The term “evangelism” in the New Testament refers specifically to the good news of the kingdom of God. Thus “to evangelize” means literally “to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom.” Jesus came “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (Matthew 9:35). In Luke 4:43, Jesus declares that His central purpose is to “proclaim the good news of [evangelize concerning] the kingdom of God.” Again in Luke 8:1, the notion of evangelism is applied to his ministry. It is likewise applied to the work of His disciples: Acts 8:12 records that Philip “evangelized about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” [literal translation of the Greek; cf. Matthew 4:23, 24:14; Luke 16:16].
Throughout the New Testament, evangelism is associated with both the proclamation of God’s reign and the manifestation of His kingdom. It is important to recognize that the biblical model of evangelism is not limited to what might be called “conversion evangelism” — winning nonbelievers to faith in Jesus Christ. Indeed evangelism in the Scripture includes much more than that because it concerns the comprehensive message of God’s reign.
What then does “evangelism” really mean? If, as has been suggested, evangelism means announcing and embodying God’s reign in order that His will is accomplished on earth, then it may be pictured this way:
Evangelism is all about the kingdom of God. It is doctrine, and it is practice. But it is more than mere proselytizing. It is the church making God and His kingdom known in the world by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Consider the following four dimensions of evangelism:
Conversion evangelism is the fundamental ministry of the church. It must be the daily intentional work of the universal Christian community, rather than the occasional efforts of specialized individuals or organizations. The mission of the church is to lift up Jesus Christ so that the unbelieving world might be convicted of their sins, repent and receive the abundant life, which He alone offers.
As the body of Christ, the church is a manifestation of Jesus’ presence on earth. By spreading the gospel, the church wins people to faith in Christ: to be co-heirs with Him and members of His body. The church — guided and led by the Spirit — therefore, occupies the central role in conversion evangelism. It is duty-bound to proclaim Jesus Christ, to manifest His truth in all its doings and to be the community that welcomes and nurtures “those who [are] being saved” (Acts 2:47). This is more than duty. It is the church’s high privilege, its great opportunity.
Many Christians understand the term “evangelism” to mean only what has been described above —conversion evangelism. Such a perspective is too narrow and fails to grasp the magnitude of the biblical vision.
Discipleship evangelism is the internal education or formation program of the church. It is the making of mere members of a congregation into actual disciples of Christ. After all, Jesus’ commission is to “make disciples … teaching them to obey everything” that He commanded (Matthew 28:19–20). In its broader sense, discipleship evangelism is calling people everywhere to become Jesus’ disciples; in its narrower and more specific sense, it is the building up to the Christian community into the character of and fidelity to Jesus Christ.
The true church is a community of disciples, not mere believers. A disciple testifies to authentic belief through active obedience. The church cannot fulfill its outward mission without careful attention to inner discipleship.
The goal of discipleship is the formation of a body whose members look and act like Jesus Christ, showing forth His character in their social context. The church accomplishes this by being a community already reconciled and still reconciling. Its witness is most effective when fruit of reconciliation appears in typically troublesome soil — common socioeconomic divisions between rich and poor, men and women, and people of different racial and ethnic identities.
Justice evangelism is the social initiative of the church; its mission within society and culture. It means living out the righteousness of God’s reign within the church’s context — both locally and globally. This dimension of evangelism embodies the biblical mandate to work for justice in every aspect of society, with particular concern for the poor and oppressed. Here the church engages key issues of justice around the world: entrenched poverty, destruction of the environment, ethnic and religious violence, oppression of women and children, abortion and the culture of warfare and militarism.
The church is not called to serve itself. The body of Christ is to use its various appendages (“members”) to reach and affect the world. It is to be the light of deliverance, which penetrates, even banishes, the darkness of oppression. An understanding of evangelism that does not include the justice dimension is crippled in its potential for positive change, and it is not fully faithful to the gospel.
Culture evangelism is the global impact of the church — beginning in the local context and reaching worldwide. It means shaping the societies and cultures of the world through the truth of God’s kingdom. This requires the church to engage society in all its sectors — the arts, economics, education, science and technology, virtue and morality, philosophy and worldview. This dimension of evangelism calls Christians from every sector to bear effective cross-cultural witness to the truth of the gospel by both word and deed.
The Bible presents a picture of reality (worldview) and a narrative (world story) that are distinctly different from those of all other philosophies, myths, religions and ideologies. Scripture reveals God’s truth, which is demonstrated supremely in the person and sovereignty of Jesus Christ. Culture evangelism is, therefore, essential if societies are going to be transformed to reflect the reality of God’s kingdom.
These four dimensions of evangelism are, of course, closely intertwined. Together they form a single imperative: the proclamation and manifestation of God’s reign as revealed in Jesus Christ by the Spirit. Holistic mission means combining these four dimensions of evangelism in the work of the church, locally and globally.
An important aspect of this biblical understanding of evangelism is that it engages everyone in the Christian community — every believer and disciple. The priesthood of all believers and the diversity of spiritual gifts are key doctrinal elements of biblical evangelism. The Spirit anoints believers to be witnesses and evangelists in different measure. In the church, there are “different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6).
The role of the Holy Spirit is to make Jesus Christ and His kingdom known throughout the world. The church is the primary visible manifestation of that kingdom. Holistic mission recognizes a broader biblical understanding of evangelism, and the essential role of God’s particular callings and gifts, in order that Jesus Christ may be exalted and His kingdom made visible.
What follows are examples provided by John Adams that illustrate the importance of each dimension of biblical evangelism:
This is my (John’s) primary area of involvement. I previously worked with a ministry called the Institute for Emerging Itinerant Evangelists (IEIE), an outgrowth of East-West Ministries International, to train those who are gifted in gospel proclamation. We ministered in Russia, Central Asia, India, Spain and a country that must remain undisclosed.
IEIE teaches the theological basis of conversion evangelism in various forms, using practical exercises that promote the curriculum. The institute affirms, in the words of Isaiah, that “we all, like sheep, have gone astray” (Isaiah 53:6). Its members seek out wandering sheep and reveal to them the Shepherd who would lead them aright. Their message: “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord” (Acts 3:19).
The institute’s students were asked to comment on their time in the program, and their responses were tremendously encouraging. Johnson Samuel, an Indian student, wrote, “My view of evangelism is totally changed. The new thing I learnt is worship and how it is related to evangelism. The interesting thing was the teaching on imagination, which I didn’t have in my life.”
Discipleship as a process is difficult to define, but its result should be “fullness in Christ.” This fullness, according to Paul, is measured in the “riches of complete understanding” of Christ, the mystery of God (Colossians 2:2). Jesus Christ made known the kingdom of God, and the people marveled: “The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law” (Mark 1:22). He revealed the profound mysteries of the kingdom to His disciples, and charged them with teaching others all that He had taught them. That responsibility passed from the original Twelve to all who have received the gospel, as Paul wrote to Timothy, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2).
Light & Life Magazine is a periodical of the Free Methodist Church, which debuted as The Free Methodist in 1868. It has provided thoughtful, biblically based dialogue and advice to its subscribers ever since. The Evangelical Press Association gave Light & Life its Award of Excellence, the association’s top award for a denominational magazine, in 2000 and 2002. Every issue formerly included a several-page insert called “The Deeper Path,” which offered discipleship instruction and materials. A re-imagined version of the magazine emerged in July 2011 as LLM with the familiar discipleship section retained — now titled simply “Discipleship.” This section, which occupies the last page of the magazine, provides a brief topical essay and several responsive questions for group discussion. Three additional discipleship articles are published each month on the publication’s website.
The Free Methodist Church has a ministry of justice evangelism called International Child Care Ministries (ICCM). The organization answers Jesus’ commission to care for the poor and orphaned children of the world. ICCM provides education, food, clothing and basic medical care to 20,000 children in more than 30 countries, with more than 100 schools serving in some of the poorest areas of the world.
The organization partners compassionate persons with needy children. Its publicity brochures bear the photograph of a smiling child and the tagline, “Her future is connected to you.” Each sponsor makes regular support payments to provide his or her child with a more promising future and a more comfortable present. Letters are exchanged between sponsor and child. Often personal, even familial, relationships develop. Some sponsors even make the effort to visit their children. ICCM is committed to the notion that there are no orphans in the kingdom of God.
The education that ICCM provides to children around the world is a means of life and liberation. Many children go through the program and emerge as leaders in their local and national communities. The loving attention shown to them as children inspires their service to others. In fact, one of ICCM’s national coordinators was once a sponsored child. He was so impacted by the program that he sought administrative involvement and became the organization’s representative for his nation.
Justice evangelism does not apply only to children or even human beings. As Adam was put in the Garden of Eden and tasked with tending it, so by extension, we are charged to care for our environment. There are serious consequences for failing to do so. In fact, the health of the non-human created order and the health of people, especially the poor, are intimately connected.
In Jeremiah 12:1, the prophet complains to God: “You are always righteous, Lord, when I bring a case before you. Yet I would speak with you about your justice.” Why do the wicked appear to prosper, he asks, and “How long will the land lie parched and the grass in every field be withered? Because those who live in it are wicked, the animals and birds have perished” (Jeremiah 12:4). God responds: “It will be made a wasteland, parched and desolate before me; the whole land will be laid waste because there is no one who cares” (Jeremiah 12:11).
Land, like people, is often the victim of oppression. The Eden Reforestation Project is an excellent example of justice evangelism at work in the natural world. More than 10 million mangrove trees have been planted in Madagascar. In Ethiopia, the project has planted three healthy young forests that have encouraged wildlife growth, ceased flooding and erosion, refreshed springs, and improved the quality of local soil. Eden’s blessing of the land incorporates the blessing of hundreds of individual employees, trained to plant and protect trees and redeem their own land.
Culture evangelism can have many dimensions, since culture is so complex. It includes witness that engages the mind and imagination of society; its thought-world as well as its acts.
One form of culture evangelism is SEED Livelihood Network, an international ministry of the Free Methodist Church. SEED (Sustainable Empowerment through Economic Development) works as a wholesaler for livelihood groups around the world to help create sustainable sources of income for needy persons. The ministry takes the handcrafted work of local artisans to the global market, offering them twice the local wages for their wares. SEED typically partners with the poorest members of a society, providing such persons with dignity and financial security that might not otherwise be theirs.
Although SEED is not directly involved in conversion evangelism, it nevertheless promotes the same end. As a Christian organization, SEED recognizes that each person is endowed with the divine image. With this understanding, the program works to affirm the gifts of individuals and groups in handicrafts, agribusiness, animal husbandry, small manufacturing and local service provision. Such ministry often stands out in the local community as it grants a measure of social respect to the poor, the sick, the orphans and the widows.
A person’s core desire to do any form of evangelism comes from a conversion experience. This conversion experience and relationship with God and His community become the foundation and springboard to do all kinds of evangelism. Without the core, other kinds of evangelism become lifeless and empty.
The beautiful thing about this understanding of evangelism is that it incorporates the full view of God’s desire and plan to redeem His entire creation. Through the power and gifting of the Holy Spirit, we disciples have been given the foundation, responsibility, honor, privilege and joy to participate in the salvation of souls, care for creation, justice for the abused and changing cultures to reflect His kingdom.
Has your view of evangelism been too narrow or shallow? Our hope is that your view and knowledge of evangelism have been deepened and enriched by this broad and deep look at the vital subject.
Howard A. Snyder has served as a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, and Tyndale Seminary in Toronto. His numerous books include “The Problem of Wineskins” (1975), “The Community of the King” (1977, 2004) and “Earth-Currents: The Struggle for the World’s Soul” (1995). He earned a Ph.D. in historical theology from the University of Notre Dame.
John Carter Adams is the former vice president of the Institute for Emerging Itinerant Evangelists, a ministry of East West Ministries International in Plano, Texas, and the former executive director of the Olive Branch Mission in Chicago. He earned a master’s degree in evangelism and discipleship from Wheaton College.
DISCUSSION: Do these four dimensions broaden your view of evangelism?  How does your view of evangelism connect with your view of God’s reign?  How does your life match up to the biblical perspective of evangelism and God’s reign?