(reported from Covenant, by Carrie Boren Headington)
Americans are fed up, searching, and drifting: fed up with church or their perception of church, searching for spiritual moorings, yet adrift in a sea of secular offerings of peace, purpose, and happiness. As Christians, we know that we hold the good news of Jesus, who is the way, the truth, and the life that the whole world needs. We know that humanity is “restless,” as St. Augustine said, until it finds rest in the Lord Jesus Christ. This is why the announcement of the Episcopal Church’s focus on evangelism (a.k.a. the “e-word”) comes in many ways as welcome news. Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, has been inviting us all to join “the Jesus Movement,” which centers on sharing of the Gospel to our hurting world. Bishop Curry frequently refers to himself as our “Chief Evangelism Officer” (see my interview with him here; and see here and here). And he is certainly living into this new role. He recently appointed a Canon for Evangelism and Reconciliation, the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, who will work throughout the Episcopal Church, seeking ways to equip the church in evangelistic work.
This emphasis on evangelism further supports numerous resolutions passed at General Convention 2015 calling for and funding more church planting initiatives, an evangelism task force, support of social media, and internet Gospel outreach resources, among others. It also affirms a movement by many church leaders, especially Acts 8 Movement, calling the church to “go into the neighborhood” sharing the Gospel.
This dedication to evangelism was also affirmed at the Primates Meeting 2016, where archbishops and presiding bishops from across world recommitted themselves “through evangelism to proclaim the person and work of Jesus Christ, unceasingly and authentically, inviting all to embrace the beauty and joy of the Gospel.”
This move of the Holy Spirit in our church echoes the resounding heartbeat of God who longs for all to come within his saving embrace (BCP 1979, Collect for Mission). It affirms the mission of the Church stated in our Book of Common Prayer, which is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Jesus Christ” (BCP 1979, p.855). For too long Episcopalians have lost our common vision of mission, and evangelism has been ignored. Our rapid decline has already shown us that if we do not share the saving news of Jesus Christ with our communities, our churches become anemic at best and often dead (for a detailed report go to www.episcopalchurch.org).
As we move forward together in the Episcopal Church and throughout the Anglican Communion seeking how best to equip the church in evangelism, we first need to define our terms. We need to assess what evangelism is and what evangelism is not.
The term evangelism stems from the New Testament Greek word euangelion, meaning “good news.” Evangelism is the sharing of the life giving Gospel of Jesus Christ in word (proclamation) and deed (actions). The same Jesus that said he came to preach the good news and “to seek and save the lost” (Mark 1:38; Luke 19:10) also said that he came as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery fo sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:16-21; Isa. 61:1-3)
Verbal proclamation, social justice, and the works of mercy and charity are linked by our incarnate Savior.
Missiologists, theologians, and church leaders have emphasized various aspects of evangelism. For example, Christopher Wright underscores proclamation:
The work of the “gospel” (Phil. 2:22), then seems to refer primarily to the task of making the good news known by all means of communication possible and at whatever cost. There is an intrinsically verbal dimension to the gospel. It is a story that needs to be told in order that its truth and significance may be understood.
David Bosch defines evangelism as an invitation and as
that dimension of activity of the church’s mission which seeks to offer every person, everywhere, a valid opportunity to be directly challenged by the gospel of explicit faith in Jesus Christ, with a view to embracing him as Savior, becoming a living member of his community, and being enlisted in his service of reconciliation, peace and justice on the earth.
In his book Understanding Christian Mission, Scott Sunquist highlights the invitational aspect of evangelism: “evangelism is, at heart, introducing Jesus Christ to others and inviting them to become partakers in his Kingdom.”
Walter Brueggeman calls the Church to engage in an evangelism that not only invites people to follow Jesus Christ but also challenges society’s false gods. Brueggeman notes:
Evangelism is an invitation and summons to reinstate our talk and walk according to the reality of God, a reality not easily self evident in our society. The call of the Gospel includes the negative assertion that the technological-therapeutic militaristic consumer world is false, not to be trusted or obeyed, and the positive claim that an alternative way in the world is legitimated by and appropriate to the new governance of God who is back in town.
Others, such as social justice advocate Ron Sider, have especially emphasized the importance of using not only words but actions in our evangelism. Sider notes, “Evangelism is the announcement of good news in word and actions and an invitation to be part of the reconciling community as Christ followers.”
Perhaps my favorite definition of evangelism comes from Archbishop William Temple who said,
To evangelize is so to present Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, that people shall come to put their trust in God through him, to accept him as their Savior, and serve him as their King in the fellowship of the church.
The Episcopal Church needs to hold in equal measure three aspects of evangelism as we move forward:
- Proclamation: Jesus said, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Mark 16:14). As Paul emphasized, “How are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? Blessed are the feet of those who bring good news” (Rom. 10:14-15). We need to equip the whole church to proclaim the good news of Jesus. In our postmodern context, the church often shrinks away from proclamation and focuses more on social action. We all too easily give a drink of water without speaking of the Living Water Himself. Without proclamation, the church becomes merely a social agency. Evangelism includes SHOWING and TELLING about the Kingdom of God.
- Social action: We must be good news in deed as well as word. As Episcopalians, outreach and social action are our strong suits. However, the work of reconciliation and justice is not yet done in our world. As part of our new evangelism initiative, it is my hope that we can educate and equip the church regarding the needs of our communities, placing them in the context of biblical justice. As Christians, we must be on the forefront of reconciliation in the way of Jesus: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, welcoming the stranger, and breaking systems of injustice and systemic poverty. Our message has no power and authenticity if we do not live it out, caring, loving, and fighting for the least of these. “They will know we are Christians by our love.”
- Invitation: We need to equip the church to invite people to follow Jesus and to become a part of the Body of Christ. Evangelism is more than dialogue, more than being a friend, more than walking alongside someone in their spiritual journey, more than caring for the poor. There is a point where an invitation to follow Jesus must be made and we need to train our people how to do this. The invitation is a joyous endeavor of inviting people to the great banquet of Jesus Christ. It is offering the choice of life over death.
In all of our work, we must especially remember that God is the great evangelist, and yet he graciously allow us, his Body, to be “his ambassadors, making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20). St. John wrote that the first followers of Jesus shared the Gospel, shared their testimony about “the word of life,” so that their joy would be complete (1 John 1: 4). Evangelism wasn’t a dreaded task in the early Church, it was a joy to share the best news: of salvation for the world through Jesus Christ. The Church will experience joy and abundant life as it stretches beyond its walls. We must, though, take heed to hold together, equally, proclamation, social action, and invitation in our evangelistic efforts.
The next question to address and indeed the most important aspect of our evangelism efforts is: What Gospel will we share? Will we have the courage to share the faith once delivered?
We have good news to share with a hurting world. Indeed, “Blessed are the feet of those who bring good news” (Rom. 10:15).
Carrie Boren Headington is Missioner for Evangelism for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas and founder of The Good News Initiative. See her related Covenant post “It’s harvest time: evangelism as overflow.” The featured image is “Christian evangelism” (2011) by Chris Yarzab. It is licensed under Creative Commons.
 Christopher Wright, The Mission of God’s People (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), pp. 192-3, emphasis added.
 David Bosch, “Evangelism: Theological Currents and Cross-Currents Today,” in The Study of Evangelism: Exploring a Missional Practice of the Church, ed. Paul W. Chilcote and Laceye C. Warner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008) p. 17
 Scott W. Sunquist, Understanding Christian Mission: Participating in Suffering and Glory (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013) p. 312
 Walter Brueggemann in The Study of Evangelism: Exploring a Missional Practice of the Church, ed. Paul W. Chilcote and Laceye C. Warner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008) p. 233
 Ron Sider, The Study of Evangelism: Exploring a Missional Practice of the Church, ed. Paul W. Chilcote and Laceye C. Warner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008) p. 200
 Michael Green, Evangelism Through the Local Church (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1993) p. 9