The Foundation of Evangelism
As Christians, how we understand dogmas and doctrines may differ from denomination to denomination, even theologian to theologian. Yet, a core truth unites us as Christians: the coming of Christ in the flesh. This fact, the Son of God taking on human nature, is foundational for our common faith. From this basis, we are empowered in many ways, but not without being given a mission. The conclusion of Matthew's Gospel is often titled “The Great Commission,” in which Jesus gives the early Church the mission to go forth into the world, proclaim the good news of salvation, and make disciples of all lands and nations.
Now in the year of Our Lord 2022, we can read the Gospel account, the Epistles of the Apostolic Age, the various texts of the Early Christian Church, etc. and wonder how we could share in the mission of people who lived in such a different time. For those early disciples, the work of evangelism seems almost like a death sentence, yet its results are astounding. Proclaiming the worship of One Triune God in denial of the Greco-Roman pantheon was insulting and even treasonous. Yet, we witness history as communities became Christian throughout the Mediterranean areas and spread despite persecution and martyrdoms. The Apostolic evangelism possessed a particular fire which we can only imagine today. How do we respond to the commission of Christ; how do we act as true Apostles in our own age?
A major difference to the environment of evangelism today is the simple fact that in most places, belief in Jesus is no longer a novel concept. While for centuries, missionaries brought Christ to foreign lands which had never heard His name, today it seems that everyone should have at least some idea of Christianity. Even a secular worldly person who has never gone to church probably has some idea about the belief of Christians in a Jesus fellow who was crucified to save people from a place called hell. So, the evangelist might not be tasked so much to proclaim a radically new idea about salvation, but to clarify and correct the ideas already loosely (and likely incorrectly) grasped.
This situation may be more unique today, but the reality of evangelism throughout history has taken many forms. We can consider the difference between missionaries in ancient Palestine/Israel, proclaiming the arrival of the long-awaited Savior to the Jews, as compared to Jesuits in Japan, afforded little interest by the Emperor and typically Shinto or Buddhist populace. Or perhaps the difference in Africa between evangelizing peaceable tribes and those at war. Yet in history, evangelists came to all of these different situations and peoples. They had to adjust and adapt their methods, but the core message remains always the same: The Kingdom of God is at hand! Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world and all people! And so, for our current situation, how can this message be communicated? How can we preach to people who already think they know what we have to say? I may not have a concise exact answer, but I would like to propose where I believe one may be found.
The first place to start is to better define what I mean by evangelism (in this series, considered as a synonym of evangelization). Up to this point, I have referred to evangelism and the commission of Jesus as “proclaiming” and “spreading” the message about Jesus as Christ and Messiah. However, I don't want to limit the scope of the Christian message to communications between believers and hearers. I think that just as necessary to authentic evangelism are the living witnesses of the evangelists. Not only by word, but by deed is the Gospel able to be shared. Further, any actions which positively shift the environment of the world to becoming more aligned to Christ may be considered authentic forms of evangelism.
Here, some of Jesus' own words may be useful to expand my definition. A major theme in the Gospels is conversation about “The Kingdom of God” (also Kingdom of Heaven). Especially in Matthew, there is a proclamation that “the Kingdom of God is at hand” (Matt 4:17, Mark 1:15). Yet, Jesus also states that His Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). I believe that at the intersection of these statements is found the mission of the evangelist. As a result of Jesus' Incarnation, what was once foreign to the world has entered into the world. The Kingdom of God is certainly foreign from and other than the world which is fallen in many ways by the influence of sin. Yet, Jesus has brought it into the world; it is now established and “at hand.” Though there are immense and radical implications to the Incarnation, the Passion and Resurrection, and the establishment of the Church, the fact remains that the world is still fallen and sinful, still other than the perfect Kingdom. For baptized Christians, by entering into God's grace, we move from the world into that otherness of the Kingdom of God. His Kingdom is extended when we, living in grace, bring that otherness into the world through our words and deeds.
I believe then, that evangelism describes whatever activity- words or deeds- brings the Kingdom of God about in the world, on large or small scales.
Regarding the imminence of the Kingdom of God, the Catholic Church states in her Pastoral Constitution on the Church In the Modern World (entitled Gaudium et Spes)1:
Thanks to this belief [the Incarnation], the Church can anchor the dignity of human nature against all tides of opinion, for example those which undervalue the human body or idolize it. By no human law can the personal dignity and liberty of man be so aptly safeguarded as by the Gospel of Christ which has been entrusted to the Church. For this Gospel announces and proclaims the freedom of the sons of God, and repudiates all the bondage which ultimately results from sin.(8) (cf. Rom. 8:14-17); it has a sacred reverence for the dignity of conscience and its freedom of choice, constantly advises that all human talents be employed in God's service and men's, and, finally, commends all to the charity of all (cf. Matt. 22:39).
For Catholics, this means we see a deep connection between the mission of sharing the Gospel with the uplifting of human dignity in the world. We have a definite interest in evangelism not only because Jesus instructed us to do it, but at the same time because it is for the improvement of our world and neighbors. Belief in Christ means salvation not only after death, but in life itself.
I think we most often judge evangelism by building of churches, by baptisms and conversions. While these things are certainly going to be present in many places where evangelism is successful, I want to turn the focus away from merely results-based judgment. Jesus tells the parable of the sower who throws seed on different types of soil and the results which follow. If we only judge by the immediate results of his work, we would consider the sower a failure: only a quarter of his seeds are able to fully grow. Yet, those which do grow turn out fruit sixty or a hundred fold.