A Conversation About Evangelism

Most people confuse Evangelizing with Proselytizing, I think with some good re-thinking and re-framing helps nudge is forward from any form of misuse and abuse.

“Evangelism happens in terms of interpersonal relations when the Holy Spirit quickens to faith. Through sharing the pains and joys of life, identifying with people, the Gospel is understood and communicated. Often the primary confessors are precisely the non-publicized, unsensational people who gather together steadfastly in small caring communities, whose life prompts the question: "What is the source of the meaning of your life? What is the power of your powerlessness?", giving the occasion to name THE NAME. Shared experiences reveal how often Christ is confessed in the very silence of a prison cell or of a restricted but serving, waiting, praying church.”

Mission and Evangelism — An Ecumenical Affirmation [This is the most important and comprehensive statement on mission made in 1982 by the World Council of Churches, after lengthy discussions with churches all over the world.]

There is more for those who have ears to hear .

“. Is there a valid distinction between ‘evangelism’ and ‘proselytism’? It must be admitted that in many discussions of this subject I have sensed that the distinction was very simple: evangelism is what we do and proselytism is what others do. But I think it is possible to get beyond this obvious illusion. Everything depends upon the point which I made at the beginning, namely that the conversion of a human mind and will to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Savior is strictly a work of the sovereign Holy Spirit of God, a mystery always beyond our full comprehension, for which our words and deeds may be by the grace of God – the occasions but never the sufficient causes. Anything in the nature of manipulation, any exploiting of any weakness, any use of coercion, anything other than the ‘manifestation of the truth .in the sight of God’ (2 Cor. 4.2) has no place in true evangelism. Of course all who know Jesus as Lord and Savior will rejoice when the company of those who love him grows. But they will also know that Jesus is much greater than any single understanding of him and that it therefore behoves us to make no final judgments until the Judge himself comes. It is Jesus alone who decides who will be summoned to be with us in the company of his witnesses.

If we are clear about the distinction between evangelism and proselytism, we shall be in a position to say something about the matter of evangelism among people of other faiths. I have mentioned the fact that in the area of my present pastoral charge there is a large proportion of families of Muslim, Hindu, or Sikh faith. I have said that I find it much easier to talk with them on matters of religious faith than with most of the natives. But I am also frequently told, sometimes by Christian clergymen, that evangelism among my neighbors of other faiths is an improper activity and that I ought to confine myself to ‘dialogue.’ I find this exceedingly odd. We live in one neighborhood. For weal or woe we share the same life. We wrestle with the same problems. It is, surely, a very peculiar form of racism which would affirm that the good news entrusted to us is strictly for white Anglo-Saxons! After the last annual assembly of the United Reformed Church which had given much attention to evangelism, one of the participants wrote to the church’s monthly paper to ask why it was that this word was reserved for our relations with unchurched Anglo-Saxons while in respect of our relations with people of other faiths we spoke only of ‘dialogue.’ The question was not answered.

How has it come that ‘evangelism’ and ‘dialogue’ are presented as opposed alternatives? Surely because both have been misunderstood. Evangelism has been misunderstood as proselytism. There is reason for this and all of us who seek to be true bearers of the gospel need to take note. If evangelism is the attempt of a religious group to enlarge itself by cajoling or manipulating those unable to resist, then it is rightly suspect. But a believing, celebrating, loving Christian fellowship, fully involved in the life of the wider community and sharing its burdens and sorrows, cannot withhold from others the secret of its hope and certainly cannot commit the monstrous absurdity of supposing that the hope by which it lives applies only to those of a particular ethnic origin.

And the word ‘dialogue’ too needs to be examined. No sharing of the good news takes place except in the context of a shared human life, and that means in part, the context of shared conversation. In such conversation we talk about real things and we try both to communicate what we know and to learn what we do not know. The sharing of the good news about the kingdom is part of that conversation and cannot happen without it. But why do we have to substitute the high-sounding word ‘dialogue’ at this point? Is it because we fail in the simple business of ordinary human conversation? I confess that in the Winson Green neighborhood we have not established any ‘dialogue’ between representatives of the different faiths, but we do have quite a lot of conversation. It is a kind of of conversation which is not an alternative to but the occasion for sharing our hope, and it leads some people to ask the sort of questions that lead further.”

(Taken from Paul Weston, ed. Lesslie Newbigin, A Missionary Theologian: A Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans and London: SPCK, 2006). Available in the USA from Wm. B. Eerdmans at http://www.eerdmans.com/shop/product.asp?p_key=9780802829825

About Sivin Kit

man of one wife, father of four kids
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