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You asked for a sermon on What Is Evangelism


Romans 10:9-17


[1] What is evangelism? It is commending Jesus Christ to others; specifically, commending him to others who are indifferent or hostile to him. Evangelism is pointing to our Lord and pointing others to our Lord; specifically, it is pointing on behalf of those who have not yet seen him, cannot locate him, may not even know he’s around.

John Wesley, upon announcing the good news to those who were ignorant of God, indifferent to his truth, and often so spiritually unconcerned as not able to care less; Wesley wrote in his journal come nightfall, “I offered them Christ”. I like that expression: “I offered them Christ”. Needless to say, as often as we use it we don’t pretend for a minute that Christ is “ours” to offer; we don’t possess him or own him or handle him. We don’t offer him in the same sense that we offer our favourite compact disc to someone who wants to listen to music. Jesus Christ isn’t ours to dispense.

At the same time, there is a profound sense in which we do offer him. Scripture insists that God can be known only as he is declared. It is the vocation of the prophet to announce that truth of God which God then owns and honours so that the prophet’s announcement of truth becomes God’s vehicle for imparting truth; and more than God’s vehicle for imparting truth, God’s vehicle of God’s own presence and person and penetration. Conversely, where the prophet falls silent, there is no penetration of stone-hard heart and darkened mind. In this vein the apostle Paul writes, “Everyone who invokes the name of the Lord will be saved. How can they invoke one in whom they have no faith? How can they have faith in one they have never heard of? And how can they hear without someone to spread the news? And how can anyone spread the news without a commission to do so?”

Evangelism is someone with a commission spreading the news of Jesus Christ so that those who hear may call upon him and find themselves blessed with the blessing: intimacy with the God who forgives us and forges unbreakable bonds with us and cherishes us and holds in the palm of his hand all who want to be nowhere else.

In the profoundest sense, then, we do “offer” Christ. In commending our Lord we do “make him available”, as it were; as we do this he promises to render himself vivid. Vivid himself, now, and vivifying others, he looms up before those who have been unaware of him and surges over them in his truth, his love, his persistence, his winsomeness. This is evangelism.

[2] If this is what evangelism is, why do sober, sensible, sensitive people like us react instinctively, react viscerally, as soon as we hear the word? Why do we react negatively?

(i) It’s because we associate evangelism with emotional manipulation. To be sure, we all recognize that guilty people (people who are guilty before God, that is) should feel guilty; nonetheless, we suspect that guilt-feelings are often fostered artificially, magnified cleverly, exploited unscrupulously.

(ii) Then again we associate evangelism with anti-intellectualism. The evangeliser frequently strikes us as someone who offers embarrassingly simple solutions to complex questions (if he is even aware of the question); too often it seems to us that the evangelist doesn’t appreciate the tangles with which life becomes tangled; he doesn’t appreciate the struggle some people have in wrestling with matters of faith and their unbelief; he doesn’t seem bothered by the many who profess repentance and faith at evangelistic services only to be found, six months later, sunk in skepticism or cynicism or contempt towards the very event that induced their response. While it is true that we should never pander to intellectual pride, we must always accommodate intellectual difficulty. Too often the evangelist appears not to do this, not to care to, and not to be possessed of intellectual subtlety himself.

(iii) Once more, we associate evangelism with unconscious compartmentalization. Faith is compartmentalized in one box of life, thinking in another, money in another, sex in another, education in another — with the result that faith appears to have nothing at all to do with life. Evangelism is then identified with a mindless “inwardness” while life has to do with thoughtful “outwardness”.

For all these reasons we cringe upon hearing the word “evangelism”.

[3] But we shouldn’t cringe. The word is noble. The English word “evangel” comes from the Greek word “euaggelion”, when the Greek word simply means “good news”. Strictly speaking, it means not merely “good news”, but also “the announcing of good news”; “evangel”, then, is good news announced, good news making hearers joyful. If the gospel is the announcing of news so good as to make hearers rejoice, then we shouldn’t feel negative about the word, and shouldn’t apologize for using it. Instead we should reclaim the word; we should take it back from those who have pirated it and besmirched it. When something is tarnished anywhere else in life we don’t throw it away; we reclaim it, shine it, and display it.

Several years ago when I was a teaching assistant at the University of Toronto one of my students in sixteenth century theology told me that whenever he went to a dance or a party he disguised the fact that he was in theology. He said that as he pirouetted his dance-partner around the floor and the inevitable question came up (“What are you studying?”), he always said, “Geology; I’m in geology.” To speak the truth — “theology” — would have meant no dance-partner (he felt).

I have noticed that when the word “evangelism” should be used some people substitute “church growth” or “outreach” lest the “dance” with their conversation-partner end on the spot. But we should use the right word. Church growth may (or may not) be an outcome of evangelism. Outreach is important, but we can reach out to people for any number of reasons yet never intend to offer them Christ. We should reclaim the word and never attempt to disguise it. The word is noble.

Then let’s display its inherent nobility. The student who told his dance-partner that he was studying geology; doesn’t he know that geology is the study of ancient inert rocks, while theology is the study of the activity of the living God, always contemporary, the maker of the only genuine future there can ever be? If someone doesn’t want to dance with that, too bad for her!

[4] Why do we evangelize? Because the good news is good; in fact, the good news is the best news there could ever be. In everyday life wouldn’t we rejoice at the good news of someone, sick unto death, who had been restored to health? Jesus says that the spiritually healthy don’t need a physician, but the sick do; and he is that physician whose cure is sure.

Aren’t we pleased when someone whose reasoning is unreasonable is restored to sanity? God’s verdict on our reasoning in matters of faith and life is (to quote scripture) “futile in their thinking”, “senseless minds darkened”, “claiming to be wise they become fools”; moreover, spiritual derangement is accompanied by degrading conduct — the bottom line. Then isn’t it wonderful news to hear that Jesus Christ can restore reason to reason’s integrity so that our thinking (with respect to spiritual matters) is no longer “dark”, “senseless”, “futile” or “base”?

Surely we would all describe as “good news” the announcement that a blind person — particularly someone born blind — was finally rendered able to see. Then to come upon someone who has been made able to see the kingdom of God, and to see it shine more brightly and more invitingly than the kingdoms of this world; this is good news magnified one-hundredfold.

What better news could there be than the news that someone, deaf to the living God for decades, has heard him, and heard him call her by name, and heard him speak truth that she had always regarded as antiquated religious opinion? She will henceforth spend the rest of her life in a dialogue that isn’t presumptuous chatter but is rather an ever-increasing fusing of her heart to God’s.

Every few weeks someone approaches me quietly and says, “Victor, several Sundays ago you said, `…………………..’ I went home and thought about it. Then I did it. I have been doing it ever since. And do you know what, Victor? It works!” Precisely what has “worked”? The grudge that had festered like the foreign body that it is; the grudge whose festering had gone from low-grade infection to blood-poisoning; someone went home and by the grace of God and by the grit that grace supplies put the grudge behind him and found a new freedom to get on with life. What is this but to receive fresh confirmation that in the kingdom of God the lame are made to walk? There are many different kinds of lameness that are made good in the kingdom of God! What news could be better?

The long-term grudge; envy that has clung to us like fly-paper; a quest for social superiority that amounted to an obsession; bondage to a besetting sin that has been so well hidden that no one else has even suspected — and then release!. The gospel offers nothing less, promises nothing less, delivers nothing less. Good news? It couldn’t be better!

We evangelize because we are stewards of the priceless good, the gospel itself. Like Wesley of old, we can only say, “We must offer them Christ.” We evangelize too inasmuch as we aren’t merely persuaded of its truth; we are possessed of him whose gospel it is. This isn’t to hold ourselves up as spiritual giants; it isn’t to indulge ourselves in a spiritual snobbishness as revolting as it is ridiculous. But it is to say with a man born blind who is now sighted, “I was blind, I can see, I know who did it for me.” In his brief letter to the Christians in Philippi Paul speaks, out of his overflowing heart, of “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Is he boasting, or otherwise parading himself as spiritually superior? Immediately he adds, “Not that I…am already perfect.” Unless we say the first we have nothing to say; unless we say the second we should say nothing at all. At the end of the day evangelism is one beggar who has found bread telling another beggar where there is bread; it is inviting anyone at all to join us on a venture.

[5] Part of the sermon you asked for was, “How do we evangelize in Streetsville?” We do it here the way it’s done anywhere else.

(a) There is always the evangelism of the evangelist, the evangelism of the person whom God has called and made fruitful in addressing large crowds. Billy Graham does it, John Wesley did it, Jonathan Edwards did it, William Sangster did it. Peter did it on the day of Pentecost when he “offered Christ” to them and 3000 people closed with the offer.

(b) There is also the evangelism of the local congregation. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, British cardiologist-turned-clergyman, ministered for thirty years to a large congregation in downtown London, England. Tirelessly Lloyd-Jones insisted that it must never be assumed that all who come to church have in fact closed with the gospel-offer. For this reason he always insisted that one service in three be slanted toward helping someone onto the road of discipleship. This still left two services out of three to encourage and instruct and edify believers who are already on the road.

(c) In the third place even those services that aren’t slanted toward securing a new commitment to our Lord; even these services, any service at all, can function as a vehicle of evangelism. The theme of the service can be anything at all: doctrine, prayer, faith, ethics, some aspect of church history, music, biography, the fact and nature of evil, the installation of the UCW executive; the theme can be anything at all. What then renders any service an occasion of evangelism is the mood of the service, the indefinable “plus” of God’s Spirit, the expectancy of the congregation, the confidence that on this occasion, Sunday morning at 10:00, we are face-to-face with him whose splendour is indescribable; on this occasion God is going to surge over us afresh and we are going to offer ourselves to him anew; today, now, we are eager once more to obey him whose claim upon us we gladly acknowledge. The mood of worship — its spirit, its brightness, its joy and its solemnity, its expectancy, its warmth, its thoughtfulness — surely this moves the “almost-disciple” to wonder, seek, find, know.

When Paul speaks of the worship-services of the congregation in Corinth, the plain, ordinary, Sunday event at St. Matthew’s-By-The-Gas-Station, he doesn’t suggest that it’s boring or “old hat” or pointless because not novel. To be sure, the congregation in Corinth does what congregations do everywhere: sing hymns, read scripture, pray, preach, listen, and receive an offering. In the midst of all of this, says Paul, when an outsider enters the service, she is convicted, the secrets of her heart are disclosed (to her), she falls on her face, she worships God, and she declares that God is “really” among the Corinthian Christians. And it all happens at the most ordinary service of worship! We must never undervalue what is going on when we gather to worship. We gather; God graces us and our service; the atmosphere is rendered Spirit-charged — and throughout it the newcomer is convicted, is confronted with the truth about his innermost self, falls on his face, worships God, and goes home saying to himself, “There really was something going on there in Streetsville today!” We must never undervalue any service of worship as a vehicle of evangelism, for God himself can, and will, render any such service such a vehicle.

(d) Lastly, we must understand that the commonest vehicle of evangelism is the one most readily overlooked: casual conversation that is not deliberately evangelistic at all, yet casual conversation about matters of the Spirit that are both ever so deep in us and also on the tip of our tongue, and on the tip of our tongue just because ever so deep in us.

A few weeks ago Maureen and I and two parishioners spent an evening at Convocation Hall (University of Toronto) listening to John Updike read from his latest novel and answer questions from the audience. The evening was electrifying. Anyone who is attracted to literature would have been rendered exuberant at Updike’s knowledge of the history of literature, his profundity, his grasp of the English language, and his ability to acquaint hearers with all of this in words that anyone can understand. In the car on the way home we talked about nothing else. For days afterward the four of us were on the phone to each other; newspaper articles that spoke of Updike’s visit to Toronto were clipped and passed around; future radio broadcasts featuring Updike were marked on calendars. It’s easy to talk about something that is rooted deep in us and enthuses us. We don’t have to look for ways of talking about it; what is dear to us springs unbidden to our lips and we speak of it unselfconsciously.

Then what is dear to us? Who is dear to us? Who enthuses us? There’s no need (and no place) for artificial conversation; there’s no contriving a hidden agenda. Naturalness is what matters.

John Bunyan, the best-known Puritan author (Pilgrim’s Progress), came to faith in Jesus Christ when he accidentally overheard four impoverished women talking naturally among themselves while taking a break from homemaking tasks. He overheard them speak of what it meant to them to be bathed in God’s love for them, what it meant to know Jesus. “They sounded to me as though they had found a new world”, Bunyan wrote later. The four women had. He came upon them when they were talking as unselfconsciously as we talk about — about what? about what matters to us.

So what matters to us? Who matters to us? The commonest kind of evangelism is never planned or programmed; it just happens as surely as Christ’s people are aglow with their Lord.

                                                                      Victor Shepherd

March 1996

What Is Evangelism, and How Do We Evangelize in Streetsville?