an adequate theory of evangelism remains a vital, if not volatile,
task for the Church in contemporary society. The euangelion
(good news) calls the Church to bear witness to the life, death, and
resurrection of Jesus Christ and to the role of the Holy Spirit in
our daily lives. The ‘good news’ serves both to proclaim God’s
kingdom and results in ecclesial, numerical growth. But evangelism
must not be conceived of as simply proclamation or church growth.
Instead, I propose that evangelism is the Church being the Church.
Evangelism is a practice of the Church, whereby the Church not only proclaims
God’s word nor just increases in size, but identifies
itself as non-world, and asks the world to become Church. At the
heart of Church identity is the practice of evangelism.
is not a practice of professional clergy, but of the people of God.
And these people of God -- scholars, architects, philosophers,
poets, chemists, politicians, etc. -- exist in tension with the
world. I hope to examine the work of John Yoder and draw out the
implications for evangelism as social ethics, as opposed to
evangelism as proclamation, apologetics, or church growth alone.
First, it will be important to examine the other theories of
evangelism. Second, I plan to bring to the foreground the implicit,
modern assumptions which undergird these particular theories of
evangelism. Third, the Yoderian corrective will be applied to
contemporary models of evangelism. I hope to show that Yoder is a
beacon guiding us away from the rocky crags of evangelism as
apologetics, church growth, or proclamation. Instead, evangelism is
the people of The Way living faithfully in a fragmented, violent
world. Yoder offers insight for Christian mission which assimilates
enough of the world’s culture to communicate and live the message,
and is distinct enough to maintain allegiance to the kingdom of God.
Christian witness must not accommodate to contemporary culture and
must not retreat from engagement with that culture.
Yoder does not often utilize the verbiage of modern/postmodern, he
radically forges a path for the theological and philosophical
developments out of a modern era and into a postmodern era. First,
it will serves us well to delineate what evangelism is not.
we escape the confines of modernity, propositional truth, objective
knowledge, and foundationalist methodologies have been replaced by
narrative argumentation and holist epistemologies. In lieu of the
shift into what some call postmodernity, evangelism has been freed
from the clutches of propositional apologetics. It is unreasonable
at this juncture in history to equate evangelism with the apologetic
claims to universal, timeless principles of the Christian life.
Equating evangelism with timeless foundations for truth negates the
need for Christians to find a wholly Christian voice. There is
little Christian witness has to offer if it seeks only that which is
common to all people.
nearly two centuries Christians have argued that evangelism is the proclamation
of the gospel to a world in dire need of the message. I would agree
that this is indeed a key component to what and how evangelism
functions. But there are three main problems with this view. First,
evangelism is not just verbal, but involves the Christian presence
and activism in the world. Limiting evangelism to mere proclamation
fails to consider the role of ethics and Christian living as a tool
for bearing witness to Christ. As we read in the Gospels, Christ
asked his disciples to follow him; it is an evangelistic call to do
something, in this case, to follow. But the call to follow did not
arise out of thin air, but was a call to discipleship modeled daily
by Jesus of Nazareth. Second, proclamation isolates evangelism from
the full ministry of the Church. Rather than being a fragmented
ministry of the Church, evangelism better understood as the Church
providing a viable presence in the world. The whole ministry of the
Church must not be diluted and reduced to mere proclamation when
feeding the hungry and loving the enemy serve the evangelistic task
just as adequately -- if not better. Finally, evangelism is more
than just getting the words correct. This is a reductive effort
which denies the living presence of the Church and its need to
recount its narrative.
as evangelism cannot be reduced to proclamation, likewise it must
not be reduced to church growth. Certainly it is honorable and good
not only to study how and why people convert to Christianity; it is
crucial to utilize such knowledge. But there remain two main
problems with the church growth model of evangelism. First, the
church growth model is too concerned with the external signs of
church membership. Evangelism is a complex process and church growth
pays little attention to the crucial steps in evangelism of
discipleship and spiritual formation. Evangelism is not just getting
people inside the doors of the churches and into the pews. It is a
call into an alternate reality requiring an alternate lifestyle. We
may liken the church growth model to an elementary school. Their
model -- happy case -- succeeds if a student has perfect attendance
and there are large numbers of students in the class. But if the
student learns nothing then it is all for not. Church growth wants
the numbers and does little to promote first-order learning and
discipleship. Second, this particular model is susceptible to
ignoring social ills due to its homogenous unit principle. In its
pragmatic attempt to produce numerical growth, it undermines the
legitimate threat of the gospel to the status quo. And not only does
it bend to the status quo, at times unreservedly, but it creates an
upper echelon of ministry, in which evangelism is the most important
practice of the church. William Abraham correctly points out that
evangelism is initiation into God’s kingdom. Evangelism forwards
the purpose of the kingdom of God, as do the church practices of
pastoral care, baptism, and confession of sin.
evangelism is not just proclamation or getting members to join a
local congregation, then what is it? As we have seen, evangelism has
been treated methodologically - universal truth claims,
accommodationist models of invitation, or right patterns of speech.
What John Howard Yoder provides is a description of evangelism as an
act of a people. The question is not one of method, but of identity.
Evangelism is a practice of a people with a story, who offer their
lives in living the drama of discipleship.
and others have set the stage to conceive the Christian life in a
narrative understanding of life. This move counters much of modern
theological work, and gives insight into how the modern age has
influenced our understanding of evangelism. To understand the role
of this era in shaping contemporary evangelistic practices an
adequate appraisal of modern theological, ethical, and philosophical
assumptions is in order. As mentioned before, evangelism must not be
confused with simple proclamation, church growth, and especially,
universal, propositional truths. A theology of evangelism for our
time must defeat the modern assumptions which undergird Christian
thought on evangelism. It is important to understand modernity, and
how a Yoderian theory of evangelism can be distinguished from the
modern. We turn to this task now.
of the Debate
the warrants of the Renaissance were laid waste modernity captured a
move to the universal, general, and timeless. Modern thought emerged
from the medieval as philosophers and mathematicians like Descartes
initiated a ‘turn to the subject’ and to epistemological
justification. Two central assumptions uphold the modern system of
belief: 1) epistemological foundationalism, and 2) individualism.
concerns itself with the justification of claims. Justification of a
claim is enacted by showing a claim’s relation to other claims of
belief. For a foundationalist, reason must not be circular or result
in infinite regress. Justification must rest on a certain belief,
either self-evidently true or experientially so. Such a claim -- one
which is universal or certain -- functions as the ‘building’
block for the rest of the following claims, and thus the term “foundation.”
Modern philosophical and Christian ethics strive to find the
universal indubitable beliefs which can act as such a foundation, be
they universal human experience or scripture. Evangelism, under such
a system, is relegated to the place of proclamation of universal
claims -- modern apologetics.
is the second assumption of modernity. Modernity attributed to
individuals ‘ontological’ priority. Individuals are ‘real’
and societies are nothing more than the sum of their parts.
Moreover, in the rampant individualism of Descartes we have a hint
of solipsism whereupon one’s reflections on ideas are limited to
sensory data which reach the mind where the subject is contained.
Not only are communities made up of individuals, but an individual
is merely a self-evaluating, mental being.
shift to a Yoderian account of evangelism deftly counters each of
these modern moves and their implications for evangelistic
Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) stands as the prime biblical text
on which to develop an ethic of evangelism. If we heed Jesus’
words, evangelism appears as a practice of the church to go forth
into the world proclaiming God’s authority, inviting those in the
world to participate in the church via discipleship, initiated
through baptism, and being grounded in the faith through proper
teaching. The words of Jesus in v.20 are poignant, “remember, I am
with you always, to the end of the age.” Christ’s life and
ministry are constant memories for the church, and God promises to
be present as the church grows and follows faithfully. Evangelism is
the people of God living in the presence of the promises of God
which are ever more coming to completion.
we practice evangelism, then, it is imperative that our first
attempts are not to seek first principles from which we convince our
hearers. Apologetic evangelism is nothing more than a remnant of the
defunct Enlightenment project. What Yoder offers in its stead is a
vision of a community viably engaging the secular, offering the
countercultural presence of the God movement, in hopes of presenting
the good news to those willing to listen. The shift that has
occurred here is one away from methodology towards presence. Any
methodological attempt at starting ‘from scratch’ is an exercise
in futility. If it were possible, it would be little more than a
drastic power move over the other. Evangelism, to be evangelism,
must be less of a universal claim, and more of a way of life visible
to the watching world. Our moral discourse and our evangelistic
practices “must follow function in the sense that if the
function in question is the continuing accountable common life of a
people, whose members call one another to renewed faithfulness to
the call of the God who has entered human affairs to save, then
the forms of that community’s discourse must be no narrower than
the story itself.” Allegiance to the God of the story is more
important than allegiance to methods and principles deriving from
seventeenth century Europe. Christian witness bears the burden of
being faithful to the story. It is a story which, by its nature,
seeks to be shared.
“story God has chosen to have us tell is the story of some people
more than others, Abraham and Jesus.” It is the normative place of
Jesus for the people of the way which establishes our convictions
and practices. Evangelism, then, is being faithful to that story.
The story provides a “thick” history from which to draw. When
the people of God live faithfully and proclaim the good news, it is
not a word “from scratch” to be blindly accepted, but “what we
proclaim is not that Christianity as a religion is 'better' than
other faiths, an intrinsically, unprovable and therefore meaningless
claim when taken in the abstract, but that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Christian witness -- evangelism -- is a testimony to the lordship of
Jesus Christ; a lordship which extends far beyond the Christian
community, but extends over all creation. What is done in Christ is
the creation of a whole new people. Evangelism is not an individual
effort, but it is a faithfulness which requires a community effort.
It is the presence of that community itself.
recovery of the corporate counters modernity’s priority of
individualism. Individuals can only exist as members of a community
and are therefore not prior to the community. Likewise, individuals
are not cogs in the mechanism of society fulfilling no particular
need or place. Rather, individuals, having found their existence in
a community, bring a complementary role or skill to community life.
This is one of the key areas in developing a viable ethics of
evangelism. If evangelism is initiation into the Kingdom of God, it
represents a new communal reality and is not simply a matter of
individual will. The shape of this new reality is both public and
political, and our evangelistic practice ought to be up to this
task. Being this new reality is, itself, this evangelistic practice.
For the actions of the community cannot be separated from the
proclamation. What God has done in Jesus Christ is to bring a new
social reality into existence. This new reality publicly proclaims
the work of God to the world. In other words, “How God is
doing it is not distinguishable from what God is doing, and how
the world can know about it is again the same thing.” The
Christian people have a distinct identity, and as such, have good
reason to want to share that reality with the world. Because Christ
is lord, what has been given to the church is also what is offered
to the world. The believing community is the eschatological presence
of the still to come fulfillment of God’s kingdom.
new public reality offers a new political vision for the world. The
good news is a politics of revolution. The good news is not simply a
religious or personal message, but bears connotations of political
uprising. The euangelion is news of redemption from the
oppressor, the deliverance from one’s enemies. What God has done
and is to do is good news for the oppressed, the poor, the widow,
and slave. What God has done in the new people is to create a social
reality where there are new economic practices (breaking bread),
cultural barriers have been broken down (baptism), and where
reconciliation and forgiveness (fraternal admonition) exhibit a life
of servant-leadership. These are all practices for the watching
world, common enough for them to learn from, and hopefully follow.
At the same time, this new political reality must avoid taking
charge of the world, be it through political channels, or
intellectual trump cards -- universal truth claims. The new
peoplehood is a servant-people who offer such a life to the world.
conclusion, evangelism is something the Church does in order to be
Church. Evangelism has at its core a biblical mandate to proclaim
and live a new kingdom reality. This alternate way of living rests
on a larger narrative in which the people of God now view themselves
as the same people of God written about in scripture. This is
similar McClendon’s hermeneutic of “this is that.” The new
people of God live under the guidance of Israel and Jesus, while
exhibiting the present power of a still future reality. Obviously,
evangelism is concerned with presenting the gospel of Jesus Christ
to the world and offering the chance for the world to rechoose its
narrative. In so doing, the world becomes Church, and lives a new
it is helpful to view evangelism as a practice of the Church to the
world. This witness is not founded on universal truths, rather on a
narrative of a viable relationship with God. A residue of modernity
has led us astray in looking for and proclaiming propositional truth
as gospel. Instead, a new postmodern approach refrains from making
universal truth claims and demands a communal ethic and practice of
evangelism. Evangelism is assimilation into a new, communal reality
and is not held captive to the whim on an individual will. It is a
dynamic process which includes, but is not limited to, proclamation
of the gospel and models for church growth. It is a process of
becoming the people of God, living as that people radically, and
offering the invitation to outsiders to enter into that reality.
Outsiders can observe the public practices of forgiveness, new
economics, and cultural reconciliation. Evangelism is the Church
living a new social reality, with new rules and a distinct story.
believing community does not exist unto itself. This community lives
with both kingdom and world blood coursing through its veins. Amidst
this tension “the confessing community will raise up signs of the
kingdoms. In none of them is the kingdom near enough to realization
that those signs can be simple, unambiguous, unbroken.”
modernity once separated, namely religion and public life, Yoder has
keenly tried to restore. What some contemporary theories of
evangelism have tried to separate, namely conversion and politics,
Yoder has insightfully critiqued. Christian witness is public and
revolutionary. It is a social reality bearing witness to what God
has done, is doing, and will do.
Dewey is a soon-to-be a stay-at-home dad while doing final
preparation to start Ph.D. work in theology and literature.
Brett is a member of the Mennonite Church -- one of the
historic peace churches -- and is very interested and involved
in issues ranging from theology and film, postmodernity and
popular culture, to just peacemaking.