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

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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?

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16 responses to “Evangelism OR Witness?: The Necessary Turn for the Missional Church 1

  1. David, no I don’t think this distinction is overdrawn at all. I love hearing it put this way. This quote by the Mennonite author John Driver equally makes the point, “Peoplehood is a part of the good news as well as an essential instrument in mission.”

    This concept is what I finally came to after nine years of doing evangelism around the world as a missionary.

    I’ve been collecting phrases that capture this idea.

  2. I enjoyed your post, Dave, and I agree. One of the things I’ve really struggled to explain to older evangelicals is that conversion is a process for most people that requires a consistent witness over time. You would not believe the hostility this has raised. On the plus side, though, I’ve been given two different Charles Finney books by two different people to help show me the error of my ways. But I’m like, “Wow, Dude – free books!”

  3. Is this irony (I always forget the textbook definition)? I always used to kick you in the shins about evangelism and now I’m the one dodging the metaphorical boot to the kneecap.

    Please don’t tell me it’s karma. That’s almost too persuasive.

  4. One more thought:

    I was listening to Tim Keller recently and he quotes someone but I forget who. Anyway, he makes a distinction between Christianity, which proclaims good news, and other systems of belief which at best can only give good advice/counsel.

    The metaphor he uses to explain this is a king at war. If the king loses a battle and the town is endangered, the advisors come to the town and say, “Okay, we need earthenworks over here, archers there, cavalry will come from here, etc…” which is entirely different from the Christian announcement of the gospel: “That battle has been won by Jesus Christ, therefore repent and believe the good news.”

    He maintains that legalists and the self-righteous can only come as advisors, directing how to marshall our resources for the fight. Only Christianity comes and declares (kerygma) Jesus’ victory which is apprehended by grace through faith.

    Therefore, Keller maintains that because we come as runners & town criers bringing news that the town is saved & the battle is won, there will always be a place for kerygmatic preaching.

    Moreover, if I can try to synthesize more of what I believe I’ve understood from Keller, I believe he’s saying that we must constantly deconstruct legalism/phariseeism (a la Jesus’ sermon on the mount) for the church because of the awful human tendency to proceed by self-righteousness, rather than by grace, grace, and grace. Advisors, like the pharisees, help one do greater works of self-righteousness, while kerygmatic preaching teaches us to depend of the free, radical and unlimited grace of God given to us in Christ.

    I find his presentation compelling and I hope I’ve done it justice. And yet I’ve been wondering about your thoughts. Does (or How does) kerygmatic preaching have a role to play in being a witness & a community of witness?

  5. I appreciate your post and I think you point out some wise shifts in current thinking.

    However, I think what Sam has pointed out in the two comments above me indicate a wise caution.

    (The only thing I might disagree with Sam about is his view of Baptism, but that’s more a reflection of my covenant theology that allows for the baptism of infants. But that’s a digression away from the post).

    I still cling to evangelism as proclamation however. In our witness (doing), we still need to be explaining (telling) what we believe and what difference that makes. I’m not in agreement that witness (doing) alone is sufficient. My atheist friend does alot of good works, but for entirely different reasons.

    Pastor Chris

  6. David,
    It appears that, rather than helping us to understand evangelism better, you have instead surrendered evangelism to modernity and replaced it with witness. Yet for evangelism to truly be evangelism, i.e. for it to be good news, it requires a quality of life in the messenger that embodies the value of the news. Evangelism isn’t the transference of data or facts or propositions, but it the expression in words of a message whose goodness is embodied by the messenger. In this sense evangelism does require witness.
    Witness, on the other hand, seems to be a word used in such a way that the witness is one who has seen something and so embodies what they have seen. So, the witness to the resurrection, in order to be a witness, must embody the difference that the resurrection makes.
    In both cases we must resist the modern dualistic tendency–and recover both words as words that are used by the church as it seeks to live out the good news for the sake of the world.
    Thanks for the thoughtful blogs!


  7. Here are a couple more thoughts.
    If we accept the dictum “meaning is use” then perhaps you’re right–evangelism, as it is used, has come to mean the thin modern understanding that you describe in your blog. Perhaps we need to translate the Greek into something that can be faithfully used and so gain the sort of meaning we see in scripture. “Herald” might work, or “to bring good news” or any sort of word that helps us get away from the use that “evangelism” has gained from modernity.
    Similarly, “witness” was used in my own upbringing to induce guilt–“you should be witnessing to your neighbors and your friends.” It was used in the same way as “evangelism.” Perhaps we should start calling ourselves “martyrs” instead and let the strength of the common use of the word infect our practice.

    Also, to respond to a comment Mike made, I would make sure that when we describe conversion as a process we allow room in our theology for baptism. Baptism marks a precise moment in the life of the church when a person dies with Christ and is raised to a new life in Christ. It marks a decisive moment. All of our well-meaning attempts to resist the “decisionist” elements within evangelical theologies of conversion and insert accounts of salvation as a journey, or conversion as a process, must at some point admit that baptism marks a decisive moment. In fact, baptism names a practice that actually resists a “sinner’s prayer” theology and instead brings the decisive moment back into the necessary folds of the church. I admit that this doesn’t rescue our evangelism from the sticky requirement that it asks people to make a decision, but it does bring that decision back to the community of the faithful in which such a decision makes sense.

  8. In response to Chris–

    I want to clarify that I think the difference between evangelism and witness is not as simple as the difference between telling and doing.

    To be sure, evangelism is mainly concerned with proclamation, yet its unique characteristic as good news must be embodied by the herald in such a way that the value of the news is present in its proclamation.

    Witness is more a way of being in the world that makes sense of God’s action (cross and resurrection, e.g.) than it is doing particular things.

    David, what I think we need is an account of evangelism/proclamation that avoids both the coerciveness of much contemporary apologetics and also the tendency to disembody the message that comes from any number of attempts to distill it into any combination of four laws…. Here we need incarnation to inform our proclamation. Evangelism must flow from the church as a necessary expression of its life together–a proclamation of its hope that has become tangible in its community.

    That’s all for now…

  9. Adam ..love the phrases …!!

    Thanks to all the rest for good contributions … Let me add … that the reason I said at the end ythere “Evangelism can be done without witness. Witness cannot be done without evangelism (yes that’s what I meant to say)” … is to in no uncertain terms affirm that evangelism, proclamation is inextricable part of witness. I do think however that KERYGMA is enriched, even made possible by MARTYRION … and to some degree changes the nature of it so as to make it deeply incarnational.. not separate from life.
    I hope to talk more about this in my next post. But I have already learned much from Mike, Sam and Chris

  10. I wonder if conversatio morum implies that those who are continually being converted are also dead to their impact on the world? Does a kenotic Christology imply that, without negating the call to incarnate the message, we are somehow dead to the result? Maybe this would be a path beyond the being/doing dichotomy and help us put down the “gospel gun”

  11. To add to Adam’s phrases:

    Stanley Hauerwas said:
    “The work of Jesus was not a new set of ideals or principles for reforming or even revolutionizing society, but the establishment of a new community, a people that embodied forgiveness, sharing and self-sacrificing love in its rituals and discipline. In that sense, the visible church is not to be the bearer of Christ’s message, but to be the message.”

    A concern of mine with evangelism in its 70’s or so through to now North American ‘incarnation’ is that judgment is implicit in its process – why would I need to convince you if I had not judged you to be in need of salvation? The process of judgment risks reducing the other to being an object, and then presto! – the object now is at risk of being used to for my own ego gratification and needs, just as other objects in our society are, and is no longer loved as the person created in the image of God. The reduction is at risk of being unnoticed as consumer-based Christianity has displaced true spirituality and discernment with feeling good about what God and I are doing for each other, and so by golly, God really is blessing all that I do which proves I’m right and in his favour… Len has a valid point re the value of becoming dead to our impact.

    In contrast, consider the insight of Jean Vanier, an anthropologist, living in community, dedicated to the disabled, who over fifty years has meditated on the gospel of John, on the foot washing:

    “I can imagine with what tenderness Jesus touches the feet of his disciples, looks into their eyes, calls each one by name and says a special word to each one. When he speaks at the meal, he speaks to them all: he does not have a personal contact with each one individually. But as he kneels humbly before each one and washes their feet, he has a personal contact with each one. He reveals to each one his love, which is both comforting and challenging. He sees in each one a presence of his Father, whom he loves and serves. The love of Jesus reveals to us that we are important, that we are a presence of God and we are called to stand up and do the work of God: to love others as God has loved them, to serve others and to wash their feet.” Jean Vanier “Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John” p. 232-233

    Vanier unveils Jesus as a witness to great truths of our existence, who in his witnessing reveals truth to us.

    Another thought – I have nearly twenty years of experience in the criminal courts as barrister. I sometimes refer to it as trench warfare. To extend David’s court metaphor, and building on Sam’s comments re “meaning is use”, current evangelism is more consistent with the role of an advocate than that of a witness. The advocate’s duty is to his cause may result in evangelism becoming exactly what Sam said it is not – the “transference of data or facts or propositions”. The witness is to “speak” to what he has seen, and in part, is tested as to credibility by the congruency of his actions on the witness stand, and as described at scene. I agree David, character becomes critical.

    Regarding martyrdom, community, – Vanier again, on ‘..there is no greater love than this…’ :
    “To love people as Jesus loves them is to wash their feet, to serve them in humility; it is to help them rise up in truth and love. Here Jesus is revealing something more: to love is to lay down one’s life for others, to place their interests before our own. It is to give them life. That can mean accepting difficulties, danger and even death so that they may live and grow in love. To love is to live in communion with others, to transmit to them the life and love of Jesus. It is to reveal to them that they are loved, loved by Jesus. In this way we become their friend because we are a friend of Jesus.” P. 274-275

    Yes David, missiology is ecclesiology; and equally, ecclesiology is missiology. And no, the distinction between evangelism and witness is not overdrawn relative to common current practices of evangelism. Plus I echo your thoughts re much learned from the others.

  12. Hi David, how are you? Thanks for the post. Thought you might enjoy reading this. I wrote it awhile ago, but thought you find it interesting.

    It’s not Business, it’s the Gospel

    “If you don’t like the way you were born — try being born again!”

    This announcement, prominently displayed recently on a church marquee in my neighborhood, reflects perfectly the spirit of religious life in North America today. It advertises to all who pass by the church what sounds like very good news: “If you don’t like who you are now, God has a ‘new you’ ready to try on! Details available inside!”

    This is exactly the kind of message that modern men and women like to hear. What could be better news than to hear that the God who called the universe into existence wants nothing more than to make us over into what we most want to be? How could this message not be compelling? As a result of years of cultural conditioning, recent generations in North America have come to see themselves almost exclusively as consumers whose sole purpose in life is to satisfy their individual needs…Not only does this message by itself leave much to be desired, it is also symptomatic of a widespread problem within the church today, which is to confuse the gospel with an infomercial, and the community of God’s people with vendors of spiritual goods and services.

    I love this quote from the book StormFront. It reminds me of a similar situation I went through in the mid-90’s.

    I was invited to sit on a panel to explore a new program called; “New Strategies For City-Wide Evangelism.” I still remember the question that was posed to me as if it were yesterday. “Mark, if you could figure out how to put the gospel into a vitamin bottle, package it, market it, and get it into the hands of men and women in the city, our churches would be filled to capacity.” In other words, I was asked to help implement a marketing strategy that would successfully saturate the entire region with the gospel and turn “customers into consumers” and the church into a “vendor of goods and services.”

    My years of business and my experience in marketing and producing products seemed to be precisely what was needed to launch a new and innovative marketing program. Had I found my call?

    Let’s face it. Though the fundamental idea of marketing has been around for over fifty years, the message itself is ageless. Surely, if Fortune 500 companies see fit to spend money on marketing campaigns in order to achieve brand recognition and successfully turn customers into consumers, couldn’t the religious sector do the same? Customers are the focal point of all businesses, religious or secular, aren’t they? It doesn’t take a savvy executive to know that in order for organization to exist, one must do marketing and do it extraordinarily well to flourish.

    You can read the rest here

  13. Sorry David, I meant to comment on your post, “Is The Consumerism Critique Legit?” I went ahead and put the comment there as well. Grace, Mark

  14. David,in short and to answer your question, no I don’t belive it is overdrawn. Early in my college days (30+ yrs back), my wife and I were positively transformed by J.B. Phillips translation of the great comission; the precise wording now escapes me, but it said smething like “while going through life (doing life) to be witness vs. the guilty ladden mandatory passing of tracks and pushing the gospel down people’s throat which we grew up with.

    I concur with your subsequent comment that evangelism can be done w/out witness, however the reverse is not posible.

    I have found in my own experience that living a life of witness, always follows with an opportunity for proclamation.

    I am not saying that there is not a place for evangelism; there is. However for my own personal life, I am learning to to bleed for people as Christ does and will “proclaim” it when they asked me, which invariably they do.

  15. Yes, I appreciate this very much. Witness has been on my heart for a very long time. To hear it put this way makes complete sense. That is probably why so many in the church like evangelism since it takes the pressure off them to actually engage the culture risking more than sitting in the pew.

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