What is Evangelism Today?
A group of refugees sat in a semi-circle facing a large wooden cross while balancing paper plates of chicken and potato salad on their laps as their children played tag in the carpeted expanse of an adjacent room. A few Muslim women wore the traditional hijabs covering their heads while others donned shorts and t-shirts more typically seen on a hot day in Dallas. These people came from all pockets of the globe, including many from the Middle East, Asia, and South America, to Gateway of Grace, a ministry for refugees.
The men and women attending the Bible-study class read and discussed scriptures in English, Farsi and Arabic. This small gathering is part of a larger ministry that meets the refugees’ practical and emotional needs such as housing, education, and friendship. However, the Rev. Dr. Samira Izadi Page, who is an Episcopal priest and director of Gateway, wants to meet their spiritual needs, as well. Page is a former Muslim who fled Iran nearly 20 years ago with nothing but the clothes on her back, making her particularly authentic in leading refugees to Christ.
The Bible-study is one snapshot of many that illustrates what evangelism looks like in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. With the consecration of Bishop George Sumner, a new emphasis has been placed on how to best know Christ and make Him known. The focus includes determining best practices, and creating an Order of Evangelists to be spearheaded by Carrie Boren Headington, who is the diocesan evangelist. “The aim is to have a representative at each parish serving as a catalyst for missional living,” Headington said. “Each church is a local outpost for the Kingdom of God strategically placed to be a witness to its neighbors. Each member of the congregation is an ambassador in their daily lives drawing those around them to follow Jesus.”
At Gateway of Grace, Page couldn’t help but compare her ministry with the old model of evangelism that sent missionaries to other countries. “God is now bringing people from all nations into the United States,” said Page who has a doctorate degree from Southern Methodist University in Missiology. “These are people from countries where it would be dangerous to send missionaries. God is bringing the mission field to us.”
Page’s efforts are somewhat counterculture to trends in the ancient heartlands of Christianity in Europe and North America. It is a struggle to engage a contemporary society where it is assumed Christianity is obsolete, said the Rev. Canon J. John, evangelist to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Church, in the United Kingdom and in the U.S., is struggling with the pace of this change. “Within a generation Christianity has gone from being the unquestioned source of moral authority in our culture, to being a marginalized and frequently despised belief system,” he said.
That’s why evangelism is important, Page said. “Countries like Turkey and Egypt were once Christian and now are Muslim,” she noted. “When the Church is not faithful to the work of evangelism, there are consequences. When we say we don’t want to offend people, we want to respect their religion and not share the Gospel we are taking away their dignity because we are making that decision for them. It’s the opposite of being respectful.”
There is a cultural transition from letting megastar evangelists, like Billy Graham do all the work to a more modern approach in training laity to understand they have a voice for the Lord, instead of taking friends, families, or neighbors to an event and hoping someone else converts them to Christianity for us, said Dr. Kyle Martin, founder of Revive Texas an ecumenical group that helps churches train congregations on how to boldly declare Jesus and make disciples. “We are afraid to offend someone with this life-changing message,” Martin said. “We want it to be easy when we share the Gospel.”
“There is a cocktail party pressure where you don’t want to offend anyone,” added Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College. “A lot of people are afraid they are going to offend someone just by talking about their faith. People love evangelism as long as someone else is doing it.”
John agreed, saying that Christians tend to misunderstand the concept and think specialists should carry out the work when the reality is that all Christians should seek to witness everyone, at every opportunity. “There are three related things that hold the church back from effective evangelism,” he said. “The first is a misplaced desire to be powerful and influential in society, the second a misplaced nostalgia for a style of Christianity and Christian culture that has gone forever and the third is a misplaced trust in methods and strategies rather than the working of the Holy Spirit.”
Evangelism is not a church program or event, Headington said, but a way of life for all followers of Jesus. The majority of people come to faith through a personal encounter with a friend or family member. “This is why we want to equip people in how to share the treasure they have found. Every member of the congregation is an ambassador for Jesus Christ, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:20.”
This means all hands on deck, Page said, because there are so many people who are in need of hearing that God loves them -- atheists, Christian’s bound by legalism, people who are nominally Christian and people of other faiths. “It’s our responsibility to reach out to those around us and communicate the love of Christ and the power of the Gospel for the transformation of lives.”
Non-Christians are suspicious of efforts to lead them to Christ, John said. The motive is seen as an activity conducted for the benefit of the church in a way that is indistinguishable from recruiting people for a political party or a social club. “The reality is that evangelism is something the church offers freely to men and women for their benefit,” John said. “It is misunderstood as being the offer of nothing more than an addition to everyday life. The reality here is that the message of the Gospel is one that is utterly and completely life-changing.”
One of the best ways to share the good news of Christ is to allow people to belong to a group before they believe, said Alan Avera, senior executive for Christianity Explored ministry in North America. “In our day and age we can no longer assume that people really understand who we are talking about when we talk about God in the Bible. People have preconceptions of who God is, through all kinds of sources that may not be accurate. That means they haven’t rejected the true God, but their perception of God.” Allowing people to join a small group before believing allows them time to explore questions, build trust, decide things for themselves and most importantly let the Holy Spirit guide them towards conversion, Avera said.
The best way to do this is to proclaim the Gospel and earnestly share our own faith stories with others, said Headington who recently received a national appointment as Missioner Evangelist for the Episcopal Church. “As St. Teresa of Avilla said,’ ‘we are the hands and feet of Jesus,’ and we are His mouthpiece.”
Love and listen. “You have to listen to people. In evangelism for decades it was thought that you should take a Bible and thump people on the head with it. That’s the opposite of what Christ did. You love them and listen,” Martin said. “You help people discern from the Holy Spirit.”
Ministries in the diocese do exactly that. At Epiphany in Richardson, innovative clergy and highly skilled lay leaders have turned the corner on a new age of outreach where they have brought 30 non-Christians to a worshipping community by focusing on international students at University of Texas at Dallas. The Rev. Betsy Randall, associate rector at Epiphany, said developing a successful outreach team doesn’t happen overnight. “Pray and look for those who have the heart of adventure and sense of wonder in the evangelistic word of the Spirit. Ask those folks to pray regularly with you and to study scripture,” she said. “Discern together the call to reach out in your context. Notice those who are willing to go with you out into the neighborhood. Affirm their ministry.”
To gain the trust of the college students Epiphany partnered with International Christian Fellowship, which offered a platform of relational ministry with international students. “In entering into ecumenical relationships, resist the temptation to pick the other apart on doctrinal beliefs. Rule of thumb for me: if they believe the Creed or if they worship and act as if the Creed is true, then let go of suspicion and embrace differences for the good of the Church and especially for the good of those who have yet to encounter Christ.”
Randall likes to invite non-Christians on mission trips to serve even if they are not yet comfortable attending a worship service. On those trips, lasting friendships are formed and the Holy Spirit works in the hearts and minds of participants. “Serving on mission is a door into worship. It’s best to build relationships first, hear their stories, recognize their gifts and allow them to participate alongside Christians.”
Planting new churches is an old-world evangelism tool that still works today, said the Rev. Noe Mendez who is currently planting Iglesia De La Santa Natividad, a Spanish-language church in Plano, which has an average Sunday attendance of 140. Twice a year, Mendez takes his team of volunteers into the neighborhood where they knock on 200 doors talking about Jesus and inviting them to church. “We usually get about five new families each time we do this,” he said. “We want everyone to come and know the Lord Jesus through the Gospel.”
However, it’s good to remember that every activity in the life of the church is an evangelism moment, he said. For instance, two or three times a year Mendez gives a sermon at a Quinceanera, a celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday. While the girl and her family are members of Santa Natividad, many of the girl’s school friends and their families are un-churched. Mendez gears the sermon toward them, attracting more families to his parish. “It’s a great opportunity to preach about the salvation in Jesus’ name,” he said. Funeral services are another way to lead others to Christ. Once he brought 10 new families to his church after preaching about the ways to heaven through Jesus. “After the service people came up to me and asked questions,” Mendez said. “I always tell them ‘it doesn’t matter where, but you need to go to church so you can have a relationship with God.’”
Sometimes ministries blend in beautiful ways to lead others to Jesus. For instance, Page asked Mendez to help with two refugee families from Cuba who struggled to with their new surroundings in North Texas. Mendez said he brought them groceries and began to talk to them about the Episcopal Church and Jesus. The families had not been exposed to Christianity and were very curious about Christian life, Mendez said. A year later, the families are active parishioners at Santa Natividad and six have been baptized.
Prayer is also key, Randall said. Whenever a church builds its team of evangelism leaders, it should start with prayer. “Pray, act, repeat. Gather a prayer team who may not necessarily be geared toward evangelism, but have intercessory gifts,” she said. Give them the names of those who are entering into evangelistic work and the names of those who are seeking Christ. Ask them to pray faithfully. Update them with stories of encouragement. This group must be confidential and committed.”
Speaking of prayer, a large movement of intercessory prayer is spreading throughout the diocese. The Harvest Intercessory Prayer Network is gathering momentum and gaining members as they meet, pray and train others in intercessory prayer. “It’s important in evangelism to pray for those who do not yet know the Lord, and for those in the mission field,” Headington said.
It all comes back to relationship, John said. “The only way forward is to make the painful and costly choice to engage with those about us,” he said. “That requires both a loving and authentic commitment to them; and faithful and trusting commitment to the message of a God who in Christ has reconciled the world to himself.”
And don’t let concerns about political correctness quash efforts to lead others to Jesus. “Evangelism is the outpouring of love into the world,” Page said. “When people don’t know that God loves them, they live in despair, sorrow and guilt. They have no hope. Evangelism is the compassionate thing to do.”
If you are discerning God’s call to lead others to Christ, or if you would like an evangelist to come to your church to train parishioners on how to share their faith, contact Carrie Boren Headington at .