Evangelism is telling people about the life and teaching of Jesus Christ to encourage them also to become his followers. It takes its name from the Greek word 'euangelion' which means 'gospel' or 'good news'. It might be one person speaking to many others or a one-to-one conversation. It might be through actions rather than words. Over the centuries, evangelists have preached about Jesus in public spaces such as halls, parks, and even sport stadiums, as well as through books and pamphlets. More recently, evangelists have used film, radio, television, audio-visual material online and social media.
Christians have two powerful motives for evangelism. First, it was an instruction from Jesus himself to his closest followers and for other followers in future. The Bible book, Matthew, records some of Jesus’ final words before he returned to heaven. He said, 'Go and make disciples (followers) of all nations baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you…’. Christians call this ‘The Great Commission’. The second motive for telling others is personal: for a Christian, becoming a follower of Jesus Christ is an incredible, life-changing experience. It is so wonderful that they want everybody to experience it too - it is good news worth sharing. Christianity teaches that some followers have a special God-given gift of being good evangelists. But a Christian’s status or relationship with God is not dependent on whether they are successful at persuading others to follow their faith. Christianity teaches that a believer cannot ‘earn’ a place in heaven through what they do. Some Christians are compelling evangelists; others are not so good at talking about their faith. The Bible book 1 Peter, says all Christians should be able to explain what they believe and why, when asked, but they should be gentle and respectful in doing this.
'Go and make disciples (followers) of all nations baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.'
It is thought that Jesus spent about three years on the road with his closest followers, teaching and miraculously healing people before he was arrested and executed in around 30AD. During that period, the Bible has accounts of two occasions when he sent his followers on short trips to do what he had been doing. They were to tell people about how much God loved them and to urge people to acknowledge where their behaviour and attitudes were wrong and to change their ways. The followers were also to heal sickness. These were early examples of evangelism.
Evangelism after Jesus
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, he returned to heaven. At first, his followers went into hiding, terrified for their lives. But they were transformed by an event called Pentecost where they were supernaturally equipped by God. After that, they became extraordinarily brave evangelists. The Bible book, Acts, records that Jesus told them this would happen. He said: ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem…and to the ends of the earth…’
Jesus promised his followers that many people would welcome their message. But he also warned them that, as evangelists, they would face opposition, hatred and persecution. He said some would even be executed. But he promised that he would always be with them and their work would be fruitful. The persecution of the early followers of Jesus in and around Jerusalem caused the believers to flee and that meant that news about Jesus Christ - the gospel - began to spread. Wherever they went, the believers preached about Jesus. The first followers were Jews, so they spoke to fellow Jewish people initially but soon began to tell other people too, speaking in temples and other public arenas. In a few decades, news about Jesus spread around the Middle East and the Mediterranean, going to the heart of the Roman Empire. It went to North Africa too: the Bible book, Acts, explains how one of the earliest converts was an Ethiopian court official who became a Christian after meeting an evangelist called Philip.
Evangelism, missionaries and the global spread of the gospel
The motivation driving those early evangelists 2,000 years ago is the same motivation that has encouraged Christians ever since. Christians believe Jesus wants them to tell everybody about him so that everyone has an opportunity to respond. Over the centuries, some evangelists have had a powerful impact on society. The 18th century preachers George Whitefield and John and Charles Wesley were founders of Methodism. Whitefield’s powerful public preaching stimulated a revival of the Christian faith in Great Britain and the British Colonies in America sometimes known as The Great Awakening.
Missionary organisations such as United Society Partners in the Gospel and the Church Mission Society were founded in the 18th century with the aim of taking the message about Jesus Christ to parts of the world which had not yet been reached. Many missionaries travelled for weeks, even months, to reach their destination and, once there, they had to spend years learning the local languages before they could explain their faith. Christians with a 21st century perspective might question some of their methods but their commitment cannot be doubted. Even as late as the mid 20th century, evangelists were risking their lives to take news about Jesus Christ to remote villages in South America.
Mass evangelism in the 20th century
Simple courses such as Alpha and Christianity Explored give people who are investigating the idea of faith an opportunity to raise questions and learn about Christianity in a friendly, non-threatening atmosphere.
The scale of evangelism changed dramatically in the 20th century. Perhaps the most famous modern evangelist, the American preacher, Billy Graham, regularly spoke to audiences of tens of thousands during his missionary tours. It is estimated that he spoke to a total audience of 210 million people in 185 countries in his lifetime. The Argentine evangelist, Luis Palau, was inspired by and worked with Dr Graham. In 2007 it is estimated that he spoke to 25 million people in 70 countries. The explosion in telecommunications in the 20th century saw evangelists use radio and television to reach new audience. These ‘televangelists’ have been particularly popular in the United States. But some provoked controversy for their methods and lifestyles and others have had very public falls from grace because of issues in their private lives.
Evangelism continues in parts of the world regarded by some as ‘post-Christian’. Simple courses such as Alpha and Christianity Explored give people who are investigating the idea of faith an opportunity to raise questions and learn about Christianity in a friendly, non-threatening atmosphere.
Where evangelism is still dangerous or impossible
It is still dangerous to be a Christian in some places. In North Korea, for example, Christians risk being killed or imprisoned as political criminals. Public evangelism is impossible. In Somalia and Libya, Christians must also keep their faith a secret. But there are organisations which broadcast Christian programmes or distribute Christian material to believers in these countries and others like them. In these places, just like 2,000 years ago, believers risk their lives so that others can find out about Jesus Christ.