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Developing a Definition for Evangelism

In Evangelism in a Skeptical World, Sam Chan offers tools to equip Christians to share the gospel in a world growing increasingly suspicious of religious discussion.

But when it comes to evangelism, there are a lot of definitions and methodologies out there. Many are perfectly helpful in specific contexts with specific groups. But how should we think about the topic biblically?

The following post is adapted from Evangelism in a Skeptical World.

Addressing the language barrier

I want to be clear that while many people use the word evangelism in different ways, we are looking to understand evangelism as an idea that we get from the Bible. There is just one problem. There is no direct-equivalent word for our English word evangelism in the Bible. There is no noun that matches how we use the term in English.

The Bible uses these Greek words: euangelion—“gospel”—to describe what is said (Mark 1:14–15); euangelistes—“evangelist”—to describe the person who is telling the gospel (Acts 21:8; Eph. 4:11); and euangelizo—“to proclaim the gospel”—to describe the activity of telling the gospel (Rom. 10:15). The best way to understand the term evangelism is that it is our attempt to describe what happens when someone tells the euangelion or gospel.

What Do the Terms Euangelion and Gospel Mean?

Euangelion, or gospel, usually refers to the “good news” about Jesus Christ. It is the story of God saving his people and judging his enemies by sending Jesus Christ. In this sense, euangelion or gospel is more broadly both good news and bad news.¹

Hebrew terms

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew terms are besorah (noun) and basar (verb), which the Septuagint translates into Greek as euangelion and euangelizo respectively. These terms refer to the activity of bringing significant news in any general sense (1 Sam. 4:17; 1 Kings 1:42; Jer. 20:15). But they also come to mean significant news in a specific sense—God’s acts of salvation, especially the promised eschatological salvation of his people (Ps. 40:9; 68:11; 96:2; Isa. 40:9; 41:27; 52:7; 61:1; Joel 2:32; Nah. 1:15).²

Greek terms

Outside of the Bible, the Greek word euangelion (in the neuter singular) hardly occurs. And when we do find it being used, it doesn’t mean “good news” until several centuries after the New Testament.

But in the New Testament, euangelion recalls what we saw in the Old Testament’s use of basar—“to bring good news.” The word is used seventy-six times in the New Testament—sixty times by Paul alone. It typically refers to the story about Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:1; Gal. 1:11; 2:2) or of someone telling this story (1 Cor. 9:14; 2 Cor. 2:12; 8:18).³

English terms

The English word gospel comes from the Anglo-Saxon word God-spell— literally, “God’s story.” It is used in our English Bibles to translate the Greek word euangelion. When William Tyndale translated the Bible into English, he used gospel to mean “good news.”

What Does the Concept of Evangelism Mean?

Evangelism is a term we use in English for the act of communicating the gospel. This idea is conveyed in the New Testament by the verb euangelizo (“to bring good news”). But the concept should be broadly understood to include several different ways of bringing that good news to people. It includes any form of communicating the gospel, and there are several New Testament verbs that convey this idea, such as martureo (“to testify” or “bear witness”), kerusso (“to herald”), parakaleo (“to exhort”), katangelo (“to proclaim”), or propheteuo (“to prophesy”), and didasko (“to teach”).⁴

Evangelism Is Defined by Its Message

While several terms indicate the variety of ways we communicate the gospel, the essence of evangelism is in the message, the gospel of Jesus. Evangelism is the event of communicating this message, or we might say that evangelism is defined by its message. The essence of evangelism is not the method (preaching, singing, acting) nor the medium (a person, a book, a song) nor the occasion (church service, commencement speech, school camp) nor the audience (believers and nonbelievers).

Evangelism Has Broad and Narrow Senses

In a broad sense, evangelism communicates the gospel to both believers and nonbelievers. We find this sense of evangelism, for example, when Paul says, “[Christ] is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). Paul communicates (evangelizes) the gospel to the believers, those who already know and follow Jesus. In this broad sense, evangelism is the basis of preaching, teaching, and ethical exhortations to believers. Without the gospel message, our preaching, teaching, and exhortations to believers would be reduced to legalism and moral aphorisms.

In the midtwentieth century, C. H. Dodd wrongly made it fashionable to distinguish between preaching to believers and evangelizing nonbelievers. But this distinction cannot be supported biblically, because in the New Testament the gospel is the basis of both activities. Both believers and nonbelievers are being preached to and evangelized with the gospel.⁵

However, we can also define evangelism in a narrow sense as communicating the gospel to nonbelievers to urge them to believe in Jesus (Acts 8:35; Rom. 10:14–15). For the rest of this book, we will use the term evangelism in this sense.

Evangelism Is Not Defined by Its Method

In the Bible, there is no single method of communicating the gospel; instead there is a variety of methods. In the New Testament alone, we find:

  • Parables by Jesus
  • Songs
  • Creeds
  • Letters to churches
  • One-on-one conversations
  • Sermons in formal worship gatherings
  • Discussion meetings
  • Public speeches
  • Apocalyptic literature
  • Miracles

Unfortunately, well-meaning Christians often get stuck on one particular method and end up believing it is the only or best method. Usually this is the method that we have become an expert in. Or it is the method that was effective in our own conversion. Or it is the method that distinguishes our tradition or denomination from others.

For example, my American friends tell me that for a long time, much of North American evangelism utilized tent-style crusades. Or it relied on crisis evangelism, sharing the gospel in a way that emphasized making a decision at that moment.⁶ While it’s understandable why we might use one method for a long time, it does mean that we miss out on the strengths of other methods. And we risk becoming legalistic and reductionist by insisting on one method, confusing orthodoxy (the message) with orthopraxy (the method).

My hope is that we can be aware of our prejudices about methods of evangelism and explore different methods and appreciate their strengths.

What is the gospel?

We have defined evangelism as an event where the gospel is communicated. But what exactly is this gospel? How do we describe it? How do we understand it? To answer these questions, we will look at the gospel from three different but complementary perspectives.

1. The Gospel according to the New Testament Writers

Let’s say we’re trained as New Testament exegetes. We would answer the question “What is the gospel?” by describing what New Testament writers such as Paul say about it. From passages such as Romans 1:1–5 and 1 Corinthians 15:1–4, we can observe four things:

  1. The gospel is the story about Jesus Christ: who he is and what he has done.
  2. Our access to the gospel is through the Scriptures.
  3. The gospel, which demands a response of faith and obedience, brings salvation.
  4. The gospel is communicated to both believers and nonbelievers.

2. The Gospel according to Theologians

Let’s say we’re trained as systematic theologians. We would answer the question “What is the gospel?” by prescribing systematized biblical ideas for our contemporary setting. Most approaches to evangelism in the West use some type of theological grid to communicate and explain Christian beliefs. For example, we could break down the gospel story into a variation on the following main points:₇

  1. God created us.
  2. We have sinned against God.
  3. Jesus saves us from our punishment.
  4. We now have a decision to make.

These main points are fleshed out with our theologies of creation, sin, salvation, and conversion. This has been the predominant approach to evangelism over the last century, commonly found in methods like Evangelism Explosion, the Four Spiritual Laws, Bridge to Life, and Two Ways to Live. Perhaps you can think of others.

3. The Gospel according to Storytellers

Let’s say we’re trained as storytellers, in particular as biblical theologians. We would answer the question “What is the gospel?” by tracing the story of what God has done, and continues to do, to save his people. As an example of this approach, Timothy Keller suggests the following storytelling grid:⁸

  1. Manger
  2. Cross
  3. King

We would begin by telling the story of how Jesus came to us in a manger. God the Son came to us as a human being, a servant. He ate and drank with the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast. Theologians call this act the incarnation. It illustrates the new ethic and reversal of values described by New Testament writers: “The last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matt. 20:16), “Blessed are the meek” (Matt. 5:5), and “He made himself nothing” (Phil. 2:7).

Next, we tell the story of how Jesus died for us on a cross. God the Son saves us from our sins by dying in our place. This is an act of grace. We are saved not by our goodness but by this gift from God. Theologians call this act substitutionary atonement. It is the salvation by grace described by New Testament writers: “All have sinned . . . all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:23–24).

Finally, we tell the story of how Jesus will come again as king. God the Son is coming again to renew this world. He will right all wrongs and wipe away every tear. The renewed life that we enjoy now in the gift of God’s Spirit will be enjoyed forever, more fully, in a renewed world. This is what theologians call restoration. It is the consummation described by New Testament writers: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord” (Rev. 11:15).

A definition of evangelism

After considering all of these factors, we can arrive at this definition of evangelism:

The essence of evangelism is the message that Jesus Christ is Lord. Evangelism is our human effort of proclaiming this message—which necessarily involves using our human communication, language, idioms, metaphors, stories, experiences, personality, emotions, context, culture, locatedness—and trusting and praying that God, in his sovereign will, will supernaturally use our human and natural means to effect his divine purposes.

In a general sense, evangelism refers to our human efforts of proclaiming this message to any audience of believers and nonbelievers. In a narrower sense, evangelism refers to our human efforts of proclaiming this message to nonbelievers. But in both senses, we proclaim the gospel with the hope that our audience responds by trusting, repenting, and following and obeying Jesus.

LEARN MORE: Stream the Evangelism in a Skeptical World series on MasterLectures.

  1. For more on this double aspect—good news and bad news—of the gospel, see Broughton Knox, “What Is the Gospel?” The Briefing 343 (April 2007), 10–13.
  2. Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1996), 43n16.
  3. Moo, Epistle to the Romans, 43n16.
  4. Klaas Runia, “What Is Preaching according to the New Testament?” Tyndale Bulletin 29 (1978): 3–48.
  5. For a further critique of Dodd’s thesis, see Runia, “What Is Preaching?” 13–16.
  6. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Leicester, UK: Inter-Varsity, 1994).
  7. I owe this observation to a talk I heard by Timothy Keller called “Dwelling in the Gospel,” presented at the New York City Dwell Conference, April 30, 2008.
  8. Timothy Keller borrows this from Simon Gathercole. This is from Keller’s talk “Dwelling in the Gospel.”
Evangelism in a Skeptical World Sam Chan
“Chan has written a helpful resource for sharing the gospel in our world. He helps students of evangelism think through ways to present the good news, as well a...
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