‘And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation’. Mark 16:15
‘Evangelism’ means proclaiming the ‘good news’, proclaiming the ‘gospel’. The word comes from the original Greek of the New Testament, ‘eu-’ meaning ‘good’ and ‘angelos’ meaning ‘message’. There is nothing more complicated in evangelism than telling the good news of Jesus.
In Saint Luke Chapter 4, Verse 18, Jesus stands in the synagogue reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free’. What is the good news? The good news is of God coming into people’s lives.
In the Acts of the Apostles Chapter 20 Verse 24, Saint Paul speaks to the elders from the church at Ephesus, he says, ‘But I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace’. Evangelism for Saint Paul is telling people the good news of God’s grace.
What should there be a problem with something so simple? Why should simply telling people about Jesus be something that can cause uncertainty?
Perhaps it’s because evangelism has become confused with proselytism and proselytism is something with a very unhappy history, particularly in Ireland.
Instead of following the example of Saint Paul, who wanted to tell people the good news of God’s grace, there was a desire to persuade people to leave behind their culture, their tradition, their denomination, and to become part of a different group of people. Both traditions in Ireland engaged in proselytism; it still goes on.
Protestant proselytism reached a low point during the years of the Great Famine, 1845-1852, when some evangelical groups used food as an inducement to starving people to persuade them to change their religion. There is an account of one meeting, where hundreds of people supposedly accepted what was preached, which concludes with a description of how the crowds had joined enthusiastically in singing, ‘God save the Queen’ at the end of the proceedings. This was not about telling people about God coming into their lives, this was not about God’s grace, this was about trying to turn people into Protestants and unionists. One need only look at the ensuing course of Irish history to see how miserably it failed, leaving a bitter legacy for generations to come and making evangelism a word regarded with deep suspicion.
Evangelism is proclaiming the good news of Jesus. The first Christians understood this.
In Acts Chapter 8, the Ethiopian eunuch is reading from the prophet Isaiah and Philip asks him if he understand what is being read. ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ asks the eunuch. The passage read is from Isaiah Chapter 53 and we are told in Acts Chapter 8 Verse 34-35, ’The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus’.
Philip proclaims the good news about Jesus and it is important that we note what followed. In the King James Version we read, in Chapter 8, Verse 36-38, ‘the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?’
Then Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’
And he answered and said, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’
So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him’.
If evangelism is effective, it doesn’t mean getting more people for a particular church, it doesn’t mean people changing sides, it doesn’t mean people giving up their traditions and their culture, it simply means that people can say from their hearts, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’
Evangelism for many people inside the church is not the evangelism of Philip in Acts Chapter 8, instead it is getting people into the pews to improve the head count. A story is told from a church gathering where a man said there would be renewal in the Church of Ireland if young people came to school with the Book of Common Prayer and the hymn book in their bags. He made no mention of the Bible and made no acknowledgement of the fact that many of the young people might not be Church of Ireland, this would bring back former days. The man’s understanding of renewal and evangelism was purely about denominational loyalty; it was about a head count. If that way of doing things had worked, then the church would now be strong. The fact is that as soon as the sectarianism of the past began to fade, then many people no longer perceived any need for the former denominational loyalties. The church failed to see that people’s faith should have been in Jesus, not in a tradition.
Evangelism is about telling the good news of Jesus and generally the people with whom we need to start are not the people outside, they are the people who are in the church.
Judy Esway, a Catholic writer on spirituality, captures beautifully the need for evangelising those in the pews.
“As a child I had a beautiful, simple faith. But it faded as I got older. There is one especially vivid memory I have of a time when I was still young. I must have been in third or fourth grade. I was sitting in church during Mass, and something struck me as being strange. I looked around at all the people. They had the most serious, deadpan looks on their faces, yet the words they were speaking were so full of power. In drab, monotone voices they were saying,
“And he will come again.”
I looked around thinking, who’s going to come again? Are they talking about Jesus?
“And we will see him face to face.” I started to get a bit excited. We’re going to see Jesus face to face?
“And the dead will rise.” The dead will rise? You mean we won’t have to stay dead? This was good news. This was fantastic news. Why weren’t these people smiling? Why weren’t they happy?
Finally I heard them say, “And we will live forever.” Well, this was really the clincher. We’re going to live forever? Why weren’t they dancing in the aisles? Why weren’t they clapping and shouting if they were going to live forever? On that sad day it dawned on me: these people must not believe what they are saying. And so I stopped believing it too.”
Even Saint Paul has sometimes to remind the churches what the good news is about, what it is that they believe. In the First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 15 Verses 1-4, he says, ‘Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures’.
Evangelism is telling people Jesus had died and risen again and our salvation is in receiving that good news for ourselves. Our salvation does not depend on loyalty to anyone other than God.
One Sunday morning, in a small country church with about a dozen people in the congregation, there seemed a need to say something affirming. ‘Do you know’, I said, ‘if the entire church was gone and there were just ourselves left, it would not worry us. Jesus would still be alive and we would still believe. Nothing could change those facts and we would still meet for worship’. Evangelism is about such good news.