As Methodists around the world look to form a new ecclesial community, it is appropriate for them to reconsider the nature and practice(s) of evangelism. For various reasons, the subject of evangelism in Methodist circles has been the topic of intense conversation over the past fifty years. The result, instead of clarity, is a variety of confusing and sometimes contradictory descriptions of the nature and practices of evangelism.1 In this chapter, I offer a vision of evangelism that arises out of the New Testament language on the subject, early Methodist practices, and observations of contemporary practices in our global Wesleyan movement. I suggest that the ministry of evangelism today is best understood as a sixfold practice that focuses on revealing the story of God in Christ in a multireligious world.2
Announcing the Gospel: Evangelism’s Constitutive Practice
The meaning of the Greek word εὐαγγελίζω (euangelizo) and its derivatives in the church’s first three centuries is quite clear. The terminology is used more than fifty times in the New Testament.3 In each case the terms describe “bringing,” “announcing,” “proclaiming,” “declaring,” or “preaching.” Agreement about this translation is long held because the Greek terminology predates the New Testament itself. The terms were used in Greek culture to describe the imperative to announce good news—for example, if the rains came, a child returned home, or victory in battle. The news could be spoken, sung, or written, but it was always clearly communicated.
When the early Christians were looking for a word to describe what they should do with what they viewed as the best news in history—namely, that Jesus was the Messiah and that his life, death, and resurrection changed the course of history—they used the most natural Greek word they could imagine: εὐαγγελίζω.
Announcing the Gospel in Early Methodism
Part of the ongoing struggle to articulate a definitive theology, nature, and practice of evangelism in Methodist circles is that the earliest Methodists did not use the terminology “evangelism” or “evangelistic” that contemporary Methodists see as normative. While the language of evangelism and its various derivatives were common in the church’s first three centuries, they fell out of favor from the fourth to sixteenth centuries. Only in the nineteenth century did the language come back into vogue. Therefore, it is not surprising that John and Charles Wesley used “evangelism” or “evangelist” in reference to preachers on only a few occasions. But they talked about proclaiming the gospel on a regular basis.
Early Methodists articulated the gospel in a number of ways, including preaching, teaching, testimony, song, and liturgy.4 Each of these five were important parts of the four primary venues for Methodist discipleship; namely, field preaching, society meetings, class meetings, and one-on-one visitation. Field preaching, for example, included songs, testimony, and preaching. Society meetings included teaching, preaching, songs, liturgy, and testimony. Class meetings included testimony, songs, and preaching, while visitation focused on teaching and even preaching at times. It was literally impossible to be a Methodist without a constant interaction with the gospel. Even without the language of “evangelism,” Methodists developed a framework for discipleship that encouraged a repetitive announcement of the gospel.
As Methodists seek to restructure ecclesial bodies or form new ones, it is imperative to recognize that the ministry of evangelism, by definition, must center on telling the story of Jesus in ways that people can encounter and, hopefully, embrace. The ministry of evangelism, I believe, often includes other practices as well, as will be discussed. But at its core, Christian evangelism is the announcement of the good news of Christ Jesus.
Encourage a Response to the Gospel
When I ask Methodists around the world how people respond to the evangelistic announcement of the gospel, most describe the hope that people will repent of their sin and believe Jesus is the Son of God. But early Methodists, as well as effective evangelists today, realize there are three primary responses to the gospel as people mature as disciples.
John Wesley believed people were in the “natural” state or the “state of nature” and “utterly ignorant of God, knowing nothing concerning him as he ought to know.”5 Proclaiming the good news of Christ to those in the state of nature, which Wesley considered “the greatest charity” was necessary so persons could respond with an initial, though cursory, turn to God.6 This initial turn to God that follows an encounter with the gospel was called “awakening.” People who were awakened had not come to a place of faith and repentance, but they did want to investigate the faith more by taking part in a Methodist community.
Helping people mature from the natural state into a season of awakening was the purpose of field preaching. As we know from Wesley’s journals, more Methodists were awakened in field preaching than converted. Field preaching was designed to help people hear the gospel in an initial way so that they would start to awaken. Society and class meetings, along with one-on-one private conversation with class leaders, were then designed to facilitate a deeper awakening with the hope that, at some point, a person would make a life-altering commitment to Christ and be justified. Awakening was facilitated through an ongoing encounter with the gospel story that sometimes took as little as a few days or weeks, to as long as many decades of struggle and debate, though the average was 2.3 years.7 The primary tool of awakening was proclamation of the gospel through preaching, Christian songs, and testimony.
After a time of awakening, Methodists were encouraged to respond to the gospel with a profound repentance and faith that resulted in conversion or an initial salvation. The New Testament writers are clear that encountering Jesus at some point must lead to a profound repentance and faith that results in conversion and justification. Scott Jones describes the common understanding of conversion in Wesleyan theology:
Conversion is the change in a person’s heart that is correlated with entry into a new way of life. All other aspects of Christian discipleship constitute this way of life. . . . In being converted, the believer is transformed and participates in this new way of life with the whole self.8
Conversion was always more important than awakening. Failure to keep announcing the gospel and encouraging from awakening to salvation was like “begetting children for the murderer.”9 Methodists were to continually tell the story of Christ through preaching, teaching, testimony, Christian song, and private conversation so that people could begin to live life fully committed to Christ.
While conversion is important to Methodists, the Spirit’s saving work is not limited to justification. Wesley wrote:
By salvation I mean, not barely, according to the vulgar notion, deliverance from hell, or going to heaven; but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity; a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of our souls after the image of God.10
Sanctification, or the process of growing in love of God and neighbor, not justification, is the goal of the Christian life. Early Methodists believed the Spirit continued working in people’s lives, calling them to deeper faith in Christ as they lived more and more into God’s love and more complete repentance as they realized the depth of their inbred sin. Faith and repentance were, therefore, not one-time acts, but central components of a disciple’s life that led to justification and sanctification.
The structure of Methodist discipleship is indicative of both ongoing proclamation and the call to deeper repentance and faith. Methodists continued participation in classes and societies after justification, and they were also encouraged to join a Methodist band, which emphasized even deeper and more personal sharing of one’s encounter with the Spirit than was possible in society or class meetings.11 The result was a method of ever-maturing discipleship that was facilitated by a constant encounter with the gospel story. As Wesley wrote, only the gospel “is so happily suited to attain” the end of sanctification.12 Without an ongoing proclamation of the gospel following justification, people tended to regress in their spiritual lives. Christian maturity is possible only through an ongoing engagement with the story of God.13
Effective evangelists today realize evangelism’s constitutive practice is announcement of the gospel story. But this announcement is best seen as integral to the church’s ongoing ministry, not a one-time act by a single person. The constant nature of proclamation encourages maturity from the state of nature, through a season of awakening, to a point of justification, and then a lifelong pursuit of holiness. Effective evangelists, therefore, recognize that they do not truncate evangelism when they limit it to proclamation, but when they limit the results of repentance and faith to conversion alone. They know that evangelism is best understood as the church’s ongoing practice of proclaiming the gospel to itself and the world through preaching, testimony, song, Bible reading, and liturgy, just to name a few. They understand that the results of proclamation cannot be manipulated since we cannot ever truly know another person’s maturity as a disciple of Jesus. The evangelist’s task is simply to announce the gospel and then encourage people to ever more profound levels of faith and repentance.
Verify Proclamation by Modeling Christian Ethics
The next four components of the ministry of evangelism are best understood as essential practices which undergird proclamation and response. They are not, in themselves, the core practice or the essential responses to the gospel. But they are critical aspects of being an effective evangelist today.
To begin, an evangelist’s personal ethics matter. Methodists who share their faith well today recognize their ethical lives must resemble Jesus’ in order for their announcement of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to be taken seriously. They know they are being watched by people considering Jesus who want to see if Christians actually take Jesus’ words seriously, and if following him leads to a more just, loving, and grace-filled life.
Part of that ethic is to take seriously John Wesley’s vision of discipleship as communal or “social” Christianity.14 Christians are best formed within a Christian community. In community, Christians are nurtured and challenged by their fellow disciples in what it means to be a Christian, both in various Christian traditions and in their particular setting.
While ethics undergird the ministry of evangelism, they are not themselves evangelism, for they do not proclaim the gospel. For example, people from virtually every religious and nonreligious tradition can be found living by the same ethical principles, and doing the same good deeds as Christians. The result is that non-Christians, even in majority Christian or formerly majority Christian countries, no longer intuit that good deeds are performed out of Christian motivations. Works of social justice by Christians must be specifically linked with their Christian motivations via announcement of the gospel in order to be considered evangelistic.15
A Listening Posture
A consistent critique of evangelists around the world is that they are quick to speak and slow to listen. Effective evangelists take to heart James’s contrary command to be slow to speak and quick to listen (James 1:19). Evangelists who share their faith well today love their neighbor by listening to their joys, concerns, doubts, and convictions, embracing them as children of God regardless of their beliefs and actions. In turn, they are rarely dismissed out of hand as are Christians who are pushy, rude, and overly focused on changing a person’s mind. People who exhibit a listening posture, who really want to hear other people’s faith experience are, in turn, most likely to be listened to. In short, Christians who want to be heard must first be willing to listen.
Effective evangelists recognize that listening is embedded in Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor” (Matt. 22:39). To truly listen is part of what it means to love. But to fully love another person also means to speak of our encounter with the most loving God we can imagine. Loving another person means to listen to them and then to speak of God’s love in a way that touches the other person’s life, ways that we can only know by first listening to them.
Examine Their Faith
As I visit with Methodists around the world who share their faith well, I’m struck by how many of them have really studied and examined their faith. In turn, they are able to describe their faith, including why they believe the gospel, and both their doubts and concerns about the faith. Conversely, I’m also surprised to talk with many other Methodists, especially in the United States and Europe, who are either unwilling or unable to articulate their faith even at a cursory level, be it in public or private, or in a written, oral, or digital manner.
In most cases, people in this second group seem to be Christians who do not know how to articulate their faith. Frequently they are able to verbalize that they wish they could share their faith, but they either do not do so or are so vague in their articulation of their encounter with Jesus that the gospel is not communicated in any tangible way. Many need training in how to articulate their experience of coming to Christ.
People who share their faith well today have themselves examined their faith to the degree that they feel proficient to share its core beliefs and practices. This doesn’t mean that evangelists are biblical scholars, seminary graduates, pastors, or lay preachers. In fact, the best evangelists are usually laity. But it does mean they have invested time in a variety of activities including, but not limited to, reading the Bible, being part of conversational Bible studies that encourage dialogue and questions, reading Christian literature, verbally expressing their encounter with God, and learning how to articulate why they believe the story of God in Christ. Training in how to express one’s faith, both in personal and corporate settings, is critical. This is one reason why growing Methodist churches often take to heart the early Methodist practice of testimony. At its inception, testimony was part of virtually every Methodist gathering, including one-on-one visits. With a few exceptions, Methodism in the United States and Europe has relegated testimony to stewardship campaigns. Christian communities that evangelize well have reclaimed the art of testimony, helping people learn the faith and then teaching them how to share it publicly.
Finally, Christians today who share their faith well know that falling in love with God is a process that frequently takes many years, much investigation, and numerous conversations. Effective evangelists and churches today realize that people who convert immediately upon hearing a street corner preacher are the exception to the rule. Therefore, these churches and evangelists design systems that encourage ongoing spiritual conversations with people who model a Christian ethical life and who listen as well as they speak.
These systems facilitate a repetitive telling of the story of God in Christ and encourage people to respond to the gospel in multiple ways based on their maturity as disciples. The result is a community of evangelists who facilitate an ongoing engagement with the Bible, the Holy Spirit, and with other Christians so that over time, sometimes years or decades, people can mature in their repentance and faith through awakening, justification, and sanctification.
Rather than one-time activities, these six practices are ongoing marks of the community of faith and disciples who share their faith well. Evangelism, therefore, is best understood less as a one-time act than as a central part of a grace-filled lifestyle of discipleship.
Revealing the story of Jesus has always been central to Methodists, whether or not they use the language of evangelism. As Methodists look to form new communities and strengthen existing ones, proclamation of the good news of Jesus must remain the central practice of this sixfold ministry of evangelism. May the Spirit bless us as we announce the gospel and invite people into a life of discipleship.
This is an excerpt from The Next Methodism: Theological, Social, and Missional Foundations for Global Methodism (Seedbed 2022). This book invites readers on a journey to discover the vitality, richness, and sheer goodness of the broader Wesleyan tradition. Get your copy from our store here.
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1. David Barret argues there are seventy-nine different understandings of evangelism today, a reality which leads to an almost chaotic confusion as to the meaning and scope of evangelism. See D. B. Barrett, Evangelize!: A Historical Survey of the Concept (Birmingham, AL: New Hope, 1987), 42–45, 49.
2. For more discussion of these six principles, as well as a forthcoming evangelism curriculum relating to them (Reveal: Evangelism in a Multireligious World), a curriculum is designed to trail laity in the six key practices of revealing Jesus in a multireligious world including R=repeat, E=examine, V=verify, E=encourage, A=announce, L=listen.
3. https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?t=kjv&strongs=g2097, accessed 29 November 2020.
4. For a more thorough discussion of early Methodist practices of announcing the gospel see J. Jackson, Offering Christ: John Wesley’s Evangelistic Vision (Nashville, TN: Kingswood, 2017).
5. Wesley, Works, “Sermon 9: The Spirit of Bondage and of Adoption,” v. 5, 99.
6. John Wesley, “The Spirit of Bondage and of Adoption,” in Works, Sermons I, 1:251.
7. T. Albin, “Finding God in Small Groups,” Christianity Today, 47/8 (2003), http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/august/2.42.html (accessed 12 November 2020).
8. S. Jones, The Evangelistic Love of God and Neighbor: A Theology of Witness and Discipleship (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2010), 91.
9. John Wesley, August 25, 1763 in Works, Journal and Diaries IV (1755–1765), 21:424.
10. John Wesley, “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, I,” in Works, The Appeals to Men of Reason and Religion and Certain Related Open Letters, 11:106.
11. For a thorough discussion of Methodist Band Meetings, see Kevin Watson’s Pursuing Social Holiness: The Band Meeting in Wesley’s Thought and Popular Methodist Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
12. Wesley, The Arminian Magazine, v. 20 (1797), 72.
13. See John Wesley, “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection” in Works, Doctrinal and Controversial Treatises II, 13:132–91.
14. A. C. Thompson, “From Society to Society: the Shift from Holiness to Justice in the Wesleyan Tradition,” Methodist Review, v. 3, https://methodistreview.org/index.php/mr/article/view/56. “Social holiness” in early Methodism did not have the connotations around social justice that is so often given the phrase today. Rather, the phrase related to the importance of communal or “social” formation to a Christian’s discipleship.
15. J. Jackson, “St. Francis: Patron Saint of Evangelism through Social Ministry?” Witness: The Journal of the Academy for Evangelism in Theological Education, v. 23, 2007–08, 22–33.