If you gathered 100 people in a room, you would have one hundred definitions of evangelism. Some evangelism definitions are so wide that they cover anything and everything that might be related to growing a church.
Some evangelism definitions are so narrowly focused on a scripted outline that must be given as memorized.
Some definitions of evangelism are somewhere in between.
Whenever I do workshops, I often ask “What is evangelism?”
I receive many different answers to the question when we try to define evangelism. Phrases are often shouted back at me like:
- sharing my faith
- getting people to come to church
- building a home (as in a mission project for the poor)
- after school tutoring
- hosting the homeless for a night
Two interesting examples of an evangelism definition
1. Evangelism as brand loyalty
An elder in the local Presbyterian church was making small talk with me in the hallway prior to the start of a personal evangelism seminar I gave.
Chris, I’m so excited that you’re here today. I’m so excited to learn more about evangelism. Our Session (which is the Presbyterian Church’s governing body) has been studying evangelism for six months.
After such an exhaustive study, I wondered how they might define evangelism, so I asked, “What did you decide evangelism is?”
Finding the Presbyterians in my neighborhood.
I can imagine their potential door-to-door campaign – “Are you Presbyterian or something else?”
2. Evangelism as being the best of the brands
I asked another church leadership team about their working definition of personal evangelism.
Their answer was,
“We want to be the best Presbyterian church in the city so that we can keep the Presbyterians church visitors who come to see us.”
In other words, they wanted to be the best Presbyterian church to keep and retain the best Presbyterian visitors.
Evangelism – the “E” word.
Years ago, I was standing in the lunch line at the seminary cafeteria. A classmate and I were discussing themes in our evangelism class when a fellow student from another class interrupted:
“Are you talking about the E-word?” In our class, we were talking about evangelism and its connections to American Imperialism.”
What then is personal evangelism?
Evangelism is more than telling your testimony of faith.
It is more than proclaiming a set of propositions.
But can we give an evangelism definition that is more than proclaiming and persuading?
A conversation on defining evangelism
In the early days of my ministry as a Presbyterian pastor, I got to chair the Presbytery’s evangelism committee.
Evangelism committees often want to define evangelism.
This evangelism committee makeup changes every year with new members coming on and members rotating off every few years.
Thus, the committee eventually brainstorms AGAIN the answer to the question:
“What is evangelism?”
It is a helpful process since those who volunteer to serve on the committee come with their own evangelism definition based on their
- theological history,
- training, and
- theological perspective.
How we searched for a common definition of evangelism
Searching the web and my library for definitions of evangelism, I find a breadth:
Some are so wide that it covers everything related to growing a church.
Some are so narrowed to three correct points in a scripted outline to a stranger.
Some are in between.
Our evangelism committee did a little brainstorming exercise with sticky notes.
One idea per note, grouping the notes into relative categories.
It did not take long before we got into very healthy discussions over nuances, meanings, and shades of understanding about an evangelism definition.
We eventually settled on using an evangelism definition from the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA.
The definition of Evangelism we used:
We settled on this definition of evangelism for many reasons.
- We are Presbyterians and it’s helpful to appeal to our higher authority (General Assembly).
- It’s theologically rich.
- It includes the emotion of sharing, the activity of sharing, the content of the sovereign love of God, and a fourfold call to commitment.
- It goes beyond the “say-a-prayer” as a destination, and sees the fruit of evangelism as integration into a church and outworking as a disciple.
Do you have a faith worth sharing?
Think about something that excites you – aren’t you propelled to share it with others?
Good news cannot stay silent. As one of my teachers once said, “Good news travels faster.”
I am enthusiastic about Starbucks coffee, and people who know me firsthand, know that I use it as a second office.
I’m always happy to meet people at Starbucks. I drink their coffee at home.
When you get me talking about coffee I’m often talking about Starbucks.
I even have a Starbucks apron I bought off eBay to use while I cook dinners at home.
We share what we are excited about
When it comes to our faith, faith is not a product to be sold. I’m not selling Jesus, so don’t let your mind take my analogy there.
However, I’m excited about my faith. I’ve had ups and downs, smooth patches, and rough sailing.
But through it all, I’ve discovered more and more God’s faithfulness to never let me go.
- pursued me,
- found me,
- awakened me,
- is transforming me,
- and renewing me.
That’s all His initiative and grace. The more I relish and delight in the grace of God, I find awakening in me a contagious joy and a deep thankfulness that propels me to share. I want other people to know about God’s sovereign love.
I have a faith worth sharing. It’s about God’s pursuit of me and my continued discovery of the depths of his love for me. It’s not about me, but all about Him.
This is where the joyfully part comes in.
I’m eager to share what God has done for me in Christ. I’m not compelled out of guilt to share, but willing to share because it’s such good news.
I don’t evangelize because I have to, but because I want to. It overflows from the heart.
Sharing the Good News
As I travel and speak, I discover many different definitions of evangelistic sharing.
What comes first to my mind is conversation.
For others, what comes first is deeds.
Which comes first?
On almost every occasion, our faith needs to be described as well as defended.
We share the content of our faith. Jesus died for sins, paid the price for sins, etc.
We explain how we are separated from God by sin and that Jesus was God’s provision for solving that.
We explain how God calls us to repentance, to faith in Christ, etc.
All of this is explained in the course of conversations, sermons, books, events, etc.
We share through a variety of means words, images, sermons, printed materials, etc. There is content to communicate. Many evangelism books and tracts focus on this.
I’ve written on about scripts that people use and various models of evangelism. These focus on content.
For other people, what comes to mind is actions. A famous quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi is “Preach the gospel everywhere. If necessary, use words.”
Read more: Your Journey to Faith Story
For example, during a health outreach our church did for its neighborhood, one unchurched person commented,
“I don’t like to listen to sermons, today I saw one.”
Our service to the community was interpreted as we wanted – a tangible demonstration of the love of Christ that we have for our neighborhood.
It’s a witness to the world thru actions.
Yet that interpretation came about because we gathered all the volunteers at the beginning and I explained to them why we as a church are doing this outreach. We are serving because God first loved us and we want to demonstrate that to the community.
In our committee discussion last week, we got into a debate over whether sending church teams to build a Habitat house or taking our week’s turn to providing overnight housing for the town’s homeless ministry was evangelism.
I get into this at: Is Community Service really Evangelism?
Servant evangelism focuses on actions. Many churches have social outreach programs in their local areas, but often, many find that doesn’t increase significantly to church attendance or new members.
When it comes to action-based activity, I want to be clear – I’m not convinced it’s evangelism in and of itself.
Good works demonstrate our faith. But those good works need an explanation.
Without any overt explanation that our actions are propelled by God’s love for whom we are serving, what makes our good deeds any different than what a social service agency provides, or what good corporate citizens provide?
I’ve written more about this in a prior post.
Actions can be a good support or point of contact for evangelistic conversations.
It’s not an either/or proposition for me. Both are necessary forms of sharing. Deeds are love demonstrated, but a further explanation of the gospel is necessary.
Giving food to the hungry, tutoring underprivileged kids, providing free medical care are all good deeds. They demonstrate love.
But beyond the demonstration comes the explanation. It is my view that many churches that only serve are not growing because there is often no conversational explanation of the gospel to go along with the service.
The Good News of the Sovereign Love Of God
Rather than focus on the activity of sharing, I turn now to the content of what we are sharing: the good news of the sovereign love of God.
The good news is more than that fact. So often we neglect the sovereignty of God.
- God’s sovereign love pursues us before we ever know Him.
- God’s sovereign activity makes us aware of our need for the salvation he provides.
- God’s sovereign love provides the solution and enables us to receive that offer.
- God’s sovereign love continues to pursue us as we walk on the path of discipleship.
Sovereign over the process as well
Since evangelism is a process that occurs over time, it’s the sovereignty of God that gives me comfort in the fact that I’m just one part of God’s pursuit.
Every conversation I have is part of God’s process in the life of the person I share with.
I might have the part of planting a seed, watering what someone else has sown, or harvesting what others of planted, watered, and sown.
Whether with a stranger on the street, or a long-term friend, any conversation prompted by the Holy Spirit is one conversation in the process of God’s work.
Some presentations want to do all three parts (plant, water, and harvest) all at one time, and guilt-driven methodologies make the evangelist feel responsible for lack of response, a mistake in the script, or even lack of a complete presentation.
But God’s sovereignty frees us from that guilt.
- It’s God’s sovereignty that
- draws people to faith,
- awakens their spirit, and
- helps one to respond to the offer of grace.
We are simply a tool in the proclamation.
A Fourfold Invitation
Joyfully sharing the good news of the sovereign love of God,
and calling people
- to repentance,
- to personal faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord,
- to active membership in the church, and
- to obedient service in the world.
There is a fourfold invitation described in this evangelism definition: Calling people to
- to repentance
- to personal faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord
- to active membership in the church
- to obedient service in the world.
Most models of evangelism that I’m familiar with focus almost exclusively on 1 and 2 above.
Evangelists and missionaries hit the streets with their tracts, acts of compassion, drama teams, go door to door, to the parks, and then record “decisions for Christ” on their papers somewhere and send their supporters the good news.
Sometimes, a name or phone number is collected with the idea being that it’ll be given to a local pastor and hopefully, there will be some integration into a local church. I don’t know if anyone has ever done a count of those that never got connected to a church.
I’ve been around long enough and done this long enough to see that such methods focus so much on the decision, instead of a more holistic approach of integrating a person into the fellowship of a church and renewing them to serve the world.
I’ve been guilty of focusing on decisions without integration into a local church in the past, and now I prefer to do church-based evangelistic events or to work with a church that is doing evangelism.
Calling for repentance and decision to accept Christ is part of the process of evangelism. Thus begins the disciple-making process, and it begins or continues with getting connected to a local church for service to the world.
Let’s not forget that as we do our evangelism.
Active membership is a theological term from our form of government (PC USA), but the idea is clearly active involvement in a local church.
What Evangelism is Not
What Evangelism Is Not:
- Personal Testimony
- Social Action and Public Involvement (“They commend the gospel, but they share it with no one.”)
- The Results of Evangelism
To his list, I would add
- Church Marketing (advertisements, web page, direct mail, etc).
- Church Visitor Hospitality.
All of these items (maybe with the exception of Imposition) support the work of evangelism, but individually, they fall short of the destination:
calling people to repentance, to personal faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, to active membership in the church and obedient service in the world.
This is the point Dever makes repeatedly in the article: “We need to stop mistaking other Christian activities for the spreading of the gospel.”
I would take issue perhaps with one of Dever’s assertions: Imposition.
It’s important to understand that the message you are sharing is not merely an opinion but a fact. That’s why sharing the gospel can’t be called an imposition, any more than a pilot can impose his belief on all his passengers that the runway is here and not there.
This would be true if a conversation only involved one side: the speaker. But a conversation involves both a speaker and a hearer. The hearer sets the boundary. Either they want to hear what you have to share, or they don’t. If they don’t, and you continue to speak, it’s an imposition.
Sure, I may be presenting a Christian gospel, but if it’s unwanted by my hearer, I am imposing.
Other Definitions of Evangelism
When we are talking about “evangelism,” “conversion,” or even “gospel,” we need to know what we mean by those terms.
I’ve been talking about evangelism for nearly 20 years and I keep running into different understandings based on different theological presuppositions.
There have been many times when I and my conversation partner use the word “evangelism” but mean entirely different things.
I’ve taken a look around to collect definitions of evangelism that appeal to me and seem to do a great job of highlighting various nuances.
Definitions of Evangelism:
Lusanne Covenant: Proclamation of the historical biblical Christ as Savior and Lord with a view to persuade others to come to him personally and so be reconciled unto God.
Dr. Temple: To present Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit that people shall come to put their trust in God
Dr. J.I. Packer: Evangelism is just preaching the gospel. . . . the work of communication in which Christians become God’s mouthpiece to sinners and summoning for conversion.
David Hester: Evangelism, in Reformed tradition, is the church’s work of proclaiming the gospel in word and deed, inviting persons to participate in the grace of God and to join in the mutual care and public ministry of the community of God’s covenant people…unfortunately, evangelism has, so to speak, fallen among thieves in the church where it has been ‘beaten and robbed’ by an unfortunate constricting of its meaning to either a fundamentalist theology, a revivalist style of preaching, or a congregational campaign for new members.” (How Shall We Witness?: Faithful Evangelism in a Reformed Tradition?)
American Baptist Churches USA: Evangelism is the joyous witness of the people of God to God’s redeeming love, which urges repentance and reconciliation to God and each other through faith in Jesus Christ–who lived, died, and was raised from the dead. Through renewal with Jesus, believers are empowered by the Holy Spirit and incorporated into the church for worship, fellowship, nurture, and engagement as disciples in God’s mission of evangelization and liberation within society and creation, signifying the Kingdom that is present and yet to come. (Official definition of evangelism, adopted by American Baptist Churches USA in 1984).
Evangelism Connections (expired website) lists a bunch of phrases regarding evangelism.
– sharing the “Good News” of Jesus Christ.
– bringing to people the love of God.
– telling the good news, being the good news, and doing the good news.
– making disciples for Christ.
– the good news of Jesus Christ.
– the sharing and joyous witness of the people of God.
– the primary mission of the body of Christ, the church.
– proclaiming the “Good News” of Christ, crucified and risen.
– a spiritual journey of formation and transformation.
– the joyous witness of the people of God to God’s redeeming love.
– joyfully sharing the good news of the sovereign love of God.
– leading persons to receive and accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
-helping people discover their faith in Christ.
-Sharing Christian hope and hospitality.
– the peculiar task of the Church to communicate the good news of God’s love through Jesus Christ.
From the Episcopal Church General Convention:
Evangelism is “the presentation of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, in such ways that persons may be led to believe in him as Saviour, and follow Him as Lord with the fellowship of His Church.”
From a Brethern article <link lost>:
Evangelism, then, is the specific, articulate presentation of the message that Christ’s death upon the cross propitiates (turns away) God’s wrath which abides upon man in his unregenerate state (Romans 3:25; John 3:36). Evangelism is the presenting of Jesus Christ, so that men will accept Him as their Savior from the guilt and power of sin, and declare Him Lord as they seek to follow Him in their daily lives.
From the Lausanne Covenant (1974) (cited at Believe).
“To evangelize is to spread the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures, and that as the reigning Lord he now offers the forgiveness of sins and the liberating gift of the Spirit to all who repent and believe. Our Christian presence in the world is indispensable to evangelism, and so is that kind of dialogue whose purpose is to listen sensitively in order to understand. But evangelism itself is the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Saviour and Lord, with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and so be reconciled to God. In issuing the gospel invitation we have no liberty to conceal the cost of discipleship. Jesus still calls all who would follow him to deny themselves, take up their cross, and identify themselves with his new community. The results of evangelism include obedience to Christ, incorporation into his church and responsible service in the world.”
Lead Your Own Discussion
Leading a group discussion on evangelism can be a challenge because the field of evangelism is huge.
In fact, I did an evangelism mind map to start thinking about all the different aspects of this group discussion.
If you are
- gathering a new evangelism team, or
- starting up a new evangelism work in the local church, or
- leading some other group discussion on evangelism
here are some discussion questions I used that you might find useful.
Discussion Questions – What is evangelism?
- How would you describe or define evangelism?
- How do you think evangelism should be done?
- How do you do evangelism in your life now?
- In your journey to faith in Christ, how did evangelism happen in your life?
- What is the role of the congregation in evangelism?
- What is the role of the pastor in evangelism?
- What elements must make up your evangelism definition?
The Group Discussion on Evangelism
The opening question generated lots of answers that felt like cliches or rote answers — quick bursts of answers from years of hearing it from the pulpit.
- Preaching the Word.
- Sharing the Good News.
- Sharing your testimony.
- Giving the reason for your faith.
It may seem like a no-brainer question, but this question reveals assumptions that people bring to the discussion on evangelism.
As the group facilitator, I pushed back a little to help people think through the “fixed answers.”
- What’s the good news? What makes it good?
- Can laypeople do evangelism if it’s only preaching?
- What are the key elements of the gospel that you want to share?
- Personally, how do you share?
As we got into the group evangelism discussion, it became clear that on a surface level, these 8 people had great answers, but underneath that surface, I saw
- Different approaches to evangelism.
- Different experiences.
- Different theological understandings.
Avoid conversational drift.
Most opening discussions on the nature of evangelism, if unchecked at this point, tend to drift into colorful theological debates. For example,
- Do people respond to God’s grace, or do they make a decision to respond?
- What is the value or lack of value over the “sinners’ prayer?”
- Do people have to fully understand their sins first, or can they start following Jesus and learn about sin later?
- Can people follow first and understand later?
- Can people follow Jesus before even having a completely biblical worldview?
- What do people have to understand before following Jesus?
- Can conversions be “false?”
Other times, it may drift into areas of practice and styles:
- Rush to present the gospel to as many people as possible.
- Take the time to build relationships of influence with people.
- Invite people to church
- Go to the mission field.
The purpose of this group discussion on evangelism was not theological debate, but to expose some of the presuppositions that these group members were bringing to the table.
By exposing the presuppositions through careful questions that challenge simple rote assertions, we had a very rich discussion and then set up the potential for further discussion into particular areas.