Lately here at the congress in Cape Town (technically it doesn’t start until Sunday afternoon) I have been hearing from various delegates about different issues. A comment I hear often is that “at the congress this year there is not enough emphasis on this…or that…or this.” Some of the older generation want this to reflect the same spirit as the Lausanne Congresses of 1974 and 1989, emphasizing evangelism (in the classical sense of the word). Some of the newer generation want to be set apart, want to focus on justice and social issues of the day, emphasizing things like globalization, technology, and finally listening to the Majority World (the non-western world). Everyone is coming together to figure out what all this means in light of their own role in perpetuating the task of evangelization. To be perfectly honest it is easy to get wrapped up in the high of the moment somehow expecting that the spirit of this congress will spread the same as in 1974. It’s hard not to let it get to our heads, thinking that we are somehow agents of a great movement to come. While that may very well be true it is God who deserves all the glory. It is God who deserves the glory if it doesn’t.
I am starting to get off topic, but my point is that I sincerely desire for the Spirit of God to move in this place, because that’s the only way this is going to have any impact at all on years to come. It’s going to take a literal act of God Himself to create a great movement that will challenge mainstream evangelicalism as we know it. I fear that this will become a platform for politics and personal agendas to get in the way. Lord, you realize we are each fallen human beings living in a broken world- help us get back to you and listen to you as you move among these leaders.
One of the topics I heard someone mention is that there is not enough emphasis on evangelism. We talk about evangelization of the world, he says, but the themes of the congress seem to be less about planting churches and reaching the unreached than about dealing with social concerns such as (but not limited to) HIV/AIDS, sex trafficking, the Majority World churches in the Global South, and ethnicity. This is a real concern with the agendas of this congress.
As a response to this I personally think we live in a generation that focuses a lot on those “humanitarian” ministries (some people would call them “mercy’ ministries). People are more willing to go care for orphans in Romania than do church planting in Russia. And there’s nothing wrong with orphans in Romania (in fact, there is something very right about it), nor is it to say that church planting should be held in such high esteem (especially in situations where the church becomes too inward focused and provides no relevance to the culture outside- which is happening increasingly in the West). However, somewhere along the way we’ve focused so much on justice and social concerns that we forget the importance of proclamation. Without the proclamation of Jesus then those things are just like the actions of every other humanitarian organization out there.
I would like to ask, though, when you speak of evangelism what definition would you give to it? Are you referring to the classical definition of evangelism?
How can we approach the gospel more holistically- where word (evangelism), power (Spirit of God), and deeds (justice, social concerns) connect. Where proclamation goes hand in hand with actions? Why separate the three (word, deeds, power)? Why separate evangelism from discipleship? Since the beginning of time, God, people, and the earth connected to each other in terms of relationship, stewardship, and ownership, all existing under the Lordship of God. Somewhere along the way all these relationships were broken as a consequence of the Fall. Restoring that relationship could not be accomplished until the sacrificial atoning death and resurrection of Christ was fulfilled in the eschatological vision of a New Heaven and a New Earth. However, while here on earth we can play a part in reversing the effects of the Fall. Reversing the effects of the Fall involve implementing God’s Plan of Redemption in which restoration and reconciliation can happen. We do our part in helping reverse this brokenness by contributing to the social and economic development of community as reflected in koinnonia. We become part of the process of transforming cultures and lives and contribute to both the spiritual and physical development of the human experience. Namely, connecting proclamation with action.
James Engel once said, “Evangelism is the outcome of empathetic relationships win which the story of Jesus Christ is both demonstrated and proclaimed.” With this definition of evangelism, how do we then approach each of these issues? Empathy means identifying with another person, which means getting into their world as much as possible. Preaching the gospel is not just about using the right words we learned in Bible school. They aren’t hearing what you’re saying. It’s not just about setting the right example and living above reproach. It’s about entering their world and making heart-to-heart connections by building relationships, demonstrating the love of God, and then (only then) making the Word of God relevant to their situation from their own understanding of reality. If evangelism isn’t working with the people, then look for other biblical approaches that point you toward how to reach them through appropriate methods. Making the Word relevant means finding practical insights from the Bible for solving daily problems. What does “good news” mean for them? What can Jesus do for China, for my family, for my situation? Faith comes from hearing the message, yes, but the message doesn’t have any meaning until deeds and people connect. It means creating a situation where deeds have an opportunity to express themselves in words. We do not want to be a stranger from a distant land with a message to share. We want to be a friend in close proximity with a message to demonstrate. This means listening to the majority world. It means getting involved in justice and reconciliation. It means building houses and caring for the sexually exploited and handing out food and building wells. It means sitting around a table together and figuring out how all this plays out- and the role we are each to play.
However, yes, the proclamation needs to be intentional. Where deeds happen then Christ needs to proclaimed. Be intentional about making the most of every opportunity- including speaking the name of Christ and sharing the Story. And, yes, we need to sit around and talk about how to do this better.
In the past there has been too much emphasis on proclamation. Now there is too much emphasis on deeds. Rarely is there an emphasis on power (as in, the power of God through His Spirit) because that is one the church (at least the Western church) does not always understand. How can we combine word (proclamation), deeds, and power together, each as a legitimate part of the gospel message? That is, the whole church bringing the whole gospel to the whole world.
As I look at the six major themes of the congress this week (truth, world faiths, reconciliation, priorities, integrity, partnership), I see each of them as addressing evangelism. Each of these themes are focused on sharing the good news of life in Christ. I think the heart of every person here at the congress wants that even if we have a different way of expressing it through our various giftings.
It is in God we live and move and have our being. Until all people hear.