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A Theology of Evangelism

By Abraham, William J. | Interpretation, April 1994 | Go to article overview

A Theology of Evangelism

Abraham, William J., Interpretation

The central task of a theology of evangelism is to provide a clear and credible account of the ministry of evangelism that will foster and illuminate responsible evangelistic practices by the Christian church and its agents in the modern world. To date, very limited attention has been given to this crucial subject. The chief reason for this is that evangelism falls between a rock and a hard place. The rock is the extraordinary silence on the part of systematic theologians on the subject of evangelism. The hard place is the inability of practical theology to reach any sustained measure of internal self-criticism.

Evangelism as a topic of inquiry falls within both systematic and practical theology. Within systematic theology, it falls within the domain of ecclesiology; it is central to any comprehensive analysis of the mission and task of the church. Within practical theology, it has a space all to itself, although practical theology is in such conceptual disarray that this does not count for much.1) Given the ambivalent status of evangelism as a subject of theological inquiry, evangelism as a ministry of the church can become everything and anything. The challenge is to mesh these two concerns into one coherent enterprise. The task is this: We need to spell out an account of evangelism that will be both serviceable in the actual practice of ministry and viable in its own right theologically. Beyond that, such an account must be suitably informed by historical considerations and true to the richness of the Christian gospel. We need an analysis of evangelism that will be at once historically grounded, theologically credible, and practically apt.

Despite the conceptual confusion and fog in the field, the last twenty years or so have seen an astonishing birthing of interest in evangelism. As part of this development, most mainline churches have become greatly enamored of church growth, owing in part to the fact that this permits its leaders to set aside the hard theological questions that have to be faced. In Evangelical circles, Christians in this tradition have, for almost a century, seen themselves as the sole owners of evangelism, so much so that many find it difficult to distinguish between evangelism and evangelicalism.(2) For the most part, Evangelicals have construed evangelism as essentially the proclamation of the gospel to unbelievers. In fact, church growth and proclamation constitute the two major visions of evangelism currently available to us. Converting people to God, making disciples, and saving souls make up the relevant minority reports. In what follows, I shall argue that we need to construe evangelism as a polymorphous ministry aimed at initiating people into the kingdom of God.

Evangelism is a peculiarly Christian concept. It does not arise naturally in non-Christian contexts, although it can, of course, be stretched for usage in other religious traditions. Even in the Christian tradition it has had a very unstable usage down through the ages.(3) The seeds for evangelistic activity are very clearly rooted in the earlier Jewish tradition. Yet the early Christians had no developed theory of evangelism. Moreover, there was something of a division of the house when it came to evangelistic practice. Evangelism clearly took place within the Jewish circles that originally gave birth to Christianity, but the shift to gentiles was accompanied by deep reluctance and enormous tension. The picture of the early Christians marching out to evangelize the Roman Empire in order to fulfill the great commission is a myth. It took determined leadership by figures like Stephen and Paul to carry the day on the issue. The apostle Peter, if Luke is right, needed nothing less than a special divine revelation to convert him to evangelistic work among the gentiles.(4) This whole story has yet to be adequately unraveled historically.

The language used to talk about evangelism is of limited value. Clearly the central verb used to cover the activity of evangelism, euangelizomai, is best translated by our verb "proclaim.

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