The most important question we could ask is “What is the gospel?” And then, once we have some clarity there, we should ask what we do with it. Cue evangelism.
Evangelism is simply what Christians do with the gospel. J. I. Packer writes, in Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, “According to the New Testament, evangelism is just preaching the gospel, the evangel.” In Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus, Mack Stiles explains, “Evangelism is teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade.”
Building upon these, my definition is simply:
Evangelism is the announcing of the gospel in order that others might treasure Jesus.
Three notes on this definition.
1. For unbelievers and believers.
As much as we might want a term that refers to gospel ministry that is directed exclusively for unbelievers, I don’t think there is one in the Bible. Maybe κηρυσσω (preaching), though Paul uses it in reference to believers in Romans 16:25.
If evangelism is simply the announcing of the gospel, then evangelism is for anyone to whom the gospel can be preached — which means, evangelism is for believers and unbelievers. The aim is telling the gospel is not just for initial conversion, but for the hearer to treasure Jesus, whether they are Christian or non-Christian.
2. The definition includes intention, not effect.
An important note is the aim to persuade (“in order that”), not persuasion itself. In J. I. Packer’s book, Evangelism and Sovereignty of God, he is careful that we don’t define evangelism in terms of its success. Evangelism is not “teaching the gospel and converting or maturing people” — it is teaching the gospel in order that, with the aim that, people are treasure Jesus. Packer writes, “To define evangelism in terms of an effect achieved in the lives of others amounts to saying that the essence of evangelizing is producing converts” (40).
Since the divine message finds its climax in a plea from the Creator to a rebel world to turn and put faith in Christ, the delivering of it involves the summoning of one’s hearers to conversion. If you are not, in this sense, seeking to bring about conversions, you are not evangelizing … But the way to tell whether in fact you are evangelizing is not to ask whether conversions are known to have resulted from your witness. It is to ask whether you are faithfully making known the gospel message. (41)
3. Evangelism can be critiqued.
I appreciate Packer’s emphasis on evangelism being primarily focused on our faithfulness to the gospel message. Yes. Absolutely. The main thing is not the results, but whether we are accurately articulating what the gospel is. Amen.
But at the same time, there is a word of caution. Remember that evangelism is our telling of the gospel, but it’s not the gospel itself, and therefore it is open to critique. Sometimes we can have an implicit sense, out of good intentions, that any kind of evangelism is off-limits for criticism because, well, it’s evangelism. Bless their hearts, at least they’re doing it.
Again, I get the good intentions behind this, and would always rather err toward not being critical, but there is such a thing as a bad way to do evangelism. Yes, there is. There are bad methods we can use for faithfully articulating the gospel. Now, if Christ is proclaimed, yes, we will rejoice. We should. And at the same time, we can disagree with how it is done.
Connecting This to Discipleship
Now, how does the gospel and evangelism look in the context of discipleship? Do realize that Jesus could have just said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me, go, therefore, and evangelize.” He could have said that, but instead, he tells us to make disciples. So how does evangelism fit in with that?
There are a few ways to put it. Evangelism happens in the context of disciple-making. Or we might say, disciple-making employs evangelism. Discipleship necessarily includes evangelism, but it is also more than evangelism. Discipleship is what Paul explains in 1 Thess. 2:8,
“So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.”
Evangelism outside the context of relationship can often be more about us “getting Jesus off of our chest” than it is about introducing people with the grace of God. But disciple-making (relationship) without evangelism (speaking the gospel) is the making of something other than a disciple, something other than the likeness of Christ as communicated in the gospel.
So they need one another. And perhaps one of the most important things about evangelism in the context of discipleship is that it keeps the goal in view. The gospel is not only conversion, but it is for this person to be mature in Christ (Col 1:28) — that we would treasure Jesus, and all of our lives be brought gladly under his lordship. And that leads us to ask, “What does that look like?” It presses us to figure out precisely what it is we are trying to do, and the best process — the best method — to get us there (e.g., in the case of Cities Church, we want to make worshipers-servants-missionaries, through the strategy of our Community Groups).