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Ray G. Jones III
Director, Theology, Formation & Evangelism
It is interesting to me that evangelism, the very word that means to declare good news and glad tidings, has become a dirty word. When an essential ministry of the church is distorted by religious zealots and used to judge others to determine who is “in” and who is “out” of the community of faith, the message of glad tidings is turned into judgment and exclusion—a dirty word. The proclamation of good news is no longer perceived as news worth sharing or hearing. To address this situation, churches have developed evangelism committees and searched for ways to train people in evangelism. These committees are formed and faith sharing training is sought after to grow and support declining churches, not to bear witness to good news.
If evangelism is simply a tool to bring more people into our churches, evangelism is not good news. Evangelism is not good news when it is used to focus on one aspect of the faith, like eternal life. Separated from justice, evangelism is bad news. The gospel is meant to bring both hope and restoration to the world. The prophet Isaiah paints a compelling picture with words of those who bring a message of good news:
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’
(Isaiah 52:7, NIV)
The good news of the gospel is that God fiercely loves us and is actively at work reconciling broken systems, relationships and lives; indeed, all of Creation.
The problem with evangelism is that we have reduced the good news of the gospel to growing our churches and going to heaven when we die. Now, do not misunderstand me; my heart’s desire is for growing, healthy churches and the promise of eternal life. However, the good news of our salvation is much more expansive. Salvation is God’s rescue plan for Creation. God’s plan has nothing to do with souls escaping the physical world. Salvation is about the transformation of lives, relationships, communities, peoples, nations and Creation.
We have lost our way when it comes to the ministry of evangelism. Proclaiming glad tidings cannot be merely relegated to a committee’s responsibility. Beyond church evangelism efforts, no one needs training to share good news. Good news flows from our mouths as water freely flows in a mountain stream. Have you ever needed to go to a training workshop to learn to share the good news of a brand-new puppy or a good report card?
Many years ago, I was praying about and discerning a call to serve the denomination in the ministry of evangelism. I still remember the words of my mentor, Ben Johnson, telling me there is no way we can train people to share news that is not already good news inside of them. He went on to say that discipleship formation is the key to shaping people in the faith, who will then have hearts filled with good news to share.
As the church is struggling with loss of influence, declining membership and the reduction of the gospel, we are called to engage again the gospel message of good news in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. At the end of Christendom, we are called to move from an attitude of “what the church can do for me” to a posture of bearing witness to the gospel through a community committed to living the new life of Christ. In his book “Becoming the Gospel,” Michael Gorman describes the essential nature of Christ’s body:
Ultimately, the integrity and the impact of all Christian witness depends on the integration of message and mission. When the church, or an individual Christian, preaches the gospel but does not live the gospel, or deliberately lives only a slice of it, perhaps even publicly criticizing those who focus on other slices, the witness is likely to have no effect — or the wrong kind of effect. However, as the church, by the power of the Holy Spirit, becomes the gospel in its fullest by participating fully in the life of God manifested in Christ, the church offers an appropriate and credible witness to the gospel. This does not in any way guarantee ‘success,’ at least as success is typically measured by humans, but it does increase the likelihood that those who both hear and see this embodiment of the gospel will have had an encounter with the living God. 1
Therefore, the urgent call of the church in our time is to make disciples. Discipleship formation requires that we are following Jesus along his way. As we are forming one another in discipleship, we are nurturing and equipping people for apostleship. We are equipping people to join God’s mission of justice, liberation and hope. In other words, we gather to scatter. As we scatter, we engage God’s work of dismantling racism and eradicating poverty. Also, we share along the way the hope we have in Christ (1 Peter 3:15–16).
The church is a Holy Spirit movement. According to The Acts of the Apostles, the early disciples were instructed by the risen Lord to wait in Jerusalem. Power would come upon them and fill them for the purpose of bearing witness to this life-changing way of life. The context of the Holy Spirit’s activity that day was the temple in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, when a diverse group of people from around the known world were gathered together for worship (Acts 1–2).
The Holy Spirit worked through the disciples and this diverse group of people so that those gathered for the Pentecost celebration would hear in their own languages the life-giving work of God in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit is the power by which the church bears witness to the kingdom of God. And because of this unique witness, people were curious about how they were hearing this beautiful message in their own languages. Peter boldly presents the life, death and resurrection of Jesus within God’s salvific activity and mission in and through Israel. Upon hearing the explanation and seeing the transformation of human life, their hearts break. They repent and turn to God.
The result of the power of the Holy Spirit in the breaking and opening of human hearts is the embodiment of the gospel in formation practices. The early church identified the following four essential practices that by the power of the Holy Spirit transform us into the very life of Christ: they devoted themselves to the apostles teachings, the church is a diverse fellowship, the church engages in breaking bread and the church prays. Through these practices, disciples are shaped and sent to join in God’s mission of justice and hope.
The purpose of these practices is to make us a peculiar people. We become what we practice. Practices shape and change our lives. God is using our changing lives for the transformation of the world. When people catch a glimpse of generosity, they want to know more. When they encounter a fellowship that is diverse and welcoming, they desire to be included. When worship and prayer are engaged in life-changing ways, people take notice.
Because of the power of the Holy Spirit working through these practices, people encountering the community of faith of the early church liked what they heard and saw, and the church enjoyed the favor of the people around them (Acts 2:47). People desired to know more about the healing, justice and hope emanating from this distinctive community. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:47).
In this resource, you will engage eight habits that are designed to take you on a deeper journey into faith, the lives of others, justice, hope and the wonder of God. When these habits are formed over time, we encounter the process of our baptisms: dying daily to the old ways and being raised into the new life of Jesus Christ (Romans 6:4). People around us are longing to know that there are people who will do God’s justice for and with them. There are people in need of love, hope and purpose. There are people struggling under the weight of racial injustice. They want to know that others see the injustice and will join them in bringing justice to our neighborhoods and communities. There are people who have been shunned by the church and other institutions for simply being the people God has made them to be. They, too, need partners along this journey.
The following habits develop within us a love of God, neighbor and Creation: prayer, generosity, sacraments, worship, teaching, justice, fellowship and radical welcome. Over time these habits change us and offer discernment and guidance for following Jesus through the trials, structures and systems of our nation and world. These habits enable us to hear God’s voice over all the other voices calling out to be heard. These habits cause our hearts to break over and open to the needs of and hurt in people around us. These habits provide the words of good news to which we bear witness and proclaim. By the power of the Holy Spirit, these habits enable us to lay down our lives so that others can live.
Evangelism in the 21st century North American context must be experienced as a journey of going deeper in our faith, relationships around us and God’s mission of rescue and reconciliation. This journey of faith engages formation habits that change our lives and the world around us. When we open ourselves to God’s love, justice and the people around us, we encounter the reconciliation of all things and the saving grace of Jesus. The beauty of this journey is that this transformation process always opens us to the wonder of God. And along the journey we realize that all people can breathe. Oh my, all people breathing the breath of God! Now that’s a story worth living and telling.
I am grateful for the wise, diverse voices that have contributed to this evangelism resource. Their partnership has been a beautiful expression of the goodness and richness of Christ’s body. As you work through each habit, may you experience the Holy Spirit transforming you and the world around you. Our prayer is that this resource will take you more deeply into God’s love, the habits that change our lives and the good news that is always worth living and sharing.
My closing thought is a prayer for you and the church:
So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush. Live a lover’s life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus would be proud of: bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus attractive to all, getting everyone in on the glory and praise of God.
(Philippians 1:9–11, The Message)
1. Michael Gorman, Becoming the Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2015), p. 317.