Evangelism, rightly called “the lifeline of Christianity” and the central task of the Christian Church, is getting much attention these days. This is especially significant in view of the confident assertion by religious leaders of the thirties that “personal evangelism” was dead.
Of course, not all who are now discussing evangelism are dealing with the historic mandate of the Church to proclaim Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. Some are attempting to deprive the term “evangelism” of its clarity and vitality.
There is a tendency to set in antithesis an “evangelism of decision” and an “evangelism of identification.” The implications of this are clear. Evangelism concerned directly with the individual and his spiritual anxieties and hungers is regarded as aloof, unrelated to the realities of the time, and hence irrelevant. We are asked to believe that evangelism that leaves the chancel and moves into the streets (particularly for protests and demonstrations) is now the only type worthy of the name. As the Christian becomes an active part of power-movements for social betterment, we are told, he is best displaying the heart of Christianity.
Granted, the Gospel, when true to our Lord’s example, is concerned with the needs of the poor and the disinherited. Not granted, however, is the contention, often recklessly made, that historic evangelism at its best is insensitive to the needs of those who have been left behind in the march of progress. Even persons who are unenthusiastic about Dr. Billy Graham will, if they are fair, admit that he is vitally concerned about the problems that plague today’s society, such as urbanization and ghetto living.
Part of the problem is to define the task. Has social change made it necessary to view the Church’s mandate to evangelize in a wholly new way? Some will heartily reply, Yes! They will say that if we are to “do the work of an evangelist” in our day, we must focus our attention, not on the spiritual needs of the individual, but on the processes of social change. Presumably we must do this to ensure that such change will be carried out in a way that can be called “Christian.”
In past days, the Church, as witnessing Church, was generally thought to stand in some sense over the world. In the name of its Lord it was to declare an unchanging message centering in the constancy of human sin, the certainty of God’s love and grace, and the urgency of the redeeming ministry of Jesus Christ. Today many influential people are urging the Church to surrender its claim to call all men to repentance (and thus to sit in judgment upon the whole of human life) and to take its place as one of several agencies of power in our society.
Perhaps it is time for the “identifying church” to search its heart and decide whether the demands of its avant-garde reflect any special, contemporary mandate from the Lord of the Church. It might well inquire, in the “morning after” of frustrated anti-poverty programs and bitter demands for “black power,” whether evil in society can be financed or demonstrated out of existence. The liberal church might also ask itself whether it is qualified to undertake a twentieth-century Constantinianism—to assume direct responsibility for directing our society.
Not many will go so far as one worldly prelate who proclaimed that individual evangelism urging personal commitment to Christ was “unchristian.” The more usual attitude is to regard the evangelist who “preaches for a verdict” at the personal level as the “prisoner of an outmoded theology” or as one who “unduly limits the scope and sphere of the Gospel.” No tabulation of ecclesiastical power will determine what is right. True, much liberal “social action” today has been sparked by frustration at the slow progress made by secular agencies. But is not much “action” proving itself to be frustrating? The proponent of “evangelism by identification” must be disturbed to hear that Western assistance to underdeveloped nations is “self-serving” and that acceptance of it is “harlotry with capitalist lands.”
The issue before the Church seems to be this: Are we to accept the New Testament mandate to “preach the Gospel to every creature,” or are we to accept the revised definition of evangelism proposed by ideologists whose views are conditioned almost entirely by a socio-political creed?
If “there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved,” then every man deserves to hear that message regardless of his religious or cultural background. Certainly this proclamation should be made humbly and lovingly; but it must be made, even in the face of a hostile world and an antagonistic Zeitgeist. Certainly the ministering evangelist should, as far as possible, separate himself from considerations of race and color. Certainly he ought to separate himself from the instruments of prejudice and injustice. Certainly he ought to interest himself, and those within range of his witness, in the financial structures that control trade and wealth among nations. But his major concern must be to relate the unchanging Revelation to man’s needs in a changing world.
Methods may vary, but principles remain. The problem of human sin and guilt and anxiety; the imperious need for divine forgiveness; the essential need of lonely man for relation with God through Jesus Christ—these are constant. No religious appeal is permanently relevant if it fails to come to grips with these constants. Accelerated technology makes human need no less urgent; a society conditioned more and more by cybernetics leaves men in no less need of the light and warmth of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, since more and more of man’s basic decisions seem to come from invisible, impersonal sources, personal decision and commitment in “core matters” are the more urgent.
The Cross has more than one meaning. It means hope, and in this we rejoice. But it also means offense. He who will “do the work of an evangelist” must willingly reckon with resistance to his message. He needs only to be certain that his presentation of Christ and his cross is made in love and humility.
The promise, “Lo, I am with you always,” is rooted in the command to evangelize. This should sustain the evangelist in the face of opposition, including that which questions whether his message is relevant for the times. He might also remember that organized Christianity may sink into decay, irrelevance, and finally extinction in several ways, and that one way is thoughtless identification.—
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