Witness and Evangelism

Mark R. Teasdale

Witness and evangelism are concepts related to how Christians participate in the mission of the triune God (missio Dei). As stated in Together Toward Life, a document published by the World Council of Churches Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME), God’s mission is to share the fullness of life with all creation. God initially shared this life through the act of creation. When humanity rejected life by choosing to sin, God’s mission remained unaltered, with the Father sending the Son and the Spirit to make the fullness of life available to creation again. God’s central act to overcome death and restore life was the incarnation of the Son in Jesus of Nazareth, culminating in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. So all people would be aware of God’s work through Jesus, Jesus commissioned his disciples to share the good news (or gospel) that abundant life is available through God’s grace given through Jesus Christ. Christians become witnesses for Jesus and practitioners of evangelism by communicating the gospel to others and inviting them to receive abundant life by likewise becoming disciples of Jesus (Ekué and Longkumer 2012: 57–58).

The term witness can be used as both a noun and a verb. As a noun, it refers to one who testifies about something they have first-hand knowledge of so that others might believe in the message they share. This idea is expressed in the prologue of 1 John: ‘We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ’ (1 John 1:3).

God can empower anyone or anything to be a witness. This includes individual Christians, groups of Christians, the church collectively, the Holy Bible, nature, or anything else God works through to reveal the gospel and invite others to respond.

As a verb, ‘witness’ describes the wide array of activities that Christians can engage in to share the abundant life of God with others. For example, Christians can witness to the gospel through the arts, humanitarian aid, education, healthcare, acts of justice, liturgical practices, or explaining the biblical narrative. Each of these acts can extend a portion of the abundant life of God to others and, by doing so, demonstrate God’s love for creation.

Evangelism is the central act of witness. As the CWME states,

Witness (Martyria) takes concrete form in evangelism— the communication of the whole gospel to the whole of humanity in the whole world. Its goal is the salvation of the world and the glory of the Triune God. Evangelism is mission activity which makes explicit and unambiguous the centrality of the incarnation, suffering and resurrection of Jesus Christ without setting limits to the saving grace of God. It seeks to share this good news with all who have not yet heard it and invites them to an experience of life in Christ. (Ekué and Longkumer 2012: 67)

By presenting the core message of salvation and inviting others to accept it, evangelism stands not only at the heart of witness, but of how Christians participate in the missio Dei. Expanding on a metaphor introduced by David Bosch, missiologist Dana Robert explained,

the relationship of evangelism to mission is like the relationship of the heart to the body. Mission is the body […] Evangelism is the heart, both as the pump that circulates the life force and as the seat of the emotions. (Robert 1997: 4)

According to Robert, mission encompasses all possible human activities to witness to the gospel. Evangelism provides a foundation in the gospel of Jesus Christ to animate and guide this activity.

Even with this clarity about how the terms ‘witness’ and ‘evangelism’ relate to each other and to the larger notion of mission, there is no single definition for each term that is agreed upon by all Christians (Pope-Levinson 2020: 5). For this reason, a framework for understanding what evangelism consists of may be preferable to a single definition. We will address this below with the evangelism equation.

In addition to its relationship to Christian mission, evangelism is also an interdisciplinary academic field. The field was formally established in 1973 with the foundation of the Academy for Evangelism in Theological Education as an academic guild. Initially seen as a practical theology that reflected on specific practices of the church (Abraham 1989: 2–3), the field expanded to draw from biblical studies, history, theology, ethics, and a variety of social sciences. Scholars of evangelism seek to understand how God, the evangelist, and those being evangelized relate to one another around the gospel. Evangelism scholars are often followers of Jesus who practise evangelism as well as study it. They therefore take an emic approach to their work as insiders to the Christian tradition, often with the goal of equipping Christian witnesses to elicit positive responses from those they evangelize (Teasdale 2019: 9–12).

This article will first look at the origin and authorization for Christians to practise evangelism found in the Bible. Following this is a brief history of witness and evangelism using the missional paradigms described by David Bosch. Using the framework of the evangelism equation the article will then consider how Christians with different experiences, theological perspectives, and contexts have developed different understandings and practices of evangelism. Finally, it will address both criticisms and areas for future exploration related to evangelism.

1 Evangelism and witness in the Bible

The Bible chronicles the origin and authorization for Christian evangelism. It also serves as a Christian witness in its own right. The authors of the various books of the Bible wrote to their respective audiences to convey a message of God’s goodness and to invite their readers to respond to that message. Those who later compiled the individual books to form the Christian canon did so in a way that guides readers to recognize the ultimate expression of God’s goodness is found in Jesus Christ. Readers are invited to place their faith in Jesus so they can share in the abundant life of God. Thus, even though composed of multiple discrete documents written over centuries and concerned with specific issues facing their original audiences, the Bible is a witness to the gospel (Goheen 2016: 15).

1.1 The biblical origin of evangelism

The origin of evangelism is found in the activity of God. In Gen 3:15, immediately after the sin of Adam and Eve, God announced that the offspring of the woman would crush the head of the serpent. This passage is interpreted by Christians to refer to the coming of Jesus Christ, who would gain final victory over evil and save creation from sin and death. Based on this, the passage is called the protoevangelium, or first telling of the good news.

This passage has two important insights for evangelism and witness: first, God promises salvation rather than granting it immediately. This means that creation must endure the presence of evil and death for an undisclosed amount of time even as it anticipates God setting all things right. It is this reality that creates the condition for evangelism. People must be reminded of the coming salvation of God lest they believe that evil and death are triumphant based on their immediate experiences. This gives rise to the second insight: God communicates. God not only planned to save creation so that it can share in abundant life; God desired for creation to know this plan. This provides an initial authorization for being a witness of the good news.

The biblical narrative unfolds around how God carried out this plan, by working through the people of Israel to provide a Saviour who would redeem all creation. Along with revealing this plan, the Bible describes how God communicated the good news either through conveying it directly or, more often, through people God commissioned to deliver it. While the overarching good news of God’s salvation for all creation is always present, the precise presentation of the good news is dependent on the historical context of those receiving it. In the Hebrew Bible, the focus is on God’s relationship with Israel. In the New Testament, it is on the reign of God inaugurated by Jesus.

1.2 Evangelism in the Hebrew Bible

The office of ‘evangelist’ does not exist in the Hebrew Bible, nor is Jesus explicitly mentioned (though many Christians would contend that there are numerous prophecies that foretell his coming as the Jewish Messiah). Notwithstanding, there are people who witness to the good news of God’s gracious activity and invite their listeners to respond to it. The Hebrew verb bsr is usually translated into English as ‘to bear glad tidings’. It appears in passages that praise God for good things God has done for Israel (Ps 40:10; 96:2; Isa 60:6) and that announce the good news of God’s victories on behalf of Israel (Isa 40:9; 52:7; Nah 2:1). It also is used once to declare God’s goodness specifically for the poor (Isa 61:1). The New Testament reports that this last usage is quoted by Jesus (Luke 4:18; Klaiber 1997: 21–22).

Beyond specific passages, the entirety of the Hebrew Bible can be understood as a declaration of good news. Drawing from the Chaoskampf genre of ancient Near Eastern literature, in which a divine warrior overcomes the forces of chaos and death, Walter Brueggemann contends that the Hebrew Bible announces God’s hidden victory over chaos and death. Even though the victory is hidden because the forces of chaos and death remain formidable, the people of God are assured that these forces have no ultimate power (Brueggemann 1993: 41).

Brueggemann goes on to explain that God calls the people of Israel as a whole to be a witness to this victory. They do this through proclaiming it to three audiences: (1) Those outside of Israel who need to hear a new story for how to order their lives. (2) Themselves, so they do not forget the victories God has already granted them and stray from God’s covenant. (3) Their children, to form them as those who honour God and not as participants in the remaining structures that promote chaos and death, including oppressive political and economic structures (Brueggemann 1993: 48, 71, 93).

Passages in the Hebrew Bible that describe God’s pending salvation for Israel and, through Israel, all other nations, witness to this assured victory. These often involve a picture of shalom, or wholeness, in which all things are set right among God, Israel, the nations, and creation itself. Two examples of this are the vision of the Peaceable Kingdom in Isa 11:1–9 and the nations beating their swords into ploughshares in Mic 4:2–4. Some of these passages emphasize the role of a uniquely appointed servant of God in bringing this salvation (e.g. Isa 53), whom Christians later identified as Jesus.

This vision of shalom is not the same as the later Christian notion of ‘heaven’. As Brueggemann explains, the Hebrew Bible authors were not as interested in offering hope for what happens after death so much as ‘hope […in an] embedded, shaped, placed, lived reality’ (Brueggemann 1999: 108). This promise of wholeness in the present resonates especially among those who face marginalization and oppression. It has also helped fuel a postcolonial critique of Western soteriology. For example, Emily J. Choge Kerama, an African theologian, suggests that the minimized ways the Western churches have come to understand salvation neglects the needs of African people. This is disappointing because originally ‘when missionaries came to Africa they did not divide the temporal and the sacred […] Missionaries knew they had to minister to the whole person, but today that holistic aspect is not seen’ (Kerama 2020: 386).

1.3 Evangelism in the New Testament

Multiple Hebrew Bible scholars contend that the announcement of God’s victory in the Hebrew Bible becomes what can properly be called evangelism with the advent of Jesus in the New Testament. The work of Jesus, especially in the resurrection, is the decisive act that demonstrates the veracity of the Hebrew Bible’s proclamation that God has triumphed over chaos and death (Brueggemann 1993: 38; Rae et al. 2008: 1–22). The terms evangelism and witness are both explicitly used in the New Testament in reference to this proclamation.

The English word ‘evangelism’ is a transliteration of the Greek words eu, meaning ‘good’, and angelos, meaning ‘messenger’. When combined, these words form the noun euangelion, which is translated into English as ‘good news’ or ‘gospel’, and the verb euangelizesthai, which is translated into English as ‘to [share the] good news’ or ‘to evangelize’. The specific word ‘evangelism’, which describes the abstract concept that reflects on the gospel message and how to share it, is not found in the New Testament. This suggests that New Testament authors were less concerned about conceptualizing a Christian practice than articulating the gospel message and sharing it with others.

The earliest extant uses of the verb euangelizesthai date to the fourth century BCE in Greek literature. It is used to describe announcing anything that was cause for celebration. The noun euangelion was used most notably in 9 BC to describe the ‘good news’ that Octavian had ascended to the Roman throne and become Caesar Augustus (Barrett 2000: 10).

The New Testament authors repurposed the idea of evangelizing to focus on the message of what God did through Jesus Christ to bring salvation. An example of this is found in the words of the angel who announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds: ‘Me phobeisthe, idou gar euangelizomai humin’ (literally: ‘Fear not, for behold I evangelize you’, Luke 2:10, SBLGNT). The authors placed a strong emphasis on the importance of sharing the good news, with the noun euangelion and various conjugations of the verb eungeliszesthai combining to appear 132 times in the Greek New Testament (Barrett 2000: 11).

The authorization for Christian evangelism comes in two ways in the New Testament. The primary way is in the Gospels, which record how Jesus practised evangelism and commissioned all who would follow him to do the same. The second is in the book of Acts and the epistles, which provide examples of how the first Christians practised evangelism and exhorted each other and future generations of Christians to continue this work.

1.3.1 Evangelism and Jesus in the Gospels

Jesus announced that God was bringing the salvation promised to Israel to fruition by inaugurating the reign of God through his ministry (Arias 2001: 2). The Gospel of Mark summarizes the message of Jesus as: ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news [euangelion]!’ (Mark 1:15). Each of the four Gospels emphasizes different aspects of this good news about the reign of God. All agree, however, that Jesus understood God’s reign as supremely good, since it invited people to be rescued from evil and death and to live in a blessed relationship with God both in this world and eternally. As Jesus stated in the Sermon on the Mount, everything else should be subsidiary to this: ‘seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’ (Matt 6:33).

A particular feature of the reign of God as preached by Jesus is that it is ‘oriented toward the most vulnerable persons in society’ (Padilla 2020: 343). In Luke 4:18–19 Jesus quotes Isa 61:1–2, claiming the prophet’s words in reference to his own ministry:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me     
to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners     
and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free,      
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. (NIV)

As C. René Padilla explains in his exegesis of this passage, the proclamation of the gospel is Spirit-empowered to provide good news especially for the poor, oppressed, and hurting. All of this suggests that ‘Jesus was convinced that his ministry was to promote radical socioeconomic changes big enough to be regarded as signs of the coming of a new era of justice and peace’ (Padilla 2020: 343).

At the same time, Jesus proclaimed a message that prepared people for eternity. His call to repentance was not only to invite people into a new way of living in which they treated one another with justice in this world, but to be freed from personal sins that they might stand in righteousness in post-mortem judgment. As he pointedly taught in the Sermon on the Mount:

If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matt 5:29–30)

Jesus’ teaching was accompanied by acts of compassion and miraculous signs, including healing the sick, exorcising demons, and raising the dead. These deeds and miracles provided evidence that the good news Jesus proclaimed was true and powerful, able to save people from everything harmful in this world and eternally. Jesus described this holistic salvation as abundant life, which he contrasted to the harm caused by everything else that sought people’s allegiance: ‘The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly’ (John 10:10, NRSV). As Chinese biblical scholar K. K. Yeo explains, this abundant life offers salvation from all

the problems of humanity and the world we live in […]: the morbid condition of the brokenness of human beings and in their well-being with their Creator and creation, the prevalence of sin that binds and curses life in the cosmos, and the sting of death that obliterates the shalom of earthly flourishing. (Yeo 2020: 357)

During his earthly ministry, Jesus apprenticed his disciples in this holistic evangelism, sending them with the instructions, ‘[a]s you go, proclaim this message: “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons’ (Matt 10:7–8). After he had been crucified and resurrected, he commissioned his disciples to continue this work as those who were witnesses to his resurrection.

There are five commissioning passages in the New Testament: Matt 28:16–20, Mark 16:9–20, Luke 24:36–53, John 20:19–31, and Acts 1:1–11. The commissioning passage in Matthew is commonly known as the Great Commission and is seen by many Christians as the chief command and authorization given by Jesus for his followers to engage in evangelism. In the passage Jesus says:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matt 28: 18–20)

This passage has significant implications for evangelism. First, it authorizes the disciples to be evangelistic witnesses everywhere. The verb translated into English in the imperative (‘go’) is an aorist participle in the Greek, which is better translated ‘as you are going’ (Bosch 1983: 229). This suggests that evangelistic witness is something Christians can offer both through their daily interactions with other people as well as through intentional travel to share the gospel. Second, it enjoins the original disciples to teach others to become disciples of Jesus Christ who live according to the way of Jesus. This is more than just explaining the gospel to others and calling them to repent. It is an ongoing process of apprenticing those who repent to order their lives according to Jesus’ example and teachings (Bosch 1983: 232). Third, it is trinitarian and sacramental, inviting people to enter a relationship with the community of the faithful as well as with all three Persons of the Trinity through baptism (Bosch 1983: 233). Fourth, it is accompanied by a promise: that Jesus would be with his disciples and support them with supernatural power as they undertake this evangelistic mission (Bosch 1983: 240–241). In other commissioning passages, Jesus explains that this power would come through the Holy Spirit.

Christians understand this and the other commissioning passages to apply to all followers of Jesus Christ, not just the original disciples. These passages offer not only authorization, but a command given directly by Jesus to engage in evangelism as his witnesses. To become a follower of Jesus Christ is perforce to become a witness for Jesus who practises evangelism. The one cannot be separated from the other.

1.3.2 Evangelism and the earliest Christians

The centrality of evangelistic practice for the early Christians is evident in the balance of the New Testament, especially the book of Acts which details how the Christian faith spread from a small band of people who knew Jesus personally to claiming adherents throughout the Roman empire. All Christians were to be ready and able to articulate the gospel to other people (1 Pet 3:15). By remaining faithful to the gospel in public, Christians would earn the respect of those around them and so be effective witnesses for Jesus (1 Thess 4:1–12).

When explaining the gospel, the early Christians emphasized that God made salvation available through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (e.g. Rom 5; 1 Cor 15:1–5). Salvation included the forgiveness of sins (Eph 1:7; Col 1:14) and the opportunity to lead a holy life in anticipation of eternal glory (Rom 2:6–7; 2 Cor 4:16–18; 1 Pet 5:9–11). A holy life entailed following the law of God given through Moses to Israel, which Jesus summarized in the two greatest commandments: to love God and love neighbour (Matt 22:37–39; Mark 12:29–34). Those who heard the gospel were enjoined to believe it, place their faith in Jesus, and repent to claim these blessings (e.g. Acts 2:38; 3:19; 20:21; 26:20). Those who did so were baptized and welcomed into a community of Christians where they would be trained to become witnesses for Christ. In doing all these things, Christians could participate in the reign of God that Jesus inaugurated.

Critical to spreading the gospel was the supernatural aid God provided through the Holy Spirit. Following Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, God sent the Holy Spirit to the first disciples during the Jewish Feast of Pentecost (Acts 2:1–4). The Spirit empowered the disciples to explain the gospel in different languages (Acts 2:4), heal the sick (Acts 3:1–6; 5:15–16; 9:17–18; 14:8–10; 19:11–12; 28:8–9), exorcise evil spirits (Acts 16:16–18), and raise the dead (Acts 9:36–41; 20:7–12). Like the miracles Jesus performed, these provided evidence for the truth of the gospel and demonstrated the power of Jesus over all other spiritual and physical powers. The Spirit continued to offer this power to new disciples, as well. Some Christians, especially in the Majority World, continue to practise signs and wonders as central to their evangelism.

Alongside these miracles, the Christians demonstrated that the gospel they preached was both realistic and desirable through their collective witness as the church. The church was a community of people who believed the gospel and practised the teachings of Jesus in how they related to each other: they taught one another about Jesus, prayed, worshipped, fellowshipped, and gave generously to one another so that no one in the church was in need (Acts 2:42–47). They did all this publicly so that their Christian lifestyle was a visible witness. They also recognized specific individuals as uniquely called by the Holy Spirit to share the gospel with those who were not yet Christian and sent them to do this work full time. Acts 21:8, Eph 4:11, and 2 Tim 4:5 describe the work of ‘evangelists’. One of the most famous of these was Saul of Tarsus, later known as St Paul (or the Apostle Paul), who authored much of the New Testament.

This does not mean that the church discounted the work of most people while lionizing others. As Padilla insists, the coming of the Holy Spirit on all Christians at Pentecost

makes it possible that all members of the church prophesy. All of them participate in the proclamation of the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. Beyond doubt, this is the key to understanding the evangelization process that has taken place since the earliest history of the Christian church. They become active ‘amateur’ missionaries anxious to spontaneously share the gospel with others. (Padilla 2020: 348)

One effect of this belief that the Spirit came to all people was that people from all ethnicities became convinced of the gospel’s truth through the church’s evangelistic witness. This precipitated a critical moment in the life of the church that had important ramifications for the practice of evangelism. The original church leaders were Jewish and had to decide whether the church would require Gentiles to obey the ceremonial requirements in the law of Moses, including male circumcision, to become disciples of Jesus and members of the church. They convened the Jerusalem Council to decide this (Acts 15:1–31). As missiologist Andrew Walls described it, the church would either proselytize by forcing people to practise the Christian faith a specific way or evangelize by sharing the gospel and then allowing people to practise the faith in the way that seemed best in their respective contexts (2004: 5–6). The decision was to evangelize by giving Gentiles the freedom to contextualize the faith provided they remained true to the gospel and adhered to certain moral teachings in the Jewish law.

This decision provided a further authorization and directive for evangelism: Christian witnesses should learn the cultural context of those they wished to evangelize so they could present the gospel in a way that maximized its meaningfulness within that context. It also allowed for new Christians to organize congregations that were both faithful to the gospel and reflective of their respective cultures (Walls 2004: 7–8).

The church faced significant opposition as it grew. This is because faithful obedience to Jesus challenged existing religious and political structures. The book of Acts records multiple instances of Christian witnesses being arrested, persecuted, and killed. The English word ‘witness’ is translated from the Greek word martus, from which the English word ‘martyr’ is derived. Rather than see this persecution as a sign of failure or weakness on the part of God, Christians counted the opportunity to suffer as a witness for Jesus as reason for celebration (Acts 5:41) because it meant that God had determined they were worthy to share in the suffering of Jesus (Rom 8:17; 2 Cor 1:5). The bravery and graciousness with which Christians endured persecution during the first three centuries of the church’s existence only fuelled the admiration that many people had for them. Tertullian, a second century church author and theologian, wrote ‘the blood of Christians is seed’, meaning that the martyrdoms of Christians helped convince other people to become Christians (Tertullian 1994: 55).

2 A history of Christian witness and evangelism

The history of Christian witness and evangelism from the earliest days of the church through the present is best approached through a combination of social history and church history. This is because evangelism encompasses how Christians relate to the people around them. While some texts have been written specifically on the history of evangelism (e.g. David Gustafson, Gospel Witness through the Ages, 2022), the topics of Christian witness and evangelism have more often been incorporated into histories of Christian mission.

Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (1996) by David J. Bosch is one of the best known and most widely accepted histories of mission. Following the six epochs of church history developed by Hans Küng (Bosch 1996: 181–182), Bosch describes a different paradigm of missional activity in four of the epochs. He also assigns a Bible verse to each paradigm to describe the overarching logic of mission within that paradigm.

Bosch leaves aside the first and final paradigms in his historical survey. The first is called the ‘early Christian apocalyptic’ and covers the history recorded in the New Testament, which he addresses elsewhere in the book. The latter he names the ‘emerging ecumenical missionary paradigm’ and he deals with this in terms of provisional observations rather than historical analysis.

The second paradigm, which Bosch calls ‘the Eastern Church’, begins following Constantine’s rise to power and the Edict of Milan (313) that legalized the Christian faith in the Roman empire. What became known as the Orthodox Church arose during this time and continued to thrive under imperial patronage within the surviving Byzantine empire even after the Western Roman empire fell with the sack of Rome (476).

Bosch contends that John 3:16 best describes the Eastern Church missional paradigm because Orthodox mission was based on the love of God (1996: 208–209). This was shown through how Orthodox Christians sought to weave spiritual practices into daily life in order to attain theosis, or ultimate union with God (1996: 209). These practices were invitational in nature, if sometimes high in commitment. They could be as simple as calling people to regular spiritual disciplines, chiefly by attending the Divine Liturgy and receiving the sacraments, or as extreme as inviting people to foreswear all earthly attachments and become hermit monks. In addition to these invitations to spiritual formation, the Orthodox also engaged with the community, offering compassion especially to those most forgotten by society (1996: 210). Bosch suggests that this paradigm did not end with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, but continues unabated in the Eastern Orthodox churches today.

The third paradigm is the medieval Roman Catholic. This paradigm describes the Christian witness of the Western churches beginning with the theology of Augustine of Hippo (354–430) and stretching over a thousand years through the Age of Discovery, which began with the first European colonies in the fifteenth century. Surveying this vast swath of time, Bosch chose Luke 14:23 as the theme verse, which reads in part ‘compel them to come in’ (1996: 236). He based this on the idea that during this time the Western church emerged from the ashes of Rome to become a powerful institution that spread across Western Europe. Emboldened by this success and longevity, the Catholic Church believed it understood how the universe was to be ordered. It thus sought to compel all those who were outside of that order to come into the Christian faith. This applied to heretics, adherents of other faiths, and Indigenous peoples encountered during European exploration and colonization (1996: 237). Everything from the insistence on the rituals of baptism and penance to be saved from hell to the Crusades to the forced conversion of conquered peoples was part of this paradigm. The Church’s close allegiance with monarchs was driven by the same motivation, seeking to order the state according to its articulation of the Christian faith. Bosch declares that this paradigm is one that scholars should ‘criticize […] relentlessly’ because of the abuses of power and violence the Church became complicit in through its approach to mission. He also cautions his readers to ‘remind ourselves that we would not have done any better than they did’ because the ambition ‘to create a Christian civilization’ in itself was not wrong (1996: 237).

Bosch argued that the Protestant Reformation had a paradigm of its own, based on the passage Rom 1:16 (1996: 240). This verse, stating that the ‘just shall live by faith’, encapsulates the key theological insight that motivated Martin Luther to break with the Roman Catholic Church and became foundational for all Protestantism.

Surveying the wide range of Protestant communions that formed from the sixteenth century through the eighteenth century, including the Lutherans, Anabaptists, Pietists, and Calvinists, Bosch contended that while each had unique features, all of them emphasized the importance of preaching to convey the gospel so people could be persuaded to believe it rather than coerced to accept it (1996: 245). Bosch acknowledged that for most Reformers this preaching was aimed at an audience of people who were already Christian, often those raised in the state-sanctioned Catholic Church, not at those outside the church. However, this does not mean that the Reformers were not missionary. It meant that their missional work was to provide a witness for reforming the existing church. The only exception to this was the Anabaptists, who believed the entire ecclesial system was corrupt and needed to be replaced (1996: 247).

The final mission paradigm that Bosch addressed historically was what Christians did in the wake of the Enlightenment, which he marked from the eighteenth century through the early twentieth century. Unlike the other paradigms, Bosch offered four verses to describe mission in the wake of the Enlightenment because of the enormously varied participants and activities that occurred during this epoch in church history.

The primary passage is the Great Commission in Matt 28:18–20. It was claiming this passage as a command for Christians to go to other people to spread the Christian faith that launched what has been called the modern missionary movement. The other passages offer aspects of this missional endeavour. First, Acts 16:9, which reports Paul’s vision of a man beseeching him to ‘come over to Macedonia and help us’, provided impetus for believing that cultures where the Christian faith was not believed were lost in darkness and needed to be redeemed by Western Christian teachings. Second was Matt 24:14, which states, ‘and this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come’. This passage was especially popular among those who believed that Western Christian civilization was the vehicle through which God would establish the reign of God on Earth. Finally, Jesus’ term ‘abundant life’ in John 10:10 broadened missionary endeavours to include working to offer an ‘abundance of the good things that modern education, healing, and agriculture would provide for the deprived peoples of the world’ (1996: 340). While Bosch closed his assessment of this paradigm by stating that there was movement away from the hubris that often attended this paradigm’s work, he acknowledged that the wide ranging ‘missionary enterprise’ as defined in this paradigm was not something that most Christians would want to abandon completely (1996: 344).

3 Different approaches to evangelism and the evangelism equation

Although the Bible provides a common origin and authorization for Christians to evangelize by serving as witnesses for Jesus Christ, it does not prescribe how to understand or practise evangelism. As seen in Christian history, this means that Christians have developed numerous definitions of evangelism over the years, each emphasizing specific aspects of the gospel and practices to share those aspects.

The ‘evangelism equation’ developed by evangelism scholar Mark R. Teasdale provides one framework for identifying the concepts behind these various approaches to evangelism. The equation has been taught in seminaries and churches in multiple countries that hold to a variety of theological perspectives. Rather than define evangelism, it conceptualizes evangelistic practice as a praxis that is informed by personal experience, theology, and context. The equation is: ‘starting point + theological reflection + contextual awareness = creative practice’ (Teasdale 2016: 8).

3.1 Starting point

Each Christian has a reason that they are willing to be identified publicly with Jesus Christ. For individuals, this reason is usually linked to a personal experience of God’s goodness. For Christian communities, the reason is often a central, soteriological belief that stands at the centre of their theology. This reason is the starting point for evangelism because it provides Christians with a belief so good that they want to share it with others.

Teasdale contends that the starting point is not expressed as a propositional truth but as a narrative (2016: 34). Often for individuals it is a story about how God rescued the person from trouble and provided assurance of God’s graciousness to sustain them in the present and give them hope for the future (Richardson 2006: 25–26). For Christian communities, the story is often told around a central soteriological event. In either case, the belief is so good that it energizes Christians to share it. The opening of the Catechism of the Catholic Church offers an example of this, describing in a brief narrative how God saved humanity through Jesus Christ and how those who have accepted this salvation are prompted to share about it with others:

God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life […] He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church. To accomplish this, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Saviour. In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life […] Those who with God’s help have welcomed Christ’s call and freely responded to it are urged on by the love of Christ to proclaim the Good News everywhere in the world. (Catholic Catechism 2019: 7)

Because the starting point is always grounded in a unique experience of God’s goodness, no two Christians or Christian communities express their starting point in the same way. These variations in experience will set Christians on different trajectories for developing their understanding and practise of evangelism.

While starting points are unique to each Christian witness, there are some common experiences and beliefs that Christians include in their starting points. One such belief that has had a major influence on Christianity in the West is that God is good, and God offers humans an eternal existence with God in glory, free from death and all danger. Thomas Aquinas stated it this way: ‘Man’s essential reward, which is his beatitude, consists in the perfect union of the soul with God, inasmuch as it enjoys God perfectly as seen and loved perfectly’ (Aquinas 2006; Supp.III.96.1).

This belief has remained at the centre of Western Christianity, though the emphasis has shifted over time. Martin Luther wrote in his Large Catechism (1529), ‘we see that the Father has given himself to us with all his creation, and how he has abundantly provided for us in this life and, further, has overwhelmed us with unspeakable and eternal blessings’ (Luther 1967: 82). For Luther, this goodness included God’s temporal and eternal care of humanity, and it beckoned people to live in a right relationship with God to enjoy this goodness unhindered in the present world and throughout eternity. The Westminster Catechism (1647) opens by emphasizing human responsibility and blessedness based on God’s goodness: ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever’ (Bower 2010: 67). This enjoyment is possible because those God redeems are promised that they will be ‘received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory’ (Bower 2010: 82).

This emphasis on relating to an eternally good God also served as the primary motivation for evangelism during the evangelical revivals in the United States and Great Britain from the eighteenth century through the twentieth century, including the First (1730–1760) and Second (1800–1830) Great Awakenings. While the specific theology differed between the awakenings and among the denominations and evangelists that participated in them, a consistent starting point was to prepare people to enter the presence of God eternally. For example, John Wesley (1703–1791), who founded Methodism, exhorted his preachers: ‘You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work […] save as many souls as you can; to bring as many sinners as you possibly can to repentance’ (Wesley 1984: 854). This same theme was espoused by Billy Graham (1918–2018), perhaps the best-known evangelist of the twentieth century, who called people to have ‘peace with God’ through faith in Jesus Christ so they could face the struggles of life in this world with the assurance that they will live eternally with God (Graham 1995: 168–172).

Many Christians outside of the West agree that God is good, but the emphasis on relating to God primarily in terms of eternal life and spiritual blessing is an inadequate starting point. Their lived experience demands salvation from evil powers and oppressive structures in the present world, such as unjust social, economic, and political systems. This is especially true for Majority World Christians.

Latin American theologians express this need for a more holistic understanding of salvation by making the reign of God their starting point. Mortimer Arias, a Bolivian Methodist bishop and evangelism scholar, states ‘the good news of the kingdom is for the whole person—physically, intellectually, and spiritually’ (2001: 3). The comprehensive nature of God’s reign provides a powerful motivation to evangelize. This is a sentiment echoed by other Latin American theologians, including Catholics Gustavo Gutiérrez, Oscar Romero, and Jon Sobrino, and Protestants Orland Costas and José Míguez Bonino.

James Cone, known as the author of Black Theology, merged the Latin American notion of liberation with the experience of Black people in the United States and developed an understanding of evangelism premised on a starting point of salvation as ‘freedom in history’ (Cone 1993: 534537–538). Likewise, Letty Russell constructed a feminist approach to evangelism by establishing her starting point as liberation relating to equality of the sexes (Russell 1978: 129).

African scholars agree that the soteriological starting point should be holistic, encompassing both the present and eternity. In addition to liberation from human oppression in this world, they add deliverance from evil spiritual forces and broken relationships. Kerama declares that salvation entails God’s protection from ‘all sorts of enemies, including spirits and sorcerers [as well as] political power that allows rampant corruption, nepotism, and various forms of social injustice’ (2020: 386). This insistence on including spiritual deliverance as part of the starting point is reflected in Pentecostal movements around the world. As Finnish theologian Veli-Matti Kärkkäinnen explains, for Pentecostals ‘the rebirth of a person by the Spirit is the anticipation of the transformation of the cosmos’ (2005: 44).

Postliberal and process Christians have a narrower starting point. They are less concerned with an eschatological reign of God than they are with human relationships being restored completely on Earth. For the postliberal, this happens chiefly through the establishment of a virtuous community that lives according to the ethical teachings of Jesus (Stone 2007: 48–49). Process Christians would agree with this, though would not see Jesus as the only ethical teacher they could follow.

This brief review of starting points demonstrates that the lived experience and core soteriological beliefs of Christians lead to a variety of ways to express the good news of the Christian faith. Being animated by their distinctive beliefs as starting points, Christians have authenticity as a witness on behalf of Jesus Christ as well as a motivation for engaging in evangelism.

3.2 Theological reflection

While the starting point provides the motivation to evangelize, theological reflection allows Christian witnesses to develop a fuller articulation of the evangelistic message. It does this by bringing their starting point into conversation with the Christian tradition, which provides insights into who God is, how God acts, and how God desires humans to respond (Teasdale 2016: 47). These insights allow Christian witnesses to explore and claim doctrinal teachings to build on and clarify their respective starting points.

The Christian tradition is not univocal. There are multiple theological traditions within it, each offering interpretations of God’s nature and action. This requires Christian witnesses to discern how they will draw from the overarching tradition to inform their starting points. Minimally, this involves determining what they believe are sources of divine revelation as well as the hermeneutics they will use for interpreting those sources (Teasdale 2016: 52–58).

The specific areas of theology that tend to have the most impact on the practice of evangelism deal with the human condition, sin, and God’s action to save people. While there are numerous approaches to these three areas, there are certain theological traditions that are more frequently related to evangelism.

Evangelicalism is perhaps the most recognized theological tradition vis-à-vis evangelism, with the words ‘evangelicalism’ and ‘evangelism’ frequently being confused. Classically, historian David Bebbington (1989) describes evangelicalism as having four major attributes: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism. Biblicism means that evangelicals accept the Bible as the foundational source of divine revelation. Crucicentrism identifies the centrality of Jesus’ crucifixion in evangelical theology. Evangelicals believe that humanity is guilty before God because of the original sin of Adam and therefore stands condemned unless forgiven by God. God grants this forgiveness through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ upon the cross. This forgiveness includes assurance that humanity can enter God’s holy presence and live eternally in God’s glory. Conversionism explains that the only proper response to this gracious act is for people to believe in what Jesus did, repent of their sins, and promise to lead a new life under the lordship of Jesus. Activism describes how converts can order their lives in accordance with their new belief in Jesus (Bebbington 1989: 2–3).

While these broad characteristics are true for all evangelicals, there are differentiations within evangelicalism. For example, evangelicals who are influenced by Reformed theology will tend to emphasize the moment of conversion, as they hold this to be the pivotal outward sign that someone has been forgiven and is assured of eternal glory. Those influenced by Wesleyan theology tend to conflate conversionism and activism because they understand conversion as an ongoing process as people are sanctified over the course of their lives in preparation for eternal glory.

Catholicism agrees with the evangelical assessment of humanity’s plight. Drawing from Augustine of Hippo, Catholics contend that humans inherit the original guilt of Adam and so stand condemned before God (Augustine 2001: 607). They likewise hold that God acted decisively in the death of Jesus Christ to forgive that sin and restore humanity to a right relationship with God. Where Catholicism differs is related to the role of the church. While evangelicalism, and Protestantism more broadly, tends to emphasize the individual repenting and claiming God’s salvation, Catholics believe that God established the church and its sacraments, especially baptism, as the normative vehicles through which people partake in salvation. As the Catholic Catechism teaches,

the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism. (Catholic Catechism 2019: 224)

While Catholics do hold that God’s grace is sufficient to offer salvation to people outside the Church and baptism, this is not the norm. The expectation is that those who know the truth of the gospel and affirm it must respond by receiving baptism and participating in the life of the Church.

Hailing from Catholic and Protestant churches, liberation theologians contend that sin and salvation are both personal and social. According to Latin American theologian Jules A. Martinez-Olivieri, this means salvation takes three forms: (1) sociopolitical, which liberates the marginalized and oppressed; (2) anthropological, which provides a community of equals for all people; and (3) theological, which forgives sin and allows for a renewal of relationships between all people and God (Martínez-Oliveri 2020: 406). To make this expansive salvation available, Argentinian theologian Nancy Bedford explains that God sent Jesus, whose ministry and teachings emphasized the reign of God in a way ‘that does not follow the logic of violence, intimidation, and retaliation that most often characterizes human empires’ (Bedford 2021: 27). Instead, Jesus provided a way of living that offered grace and solidarity to the hurting while demonstrating nonviolent resistance to the oppressive structures of the world. By following in the way of Jesus, the marginalized and privileged alike are invited to form a new community of grace and justice in the present world, subvert existing oppressive structures, and experience the forgiveness of their individual sins and find eschatological hope.

Mercy Amba Oduyoye and Elizabeth Amoah, both Ghanaian womanist theologians, contend that Jesus not only offers a way of living, but identifies with people in their daily lives. Drawing from their African context, they describe how Jesus has been claimed by male African Christians in a variety of ways, including the ‘universal ancestor’ who serves as a mediator between the human community and God to overcome all powers that bring harm, including the power of the devil (Amoah and Oduyoye 1988: 40). They likewise claim that African women can perceive and accept ‘Christ as a woman and as an African’ because Jesus suffered in his body and sacrificed to order the community around him, taking on the pains and roles so often expected of African women. Because of this, ‘[f]ears are not swept under the beds and mats but are brought out to be dealt with by the presence of the Christ’ who women can look to as a friend, companion, and liberator (Amoah and Oduyoye 1988: 45).

The central theological idea for the Eastern Orthodox churches is theosis, or deification. This is not a matter of humans becoming gods, but of becoming perfected in virtue like God. Greek Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware explains that God created humanity with the potential to become perfect by choosing to live into the fullness of God’s nature. However, humanity sinned and so had their internal understanding of God and native desire to become like God distorted. This resulted not in the original guilt articulated by the Western churches, but in a darkened nature that lost the potential to become like God (Ware 1993: 222–223). Overcoming this necessitated the incarnation of God, so that by God becoming human, humanity might again become like God (Ware 1993: 225). God accomplished this through Jesus of Nazareth, who was both fully God and fully human, and who broke the power of sin and death over humanity through his death and resurrection (Ware 1993: 229). The appropriate response to this is for people to use their free will, which Jesus has liberated from sin, to seek after God through worship and piety both individually and in community with the church.

Postliberal and process theologies are less concerned with personal sin than with building virtuous communities. The post-liberal understands this as an outworking of faith in Jesus Christ, whose life and teachings demonstrate how people can live together in a way that resists all coercive power, with each being individual respected and treated with justice. Given the opportunity to enter this virtuous community, people are called to convert by shifting their convictions away from anything that promotes violence (Stone 2007: 257) and are invited to ‘come home’ to God by letting go of the ‘false self’ they have cultivated as a defence mechanism within a bruising world (Heath 2008: 82).

Process theologians contend that God and humanity are co-creators of the universe. God offers humanity insight into how to live a flourishing life, but God has no power to compel humanity to accept this. Rather, God must wait to see how humanity chooses to use its power of creation to determine what God will do next. God does this patiently and lovingly, as a ‘nurturant parent’, guiding us toward flourishing (Lorenzen 2006: 2).

This brief overview of specific theological traditions offers a glimpse into how each engages in theological reflection, interpreting the Christian tradition in a way that fleshes out their starting point to practise evangelism. This interpretive activity makes it possible for Christian witnesses to articulate the gospel message more fully.

3.3 Contextual awareness

The starting point and theological reflection deal with the internal formation of the Christian witness prior to practising evangelism. The witness clarifies the content of the gospel message in a way that is both authentic to the Christian’s experience of God’s goodness (starting point) and better explained in conversation with the Christian tradition (theological reflection).

Contextual awareness provides a bridge that moves from this internal work to the external. Having clarified the content of the gospel, Christian witnesses listen to both their internal and external contexts.

The internal context has to do with the witness’ own proclivities for relating to other people, such as their personality (for individuals) and gifts and passions (for individuals and communities; see Teasdale 2016: 66–67). This allows the witness to evangelize in a way that is not only authentic to their experience, but in a way that draws on their strengths.

The external context includes the individual, cultural, social, and communal influences on the people that that the witness seeks to evangelize (Teasdale 2016: 66). The witness is enjoined to listen carefully and learn this context before presenting the gospel. This is essential because one of the most severe criticisms of evangelism is that it has been deployed to legitimize violent acts of conquest in the past. In these instances, the witness has carried the gospel message and demanded that others accept it without any interest in how the people they were evangelizing were already living. Contextual awareness demands that the Christian approach any evangelistic activity humbly, open to hearing what those being evangelized have to say. Ideally, this is done through forging a relationship between the evangelist and the evangelized in which mutual sharing can take place (Teasdale 2016: 94–95).

This capacity of Christian witnesses to adapt their practice of evangelism to various contexts is related to the ‘translatability’ of the gospel message. Lamin Sanneh, a Gambian missiologist, describes this translatability as the capacity for Christians to convey the gospel with all its salvific power in any context or language (Sanneh 2009: 56). Sanneh contrasts this to Islam, which insists that the Qur’an is only genuine if read in Arabic.

Majority World theologians advocate for contextual awareness related to evangelism because Western transcultural theologies that deal primarily with the spiritual and eternal have often ignored the lived experiences of indigenous and marginalized peoples (Martínez-Oliveri 2020: 405). Even Majority World theologians who otherwise identify with a specific theological tradition agree on the need for contextuality. For example, Ruth Padilla DeBorst, who is an evangelical from Latin America, explains that ‘Majority World evangelicals […do] not necessarily fit the portrait’ of Western evangelicalism (2016: 141). This is because they are forged in relative poverty and yearn for God’s grace to save them as much from the hardships of daily life as from their personal sins. As such, they ‘affirm that conversion is needed both at a personal level, in the hearts of men and women, and at a societal level, in the structures and powers that govern the world’ (DeBorst 2016: 141, original emphasis).

One of the reasons that Western theologies do not resonate well in other cultures is that they were developed for specific Western cultural and historical contexts. The emphasis on eternity, especially, came about as a response to the fear of imminent danger and death. For Roman Catholicism, this fear came initially because of the sacking of Rome and the need to find a source of security outside the Roman empire. The church, which represented God on Earth, became that. Augustine opened De Civitatae with a moving description of how the barbarians destroyed the city of Rome only to halt in awe before the church buildings where the survivors had fled for refuge (Augustine 2001: 4).

Evangelicalism, especially as it arose in the United States during the nineteenth century, built on the idea of finding security in God by emphasizing an individual’s agency to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation through Jesus Christ. This agreed with the strong sense of self-determination that many early US Americans had developed in contrast to the social order they had fought to be freed from during the Revolutionary War, which defined a person’s station in life at birth (Hatch 1989: 25). Denominations that refused to acknowledge the need for this contextual emphasis on self-determination, either because of theological rigidity or institutional inertia, found themselves as ‘losers’ in the religious economy of the early American Republic (Finke and Stark 2002: 96–104).

Postliberal and process theology are also Western theologies. Both were developed out of a desire to overcome the influence of Western individualism had on Christian theology. At the same time, both also assume sufficient individual autonomy to either join a virtuous community (postliberalism) or to work toward the common good (process).

Eastern Orthodoxy developed out of a different context. Within the relative stability of serving as the state religion for the Byzantine empire, it was more reflective about what it meant to respond faithfully to God’s work through Jesus Christ. This reflection entailed (1) careful exposition about the Christian faith, highlighted through the Ecumenical Councils (Florovsky 2003: 117), and (2) a deep spirituality that resisted too much attachment to earthly pleasures and power, demonstrated through an emphasis on mysticism and monasticism. Through both careful reflection on God’s revelation and dedicated attendance upon God’s mystical presence, people could hope to be deified (Schmemann 2003: 198–199).

Evangelism scholar Jeff Conklin-Miller describes the call of the church to be an evangelistic witness as one that requires ‘leaning both ways’ by simultaneously staying faithful to the internal logic of the gospel and engaging meaningfully with the world on its own terms (Conklin-Miller 2020: 12). Contextual awareness provides Christian witnesses – whether individuals or congregations – the means for leaning into the world so they can share the gospel they have learned to articulate by leaning into their experiences of God’s goodness (starting point) and the Christian tradition (theological reflection).

3.4 Creative practices

Joining the first three items together allows Christian witnesses to develop creative practices of evangelism that are authentic to their respective experiences of Christ, faithful to the Christian tradition, and appropriate to the context in which they are evangelizing. Based on this, there are limitless ways to present the gospel and invite others to respond to it. This is evident in the wide range of practices that are espoused by Christians, including variations among those who have only partial differences in the opening three items of the equation.

For example, William Abraham, an Irish Methodist pastor and evangelism scholar, along with many Latin American liberation theologians, would point to the reign of God as their starting point. However, their different theologies and contexts would lead them to different practices of evangelism. For Abraham, drawing from a Wesleyan soteriology in a Western context, evangelism should call individuals to be ‘initiated into the Kingdom of God’ in multiple ways, including communally, intellectually, morally, experientially, vocationally, and spiritually, so that they reflect the holiness of God and God’s reign (Abraham 1989: 102–103). For Latin American liberation theologians, the practice of evangelism entails proclamation, a call to conversion, and action (Pope-Levinson 1991: 156). Proclamation includes both an announcement of God’s liberation of the marginalized through Jesus Christ and a denunciation of the unjust powers and structures that dehumanize people. Conversion involves people becoming more aware of the unjust structures around them. Action involves living in solidarity with the marginalized as they all work toward overcoming the unjust structures.

Other liberation theologians have different practices based on their context. Ray Aldred, who is a member of the First Nations in Canada, deals with a context in which Indigenous peoples and the descendants of those who colonized the Indigenous peoples’ lands remain in a contentious relationship. Evangelistic practice involves Christians who are descendants of colonizers acknowledging the wrongs inflicted upon the Indigenous peoples and making necessary reparations. Christians who are Indigenous evangelize by offering forgiveness to the descendants of the colonizers in effort to build a more just society for all (Aldred 2020: 442–443).

Letty Russell, reflecting on the implications of being a feminist liberation theologian within the United States where church growth and marketplace success is prized, contends that evangelism is practised through ‘calculated inefficiency’. This involves spending more time ‘invest[ing] ourselves in the outcasts and marginal people’ rather than just seeking to increase the size of the institutional church (Russell 1978: 130).

African theologian Emily Kerama and Pentecostal theologian Daryl Grundmann agree with the need to help the marginalized but hold a different pneumatology than Russell. They point to relying on God for movements of spiritual power that overthrow demonic forces, heal people who are ill, and reconcile broken relationships between individuals and among larger groups of people (Kerama 2020: 387–389; Grundmann 2005: 69). All this is evangelistic, demonstrating the power of Jesus alongside that of preaching the gospel.

Evangelicals, driven by the high value they place on conversion, have long emphasized proclaiming the gospel and inviting people to make a personal decision to become disciples of Jesus Christ as the chief practice of evangelism (Bebbington 1989: 5). However, they also recognize that their evangelistic practice must shift according to the contextual worldview of the people they are evangelizing. Evangelical evangelism scholars W. Jay Moon and W. Bud Simon, both US Americans who served as missionaries in other countries, identify four worldviews: guilt/justice, shame/honour, fear/power, and indifference/belonging with purpose (Moon and Simon 2021: 30–37). People in each category require being approached with different evangelistic practices that emphasize different aspects of the gospel.

Eastern Orthodoxy, with its emphasis on theosis and its strong mystical approach to theology, understands its primary Christian witness to be eucharistic. The Eucharist presents the eschatological hope of Christ that is already present in the church and available to redeem all creation (Schmemann 2003: 198). The Eastern Orthodox proclaim the gospel along with serving the Eucharist through the Divine Liturgy. To remove as many barriers as possible for people to participate in and understand the Liturgy, the Orthodox practise autocephaly, with the Orthodox faithful granted self-governance and the ability to offer the liturgy in their respective nation’s native tongue. So, while there is one Orthodox starting point and theology, there are fifteen national Orthodox churches (e.g. Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox) (Meyendorff 2003: 80–81).

The Catholic Church, with its emphasis on salvation through baptism in the Church, separates out the concepts of evangelism and evangelization. Evangelization entails all the activities involved in moving people from unbelief through receiving baptism to being active communicants within the Church. Evangelism is the specific activity of declaring the gospel to people who are not yet believers, and so only occurs as a specific act within the larger framework of evangelization (Westerhoff 1994: 156). While the content of the Catholic doctrines that people are to be taught as part of the evangelization process remain unchanged in all contexts, the expectation is that Catholics will adapt how they present the doctrines to fit with the ‘culture, age, spiritual maturity, and social and ecclesial condition among all those to whom it is addressed’ (Catholic Catechism 2019: 11).

Postliberal theology contends that the best way to be a Christian witness is to form virtuous communities that serve as an example of God’s goodness to all those who are still participating in the violent, profit-driven structures of the world. People outside the community will see the beauty of this virtuous community and seek to enter it, committing to its precepts. The virtuous community will in no way invite people to join, as this could be coercive, and the virtuous community is above all noncoercive. However, it is welcoming to all who choose to come to it of their own accord (Stone 2007: 262–263). Neomonastic movements are an example of this witness, meant both to invite new people to faith and to call the church to a more faithful way of presenting the gospel to others (Heath and Duggins 2014: 34–35).

Process Christians engage in Christian witness through advocating for a flourishing life for all people. This includes being part of a community, but also entails political and social activism with the hope of overthrowing unjust systems and working for the common good of all people. There is no need for people to repent nor even to believe in Jesus to share in this good (Epperly 2006: 22–23).

The above brief descriptions are not an exhaustive picture of ways Christians can serve as witnesses for Jesus Christ through practicing evangelism. The Evangelism Equation allows for every nuance in a Christian witness’ starting point, theology, and context to shape how they will practise evangelism, which leads to endless permutations of possible practices.

There is an important caveat to this wide latitude for what can be understood as evangelistic practice by the equation: not all Christians agree that what other Christians call evangelistic counts as evangelism. At least one major division during the twentieth century occurred because of this, when the Lausanne Conference (1974) was organized by evangelicals to affirm a narrower understanding of evangelism than the one being developed by the World Council of Churches at the time. Evangelicals asserted that evangelism only entails the verbal proclamation of the gospel to bring someone to faith in Jesus Christ, while the World Council of Churches accepted all forms of Christian witness, including social action and humanitarian aid, as evangelism. This is an ongoing point of disagreement today.

4 Criticisms of evangelism

The practice of evangelism has provided fertile ground for criticism of the church, often focused on ways that Christians have proven hypocritical by causing harm in the name of Jesus. In many cases, these criticisms are justified. Postcolonial theology has been at the forefront of identifying these instances, highlighting when evangelism was conflated with oppressive political, economic, and social agendas.

4.1 Conquest, the doctrine of discovery, and social control

The conversion of people to the Christian faith was often used as a justification for imperial expansion. Especially during the Age of Discovery (1492–1783), European monarchs often cited the goal of converting Indigenous peoples as a chief aim of the colonial expeditions they authorized.

This practice led the Catholic Church to articulate the doctrine of discovery, which declared that European explorers could claim any land in the name of their country so long as another European monarch had not yet claimed it (Indigenous Values Initiative 2018). This extended to the explorer’s nation having sovereignty over the Indigenous people who lived on that land. The church saw this as beneficial for all involved. A Christian nation would expand, the Indigenous people would become Christians, and the church would gain new converts.

The doctrine of discovery also justified efforts to erase Indigenous cultures. Believing that the Christian faith had made white Europeans (and, later, white North Americans) superior to all other peoples, explorers reordered the lives of Indigenous peoples, rejecting their existing beliefs and customs. Converting people to Christianity became conflated with ‘civilizing’ them based on white European or US American norms. The mission schools for First Nations people in Canada and the United States are examples of this (Teasdale 2014: 131–134).

Although the doctrine of discovery was formally propounded by the Catholic Church, Protestant missionaries operated with a similar understanding. As early as 1651, John Eliot, an English Puritan, had established ‘praying towns’ where Native Americans would follow the same rhythm of life that New England Puritans did (Richter 2001: 95). Ironically, as Protestantism came to the fore in the United States during the nineteenth century, Catholic immigrants to the United States were often identified as targets to be civilized through conversion to Protestantism.

Evangelism was also used by privileged groups to extend social control over less privileged groups in the same country. By accepting the idea that one’s wealth and social status were markers of God’s blessing, evangelists linked the cultural and social norms of the privileged groups to the gospel and sought to persuade converts that becoming Christian included accepting those norms. If people from other ethnicities, races, and/or socio-economic classes became discontented with the new norms they were being taught, evangelists could pacify them by focusing their attention on the eternal glory they would inherit if they persevered in the new norms rather than working for social, political, or economic change (McLoughlin 1978: 141–145).

4.2 Prosperity gospel and emotional manipulation

The prosperity gospel narrows Christ’s offer of abundant life to emphasize God’s desire to bless people with health, wealth, and victory over all possible tribulations. It combines Pentecostal theology with magical thinking, promising that if people will believe hard enough, God will bless them in every way. If they fail to receive those blessings, then they have failed to demonstrate sufficient belief (Bowler 2013: 7).

The prosperity gospel preys on the poor and marginalized, offering them wish-fulfilment wrapped in Christian vocabulary. It does not question the justice of their situation or the choices they have made. There is no call to repentance and discipleship, much less to participate in the mission of God as witnesses to others. There is only a requirement that they demonstrate faith, usually through sending donations to a specific ministry and claiming the victory God has for them with positive thinking.

Beyond promising wish fulfilment, the prosperity gospel also often uses psychological manipulation through hosting rallies that are calculated to make people highly emotional and less rationally engaged with the message being presented. This critique is not only aimed at the prosperity gospel, but some forms of revivalism that use similar tactics to evoke decisions to become disciples of Jesus Christ. Sinclair Lewis’ novel Elmer Gantry is a biting satire of how conmen could use this style of evangelism to cheat people out of large sums of money.

4.3 Celebrity and scandal

A celebrity culture that lionizes Christians who generate large audiences, whether in-person, online, or through publications, has become a feature of evangelism in the West. Researchers have found that megachurches (congregations with more than 2,000 people attending their worship services) are especially involved in manufacturing and promoting Christian celebrities (Kidwell and Borer 2021: 56). Those who reach celebrity status were often protected by the church because of their visibility.

These celebrities have proven to be problematic for evangelism in two ways. While they can draw a crowd to hear the gospel, they also can eclipse the gospel and become the centre of their audience’s attention (Kidwell and Borer 2021: 58). Worse, if a Christian celebrity is implicated in a scandal, it can severely harm the Christian witness in the larger culture and even cause existing Christians to be less committed to participation in religious activities (Smith 1992: 361–362).

5 Areas of exploration in the early twenty-first century

The study of evangelism is constantly addressing new topics and reassessing existing theories and practices to determine how Christians can be effective witnesses for Christ. As of the early-to-mid twenty-first century, scholars are focusing on the following theoretical and practical items.

5.1 Theoretical

While the definitions of witness and evangelism are broadly accepted, they remain in perpetual flux as cultural factors affect them. In the West, the growing number of people who do not subscribe to specific belief systems, often referred to as ‘nones’, has especially challenged what the outcome of evangelism looks like. New interest has generated around missiologist Paul Hiebert’s ‘bounded set’ and ‘centred set’ theory, which suggests that evangelists should be less concerned with whether someone is inside a bounded set of faith because they have intellectually assented to a particular belief than with whether people are moving toward the centre in their behaviour (where Hiebert places Jesus), regardless of how far away they are from explicitly professing the Christian faith (Hiebert 1978: 26).

The changing demographics of the global Christian population is also affecting the study of evangelism by creating greater engagement with Majority World scholars. By 2050, the Pew Research Centre estimates that Sub-Saharan Africa will hold 38.1% of the global Christian population, Latin–America–Caribbean 22.8%, and Asia–Pacific 13.1%. This contrasts to Europe having only 15.1%, North America 9.8%, and the Middle East–North Africa 0.6% (Pew 2015: 60).

As seen throughout this article, the contextual realities facing Majority World scholars cause them to defy Western theological categories, often combining evangelical beliefs with Pentecostal acts of power to engage the spirit world and aligning with liberationist concerns for the plight of the poor and marginalized. Their theology calls the Western church toward a more holistic understanding of salvation, which affects theories of mission, evangelism, and witness.

One way Majority World scholars are influencing how the church understands evangelism and witness is through their published reflections on the World Council of Churches’ major documents on evangelism. For example, Samuel Escobar, a Latin American evangelical missiologist, appreciated how the document Together Toward Life helped the Western church articulate

the end of the imperial age of mission, in which the Gospel was presented ‘from above’ by Spanish conquistadores, British merchants, and American enthusiasts who sometimes followed too closely the colonial or neocolonial patterns of their nations. Now the younger churches are carrying on mission ‘from below’. (Escobar 2014: 193)

As examples of mission from below, he included specific references to immigrants from the Global South who serve in menial capacities in Western countries yet share their faith through their relationships with their employers. While applauding this, Escobar criticizes the Western churches for being hostile toward this evangelistic witness because they fear Westerners being formed in a faith that the Western churches have not officially endorsed (Escobar 2014: 194).

Escobar’s idea of ‘mission from below’ agrees with Oduyoye’s reflection on the World Council of Churches document ‘Mission and Evangelism’. She calls for the church

to develop and strengthen the mission of the whole people of God. This means those who do not wear the title ‘theologian’, ‘missionary’, ‘pastor’, or ‘evangelist’ but are still members of the body of Christ and who care for the united mission of the church, and its effectiveness in this world for which Christ died. (Oduyoye 1987: 344)

This fits with Oduyoye’s African Womanist theology which seeks to ennoble those who are marginalized by identifying them with the presence of God through Jesus Christ.

5.2 Practices

The broadening theoretical framework for understanding witness and evangelism, driven by the church’s development of more holistic theologies that are reflective of the multiplicity of contexts in which Christians are living, has allowed evangelism scholars to consider more creative evangelistic practices. Many of these are in response to specific needs either in the world or within the church.

5.2.1 Needs of the world

The world faces numerous global crises today, including ecological degradation, dwindling food production, a scarcity of clean water, the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and escalating violence as people lose trust in their leaders, political structures, and each other. Teasdale suggests that if Christian witness is to be meaningful in this context, it must improve its ability to demonstrate the power of the gospel to bring healing to these issues. Specifically, he states that the Christians should construe their witness as sharing the abundant life of Christ through improving people’s standard of living and quality of life, both linked to a desire to share with people the hope of eternal life (Teasdale 2022: 16–23).

Improving people’s standard of living deals with their immediate physical needs. There are numerous Christian organizations that do this, such as Catholic Relief Services, World Vision, and Church World Service. These have long been treated by the church as humanitarian aid organizations that Christians run, but not as part of Christian witness. A broader understanding of salvation that entails God moving to heal people from the privations of famine, drought, disease, and war, as well as from sin and death, can allow the church to claim this work as genuinely evangelistic. It demonstrates the power of God through the people of God to overcome the powers of chaos, death, and harm in this world.

Improving quality of life involves helping people find greater wellbeing. Especially after the isolation of the pandemic, this has involved giving people a sense of community and purpose. Two areas that evangelism scholars are focusing on to meet these needs are digitally mediated ministry and church planting.

As a result of the pandemic, many people became accustomed to integrating digital interaction into their daily lives. This has not changed even after lockdowns were ended, which has had a substantial impact on church attendance in general and with how church can connect with those who are not already Christian. This has led to a significant uptick into research, case studies, and programmatic experiments around using a mixture of digital and in-person forms of ministry. It also has fuelled interest in planting new forms of churches, including all-digital churches, microchurches, neighbourhood churches, regional churches, and resource churches (Frost and Hirsch 2022: 48). In many cases, these churches are linked through church planting networks rather than historical denominations. ‘Exponential’ is the largest church planting organization in the world and serves as the primary provider of resources for this work (exponential.org). The hope in all of this is to provide people with a strong community that will meet their quality of life needs while inviting them to accept the Christian faith.

The Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College offers an excellent example of seeking to improve people’s standard of living and quality of life at the same time. Headed by Jamie Aten, an evangelical Christian and psychologist, the institute develops tools that are grounded in both the Bible and best psychological practices to help Christians provide ‘Spiritual First Aid’ to those suffering from trauma of any sort, from surviving a natural disaster to coping with abuse (spiritualfirstaid.org). These tools call on the Christian practitioner to address people’s biological and livelihood needs (standard of living) as well as their emotional and social needs (quality of life) before turning to their spiritual needs (eternal life).

5.2.2 Needs of the church

Concurrent with the problems facing those outside the church, new concerns related to evangelism and witness have developed within it. One of these is an increasingly shrill political climate in much of the world. Anger and resentment toward those who hold to different perspectives has become commonplace, with decency, tolerance, and nuanced thinking harder to find. This has led to an uptick in violence and violent rhetoric. Christian scholars have sought to address this by providing Christians with guidance for how to maintain their integrity in Christ and evangelize to others in this context. Two recent texts on this are by Ed Stetzer, Christians in an Age of Outrage (2018), and Robin Lovin, What Do We Do When Nobody is Listening? (2022).

Related to this is the increasing discomfort that many Christians have practicing evangelism because they fear offending others in a pluralistic context. Studies by the Barna Group and LifeWay Research have both demonstrated that Christians believe that sharing their faith is important, but that they are uncomfortable doing it (see, for example Lifeway Research 2022 and Don Everts, The Reluctant Witness, 2019). Several evangelism scholars, including Sam Chan, James Choung, Rick Richardson, and Beth Seversen are focusing on better exegeting the culture to remove Christians’ fear of having even basic conversations about faith.

A practical implication of this is an elongation of the timetable for practicing evangelism. While an invitation to believe the gospel and become a disciple of Jesus Christ is still an essential aspect of evangelistic practice, there is a pivot away from Christians issuing an immediate call to faith in favour of Christians entering a sustained relationship with those outside the Christian faith. This relationship facilitates people exploring the Christian faith over time, first within a personal friendship and then within a Christian congregation. John Bowen, a Canadian evangelism scholar, describes this as a process of apprenticing people to become disciples (Bowen 2021: Kindle location 683–732).

Another implication is that the church must address how it has failed people in the past. A significant hindrance to the church offering a faithful witness is the existence of people who were once Christians but have left the faith because they were harmed by it. Terms such as ‘church hurt’ and ‘exvangelical’ have become common in the early 2020s as descriptors for this phenomenon. Evangelism scholars have sought to understand the deconversion process of leaving the church (see, for example, Michael Hakim Lee, From Faith and Advocacy to Unbelieve and Defection, 2015), as well as how to offer a gracious witness to those who have experienced this harm (see, for example, Charles Kiser and Elaine Heath, Trauma-Informed Evangelism, 2023).

Finally, with the change in the nature and structure of churches, many church leaders today are looking for new metrics they can use to measure their ministerial effectiveness. Traditional church metrics have emphasized counting the numbers of people, programs, and dollars gathered within a single congregation. New metrics include these statistics while also measuring the impact of the Christians in their daily lives. Teasdale, for example, adapts a systems thinking model to measure the inputs, throughputs, outputs, outcomes, and impact of a local congregation (2022: 174–179).

These new directions for scholarship demonstrate that witness and evangelism are neither stagnant nor reflective of the stereotypes that often attend them. While the core message of the gospel remains the same, the contexts and media for presenting that message are constantly changing. To invite people to believe the gospel and become disciples of Jesus Christ while avoiding the harm that occurs when Christians attach the gospel to human ambitions, intentional and ongoing reflection on how the church understands and practises witness and evangelism is essential.

6 Notes on further reading

The Academy for Evangelism in Theological Education, which hosts an annual meeting of evangelism scholars to share research and publishes an annual journal online, Witness: The Journal of the Academy for Evangelism in Theological Education. Free access to all volumes more than one year old. https://aete.online/

Forge Global, a network that provides resources for starting local communities of faith in multiple Western countries. http://www.forgeinternational.com/

Foundation for Evangelism, offers resources, training, and grants to support evangelistic activities. https://foundationforevangelism.org/

The Great Commission Research Network, which hosts an annual meeting of scholars and practitioners who emphasize church growth and church planting and publishes an annual journal online. https://www.greatcommissionresearch.com/

Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, which hosts numerous training events and has published many resources on evangelism. https://wheatonbillygraham.com/


Copyright Mark R. Teasdale ORCID logo (CC BY-NC)


  • Further reading

    • Bevans, Stephen B., and Roger P. Schroeder. 2011. Prophetic Dialogue: Reflections on Christian Mission Today. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.
    • Chilcote, Paul W., and Laceye C. Warner (eds). 2008. The Study of Evangelism: Exploring a Missional Practice of the Church. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
    • Gustafson, David M. 2019. Gospel Witness: Evangelism in Word & Deed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
    • Gustafson, David M. 2022. Gospel Witness Through the Ages: A History of Evangelism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
    • Warner, Laceye. 2007. Saving Women: Retrieving Evangelistic Theology. Waco: Baylor University Press.
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    • Amoah, Elizabeth, and Mercy Amba Oduyoye. 1988. ‘The Christ for African Women’, in With Passion and Compassion: Third World Women Doing Theology. Edited by Virginia Fabella and Mercy Amba Oduyoye. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.
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