EN article: Evangelism über alles

I have been asked to write a regular column for Evangelicals Now. The latest article (my original, unedited version) is below.

No Evangelical worth their salt would want to argue that evangelism doesn’t matter. For a movement so closely connected with the evangel that we enshrine it in our nomenclature, it would be a surprise if we said otherwise. Whilst Evangelicalism has been notoriously difficult to define as a term, you would be hard pressed to find any attempt to do so that doesn’t land on our activist tendency to go and share the gospel.

So, let’s just get this straight from the front end: evangelism and mission are vitally important. Jesus tells us, in the Great Commission, to go into all the world and preach the gospel. The New Testament gives example after example of Jesus’ followers doing exactly that. The Apostles also want to encourage us in this task. Even from a personal perspective, the fact that we only came to believe the life-giving message of the gospel because somebody shared it with us would tell us the importance of our doing the same for others. So, don’t mishear any of what follows as a call to ditch evangelism or anything close to a suggestion that it doesn’t matter. It clearly does!

However (and you could sense it coming), important as evangelism may be – and it is important – it is not everything. All too often, evangelism is cast as the only priority of the church, as though the Lord has commanded nothing else. The irony being that Jesus nowhere commands us to ‘do evangelism’ in so many words. Evangelism is a subset – albeit an important component – of making disciples. But the Great Commission is more than evangelism and making converts. Of course, we can’t make disciples without taking the gospel out and leading people to conversion, but if the task ends there we have only done half a job. Discipleship necessitates evangelism as well as the ongoing work of walking with people once they have come to know Christ. The one will not do without the other.

But things go beyond this. Whilst the Lord has called us to the task of evangelism, it is not the only thing that he has commanded us to do. Just because evangelism and mission are vital tasks doesn’t mean we can ride roughshod over all the other commands of Christ in pursuit of this one. Yet, all too often, that is precisely what we do. When we make evangelism everything, we are effectively saying that the other commands of the Lord don’t really matter. But it is difficult to say, on the one hand, that evangelism is important because the Lord commands it whilst affirming, on the other, that evangelism is so important that we can overlook other important things the Lord commands as well. The logic simply doesn’t hold. Either things are important because the Lord commands them – which would include all of his commands – or they aren’t.

‘Ah’, will come the reply (because that’s apparently how everybody starts any reply when we are about to reject their imagined response), ‘Jesus does speak about weightier matters of law. Evangelism is one of those weightier matters, surely. It’s not that other things are unimportant, but evangelism is a higher priority.’ Well, it’s certainly true that there are weightier matters than others and not all commands bear the same significance. But what ground have we got for saying evangelism is weightier than, say, the ordinary means that the Lord has given to preserve his people? Why should evangelism trump right teaching of the Word and proper administration of the ordinances, for example, when to flake on those things would prove counterproductive to the supposed priority of soul-winning? Because how will any of the souls that are won press on in Christ if all we do is give them the essentials of the gospel then, should they believe, fling a Bible in their direction and tell them to get on with it because evangelism is the priority and so their growth is up to them?

A further problem is that evangelism above all inevitably takes us down the problematic road of pragmatism. If all that matters is soul winning, and everything else is relegated to secondary or tertiary matters, what control have we got on the forms our evangelism takes? Moreover, what is to stop us from turning our weekly services into rallies for the unsaved? What’s wrong with that, you may wonder? First, it suddenly stops the meeting serving its purpose as a means by which we receive from the Lord and we glorify him in our worship and instead makes that play second-fiddle to our efforts to evangelise. Second, it means that those who have come to believe the gospel are never able to advance beyond the ‘milk’ that Paul insists they need in order to grow. Third, it leads to an ‘anything goes’ approach that – as in the case of Norwich Cathedral – leads to Helter-Skelters and crazy golf courses in the middle of the church because it is ‘inclusive’ and will draw people in. If evangelism is the only goal, there is almost nothing we won’t do if it might lead to souls being reached with the gospel. The other commands that might limit how we do that are all deemed unimportant or secondary concerns.

In the end, we are forced to ask two questions. First, what grounds have we got for insisting this is a ‘weightier’ matter that trumps all others? Second, what gives us the right to ride roughshod over the other commands of Christ? The reason evangelism is important is because it is commanded, by good and necessary consequence, when Jesus calls us to go into all the world and preach the gospel. But it is specifically because the commands of Christ render something important that we have no right to insist others can take a backseat because we, in our wisdom, have deemed this one more important without any comment from Christ that it is so.

When we insist evangelism is the only thing that matters, we denigrate the church for whom Jesus Christ died, stunt the growth of his people and head down the road of untrammelled pragmatism. In the end, it proves entirely counterproductive because we can see all the souls in the world profess faith and yet, leaving them without a functional church family in which they are discipled or any sense of the importance of other commands from the Lord that he gave for our ongoing walk with him so that we can enjoy him fully as we were created to do, what chance have they got of persevering to the end for him?

Evangelism is vitally important, but let’s not make it everything.