When Brian McLaren poses the question, “What if evangelism is one of the things that our world needs most?” he shows himself to be out of step with many Christians — especially those occupying the broad swath in the middle known as mainline Protestantism — who wring their hands and apologize for what they call the e-word, as if evangelism is a curse, a blight, an embarrassment.
McLaren admits that some infamous evangelists sell God like vinyl siding, but he recognizes and lifts up for our consideration the treasure of good evangelism engaged in by good evangelists, who come alongside others to help them encounter Jesus in a life-changing way. “What if,” McLaren probes again, there are “people who are literally sent by God to intervene, to help those of us who have mucked up our lives, to give us a taste of grace, a ‘rumor of glory,’ as songwriter Bruce Cockburn says?”
Good evangelism and good evangelists, McLaren knows, can make all the difference in our frantic, frazzled and fraying world.
But what makes evangelism good? Plans, programs and personnel will vary, but there are five qualities that remain the gold standard of good evangelism. If you are hesitant to embrace a wholesale evangelistic venture, then adopt these five qualities before you even start.
- Practice hospitality.
- Form relationships.
- Live out integrity.
- Bear the Christian message.
- Root yourself in a Christian church.
As you become more conscious of these five qualities, as you practice them day by day, you will, perhaps even without realizing it, be preparing for good evangelism. Good evangelists do not sprout up overnight; they mature as they cultivate these qualities. This sort of maturation and mellowing is necessary, especially for a practice that receives more than its share of bad press.
Consider, for example, “message bearing” as an example of good evangelism.
Over the years, while teaching evangelism courses in several theological seminaries, I have seen many students invariably trip over this quality of evangelism. Hospitality? Yes. Relationships? Of course. Integrity? Absolutely. But words? Probably not.
One student suggested that a T-shirt with a church’s name on it served as a presentation of the gospel. Her rationale was that people would read the T-shirt and understand that this service project was done in Jesus’ name.
Then, of course, there is the inevitable reference to St. Francis’ phrase, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words,” even though evidence that St. Francis actually said this is hotly contested.
Good news, expressed verbally in the context of good evangelism — hospitality, relationship, integrity and community-centeredness — is deeply rooted in the Jewish and Christian traditions. Israel’s prophets, time and again, imagined a good day full of healing and hope for their communities.
Consider Isaiah 52:7, a pivotal text in the Old Testament for understanding evangelism: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’”
“How can we not use words to express this exquisite good news?”
Beauty. Peace. Good news. Salvation or wholeness (yᵉšûʿâ). There is beauty in the message. There is peace. Goodness, too. And restoration. And all of them — three times, in fact — are proclaimed verbally. The question this prophetic vision raises is not, “Why should we use words to express the good news?” but “How can we not use words to express this exquisite good news?”
The Gospels, too, are replete with instances of Jesus’ preaching the good news of God’s impending reign. The first words of Jesus in the earliest Gospel in Christian history begin, “Now after John (the Baptist) was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God [kēryssōn to euaggelion tou theou], and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news [pisteuete en tō euaggeliō]’” (Mark 1:14-15). This is just the first of countless instances of Jesus’ verbal testimony to the good news he brings.
The book of Acts, which narrates the expansion of the church from Jerusalem, through Samaria, into the Mediterranean basin, and finally to Rome, is peppered by sermons, speeches and conversations. Peter’s sermon at Pentecost is just the first of them (Acts 2:14-39). There is Stephen’s in Jerusalem (Acts 7), Peter’s in Caesarea (Acts 10), and Paul’s throughout the Roman empire, including his renowned speech to Greeks on Mars Hill, in the shadow of the Parthenon (Acts 17). Paul spoke in synagogues as well. At one point, “he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke out boldly and argued persuasively about the kingdom of God.” Add to these more public sermons and activities the many private conversations early Christians had — in chariots on desert roads, prisons and upstairs rooms.
Paul’s letters, too, are rich with references to the power of words, like his letter to the church in Rome, a church he hopes will be a launching pad for a mission to Spain — the ends of the earth: “And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” (Romans 10:14-15). In these few lines, Paul draws his readers back to Isaiah 52:7, to a world of beauty and goodness — hallmarks of the good news Christians proclaim to the world.
“Preach the gospel, and since they are indispensable, use words.”
Perhaps Christians, therefore, should modify our memory of the aphorism attributed to St. Francis. Perhaps it should read, “Preach the gospel, and since they are indispensable, use words.”
Jonathan Merritt, in fact, when he reflects upon St. Francis’ words, concedes that “words are far more necessary than this quote leads us to believe. The Christian faith would not exist — it cannot exist — without words. They are the way the religion produces progeny. Someone spoke and an interest was piqued. Someone spoke and a heart fluttered. Someone spoke and a spirit stirred. Someone spoke and a new convert was born.”
Christians inevitably are message-bearers, and that message is full of beauty, peace, goodness and salvation.
Priscilla Pope-Levison serves as associate dean for external programs and professor of ministerial studies at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. Before coming to Perkins, she was professor of theology and assistant director of women’s studies at Seattle Pacific University for 15 years. She earned a bachelor’s degree in music from DePauw University, a master of divinity degree from Duke Divinity School and the Ph.D. from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.