Evangelism vs. Witness (Part One)

Over the years the vast majority of believers have come to think of “witnessing and evangelism” as synonymous.  A recent Google search confirms this with more than 99.9% of the sites expressing this view.  It’s the natural consequence of Churches, Para-Church organizations as well as Christian TV and Radio, using the terms interchangeably.  The purpose of this paper is two-fold; to propose that evangelism and witness are distinctly different and that while all believers are witnesses, not all are called to personal evangelism.  I fully realize that this is a minority view, but I hope you will hear me out.  Witness will be covered in Part Two, but first, we will examine the prominence given to evangelism in many evangelical circles.

For some, the terms “evangelism” and “evangelicalism” are also indistinguishable, and it’s important that you know the difference, so you will know which one I’m writing about.  Evangelical or Evangelicalism refers to theology.  A short list of its beliefs are; The inspiration, inerrancy, and authority of Scripture.  That the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, exist as one unity within the Trinity.  That every human being is born alienated from God and needs to be “born-again” spiritually, by grace through faith.  That Jesus’ death on the cross paid the penalty for our sin.  That His Resurrection guarantees eternal life for those, who are, “In Christ.”

Evangelism is our expression for the activities of an evangelist.  (Eph. 4:11)  It is defined by Webster’s dictionary as; “The winning of personal commitments to Christ.”  Therefore, evangelism is proclaiming Jesus Christ as Savior and trying to persuade people to become His disciple.  It may surprise you to learn that the words “evangelize” and “evangelism” while often used by the church, are not in the Bible.  “Evangelist” is in the Bible three times, and will be covered later.

Like many who will read this, I was taught that the “great commission” (Mat. 28:16-20) is a personal mandate for every disciple of Jesus.  I wanted to be a whole-hearted disciple, so I read numerous books, and took classes on evangelism.  I became deeply involved in and gave leadership to three organizations that emphasized evangelism and discipleship.  Because of my bold personality, and my love for the Lord, it was easy for me to be evangelistic and I recruited others to do so as well.  However, after many years of success in the eyes of my peers, I had several God ordained encounters that caused me to wonder if the Holy Spirit had led me to be evangelistic, or if it was the influence of several Godly men that I respected.  After several weeks of prayer and study, I became convinced it was the latter, so this paper is about some of my thoughts that led to that conclusion.  I pray that my journey will be useful to others.

Before we begin, let me recommend a verse that will protect us from unsound conclusions.  In Acts 17:11 the Bereans are commended because “they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”  This verse is confirmation that the Bible is our only standard, not someone’s opinion.  May I suggest that you read this paper in the spirit of that verse.

Let me also give a short disclaimer before continuing.  Some who read these thoughts will find themselves on the defensive because they have a heart for the lost.  That’s wonderful, and I praise God for you, so please understand that these thoughts are not intended to devalue what God has put in your heart.  If you were given to the church as an evangelist, then don’t let me dissuade you from your mission.  Do your work with skill and enthusiasm; we need you.  However, this is a plea for you to exercise your gift without producing guilt in those who have received a different spiritual gift.  (Rom. 12:6-8; 1st Cor. 12:4-11; Pet 4:10‑11)

Unfortunately, our emphasis on missions and evangelistic efforts has caused the majority of believers to think of those on the so-called “front lines” as the ones who are most valuable to God.  By giving them prominence, we have made missionaries and evangelists our heroes and the more we celebrate them, the less valuable the rest of us feel.  It has the same effect on the body of Christ as a father of several children who praises the academic ability of one and neglects the athletic or creative ability of the others.  The role of a good father or spiritual leader is to discover the gifts of each person and help them excel in that area.

This is not the first time the body of Christ has suffered negative consequences from an emphasis on evangelism.  Church historians trace many of the major divisions in today’s church to the late 1800′s when some evangelical leaders, convinced of the imminent return of Jesus, vigorously promoted evangelism.  Others saw this emphasis as indifference to human suffering, so they concentrated on social causes.  When we emphasize one part of the Body of Christ over another, we are in error.  The Bible teaches that every believer is a part of the body with no part being more important than another.  (Rom. 12:4, 1 Cor. 12:12)  I rejoice in the efforts of the gifted evangelists among us but know that God sees and approves of the smallest acts of service in His name.  (Widow who gave two mites Luke 21:1-4)  I also love the rich heritage of the reformers.  Evangelicals are often at the forefront of social reforms, i.e., abolishing slavery, public education, hospitals, child labor laws, orphanages, etc.  I urge the church to give more than lip service to the fact that every believer has a unique, valuable and God ordained role to play.

This plus several other motivating factors caused me to re-evaluate my thinking about evangelism, and one of them was especially powerful.  It was the fact that I knew so many exceptionally devoted followers of Jesus who were not evangelistic.  They included Bible teachers, pastors, seminary professors, many of my friends at church, and my own wife and believing children.  I even learned that many pastors feel ashamed that they are not more evangelistic because its emphasis has also affected them.  One time without intending to, I asked an embarrassing question to the pastor of a Southern Baptist Church.  He had an altar call every Sunday and frequently encouraged his people to do personal evangelism.  It was promoted from the pulpit, Sunday School classes, and guest speakers.  I asked if he had ever led anyone to the Lord without being in his role as a pastor?  He got tears in his eyes, and said, “no, and for years, I have felt guilty about that.”  It’s sad that pastors who love Jesus and have the heart of a shepherd have to feel guilty that they are “just” Bible teachers, and not evangelistic in their private lives.

How did this happen?  The causes must be numerous, but one of the leading reasons is that the God-given, evangelistic calling of a few is often held up as the norm within the body of Christ.  Verify this for yourself by asking other believers you know to explain the primary purpose of a Jesus-centered life.  You will get a variety of answers, but the majority of them will revolve around spreading the gospel.  (i.e., fulfilling the great commission) Because it has been underemphasized, they won’t think to mention what Jesus said should be primary for His disciples;  1. A person who puts Him before self.  (Luke 14:26b)  2. A person who puts Him before others.  (Luke 14:26a)  3. A person who puts Him before possessions.  (Luke 14:33)  4.  A person who takes up their cross and follows Him.  (Luke 14:27)  There are numerous others, but it’s obvious that outreach is not a believer’s top priority.

The following is a real life example that provides a good illustration of how many people have been hindered from fulfilling God’s purpose for their individual lives.  I am confident this story has been repeated many times, but I have personally witnessed in the lives of two men.  It goes like this.  After a successful high school and college athletic career, a man marries and eventually has a son.  His dream is that his boy will also be an outstanding athlete and maybe even surpass his records.  Of course, on the boys’ first or second birthday, he gets a football, baseball glove, hockey stick or some other piece of athletic equipment.  As the young man grows he has a strong desire to please his dad and makes a valiant effort to fulfill his expectations, but there is a problem.  God designed this boy to be an artist, a musician, or a writer, and after a few years, the son is a major disappointment to himself, and his father.  With his best efforts, he just cannot meet the expectations of his father.  This kind of father produces a son who feels like a failure and too often is unable to reach his potential.  However, without these misplaced expectations the son could have excelled in the area of his own gifts and talents.

Even though well meaning the dad gave an incorrect vision to his son.  In my opinion, many evangelical churches and most Para-church organizations have done this to their members.  They have either explicitly or subliminally caused their members to think that fulfilling the “great commission” is the top priority of a believer.  In this example, the father represents the Local Church and Para-Church ministries, not our Heavenly Father.  God has given all believers both natural and spiritual gifts and desires that we exercise them in accordance with His purpose.  That’s the only way we can be effective witnesses of His love and grace.  Hopefully, this paper will help to liberate a few who have been under the burden of trying to be something they weren’t created to be.

In most evangelical churches, the emphasis on evangelism starts early.  We indoctrinate our children with cute little songs like; “I will make you fishers of men if you only follow me.”  (Mat. 4:19)  This song clearly tells young minds that true followers of Jesus will be fishers of men.  (i.e., soul winners.)  Then we reaffirm that in a hundred different ways as they grow up.  You may feel this is an innocuous little child’s song and that I am making too much of it.  However, in my opinion, it is this very type of thing that starts small but eventually causes us to have unrealistic and un-Biblical expectations of ourselves.

Jesus did say He would make Peter and Andrew “fishers of men,” and he obviously did since on the day of Pentecost, 3,000 believed after hearing Peter’s message.  However, I was taught in subtle and not so subtle ways that those words apply to all of us.  The Bible and my personal experience confirm that not all Godly people become “fishers of men.”  Shouldn’t we stop teaching or implying that they will?  Besides, the persistent emphasis that every believer should be evangelistic has produced the exact opposite of what those who promote it desire.

Some years ago I heard the President of Canon, the Japanese electronics firm, make the following statement; “Your systems are perfectly designed to give you the results you are getting.”  He was speaking to a secular audience of business executives, but I believe his challenge can help the Church do some self-evaluation.  A good place to start would be to examine the results of almost two hundred years of an emphasis on the “great commission.

With evangelism as the focus, we have unfortunately let our entrepreneurial oriented western culture invade the body of Christ.  This has caused us to use nearly every known method of sales and marketing techniques to spread the gospel.  It seems to be working because a Gallup national poll found that 74%… 3 out of 4 people say they have made a commitment to Jesus Christ.  Another Gallup poll surveyed Atlanta and found that 62 % report they are born again.  The most recent George Barna survey reports that 85% of Americans self-identify as Christians.  I know that polls are often unreliable, but this is frankly unbelievable.

Why is it that we have such massive numbers of people who claim that they have responded to our evangelistic efforts, and yet we are experiencing the accelerating decline of morality in our culture?  The answer is, our systems are perfectly 1designed to produce these results.  However well meaning, they must be viewed as a stunning indictment of our evangelistic focus.  Maybe we should question the methodology that produced this situation.

Dick Halverson, one of my mentors, told me about a survey that was sent to churches, Para-church organizations, and TV and Radio ministries all over the country.  It was pretty complete, covering the size of the budget, number of staff, areas covered, etc.  One question was, “How many decisions for Christ have been made in the United States through your ministry over the last ten years?”  They were astounded when they tabulated the results because the number was over 600 million.  It would be laughable if it were not so tragic because this means that the entire population of the country has been saved two times.  Even if we allow for those who believe you can lose your salvation and be saved again, it still doesn’t account for such an extraordinarily incorrect result.  This survey demonstrates what many people joke about when they say; “I saw that hand.”  It’s a play on words to show that many evangelists will count it a decision for Christ even if a person is just scratching their head.  It would have been a completely different result if the question had been; “How many people are following Jesus as a result of your ministry.”  It can be readily assumed that none of the reporting entities intentionally misreported, but since they so obviously did, we must look for an answer.  For the first 1800 years of the church, there was no such thing as decisionism when it concerned salvation.  So the emphasis on making a decision and counting those who do is a relatively new phenomenon started by Revivalist Charles Finney in 1820.

Some of you will know and some will not, that Jesus did not call His words at the end of Matthew, “THE GREAT COMMISSION.”  That’s an extra-Biblical term but by constant use, what started out, as a paragraph heading inserted by the translators, has become part of the text for most people.  If we do not set this straight, we could be charged with adding to Scripture by our complicity.  We rightly castigate the cults for their use of extra-Biblical material while we pride ourselves on staying true to Scripture.  Unfortunately, when we speak about the “great commission,” we are vulnerable to the very same charge.  So, I no longer use the term “Great Commission” because it is more Biblically correct to say; the words at the end of Matthew.

Another thought on the so-called “Great Commission.”  We have given more importance to what WE call “Great” than what Jesus called “Great.”  He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Mat. 22:37-39)   How did the church exchange what Jesus called great, for what WE call great?  Unfortunately, history tells us that the Church has gone along with many things that don’t have a Biblical base.  They sound true and are eventually accepted because they are repeated so often.

It seems obvious to me that the so-called “Great Commission” is not the number one goal of every believer, but it is also not the number one goal of the church.  It is very important, but simply ONE of many commands by Jesus.  Remember the story Jesus told about the Samaritan traveler who found a man along the road who had been beaten by robbers and left for dead?  After the Samaritan had bound up his wounds and helped the injured man, Jesus told his questioners to “GO and do likewise.”

What makes this “GO” less important than the “GO” of the so-called, “great commission”?  It’s the same word “GO” and the same Jesus saying it.  To me, this “GO” has equal weight to “GO and make disciples” so where are the big organizations with the goal of loving God and loving their neighbor as themselves.  This raises an important question, how do we know which of Jesus’ commands should be given priority in our individual lives?  There isn’t a formula; we must each listen to the leading of the Holy Spirit and free others to do the same thing.

Some say those words at the end of Matthew are important because they are the last words of Jesus.  Even if they were the last thing, He said, what makes the last teaching more important than the first?  Everything that Jesus said was important.  However, Scripture refutes their claim that those were His last words.  We have the following in the book of Acts.  He appeared to more than 500 people and taught them for 40 days after His resurrection.  Here we read the actual last words of Jesus; “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”  (Acts 1:8)  And then Acts 1:9 gives us this definitive statement; “These were his last words.”

In this passage, He did not say we were to “DO” witnessing but that we would “BE” witnesses.  By the way, Acts 1:8 also does not say we will be evangelists.  Paul covered evangelists in Eph 4:11.  Clearly, he did not think everyone would be an evangelist because he said, “God gave SOME to be evangelists.”  My reading of this is that SOME are called as evangelists, but ALL are called to BE witnesses.  A couple of examples may help illustrate the difference between being an evangelist and being a witness.  On the day of Pentecost, Peter was an evangelist and thousands responded to his message.  When Jesus opened the eyes of a blind Man, his questioners wanted him to engage in a theological discussion, but he avoided that and was a witness when he simply stated; “One thing I do know is, I was blind, but now I can see…”  (Jn. 9:25)  He couldn’t answer all the questions that the Pharisees asked, but he could tell what had happened to him.  That is the essential role of a witness.  One way to sum up the difference is to say; “Telling what Jesus CAN DO FOR OTHERS is evangelism but telling what He HAS DONE FOR ME is to be a witness.”  Peter and Phillip were evangelists, but the blind man was a witness.  More on this in Part Two.

Some organizations, which concentrate on the “great commission,” use Matthew 28:19‑20 for evangelistic purposes and others to emphasize discipleship.  Since for them, this is their primary message; they try to convince everyone who is serious about Jesus that they must have the same calling.  I have asked the following question of many who are giving their life to, “fulfilling the great commission in our generation.”  “Are the words at the end of Matthew a personal mandate for every believer,” and their answer is always yes.  I think not!

If they are correct about this, then most of them are failures.  The command is “go, make disciples, and BAPTIZE them.”  If the “great commission” is a personal mandate for everyone who follows Jesus, then why don’t the Para-church groups baptize.  If each person does not baptize, then they are not fulfilling “the great commission.”  When I ask those involved in these movements, how many they have baptized this past year, they usually say none.  When I ask why, their answer is, “we leave that to the church.”  That answer makes my point; these words are not to individuals but were given to the church through the Apostles.  Eph. 2:19‑20 says that they are the foundation of the Church with Jesus being the cornerstone.  A careful reading of this Scripture indicates that only the eleven Apostles were there when Jesus spoke these words.  Since all believers are members of the universal church, we must diligently search for our role in fulfilling the total mission of the church.  We are each equipped and enabled based on our spiritual gifts plus individual calling.

If the “great commission” were the primary goal of every believer, then many pastors, Bible teachers, doctors, seminary professors, business people, homemakers, children, etc. are all giving their lives to secondary purposes.  Is their work really less valuable in God’s eyes than those who are out spreading the gospel?  The majority of those who promote evangelism would answer no, but they continue to call for everyone to be involved in winning the lost.  That is a duplicitous message and makes those who are not evangelizing feel like second-class citizens.

While evangelism and evangelize are not in the Bible, evangelist is, and it’s mentioned three times, so let’s look at each.  Firstly in Ephesians 4:11, it is a spiritual gift to the Church.  Note that the word Evangelists is plural, meaning that God gave more than one, and probably many.  Secondly, in Acts 21:8 Philip is called “the Evangelist,” so he must have been one of those spoken of in Ephesians four.  Lastly, in 2nd Timothy 4:5, Paul tells his young friend to do the work of an evangelist.  This was probably because Paul knew Timothy had been given to the Church as an evangelist as well as Pastor-Teacher.  In chapter four verse fourteen of his earlier letter to Timothy, Paul alludes to that when he said; “Do not neglect your gift, which was given you…”

But you might ask, how do we know this command to; “do the work of an evangelist,” was specifically to Timothy?  The answer is in the context of the letters Paul wrote to him.  In earlier verses, Paul predicts that some will move away from sound teaching, and then in verse five he speaks directly to Timothy; “BUT YOU, keep your head in all situations…and do the work of an evangelist.”  Then in the same verse, he says this is Timothy’s ministry.  We misinterpret scripture when we make general application of a verse that was spoken to a specific person or group of people.  We know that God told one man to build an ark, but we don’t apply this to everyone.  However, in our zeal to prove our point we often use other verses out of context.  It’s a good thing that all Paul’s admonitions to Timothy do not apply to every believer because that would mean that we would all be drinking “a little wine.”  (1st Tim. 5:23)

If we remove the call to spread the gospel from the backs of most believers, don’t be concerned about the future condition of the Church.  Down through the ages, God has made sure that His body has enough evangelists.  In the early days of the Church, He gave us Philip and Timothy, and in this era, we’ve had men like Billy Graham and Bill Bright plus many others, and we thank God for them.  The vast majority of people who have this gift are not as well known as those mentioned, but they are equally effective in a less visible way.  There are many types of evangelism; Crusade Evangelism, Personal Evangelism, Musical Evangelism, Apologetic Evangelism, Radio and TV Evangelism.  These are all legitimate if done by one who is an evangelist.

This re-examination of evangelism was my personal journey, and it was necessary for me to be liberated from the expectations of men.  Since to the best of my knowledge I haven’t been given to the church as an “evangelist,” I will leave it for others to write on this subject.  Following in Part Two are my thoughts on, “lifestyle witness” rather than “lifestyle evangelism.”