The term “evangelism” has taken on new and different connotations in the 21st century. In and of itself, evangelism is not a bad thing. As a Christian you are supposed to be an evangelist. But “how” you evangelize can make a huge difference. So here is a little lesson for some of my fellow Christians on Evangelism 101.
First, let’s look at the root word “evangelos.” This comes from the ancient Greek and means “messenger.” It is also the source of the word “angels” who were God’s messengers. But I would like to throw another term into the discussion. Instead of a messenger, Christians are also ambassadors for Christ. Just as an ambassador represents his or her country to the world and expresses their values and beliefs, each Christian, whether they realize it or not, also represents Christ to the world. We are his ambassadors.
Nearly all Christians take their duty to be evangelists from the last part of the Gospel of Matthew, also known as “The Great Commission.”
“And Jesus came and spoke unto them, saying “All authority has been given to Me in Heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (NKJV)
There’s a whole lot of wiggle room for interpretation in this passage. Who, for example, are “all nations”? The original Greek meaning could be translated as “gentiles.” Yet the early church, particularly under the leadership of Peter and James (the brother of Christ) continued to preach to the Jews. Even the Apostle Paul, who was known for spreading the gospel to the gentiles, worried about what would become of Jews who failed to become Christians (see Romans 9-11).
But in particular, how exactly were they (and by extension we) are supposed to “teach them”? Most people were illiterate at the time, so holding classes in Christianity was certainly not practical. Paul preached in synagogues (again to the Jews) but also in the homes of people, especially women. At this time, there was no Christian scripture or doctrine. The only scripture the early Christians knew was the Hebrew Scripture, and even then in its translation into the Greek (the Septuagint). So most of their teaching was by example. By showing others, through how they lived their own lives, what being a follower of Christ meant. They also demonstrated, through their willingness to die for their faith, just how singular and important it was.
It has been said that the Church was built on the blood of its martyrs.
But this changed dramatically in the 4th century (CE) when the Roman emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. A strongly evangelical friend of mine once said to me that he thought Constantine was possibly the worst thing that ever happened to the church. It was because of Constantine that the official Christian canon came into existence. The Nicene Creed, among others, were adopted as orthodox “right way” beliefs and others such as Gnosticism and Arianism were declared heretical. In fact, before the advent of Constantine the variety of ways Christians believed almost staggers belief (no pun intended). Becoming a Christian was no longer dangerous or radical. It was the politically correct thing to do (hence my friend’s comment).
This new Christianity also changed how Jesus’ teachings were “taught” to all the nations. Now, instead of using examples and words, conversion often occurred at the tip of a spear. Anti-Semitism became socially acceptable. One need look no further than what happened to the Jews living peacefully in Spain under Muslim rule, when the Reconquista led by Ferdinand and Isabella occurred in 1492. Those who refused to convert to Christianity were either driven out or executed. For this act of barbarism, the Pope awarded them the honorific of “Their Most Catholic Majesties.”
You may be thinking at this point, gee thanks for the boring history lesson, but how does this apply to the world today? We don’t execute people anymore, or lead crusades, or burn people at the stake. That’s quite true, because we have become much more subtle along with becoming much more overt. We tell people of other faith traditions that they are going to hell if they don’t accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. And then we proceed to live our lives as if we never heard of the man.
You may remember the old joke:
We are judged by the outside world every single day by our actions and our words. Going to church every Sunday doesn’t make one a Christian. Reciting Bible verses into the faces of non-believers does not make one an evangelical. Don’t tell people about Christ. Show them Christ in how you live your life.
So how, exactly is one supposed to be an evangelical today? How can I become an ambassador for Christ? Start by taking a long and hard look at the men and women who say they are people of faith, and yet they support a man who has been twice divorced, is a known liar, and a cheat. A man who says he has never asked for forgiveness because he’s never done anything that he needs to be forgiven for. Do you recall what Christ said during his Sermon on the Mount”
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to me in that day ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.'”
Also, if you haven’t done so already, read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book “The Cost of Discipleship” to learn the difference between “cheap” and “costly” grace.
Above all, remember each day the words of St. Francis of Assisi who told his followers:
“Preach the gospel at all times. Only if necessary, use words.”
Thus endeth the lesson.