“The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.”
Whether Socrates actually said this or it is a conflation of his thought, the point is made: we won’t get far in discussing a subject without clearly defining the terms.
First, let’s see what evangelism isn’t. Evangelism is not the same as mission.
Mission refers to God’s larger plan of redemption and our role as a sent people, and as such includes not only the verbal proclamation of Christ, but also such things as learning the culture and language of an area, caring for physical and emotional needs, and being salt in an area even as we shine the light of the gospel message.
As his followers join him on his mission, we both show and share his love with others.
Part of the problem comes when people confuse the overarching mission with the task of evangelism. The mission involves both gospel demonstration and gospel proclamation. A vital part of the mission is gospel proclamation, which is what evangelism is.
When I do good deeds so that the world might be more like Jesus would want it to be, I'm aligned with Jesus’ commission in John 20:21, where he says, “As the father has sent me, so send I you.”
I'm also aligned with what Jesus had in mind from Luke 4:18-20, where he says, “The Spirit of Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to preach the good news”; he then goes on to talk about marginalized people and serving the hurting. In his public ministry Jesus loved and served the broken.
Serving the hurting is part of Jesus’ mission, but it’s not evangelism.
That’s important to note because of what happens historically. About every 50 years or so in the church—in the early part of the 1900s, again in the middle of the 1900s, and it’s very much the mood of evangelicalism today—this happens: The church starts saying, “We’re doing evangelism with our deeds, not our words.”
They use the famous quote from St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” This quote has two problems with it. Number one, St. Francis never said it. Second, it’s really bad theology. You can’t preach the gospel without words any more than you can breathe without air.
You can, by your life, demonstrate what it means to live out the implications of the gospel, but the gospel is a message we proclaim.
I define evangelism as the verbal articulation of the bad news of lostness and the good news of Jesus’ work on our behalf with the intent that the recipient might hear it and, by grace and through faith respond to it.
I think evangelism at its simplest is the telling of the gospel. But I think evangelism includes not just the telling. There’s also a desired response and typically some sort of invitation to that response.
I like this definition because you can't do evangelism without communication. You can’t do missiology without cross-cultural communication.
Yet you could try to understand the people without communicating to them. You can be on mission by sharing and by showing the love of Jesus to them, but evangelism requires women and men who will proclaim the gospel.
This could be by speaking to others, in writing, or on a screen, but the gospel itself means communicating Jesus' death on the cross for our sin and in our place, just as we see in the traditional formula of God–humans–Christ response.
When we try to make everything evangelism, it tends to make nothing evangelism. Evangelism is telling people about Jesus and inviting them ultimately to respond. It’s both a responsibility and an honor all believers in all places at all times share.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Chair at Wheaton College, serves as a dean at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group. The Exchange team helped with this article.