The Evolution of Evangelism: Ideas for the Road Ahead

God's hands are needed all over the world, including in
Bangkok, Thailand.

Recently my wife and I moved back to the United States after spending several years abroad as missionaries. Upon our return I conducted a survey at a large church. After looking over the results, I reflected on other surveys I had conducted in eight countries on five continents. I recognized that the unfortunate results of my present survey matched my findings in the others, namely that Christians are not too excited about, dare I say even afraid of, evangelism.

Perhaps few have documented this through systematic research; however, it is something that many of us have intuitively perceived. The solution of many evangelism trainers has been to reduce the insecurity level by providing the laity with a surefire, time-tested, well-proven method for presenting the message. The result has been an unhealthy fixation on a single way of doing evangelism, even though this “single way” may vary according to faith tradition. Sometimes it is a tract; other times it is a memorized recounting of one’s testimony. Although such remedies may be helpful in making the future evangelist more comfortable, these same remedies will not necessarily be successful in making one truly effective.

Therefore we have to be innovative and create dynamic forms of evangelism that are flexible and adaptable to various situations. We need to be imaginative in our conversations with those who are not Christian. We have to seek new ways to discuss the timeless truth of our Lord. Most importantly, we have to train our people to understand that we are living in times of rapid, discontinuous change and there is no way we can be satisfied with a single method or approach. We should not be afraid of evangelism; instead, we should be fearful of being unheard. We must evolve and adapt to our new circumstances lest the Church become an endangered species.

There are two paradigms of evangelism that will help the Church evolve effectively in the changing world. While looking at the road ahead, it is often helpful to look back at those who have gone before.

Conversational Communities
In late fourth-century Britain there was a young man named Patrick. At the age of sixteen a group of Celtic pirates invaded his land, captured Patrick and took him to Ireland. After being enslaved for several years, Patrick had a dream in which he was shown a pathway of escape to a passing ship. The next morning Patrick lived out his dream and returned home a free man.

At the age of forty-eight Patrick had another dream. He was told to go back to the land of his enslavement and tell the good news of Jesus Christ to the people who had once ransacked his house, removed him from his family and required him to work incessantly. The next morning Patrick began the task of returning to the Celtic pirates. He was ordained a bishop and commissioned to Ireland, becoming history’s first missionary bishop.

What makes Patrick so interesting (and so applicable for our discussion) is how he went about proclaiming the gospel to the Celtics. First, despite the fact that the people had enslaved him, he did not condemn them. Rather, he shared life with them. Second, despite the fact that he desired to teach the truth to them, he was also determined to learn from them.

Patrick formed communities made up of believers and unbelievers. They learned from one another and journeyed through life together. The believers worked together as a team and were partners in conversation with the unbelievers. This is a case study for the concept that people belong before they believe and that faith is more caught than taught.

This is significantly different than many of our current methodologies. According to George Hunter, “In significant contrast to contemporary Christianity’s well-known evangelism approaches of ‘Lone Ranger,’ one-to-one evangelism, or confrontational evangelism or the public preaching crusade, (and in stark contrast to contemporary Christianity’s more dominant approach of not reaching out at all!)…The Celtic Christians usually evangelized as a team—by relating to the people of a settlement; identifying with the people; engaging in friendship, conversation, ministry and witness—with the goal of raising up a church in measurable time.”1

Shanghai, China—an area in need of the gospel. 

As a missionary in Chile several years ago, I started to think through how I could help people evangelize more effectively. The aforementioned anxiety issue continually perplexed me. Most people just did not want to evangelize. I soon stumbled into what I have coined the “conversational community.” I formed a group of Christians and we invited several non-Christians to join us. The original idea was to demonstrate evangelism to them so that they would do it later. However, I realized that in a group setting many people’s apprehensions regarding evangelism fell away. The same people who had sought to avoid evangelizing now explained the gospel message lucidly and effectively. Their anxiety had come from the perception of evangelism as a solitary exercise. It was not long before fruit was produced in our small humble group and we had increasing numbers of people who desired to be a part of our community.

Later we moved to Germany and I sought to intentionally implement this strategy. Germans were not so quick to respond. This convinced me all the more that evangelism has to be of a progressive, ongoing nature, as opposed to a draw-the-line-in-the-sand-and-now-it-is-your-time-to-cross-over nature, as I had previously learned. In a conversation we need only share our story; we do not need to provide all the answers. In a community we do not need to do everything; we only need to do our part. In an age where experience is valued over truth, the conversational community creates a context for people to experience truth.

Creative Communication
The next paradigm we need to develop is one of creative communication. Our world is going through extensive change. Businesses that relied on certain methods are struggling. Successful organizations realize that the goal is not to develop a new process; rather, it is to have a new attitude which recognizes that true capability comes from being continually adaptable and flexible. This means constant creativity.

The same is true for the Church and evangelism. In my country and many others, we have seen the Church develop several different ways of “doing church.” Many churches have transitioned from a traditional approach to a contemporary, cell-based or house church model. In many cases these changes have been justified and implemented appropriately. However, there are some cases where people believe that their way is the only right way to “do church.” We are not to put our minds together and come up with an overarching model that would work everywhere. Rather, we need to stay in a state of constant creativity. We need to continually seek new ways to communicate the old story that has transformed our lives.

One creative way is to simply tell the story of our own individual journey with Christ. No one else came to Christ like you did. No one else has learned from him the same things in the same way. Your story is always unique because you are unique. I have been in many settings where the willing evangelist has been taught a method for sharing his or her testimony in a way that strips the originality from it and makes each incomparable story sound something like a plagiarized tract.

Instead of seeking ways to make our stories sound the same, we need to let them be different. In the inherent distinctions of our journeys the focus will drift to the one who has changed us. This is an essential element of creative communication. We each tell our own unique story so that the transcendent nature of Christ becomes increasingly clearer to the earnest seeker.

There are also people who believe their story is largely uninteresting. Perhaps they were never drug addicts or served time in prison. It does not matter who you are, where you come from or what you have done; if your journey is not a wonderful, beautiful story of defeat and victory, trials and jubilations, marked by an ever increasing amount of joy and peace, then you need to ask yourself what kind of journey you are on. If your story is not worth sharing, perhaps you need to reevaluate your journey. Such honest and earnest self-evaluation can be liberating. Life with Christ is not boring and dreary, it is a dream come true for those who have tasted the sweetness of living water.

1. Hunter, George. 2000. The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again. Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon, 47.

Mark Russell is a doctoral student at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, USA. He lives in Lexington, Kentucky with his wife and their two children.