Evangelism as Mission ©
One of my treasured books is an old copy of D. T. Niles classic That They May Have Life (copyright 1951). D. T. Niles was a great evangelist, pastor, leader of the World Student Christian Federation, President of the Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) Methodist Conference, and President of the World Council of Churches in the middle part of the 20th century. He opens his book with the following assertion. “Evangelism is the call of the hour, as it has been the call of every hour when Jesus has been taken seriously” (D. T. Niles, That They May Have Life, p. 11).
Better remembered and often misquoted is his famous statement found in that classic. “Evangelism is witness. It is one beggar telling another beggar where to get food” (D. T. Niles, That They May Have Life, p. 96). Rev. Niles continues in the same paragraph: “The Christian does not offer out of his bounty. He has no bounty. He is simply a guest at his Master’s table and, as evangelist, he calls others too. The evangelistic relation is to be ‘alongside of’ not ‘over-against.’”
We have long and rightly understood that there is an intimate and inseparably intertwined connection between evangelism and missions. (By missions, I will employ a short-hand definition – the deeds of love, justice and mercy.) Living the Great Commandment to love God and love our neighbor (see Luke 10:25-37 and Matthew 22:34-40) engages us in activities of social justice as straightforward as feeding the hungry and as controversial as welcoming the stranger (think of debates about immigration and gender preference) and providing adequate medical care for all; the commandment impels us forward to bring relief to victims in Haiti, water wells to Kenya, and help to the homeless in Fort Worth. This is a central part of the light of Christ being brought in the darkness of our currently twisted world society. It is an offering of love in the name of Jesus, who is with us always.
Evangelism can be understood as one vital aspect of missions. If we truly love people, we will share with them what we understand to be the source of life at its fullest (see John 10:10). Failure to share new life in its fullness under the Lordship of Christ is a negation of love in its fullness. To truly love the neighbor is to evangelistically share in graceful, appropriate ways. (Please read carefully!!!! note the qualifier: “in graceful, appropriate ways.”)
The title phrasing is important. The light of Christ comes in our darkness as a part of mission as evangelism. It does not say that mission is evangelism nor even evangelism is mission. Evangelism is one important, critically important, aspect of the larger mission we are engaged in. Simply engaging in missions or what is seen as missional activity is not necessarily engaging in evangelism. It may or may not bring the light of Christ into our darkness.
Evangelism cannot be collapsed into engaging in more ministries of feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, engaging in medical ministry/missions in a different setting (whether in one’s home city or on another continent), etc. All this and more is needed – desperately needed. All this and more, the great missional expanse of ministries of sanctification through love, justice and mercy, is worthy of our time, talent, and energy in the name of Christ. Missions – what I would like to summarize by the phrase “the deeds of love, justice and mercy” – is a companion of evangelism. Indeed the case can be made that evangelism is a subset of the wider ministry of missions. However good and godly (“He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8), Jesus felt it necessary and vital to add the great commission – “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age” (Matthew 28:19-20).
When we conflate evangelism and missions (or missional activity of love, justice and mercy), we do an injustice to both and truncate the full biblical witness offered by the Risen Savior and Lord. It is significant that Jesus instructs His followers to specifically “name the name.” Disciples are baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity.
In an instinctive and nascent way, the wise men understood this truth. It is this great epiphany truth to which they point in offering their gifts. The light of Christ enters our darkness offering a way out into the light of grace-filled love for a battered and bruised world. Sharing that light is its own deep act of love and a fulfillment of the holy (and holistic) mission Christ as Lord and Savior calls us to engage in.
“Jesus spoke to the people again, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me won’t walk in darkness but will have the light of life’” (John 8:12). He said, “I have come as a light into the world so that everyone who believes in me won’t live in darkness” (John 12:46).