Why Christian Mission Must Focus on Evangelism

Sharing the Good News

“Mission” and “evangelism” express the outward impulse of Christianity. The gospel of Jesus Christ, by its very nature, refuses to be bottled up. It must be shared. Mission and evangelism are closely related; mission is generally the broader term, within which evangelism is included. We will therefore consider mission first, then evangelism.

Mission

Mission is at the heart of the message of the Bible, though the actual word “mission” occurs sparingly in English Bibles. The word comes from the Latin verb mitto (noun missio), which parallels the Greek word apostellō, meaning “to send.” It refers to God sending people to announce his work of judgment and redemption on earth. Though God sometimes intervenes directly, his usual method of working in the world is to use people he has chosen to carry out his will.

Mission in the Old Testament.

In the Old Testament, God sent deliverers such as judges, kings, prophets, and priests specifically to the people of Israel. When God first called Abraham, however, God told him that through his descendants “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). God told Israel in the wilderness that its obedience to God’s laws would be a testimony to the nations of God’s greatness (Deut. 4:6–8). David urged, “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples!” (1 Chron. 16:24; see Ps. 96:3). Psalm 22:27 looks forward to the day when all the nations turn to God and worship before him. Isaiah sees Israel becoming “a light for the nations,” so that “salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6). Micah foresaw a day when many nations desire to come to Zion to learn God’s ways (Mic. 4:2). But the Israelites were not entirely open to the idea of God extending his grace to Gentiles, as the attitude of Jonah shows (Jonah 4). Mission, to them, generally meant just serving their own fellow Israelites.

Mission in the New Testament.

In the New Testament, the blessing of God truly floods out to the nations. The New Testament focus on mission consistently includes all the world rather than only the community of God’s people. Jesus sent his disciples into the world just as he had been sent by God (John 17:18; 20:21). Thereafter, mission became associated primarily with those who are outside the church. Believers are the salt and light of the world (Matt. 5:13–16).

Mission is now not primarily done by specialists, such as prophets and priests. While some are specially trained (Eph. 4:11–12), it is the joyful responsibility of all believers. As representatives of the Servant Lord, believers are called to a life of humble service (Mark 10:42–45; 2 Cor. 4:5; Phil. 2:5–11). Vocation is one of the key arenas in which Christians can be salt and light to the world (Matt. 5:13–16). Old Testament history shows that even in totally pagan environments, God’s people— such as Daniel and his friends, Esther, and Ezekiel— can fulfill a God-given mandate, bringing glory to God and blessing to people through their vocations. This remains true today.

After the resurrection, the heart of Jesus’s teaching on mission has been called the Great Commission, which in various forms appears at least four times in the Gospels (Matt. 28:18–20; Luke 24:45–49; John 17:18; 20:21) and twice in Acts (1:8; 10:42). Here the focus is on proclaiming the gospel of salvation through Christ to the nations.

What does mission include?

Different Christians claiming the authority of Scripture have arrived at different understandings of what constitutes biblical mission. Some confine the term to evangelism and activities related to it. Others, while viewing evangelism as the primary task, include other activities such as social responsibility in their understanding of mission. They often describe this as “holistic mission.” Still others include the different aspects of Christian involvement and service, including evangelism, as equally important parts of the church’s mission. To be sure, Christians must fully obey the call of Christ to service, whatever activities one includes under the term “mission.” As we realize, however, that every person’s greatest need is to be reconciled to God through Christ, and that without this people are eternally lost, evangelism must assume a high level of urgency and be viewed as the top priority.

“Mission” is sometimes distinguished from “missions.” Many today use the term “missions” to refer to ministry that crosses cultures. Those who cross cultures in obedience to the call of God are thus described as missionaries. According to this understanding, missions is one part of the total mission of the church.

Evangelism

The word “evangelism” derives from the Greek word euangelizō, which means “to announce good news.” The verb and the noun form of this word (usually translated “gospel”) appear 125 times in the New Testament.

Another word for evangelism, kērussō (translated “proclaim” or “preach”), appears 59 times. All this indicates that evangelism involves verbal proclamation of the good news. While one may include other forms of service such as social concern under mission, one cannot equate such acts of service with evangelism. Social concern may aid in evangelism by cultivating receptivity to the gospel, but it is not itself evangelism.

Another Greek word that means “to persuade” (peithō) is often used in Acts to describe Paul’s evangelistic efforts (Acts 17:4; 18:4; 19:8). It shows that evangelism seeks to work with people until their minds are changed and they accept the gospel. Today there is a tendency to shy away from such focused evangelism, as it is associated with religious or cultural arrogance. To be sure, arrogance is incompatible with the gospel, for the gospel declares that we cannot save ourselves and it thus takes away any grounds for boasting (Eph. 2:8–9). Moreover,
the lifestyle of a follower of the Servant Lord must be one of servanthood—the antithesis of arrogance (see 2 Cor. 4:5). Yet bold gospel proclamation should not be confused with arrogance.

The perspective of the biblical gospel differs from that of contemporary religious pluralism. The Bible holds that the God who is Creator and Lord of the universe has spoken a definite message to humanity, which reached its climax in the coming of Jesus, God incarnate (Heb. 1:1–3). The gospel of Jesus is therefore so true, so important, and so vital to the welfare of humans that everyone everywhere must respond to it (Acts 17:30). Religious pluralism denies the existence of absolute truth. It says that all religions are more or less equal as they all have elements of the truth, which they have discovered through their unique cultural and historical experiences. Such pluralism frowns at the idea of conversion as an aim in proclamation, whereas biblical evangelism views it as the primary goal.

The rationale for evangelism.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul explains why evangelism is necessary. He describes himself as being “under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians”—that is, non-Greeks (Rom. 1:14). That sense of obligation made him “eager to preach the gospel . . . in Rome” (v. 15). Fueling this eagerness was a conviction of the power of the gospel to save all those who believe (vv. 16–17). Paul proceeds to explain what necessitated the gospel. He says people in their natural state are under “the wrath of God” because of “ungodliness and unrighteousness” (v. 18). He describes the human condition as suppressing the truth (v. 18), rejecting the revelation of God in creation (vv. 19–20), and refusing to honor and acknowledge God (vv. 21, 28).

Paul argues that this rebellion against God merits judgment and that no human being is able to avoid condemnation at the judgment (Rom. 2:1–3:20). Then he describes how Jesus is the answer to this condemnation because he absorbed God’s wrath over our sin (3:25). This atoning work unleashed “grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” resulting in sinners being “justified” or acquitted of their guilt and counted righteous (3:24). Our part in all this is simply to believe in Christ (3:22, 25, 26, 28); that is, to turn from self-trust and instead trust God and what he has done in Christ for our salvation.

The gospel of Jesus is so true, so important, and so vital to the welfare of humans that everyone everywhere must respond to it.

Romans 10:14 shows how proclaiming the gospel is essential if people are to have saving faith: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” This shows that the idea that people will be saved without hearing the gospel has no biblical basis. People will not be judged for rejecting a gospel they never heard, but for rejecting the light they already had (Romans 1–2). There are degrees of responsibility and degrees of punishment, depending on how much people knew (Matt. 11:21–24; Luke 12:47–49). But believing in Christ is the only way to salvation, and all who do not trust in him will go to eternal destruction in hell.

Ingredients and methods of evangelism.

From the Great Commission we can identify some key ingredients of evangelism. Evangelism springs from the authority of Jesus (Matt. 28:18), who has sent us out as his messengers (John 20:21). The aim of evangelism is to make obedient disciples who will be incorporated into the church through baptism (Matt. 28:19–20). Its activities involve being witnesses (Acts 1:8), preaching the gospel (Mark 16:15), and proclaiming repentance and forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47). Its scope extends to all nations (Mark 16:15; Matt. 28:19; Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8). And it is energized by the presence of Christ (Matt. 28:20) through the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8).

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ESV Global Study Bible

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Acts shows that, although the content of the gospel does not change, the methods of evangelism vary according to audience. The evangelistic messages recorded in Acts were all faithful proclamations of the gospel, but those before Jewish audiences quoted Scriptures extensively (e.g., 2:12–40; 13:16–41), whereas when Paul addressed the philosophers in Athens, his message adopted a more “academic” style and did not include any explicit quotations from Scripture (17:22–31; see 1 Cor. 9:19–23). Evangelists such as Peter and Paul spoke to large audiences; ordinary laypersons “went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:4), presumably to small groups and individuals; and Philip led the Ethiopian eunuch to Christ through a personal conversation (8:26–38).

Different styles of personal witness are found in the New Testament. The woman of Samaria invited people to come and hear Christ (John 4:29–30). Matthew had a meal for his friends with Jesus as guest (Matt. 9:10). The blind man shared his testimony (John 9:25). Far from teaching that only a select few have the gift of evangelism, the Bible shows in various ways that all Christians can use opportunities that come their way to witness for Christ.

Conclusion

While methods and strategies will vary, the timeless call of God to his people to bring his saving message to a lost and dying world does not vary. The church must press on in its vital mission of bringing the mercy of God to the world, the most crucial aspect of which is bringing the greatest news the world has ever known, the gospel of Christ, to the ends of the earth— for the joy of the church, the salvation of the nations, and the glory of the Triune God.

This article is adapted from the ESV Global Study Bible.



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