Evangelism is the queen of all Christian ministries. It is the highest calling of the Christian community because the community itself is borne of evangelism and exists to evangelise. “It is the raison d'être of the Church,” according to this paper (¶ 35). As such, this statement is intended to be a call to action, a prophetic voice to remind the church and the entire global Christian community of the duty and joy of telling “the story of Jesus” (¶ 67). Evangelism “is intrinsic to the life of the disciple” (ibid). The paper is not intended to be “just” a theological paper: if you, the reader, accept it only as such, it has failed in its purpose – yet if you are inspired to greater evangelistic effort, then this statement has succeeded.
Behind this work lies a process of theological reflection and personal fellowship. As with so many aspects of the Christian life, the process is as important as the final product. In this instance I had the privilege of facilitating a diverse Evangelism working group (a sub-group of CWME), and a microcosm of the global Christian community. The reality of how such a mixed group functioned was a delight to observe: even when there were difficult issues to address or profound theological disagreements between members, the group found positive ways to surmount such obstacles. I was impressed at the sensitivity that was at times displayed even in the midst of hard critical debate about a presentation. Participants developed deep mutual respect despite – and sometimes because of – the differences in theological tradition, educational attainment, ethnicity, gender, status, geographical location and experience. I am deeply grateful and wish to thank all those involved for a splendid ecumenical experience: thank you!
The resulting paper does have weaknesses. It is simply not possible to address all aspects of a theology of evangelism within the constraints with which the group had to work. There is, for example, no clear definition of “the gospel,” which some missiologists may struggle with. On the other hand, there are significant strengths. The scriptures, for example, are accepted as authoritative and handled with respect. The pitfalls of “proof texting” or weak application are avoided and at the same time there are some imaginative uses made of biblical narratives. “The church” is likewise treated with respect. The limited ecclesiology with which the paper engages holds both affirmation and challenge: “God's presence is promised and granted in the midst of the believing, worshipping, celebrating and caring congregation. There is no other hermeneutic of the gospel” (¶ 10, quoting Newbigin) – this quote raises the question where is God if a local congregation is none of these things? Can such a collection of people truly be part of “the church” without God's active presence? To quote, “we also note with grief that churches have often been silent when they should have been boldly proclaiming, apathetic when they should have been hard at work or prayerless when they should have been earnestly seeking divine life-bringing intervention in the lives of women and men” (¶ 11).
Since the beginning of the church, conversion to Christianity has always been a controversial issue. In its 2000-year history, too often have violence or inducements been used to “secure” conversions. Usually when such anti-Christian methodology has been employed there has been a close relationship between the ecclesiastical authorities of the time and the politics of empire and “expansionism.” Today's world is complex and multi-faceted. There are many competing claims for what is right and true. Within this context one of the most important debates for the church continues to be that of conversion. “Evangelism: Witnessing to Our Hope in Christ” is a modest contribution to this discussion. The central sections offer an ethical framework in which the methodologies used in evangelism can be considered, leading to an appraisal of the characteristics of authentic evangelism (¶ 40 – 53). There is an extensive quote from the document, “Christian Witness in a Multireligious World: Recommendations for Conduct.” The reasons for such a long quote are significant in themselves – (i) “Recommendations” is not yet another dull ecumenical text that people either leave on the shelf to gather the dust of the ages or remain blessedly ignorant of but a significant document in its own right, for it is the first document published jointly by the World Council of Churches, the Vatican and the World Evangelical Alliance, making it an historic text; (ii) “Recommendations” addresses the contentious issue of conversion, thus, it is a missiological text; (iii) it addresses the global multi-religious context in which we all find ourselves, making it an inter-religious text; and (iv) it is an ecumenical text, developed over five years of hard work between the three communities. It is therefore entirely appropriate to quote from it at length and in context, drawing on the collective wisdom and cross-cultural experience of its authors.
This text also explores the twelve Principles “Christians are called to adhere to … as they seek to fulfil Christ's commission in an appropriate manner” (¶ 40, quoting Christian Witness). This is followed by a description of ten methodologies used by churches, acknowledging “that no one method can be sufficient when practiced in isolation” (¶ 42). The list is illustrative not exhaustive, but it is sufficiently broad, thus showing that everything that Christians and the church engage in should be and can be evangelistic.
Ethical frameworks and methodological considerations aside, of fundamental importance are the characteristics of authentic evangelism. The final two paragraphs (¶ 52, 53) lead to a discussion on the importance of unity in evangelism. This introduces a simple spectrum that ranges from a disreputable “competitiveness” between churches and other Christian organizations, moving through “co-operation” to “collaboration” and ultimately “community.” ‘This spectrum suggests a pathway towards being able to give to our communities a credible Christian witness that invites people to engage their own personal and corporate stories with the story of Jesus (¶ 64). Each step taken along this spectrum involves greater depth in relationship: stronger mutual accountability, improved communication, deeper trust, richer laughter. Eventually each small incremental step builds churches living in community, which in turn reflects the teachings of Christ about ‘the kingdom of God’ into which we are called (¶ 65). “All those who are followers of Jesus share in this call to love each other, to become peace-makers, to accept and seek unity, to proclaim Jesus as Lord: that is, to engage in the ministry of evangelism, shining like stars in the darkness and brokenness of the world” (¶ 69).
What of the missiological significance of the paper? It can only be measured in the fruit it produces: more evangelism and better evangelism for the glory of God and the growth of the reign of God as people align their own personal stories with the story that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Cor 5:19, NASB).