Jesus' exhortation to "go and make disciples" might seem daunting to a Christian worried that a Christopher Hitchens is around every corner, eager to debate the existence of God. Jerry Root, associate professor of spiritual formation at Wheaton College, co-authored The Sacrament of Evangelism (Moody) with Stan Guthrie to rethink the nature of evangelism and reassure its anxious practitioners. Owen Strachan, co-author of The Essential Edwards Collection, spoke with Root about recovering the "sacramental" dimension of evangelism.
Some evangelicals might be unfamiliar with classifying evangelism as a sacrament.
Generally, people see sacraments as places where God shows up in unique and particular ways and mediates grace. I've sensed that evangelism is not something we do in isolation from God. We don't take him to anybody—he's already there and already more interested in that person than we are, and somehow engaged with that person. We're not just speaking the gospel to an uninterested audience. We ask questions, listen to the answers, and let the person give us information that allows us to go deeper. All of a sudden, in the process of sharing, the message gets Velcroed to a high-felt need, and in that particular moment, we realize we've been participating with God all along, and he has shown up.
What are some ways we misunderstand evangelism?
The biggest misunderstanding is that we don't understand how essential it is to the whole program of God's work in the world, and most people don't do it. Evangelism is one of the marks of being mature in Christ. Dawson Trotman, who founded the Navigators, rightly said a person is physiologically mature when they can reproduce physiologically, and a person is spiritually mature when they can reproduce spiritually. If we're not engaged in reproduction, maybe we're too busy feeding ourselves rather than being robust reproducers—leading people to Jesus so they can be deployed.
With so many activities and callings demanding our attention, how can Christians carve out time to share the gospel?
I don't think they have to carve out time unless they are living in a monastery and have to make forays outside the monastery walls. Virtually everybody lives in a community, among people who don't know Jesus. We work in offices or travel in carpools, we have neighbors, and it doesn't take extra time to connect with those people. We all find ourselves in an environment where we can do evangelism. We plant Christ's flag where we already live.
Many evangelicals debate the relative prioritizing of evangelism and social justice within the church's mission. In your view, "Societal transformation and kingdom work begin not with an emphasis on justice but with the transformation of hearts." Can you explain?
I think you do all you can to change injustices. I think we would be foolish not to try. But the transformation of society will last only as long as that particular effort captures the imagination of people. If you want to maintain transformation, you have to have a changed heart. We're not interested in an either/or [proclamation of evangelism or social justice]. Our behaviors need to complement the message. You can proclaim the gospel but be a chump in your relationships, and nobody's going to follow Christ. I believe that society changes, at least more drastically, when people's hearts are changed.
You have extensive international evangelistic experience. Do you tailor your evangelism to the unique cultures of different countries?
I do. You have to be a little careful in some places, but sometimes you can meet great hostility in the materialistic West as well. I think it's good to be culturally sensitive to the circumstances. Intimacies in conversation can develop, and you can share Christ even in difficult environments. For many years, I taught C. S. Lewis courses and philosophy courses at a secular college, and I saw students come to Jesus. But I never violated the cultural classroom setting. I didn't use my role in the class as an opportunity to take advantage of the students and share Jesus. But many students had questions. We would go for coffee, where I would ask questions that revealed where these students were struggling.
Again, it's the sacrament of evangelism. I'm going somewhere, believing God is already there, and I'm trying to be sensitive, ask questions, listen, and watch for God to show up.
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Previous Christianity Today by or featuring Jerry Root include:
That Hideous Bible? C.S. Lewis Bible Kicks Up Gender Protest | A petition suggests that the New Revised Standard Version would be at odds with C.S. Lewis’s convictions. (February 1, 2011)
Will 'The Dawn Treader' Float? | Christian leaders get sneak peek of next Narnia movie, like what they see; filmmakers admit "mistakes" on Prince Caspian, vow to get it right this time. (March 2, 2010)
The Lion, The Witch and The Library | A guide to the best new books about the man and the myths. (December 2, 2005)
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