One of the first things I saw when I returned to Australia recently was a religious periodical that carried a column summing up the events of 1969 in this part of the world. It was a very useful column for a returning exile, for a multitude of local events had somehow failed to make the headlines over in the United States.

The summary informed me that “it was a year of diverse liturgical experiment, with little likelihood of it all leading anywhere; of some concerted evangelistic efforts on a national basis at which a few showed their resentment of evangelism.”

The major “concerted evangelistic efforts” were of course the Billy Graham crusades held in Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania, Canberra, and the Northern territory in the earlier part of the year. These attracted widespread interest and comment. And more important, through them many people, especially young people, committed their lives to the service of Jesus Christ.

But, according to my journalistic friend, “a few showed their resentment of evangelism.” Why? He does not say. But the detail he records reminds us that evangelism is a subject of profound interest in the modern Church. It is vigorously upheld and bitterly resented. Either way it is certainly matter for current thought.

The subject has been really alive since the great Congress on Evangelism in Berlin in 1966. That large gathering of leading evangelical churchmen dramatized the Church’s concern with the proclamation of the gospel. This has been taken up in other places, among them Southeast Asia. There was an evangelism congress in Singapore in 1968, and another is planned for Manila in May of this year. One feature of the Manila congress is that it is not meant to be merely a theoretical discussion of the subject. It is to be the spearhead event in a five-year movement to evangelize the Philippines. Those who come to the congress to study the subject are expected to go home and put into practice the lessons they have learned.

In Australia there have been crusades, such as the Graham crusades, and local gatherings to study evangelism. At Ridley College, Melbourne, a lecturer in evangelism has been appointed, the first such appointment in Australia. The very fact of the appointment witnesses to the interest in the subject.

But there is the resentment we have noticed before. Some of this comes from opponents of Christianity and is thus only to be expected. But some of it comes from people who profess to be Christians (in Australia last year a bishop and a bush brother are singled out as having spoken out against evangelism). This is a curious phenomenon and one that has been repeated in many parts of the world.

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In part it is due to the superficial way in which evangelism has sometimes been carried on. All the interest has been concentrated in getting some public profession of faith, without close inquiry as to how deep the profession goes. When people in a moment of emotional excitement give themselves out to be Christians and then in time of temptation and testing promptly fall away, there is no cause for us to get excited about the remarkable spread of Christianity. Slaphappy, superficial methods of evangelism are to be condemned, no matter how well intentioned.

Some forms of criticism then are directed at the worse forms evangelism may take. Others are concerned with the content of the evangel. There is a widespread opinion that the Gospel is not to be understood in terms of individual conversion. However, not many nowadays espouse a purely “social” gospel. The shallowness of this approach has been amply demonstrated, and it must now be considered quite out of date.

But that there are social implications of the Gospel is another thing. These cannot be denied, and they are being increasingly emphasized by men who earlier stoutly denied the “social” gospel. If a man claims to be Christian but is not concerned when he meets social injustice, then some doubt must be thrown on the reality of his commitment to Christ. It is good that evangelicals are making this a major emphasis in much preaching, which is yet Cross-centered.

Some of the objection to evangelism seems to stem from a view that the Gospel is a challenge to the whole man. It is a call to give one’s entire allegiance to Christ, so that he is Lord of every aspect. This, it is contended, is not a decision to be lightly made. And it is a decision not likely to be made in the emotional atmosphere of a large evangelistic meeting. So these advocates of an evangelism that stresses the whole life tend to concentrate their efforts on teaching and the like with an attempt at persuasion in an atmosphere of sweet reasonableness.

The trouble with the position is its exclusiveness and intolerance. There can be no doubt that some people are won to Christ as the cumulative result of much teaching, of seeing the Christian life in action, and of quiet thinking over the implications of it all. But not all people are made alike. It is equally true that there are many people who come to a crisis point, which may well be in the large evangelistic meeting, and who then and there make decisions that settle the whole subsequent course of their lives.

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Undeniably, many make professions of belief at such meetings and then slip back. But evangelistic campaigns should not be judged on the basis of their failures. Of what method of evangelism the Church has ever practised can it be said that there are no failures? The fact is that God has been pleased to use this method as well as others, and for that we should give thanks.

The late Archbishop William Temple is reported to have said that the Christian Church is the one organization in the world that exists purely for the benefit of non-members. In this way he gave emphatic expression to his deep conviction that evangelism is the overriding duty of Christians.

The Church is certainly a means of bringing help and solace to its members. In the modern world there is no need to point out the multitude of things a church can do for its members. Yet so often a church seems preoccupied with its members, their needs, their desires, and even their whims. And when it concentrates on its members, the church has died.

God has been pleased to choose the Church as his agent for the doing of his work in the world. And that means primarily bringing the good news to those who are as yet outside its scope, in accordance with the last command of Christ to his disciples. It is well that the Church should be engaging in evangelism and occupied in discussing the relative merits of different methods. For in the last resort, it has no other task.


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