A New Evangelism? Reconsidering Evangelism in Light of Social Justice and Sexual Assault

The recent developments of the #metoo and #churchtoo movements has shed new light on sexual assault in the United States. Its impact has been felt at the highest court in the country. Amid this, a new statement distinguishing the gospel from social justice was published by some within conservative evangelicalism. They are seeking to defend Scripture from secular “dangerous ideas and corrupted moral values.” All of this should give us sufficient reason to take another look at our understanding and practice of evangelism.

Most within evangelicalism would agree with J. Mack Stiles definition of evangelism: “teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade.” He goes on to elaborate on this definition by saying, “Evangelism is teaching (heralding, proclaiming, preaching) the gospel (the message from God that leads us to salvation) with the aim (hope, desire, goal) to persuade (convince, convert).”1 What is meant, then, is simply the telling of a message about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus with the intent to persuade another person to trust in Jesus for salvation.

This definition and practice of evangelism is clearly visible in the United States, especially in the early twentieth century. It was built on the backs of the efforts committed Christians like Dwight L. Moody and Aimee Semple McPherson who took advantage of the technology of their time through preaching on the radio.2 Later mid-century evangelism came to be defined as preaching at crusades that drew large crowds for evangelists such as Billy Sunday and Billy Graham.3 Following in their predecessors footsteps and combining large crowds with technology would come the rise of television evangelists (or “televangelists”). All the while continuing the decades old practice of door-to-door and street evangelism.4 Some within the more conservative evangelical and fundamentalist tradition have seen evangelism as the preaching of God’s word from the pulpit on Sunday mornings. In these traditions, evangelism primarily happens within the walls of the church.5

While evangelism includes “the sharing of the message about Jesus with the intent to persuade another person to believe in Jesus,” it is still debated if this alone defines evangelism. Moreover, the practice of evangelism also needs consideration. Jesus’ model of evangelism and the apostle Paul’s example of preaching are both in contrast and (at times) opposition to twenty-first century American definition and practice of evangelism.

The Ministry of Jesus

Jesus’ ministry was about more than preaching repentance it was about showing compassion. The gospel of Matthew (9:35-36) says, “And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” What did Jesus’ compassion look like? How did it translate into action? Verse 35 tell us that Jesus’ ministry had a two-fold purpose, “proclaiming the gospel” and “healing every disease and every affliction.” Jesus’ ministry preached grace and showed compassion.

The verses that follow this passage tell us, “And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction.” Jesus showed compassion by giving his disciples the power to heal afflictions, and then sending them out to preach. The disciples were commissioned and equipped by Jesus to show compassion and to preach grace. Jesus’ model of ministry was to both preach about spiritual deliverance, as well as demonstrate physical deliverance. Jesus’ mission was about declaring the good news of the gospel and demonstrating compassion. He calls his Church today to the same mission and ministry.

The Ministry of Paul

One of the main passages cited in support of the modern concept of evangelism (especially street preaching), is Acts 17 and the story of the apostle Paul in Athens. The argument goes that Paul went to Athens, noticed the wickedness of the culture, and began to preach against it. However, this isn’t exactly the case. A closer examination of Acts 17 and the story of Paul in Athens reveals something different.

In verses 17 and 18, Luke tells us that Paul “reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him.” First, Paul didn’t simply stand on a corner and shout, nor did he intend to confront the culture. Paul conversed “in the synagogue with the Jews” and with academic philosophers. This was a civilized dialogue between mutually respected persons, about the Creator and King of the universe.

But what about Paul preaching “in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there”? At first glance, this certainly seems equivalent to our modern-day street preachers. However, it too is quite different. First century Athens was “the center of the public and business life of the city, and people met there every day to learn the latest news and to discuss all manner of subjects.”6 In other words, the marketplace was not filled with disinterested passerby, rather the Athenian marketplace was filled with interested participants eager to hear news. Paul, the bearer of “the good news” was preaching to an attentive and captive audience. In short, the scene of Paul preaching in first century Athens and the street preacher preaching on the street corner could not be more opposite.

Why would Paul go and preach in a marketplace? Not to confront the culture. Not to open-air preach. Paul preached in the marketplace because most people in the marketplace were looking to hear news, and Paul had the best news that anyone could ever hear. Paul looked for people who were open to hearing his message before he delivered it. We would do well to go and do likewise.

Sinners and the Sinned-Against

Additionally, the Church ought to reconsider the practice of modern evangelism because it views people only as sinners, and not as people that have been sinned against. Twenty-first century evangelism can lack biblical compassion. It can view non-Christians as simply people who are in active rebellion against God who need to repent or else face the wrath of God. This was most recently re-emphasized by John MacArthur in a sermon called Social Justice and the Gospel. In his sermon, MacArthur acknowledges that people can be victims of other people’s sin, but that, “When you concede to sinners that they are victims of other people’s wrongs you put up a barrier to the necessary full responsibility for sin that drives the broken sinner to God for deliverance from sin and death and hell. The gospel doesn’t open up until the sinner takes full responsibility for his sin; that is where the gospel begins.” While it is true that every person is a sinner, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the gospel only speaks to our personal sin, and not also to the fact that we are victims.

People are more than sinners, they can also be those who have been sinned-against. People experience the suffering of being taken advantage of by others, as well as being victims of an inherently unjust society. The recent #metoo and #churchtoo movements have bore witness to this. People can be victims, and as a result, need compassion. We see this displayed in Exodus 3. Moses is before the burning bush and God says to him, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings and I have come down to deliver them.” The greatest story of redemption that foreshadows our own redemption is the story of Israel being led out of Egypt. God tells Moses that he does not see the people of Israel as living in rebellion, but as living in slavery. He sees the people not as rebellious, but as “afflicted.” In other words, he identifies his people not as sinners in need of repentance, but as sufferers in need of compassionate rescuing.

Does this mean that we should not view people as sinners in need of repentance? Of course not, but it does mean that the Church needs to grasp this incredibly essential truth when it comes to evangelism, “compassion becomes possible when we perceive people as the sinned-against, as well as the sinning.”7 To reduce people to simply beings living in active rebellion against God and in need of repentance is to do a tremendous injustice to both those who bear the image of God, as well as the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. People are not merely the rebellious in need of repentance, they can also be the sinned-against in need of compassionate rescuing. If we ignore one at the expense of the other, we lose both. Recognizing that all people are both sinners and sinned-against is the first step toward truly effective and truly Biblical evangelism.

A Way Forward

There is a way forward for the American Church. The place to begin is by recognizing that there is a difference between evangelism and evangelization. The main difference is in the approach. Evangelism sees its main task as the delivery of a message. Evangelization sees its main task as the delivery of a Person. For traditional evangelism, the approach is to reach as many individual people with a message at whatever cost necessary. It doesn’t really matter if the person is interested in hearing the message, or has other needs besides hearing the message. The responsibility of the messenger is simply to deliver a message, call to repentance, and wait for a response. That’s it. For those engaged in evangelization, it is much more of a big picture approach. It sees the responsibility of the messenger to deliver the person of Jesus to their neighbors and community. To demonstrate and declare the love of God to all people, and to work for the good of the community.

Love for the community comes from the prophet Jeremiah. God says in Jeremiah 29:4-7:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

By engaging with the Babylonian community, Israel could work toward social justice in the city. Social Justice helps us reform our understanding and practice of evangelism by reminding us that the messenger does not only bring a message, he brings the Person and reconciliatory work of Jesus. The messenger incarnates the message and the One sending the message. The messenger does not simply preach grace to sinners, he demonstrates grace to sinners; he does not simply speak of God’s mercy to the suffering, he delivers God’s mercy to the suffering. He doesn’t only seek to save the sinner, he seeks to save the community.

Demonstration of the gospel and declaration of the gospel are distinguished, but never separated. If the American Church wants to engage in fruitful, Biblical evangelism, it must abandon the modern-day approach and concept of evangelism and adopt the method of Jesus and the Apostle Paul. It must begin to do the work of evangelization; it must demonstrate the gospel while it declares it. The Church must show compassion while it preaches grace.

Mario Anthony Russo is a pastor and theologian working in Western Germany. He holds an Interdisciplinary Bachelor of Science degree in Biology and Psychology (University of South Carolina), a Master of Arts in Religion (RTS), and a Doctor of Ministry (Erskine College & Seminary). You can follow him on Twitter@Mario_A_Russo

References   [ + ]

1. J. Mack Stiles, Evangelism: How the whole church speaks of Jesus. Wheaton: Crossway, 2014, 27.
2. John Mark Terry, Evangelism: A Concise History. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 1998, 199-200.
3. Ibid.
4. Here “door-to-door” is referring to the practice much like that of Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and “street evangelism” is referring to street preachers and those who pass out gospel tracks to those who pass by.
5. Thom S. Rainer, “Effective Evangelistic Churches,” Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 1996, 18.
6. Jack Finegan, “The Archeology of the New Testament: The Mediterranean world of the early Christian apostles.” Vol. 23. London: Croom Helm, 1981, 128.
7. Ibid., 47.