December 4, 2007 / David Fitch

Evangelism OR Witness?: The Necessary Turn for the Missional Church 1

I believe the shift from evangelism to witness is one of the most important moves for pastors to make in the new missional context of post Christendom N America. It is absolutely essential to leading a church into this millennium. The church I grew up with told us we need to evangelize the world. Go ouit there and communicate verbally the message of the gospel to your friends. Today, the missional church is speaking a different language. “Incarnational” is one of the new descriptors of how we are to engage the world. I believe the word “witness” is just as important.

Evangelism is the proclamation of the gospel. It has been the mode of engaging the world in modernity (Sorry for making modernity into the culprit again). In the Magesterial Reformation, evangelism, the KERYGMA, almost always referred to preaching the gospel, proclaiming the gospel. And this was done primarily in the church. It is communication through words, through a message delivered. In post Enlightenment days, this morphed into learning how to deliver the message, extracted from any context, verbally and persuasively to unbelievers. There was an emphasis on apologetics, arguments for the gospel, and indeed better communication techniques. The task of engaging the world with the gospel was convincing individuals of our message. Thus, the better more excellent the presentatuion of the cognitve message, the better. We can now set up whole stadiums and production companies to improve on communicating and packaging the message.

Witness is an all engaging term. It certainly includes proclamation. But proclamation is inseparable from the witness of real life. This is why the greek word for witness, MARTYRION, sounds a lot like the word “martyr” in english. For the true witness bears forth the proclamation of the gospel by laying her life down for it. True witness however is more than an individual willing to die for the gospel. For even this makes no sense apart from a community bearing forth witness to a way of life birthed out of the reign of Christ. This takes community. True mission, true witness takes community. This is why I am hesitant to go along with friends who suggest “missiology precedes ecclesiology.” Indeed I’d prefer “missiology is ecclesiology.”

We can see the difference between evangelism and witness in the way we engage the world. Evangelism tries too hard. Witness speaks for itself out of who we are. Evangelism is coercive. Witness sits down, is present, listens and waits for God to act out of my own testimony. Evangelism has a preset strategic speech, witness walks alongside, lives life with the lost and hurting, and responds to what we see. Evangelism is prepared to say to anyone, if you don’t do this “you will go to hell!” Witness is testifying to what we have seen, heard and experienced. We are witnesses, not the prosecuting attorney nor the judge. Evangelism says its all up to you. If you don’t do a.b. and c. “you will go to hell.” Witness sees the desperation in just as real terms, but realizes salvation is the Holy Spirit’s work, all we can do is cooperate. Evangelism argues the gospel. Witness ministers the gospel. Evangelism can be done without witness. Witness cannot be done without evangelism (yes that’s what I meant to say).

Two chapters from two different (yet complimentary) perspectives that you might want to read.
Darrell Guder, The Continuing Conversion of the Church ch. 3
Stanley Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe ch. 8

More on witness versus evangelism from the Scriptures, and why “who we are,” our character is of utmost importance to the Mission of the church in these times. Indeed I believe pastors must lead their churches into becoming “communities of character” if we are to have any chance to impact society and the millions for the gospel. … This will all be in my next post on Witness versus Evangelism.

What do you think. Is the distinction between evangelism and witness overdrawn?