not law;” “it is the overflow of a great gift.” As the Father sent the Son, so the Son sends us, while giving us the Spirit to transform our identity. My proclamation and incarnation of the gospel to unbelievers around me, should naturally flow from my relatedness to the triune God who is himself missional in his very being.

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