A multireligious society
Evangelism is sharing the good news of Christ. It is not to proselytize or be coercive to share the grace of Christ by conversation. Evangelism in the spirit of Jesus is sharing with love that respects the freedom, thought and decision of the other person.
Evangelism is making faith in Christ an option for a person. Amid all of the religions and philosophies of life, evangelism is simply announcing what Jesus has to offer that is unique and is not found in other religions or philosophies. Evangelistic ventures among people of other religions calls for the deepest respect for others. You should study another position, another religion, until you understand it so well that you see its values clearly and could be tempted to join it. Then you can show its adherents what Jesus has to offer that is not found in another faith position.
But evangelism is a specific aspect of a loving faith. If we love the neighbor as ourselves, we will not be satisfied until we share the most important thing in life with the neighbor—life in Christ. Just as the Lord’s gifts for the roles of “evangelists, pastors and teachers” each have their own uniqueness, so in a “missional church” the roles of being pastor, teaching, serving and the ministry of evangelism each have their own uniqueness.
We are witnesses of the gospel, the good news that God has not remained distant but has come to us in Jesus, that God has made himself truly known. This is different from simply holding a religion, from comparing which religion is better. God’s expression of grace means that each religion must take its place as merely a consciousness of need but not as an end in itself. Faith is not a religious stance we hold but at best a response. And that response is an intelligent, informed response to the evidence in the gospel, even though such evidence does not mean proof.
Evangelism shares the message that God loves us and cares enough to engage the distance between us and himself and bear the cost of forgiving us. The evidence for this is his self-disclosure in Jesus. His self-disclosure involves the incarnation as living among us to express the self-giving character of God. It involves the crucifixion, not as a martyrdom but as “tasting death” for everyone by bearing the deepest hostility of humanity and speaking back a word of forgiving acceptance, thereby changing our stance in relation to God. It involves the resurrection as the declaration of God’s eternal victory over every obstacle, including sin and death. It involves the rule of Christ as Lord in the kingdom of God, a rule to be accepted by us. God in his love and respect for our freedom does not coerce or manipulate us.
Recognizing God’s pattern through history, of being there for us but not manipulating us, we in turn should follow this pattern in evangelism.
One fear of evangelism today is that we be seen as proselytizing. Another fear arises from a sense of confrontation with other belief systems. Another is being ostracized. An answer to these fears is found in the gracious, loving expressions of Jesus, who calls people to walk with him in life but respects their freedom of decision. It is for us as evangelists to show that walking with Jesus makes more sense out of life than any other position or pattern.
Properly understood, this gospel of love holds the social and the spiritual together, for genuine faith in Christ means solidarity with him. This solidarity means walking with Jesus in daily life, loving one’s neighbor as oneself, caring for the poor and the needy, loving one’s enemies as well as one’s friends, caring for all peoples across racial, cultural, ethnic differences.
God has no favorites, Jew or Gentile, for in his grace the role he gave the Jew was simply to open his word of grace to all peoples. Any idolizing of a given people as being especially privileged goes against the purpose of God to reach all peoples. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). The evangelist as witness is a herald of this good news.
Evangelism calls people to follow Jesus in their own culture. We of the Western world must not think our cultural expressions are more spiritual than those of Asian, African or Latin cultures. In fact, while Christianity has contributed to the enrichment of life in the development of secularity, we do not see the secular as an end but an enriching servant to humanity. Our Western patterns at times reflect an uncritical acceptance of secularism without recognizing that the good in the secular is mutual respect for all peoples, but secularism is idolizing the secular rather than reaching beyond it in worship of God.
In world missions we have had to learn to contextualize at the deepest level, to find ways to share meanings across cultural and linguistic lines in ways that find authenticity in the new context. We cannot be authentic in mission by simply imposing Western forms of Christianity upon another culture. This should have been recognized by our government, that similarly no nation can impose its democracy upon another nation but must encourage others to find the freedoms of human rights in ways that can be best expressed in their culture.
Having served as an evangelist as well as an educator and a pastor, I believe these roles need to be held together without compromising either. I pray the Lord of the church will give those gifts that will enable each of these areas of enriching service and will call many young people into these exciting and rewarding roles. Ever grateful for the encouragement I received from C.K. Lehman, J.D. Graber, John Howard Yoder and many others, I want to extend my encouragement to others in their sense of God’s calling in evangelism.
Paul expresses the nature of evangelism in a meaningful passage (2 Corinthians 4:1-5): “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.”
Myron S. Augsburger is a member of Park View Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg, Va., and minister at large with InterChurch Evangelism, Inc.