The E Word: What is Evangelism?

Elli Wort

‘Evangelism’ is a word we bat about a lot. But like all jargon, it’s good to stop and think what it really means. Some of us overcomplicate what we think evangelism is, leaving us feeling out of our depth. Others distill it to something so basic we’re left lacking the depth of what evangelism really means. So to kick off our series on The E Word, we asked Elli Wort from Church Army’s Training Team: ‘what is evangelism?’…

It’s obvious, isn’t it, what evangelism is? It’s telling people about Jesus! We don’t need to complicate things any further… surely?

Evangelism is all about transforming people’s lives with the Good News of Jesus, that’s true. But I think evangelism is even deeper, even bigger than individual lives being transformed. When we start to do evangelism, more changes than we might realise…

So, how can we start to understand this?

If we look at the word itself, evangelism comes from the Greek terms euanggelion (‘gospel’), euanggelizo (‘preach good news’), and euanggelistes (‘one who preaches good news’ or ‘evangelist’). As well as appearing in the New Testament, the idea of an evangelist is also found in the Old Testament, and this can give us a clue to the type of transformation that evangelism can bring.

Michael McClymond describes how the word ‘evangelist’ is used in Isaiah 52:7–10: “The city of Jerusalem is at war. The people eagerly await news from the army fighting on their behalf. Sentries stand on the city walls, scanning the horizon for signs of an approaching messenger. At last the long-awaited messenger (the euanggelistes) appears on the hills surrounding the city and bears good news. The army has won and their victory is also God’s victory: ‘Your God reigns!’ The entire city erupts into celebration”.

Michael McClymond argues that the word evangelism, despite its varied use over time, originally refers to the joyful message of God’s gracious and peaceable reign. This is the crucial change at the heart of evangelism: when we do evangelism, we are sharing the good news that, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, God has won and the world we live in is God’s kingdom.

So, what change does this bring?

Bishop Lesslie Newbigin describes the result of evangelism as “not a transference from one self-centred community to another; it is not a private peace with God while the whole world goes to rot. It is being caught up into God’s action of kingdom. It is being changed so that we can be agents of change”.

When people are transformed by Jesus, they become agents of change, transforming the world to look more and more like that kingdom of God.

Oh, and there’s another thing that changes when we do evangelism: ourselves. When we share the good news of Jesus, we aren’t bringing God into a place where he hasn’t been before: we are meeting God where he is already at work. Church Army’s report on evangelism, Inside Out, describes how many Church Army Evangelists find their work involves discerning and articulating the work that God is already doing in people’s lives. And when we encounter God at work in someone else’s life our understanding of God will be widened and deepened, and we will be changed.

People, communities, the whole world, even ourselves: God can transform all these things when we get involved in sharing the Good News of his kingdom and reign.

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