Second Thoughts About Evangelism?

Wycliffe College professor John Bowen’s book, Evangelism for ‘Normal’ People, was published in 2002. Since then it has sold 10,000 copies.evangelismnormalppl The  book is used as a textbook in several Canadian seminaries. But 2002 is a long time ago. Here’s what the author thinks now.

-By John Bowen

The Gospel is always bigger: I think my appreciation for the sheer bigness of the Gospel has increased. I would go further, and say that the Gospel should actually be the starting point for all of our theology. Some think the starting point for theology should be the mission of God (the “missio dei”) but surely the only way we know that God has a mission to redeem the world is because of Jesus’ announcement of the Gospel! The Gospel is the key to understanding what a Christian is (an apprentice of Jesus in the mission of God), what church is (the community of apprentices where the Gospel is spoken and lived out), what worship is (our hearts’ response to the Gospel), and (of course) what evangelism is (inviting others to respond to the Gospel). The Gospel is absolutely key.

These days, I am reluctant to say anything about evangelism until we have talked about the Gospel. Until there is passion for the Gospel—the evangel—there will be no healthy evangelism.

Evangelism and discipleship are on the same spectrum: I don’t know why I didn’t say more about discipleship in the book. Now it seems obvious to me that evangelism and discipleship are not separate things. Thus, when people ask why Christians are not living as disciples, my question is: “What Gospel had they heard? What on earth did they think they were getting into? Why does the challenge of discipleship come as a surprise to them?”

The Good News is that God is at work to restore all things (the kingdom), and the invitation of the Gospel is to commit to that message—firstly, so that the work of restoration can be carried out in us (aka “sanctification”), but also so that we can be co-workers with God, and play our part in the restoration project (aka “vocation”). “Repent” means giving up the leadership of your own life; “believe” means giving your life to being a disciple of Jesus. So, if you are not a disciple, what exactly is the message you heard?

One practical outworking of this is that as people explore the Gospel, they need to be encouraged to try it. Not long ago, I was studying the Gospel of Luke in a local coffee shop with a young man who was trying to understand Christian faith. When the server asked what we were discussing, I let my friend do the answering. Why? Because if he becomes a disciple, he will have to learn to be upfront about his allegiance to Jesus. On another occasion, because I help out at a local reception centre for refugees, I encouraged my friend to come and help out too. Why? Because, as I explained to him, that’s the kind of thing that Christians do, and I wanted him to get a taste of it. In a sense, he was already beginning to “repent and believe.” In this kind of way, our evangelism needs to contain the seeds of discipleship. I don’t think I had seen that so clearly before.

The significance of baptism: In my Christian upbringing, the important thing in evangelism was to help people get to the point where they would pray “a prayer of commitment.” The form of the prayer hardly mattered. Indeed, as Michael Green says, such a prayer can be just one word: “Yes!” They would then begin a life of involvement in the church and discipleship. And baptism? Well, yes, that was important too, as a public profession of new faith. But it was a “recommended extra.” There wasn’t much about it in Evangelism for ‘Normal’ People.

Now I would reverse those two and make baptism primary and the “personal prayer” secondary. (I can’t actually think of an example of a “personal prayer of commitment” in the New Testament accounts of evangelism! Baptism, however . . . It’s everywhere.)

So, for example, if I’m teaching a Christianity 101 course, I devote a session to explaining what it means to become a disciple—and spend some time unpacking the terms “repent and believe.” But do I invite people to say a “prayer of commitment” at the end? Well, yes, I do.

The way I explain it is to compare it to marriage (a biblical analogy, after all). “Praying a prayer,” I say, is like engagement. Engagement is usually a private commitment, very intimate, very personal, and there is no set form of words. Engagement is important and beautiful, but of course it’s only the first half of a much bigger commitment. Baptism, on the other hand, is like the marriage: it’s public, it’s formal, it’s a community celebration, and the form it takes is (more or less) standard.

Thus at the end of that C101 session, I often offer people a “personal prayer” to pray in the quiet of their hearts. But then I add, “If you prayed that prayer, do give your name to the minister before you leave tonight, because she is arranging a date for the next baptisms, and would love to include you.”

Church planting and evangelism: Something that was hardly on my radar in 2002 was the importance of church planting for evangelism. But the evidence is now quite clear. The Southern Baptists in the US, for example, who have tracked where conversions are happening, are seeing more than three times the number of people coming to faith in new churches than in their older churches—and this in a denomination that majors on evangelism! Because of this development, I taught my first course on church planting as one of Wycliffe College’s evangelism offerings in the fall of 2002.

Of course, it is equally clear that church planting will not usually take the same form today that it did in a Christendom era. Hence all the talk of “fresh expressions of church”—new churches which begin at the grassroots, grow out of a particular local culture, and develop into mature churches over a period of years. The Mission Shaped Church report, which catalysed a lot of the fresh expressions movement in the UK, was not published till 2004, two years after Evangelism for ‘Normal’ People. That’s meant a whole lot of learning for me.

The significance of friendship: I notice that in Evangelism for ‘Normal’ People, I often refer to “inviting your friends to Christian events.” Now, I would say the problem with that approach is two-fold. One, that fewer people these days are interested in attending church events. (One friend, Karen Wilk, has actually written a book called Don’t Invite them to Church!) The other problem is that many Christians are too busy with activities in the Christian fellowship to build meaningful friendships, ones where faith can be shared, outside the church. And not much evangelism will happen until we are prepared to equip people to go out with confidence, and release them to do so. We need to complement our emphasis on “the church gathered for worship” with one on “the church scattered for witness and mission.”

Hmm. Maybe all this means there’s enough to justify writing another book. We’ll see.

(A version of this blog first appeared in good idea! a publication of Wycliffe College’s Institute of Evangelism)

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