Evangelism is a word from which many in my mostly mainline Protestant context are quick to shy away. I include myself in that statement. There is something about our prevailing, postmodern, cultural and societal version of evangelism that at a knee-jerk level makes me cringe. The word evangelism and the accompanying act of sharing the gospel has been coopted by others who, to put it nicely, don’t share our views, and to put it more strongly, are often insulting, abusive, and ignorant in their presentation of “the only true faith.”
I don’t think it’s the differing viewpoints that lead to our hesitancy with the word evangelism; I know many faithful people who rather than running for the hills at the first sign of a disagreement are instead challenged to think more deeply about their own faith, and appreciate that challenge. It’s my opinion that it is the belligerent, accusatory presentation of those differing views, a presentation that is now equated in our culture with evangelism itself, that leads to our desire to separate ourselves from it.
A quick search on dictionary.com reveals that the definition of evangelism is “the preaching or promulgation of the gospel; the work of an evangelist” or “missionary zeal, purpose, or activity.” At its baseline, this version of evangelism leads to nothing but agreement from me—and an appreciation for the underutilized words promulgation and zeal. We are to share the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, who was sent to redeem the world from sin through his death and resurrection. We are to share this gift we receive with zeal, a gift given not in response to our own worthiness, but through God’s grace. In fact, they are the statements of Jesus himself in the book of Matthew in what has come to be called “The Great Commission,” when he charges the apostles after his resurrection with going and making disciples, sharing the good news with people, teaching them how to follow him.
So, there’s the rub—for me, at least. Evangelism as it has been sculpted in our society? Sharing what is supposed to be good news in a way that is not good at all, that makes people feel less than, that makes people feel unworthy and cowed in order for you to make your point? No, thank you. You can keep that to yourself. I want no part of that. But sharing with others in this broken world the glimpses of wholeness that I believe come from my walk with God, and inviting them into a relationship, a way of life, that for me has been life-giving, life-affirming, soul-renewing? I can, and do, sign on to this definition of evangelism wholeheartedly.
Make disciples—not because you are told to, but because you can’t help but share what is so central to your life and identity. Together, with others, figure out how to be followers of Christ in a world that isn’t always receptive to what you’re sharing, and invite others to be a part of it. Yes, of course! Keep that version of evangelism coming. I’ll take a heaping serving of that. It’s how we get from the accusatory self-assertion of the first approach to the overflowing invitation of the second that is my question.