Q & R: Evangelism and evangelists

Here’s the Q:

Hello Brian. I’m sure you don’t remember me, but we met many years ago at Glorietta, GA. I was the first guy in the first class you led after writing your first book. You told me how you really disliked the cover but, as a first time writer, you weren’t given a choice.
Well, I continue to read your books. You are one of the voices that I listen to and that’s why I’m writing. I am a pastor at the ??? Mission. I’ve been here for x years. Recently, (OK it’s been a while but I’ve been denying it) God has been calling me to evangelism. It is what I do here at the Mission. Every Sunday I give a salvation message and literally hundreds have responded. I then have them for about a year or so. Then we encourage them to get involved in an outside church. That, to me, is absolutely the work of an evangelist. I’ve shied away from the term evangelist because of what it means in our culture.
That brings me to the question: What do you think the role of an evangelist should be today? The Bible clearly uses the term, “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers,… (Eph 4:11)” Where do you see the ministry in a culture today that defines evangelist as a weird guy you see on TBN with blow-dried hair and a white suit who is of questionable character? Maybe even deeper, since evangelists have played a role in so many movements of the Spirit over the centuries, where should this go? I have already accepted that it is to go out and preach, but how would you characterize the ministry?

R after the jump …

R: I love this question because at heart, I see myself as an evangelist. Here are some reflections …
– If the evangelist is the “gospeler,” the question is, “What is the gospel?” Many of us inherited an “evacuation gospel.” The gospel was the good news that the Titanic is sinking, but we know how to get on the lifeboats. As you know from reading my books, I now think that is a distortion of the gospel. I now believe the gospel is that God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven, and you can be part of it.
– The goal of proclaiming the good news is that people believe it. Believing will bring repentance (change their thinking – we might say go through a radical paradigm shift from a self-centered or religion-centered to a God- and love- centered outlook). And believing will launch one into a life of following God in Christ … So, the “great commission” isn’t the call to get people to say the sinner’s prayer so they’ll go to heaven after they die. The “great commission” is the call to make disciples, teaching people the words and ways of Jesus so they will actually live as Jesus lived.
– There is an individual, one-to-one dimension to this, but also a group dimension – forming people into communities of disciples which we call churches. (I think we’d be better off starting to think about the church in the gospels, and not waiting until Acts … so the church would be for us the continuation of a band of disciples.) So I also see the work of the evangelist as helping churches remain focused on the good news of the kingdom of God … As we know, it’s too easy for church to become an end in itself and forget its mission, or else become coopted to some different mission. The evangelist would be an advocate for reform and action around the gospel Jesus preached.
But even there, there’s a danger – that the evangelist stay cooped up in the Christian community. I don’t think a Spirit-gifted evangelists will feel satisfied among “the 99 sheep in the fold.” She’ll want to go out in search of the one who is wandering. That makes evangelists marginal people – out on the edges, talking to people who aren’t welcome in or aren’t interested in the religious centers of power.
I also think it’s evangelists who are drawn toward interfaith work – not simply trying to convert “them” to “us,” but sharing our treasures with them, receiving their treasures to us, and seeking to go with them to a place neither we nor they have been before – being drawn by the Spirit. (Here I’m paraphrasing the great Roman Catholic evangelist Vincent Donovan.)
Some of the people calling themselves evangelists today are often little more than itinerant religious entertainers on the revival circuit, servicing a religious industrial complex that – like a chain of night clubs or Howard Johnsons – has a certain number of open mikes that need to be filled each night. The best ones draw crowds and actually attract people to Jesus. The worst draw crowds and attract people to themselves (using lots of Jesus talk), and rake in good offerings to boot.
In contrast, I think of someone like Dr. King or Desmond Tutu … they preached from the margins that the good news that God calls us to reconciliation, that it’s time to repent and change our way of life, that forgiveness for past wrongs is possible, and that a new day can begin. Miraculously, people believed them. We need more evangelists like them today!
Thanks for the great question – it reminds us of the need for authentic evangelists. Something for each of us to pray for … “Lord, the fields are ready to be harvested. If they’re not harvested, so much potential will go to waste. So please send gifted, skilled, wise people out of the religious ghetto and into our world at large, to speak and embody your good news and call all of us to your better way.”