Jesus condemned the Pharisees for trying to turn ordinary Jews into people like themselves through their evangelism, which hurt both the converter and the converted. In the Parable of the Sower and the Seed and the Parable of the Wheat and Tares Jesus emphasized the spreading of the Word and leaving it to take root, no matter where it landed. The Word is Jesus Himself:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it…. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, (John 1:1-5; 14)
“ …the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man.” (John 1:9)
It seems that the Word (the Seed in the parables) has its own evangelistic power—it “enlightens every man.” What then is our role? What should evangelism result in? The Great Commission tells us:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you…” (Matthew 28:19-20)
Understanding our role vs. God’s role in evangelism may relieve us of the pressure of responsibility for the salvation of others. Paul told the Romans:
So, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.”
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. [Here is the role of God—DW] For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.
Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. (Romans 1:15-25)
There seems to be something in the Gospel that is self-disclosing (“that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them”) and something that is enabled by our efforts as well. What are each of these components? What do we need to know? What do we need to do, and what do we need to leave to God? What did Paul mean when he said:
For I long to see you so that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established; that is, that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine. (Romans 1:11-12)
What are the spiritual gifts Paul wanted to impart? Might knowing them affect our evangelism? What does “make disciples” actually mean? Do we really know our role vs. God’s role? What fruit should result, and who should harvest the fruit? Here is how Jesus evangelized:
Jesus was going through all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness.
Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.” (Matthew 9:35-38)
“Lord of the harvest” implies a divinity. As in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, the harvesters are divine angels, not mortal men. If it is God’s job to save souls, and not ours, what then is our job? If it is to share, then what is it we should share? If it is to teach, then what is it we should teach? If it is to make disciples, what does that mean?
How can we avoid the perils that accompanied the evangelism of the Pharisees?
Donald: Our church certainly sees a product of evangelism as growth in membership. Have we distorted the meaning of evangelism? How do other religions view it?
David: I have read nothing in the Daoist literature that encourages evangelism, and nothing in my knowledge of Chinese history (admittedly very little) suggests that Daoists ever evangelized their philosophy cum religion. People influenced by the Daoist message enough to be devout about it would become, ipso facto, sages. A Daoist sage would not dream of evangelizing. It goes against the very grain of the philosophy, which is based on wu wei (無爲), “non-action”. Daoism spread not through organized or directed evangelism, but simply because people sought out sages for advice, and word-of-mouth did the rest. Evangelism is far from universal, either in practice or in principle.
Dion: Jonah was a reluctant yet successful evangelist. He evangelized 20,000 people in Nineveh in three days. Christ even testified that the people of Nineveh were saved but would still be subject to judgment in the Last Days. His evangelism was different because he was able to show them something that changed their lives. Whether they became Jewish or Christian was immaterial; what mattered was that they changed their ways. Perhaps in some ways, humans can relate to humans more effectively than God can, as in the case of Jonah. Maybe that’s what God wants us to do.
Kiran: Hindus does not evangelize as we do. Hinduism embraces multiple co-existing ideologies. For example, one ideology specifies wearing black clothes, going barefoot, taking cold showers every morning, and avoiding certain foods for a month, after which one is required to visit the temple or shrine of a certain god. It provides experiences which, when enthusiastically described, often encourage others to try them—to flit among ideologies. Thus there is no such thing as heresy. Nobody is regarded as spiritually weaker or stronger than another. Everybody has a preferred experience, period.
Buddhism was evangelized in south India by Emperor Ashoka’s soldiers from north India. They built towers carved with Buddhist Scriptures and attached relics to them, and actively sought converts much as Christianity does. Moslems and Hindus do not evangelize one another. Moslems are very protective of their religion, however, and strongly discourage conversion out of Islam.
Jay: The universal evangelism called for by the Great Commission of Jesus contrasts starkly with the doctrinal evangelism practiced by the Pharisees. Jesus wants people to act like Him in spreading the qualities of goodness, love, and grace—qualities that are universal. In wanting people to be like them and spread their parochial doctrinal rules, the Pharisees risked taking those universal good qualities away from the people they evangelized.
Donald: The Bible is unequivocal that it is our responsibility to spread the Gospel. The question is: What exactly is that Gospel? Christians translate it to mean doing missionary work. Do missionaries spread the actual Gospel or just the doctrine and culture of their faith? Doctrines lead people to believe that they are sole possessors of Truth, which gives them a responsibility to share it. The question is whether evangelism seeks to save people or to bring them into a faith group.
Dion: We see spiritual life as a journey. Evangelism can open the door onto the beginning of someone’s journey. It is not the goal to indoctrinate; rather, it is to show an alternative way to be.
Jay: As usually interpreted, evangelism is to show that it is best to be like faith group X. The intent is not malicious. On the contrary: It is an act of sharing something special we feel will benefit the receiver. But we are quickly tempted to push our specialness without considering what the other person might think of it. As soon as we start defining our specialness we are on a slippery slope.
For example: Keeping the Sabbath is not universally special to everyone. But grace, love, and forgiveness are. Keeping the Sabbath on Saturday is a badge of distinction, whereas simple love and kindness are not particularly distinctive. We want to be “peculiar people”, not merely good people, so we end up distorting what it means to be peculiar.
Kiran: I was converted 20 years ago by a college classmate who happened to be an Adventist. He made me examine myself, sympathized with my condition, and introduced me to Jesus as someone who could take care of my burden. Though a devout Adventist deeply into Scripture, he did not focus on it in his conversion of me—he knew it might turn me off. My experience of receiving the gift of grace was different from his. He acknowledged this by not imposing his ways on me. He merely encouraged me to talk to Jesus.
Dion: The classmate looked at Kiran subjectively, not objectively. That made a difference. It made the issue personal, not bureaucratic, and that affects both the converter and the converted. They each have a different, but equally valuable, experience.
Mikiko: Buddhism is widespread in Japan where I grew up, but it did not give me any answers to life’s questions. Christianity did. The world is a mess—there is trouble everywhere. Christianity gives us reassurance that God’s kingdom is coming to replace it. We need to let people know, we need to evangelize.
Robin: The good news is that Christ is the Messiah and our example. The Gospel is that we are to follow His example and live the way He lived. Every denomination responds to the Gospel in its own way but the great danger comes when a religion or denomination thinks it alone owns God and is more special than other faiths and denominations. The holy spirit works on individuals, and individuals respond to its Gospel message.
Kyra: When Jesus was here on Earth, He went out and catered to the needs of the people. He healed them, He ate with them, He sat with them. Evangelism today seems more like going out to seek satisfaction, to produce a result satisfying to ourselves. Instead of producing something for ourselves, we should do what Jesus did: Go out and give people what they need. We should think more like Jesus did—that is, we must think more about the people.
Dion: By mingling with the people, Jesus was able to share in their experiences and find openings in the conversation to point them to who He is. For example, the Samaritans all knew God, and He said salvation is of the Jews and you do not know who you are worshiping but you are worshiping in spirit and in truth. So the Jews knew who they were worshiping and the Samaritans didn’t, but they were all worshiping the same God. He had that hook in a woman at the well. She ran down and roused everyone from their midday siesta to go to the well. He found something common with that lady and was able to transform her into an evangelist. Finding common ground from subjective experiences is really powerful.
Donald: I think parents send their children to Adventist universities in order to have them be more assured in Seventh Day Adventism and in their faith—probably in that order. I’m sure we would all agree that it is more important to be faithful than to be a Seventh Day Adventist, but I am not sure about the role of a church organization. Is it to perpetuate itself? Grow itself? Or is to share the Gospel, the goodness, and the kindness; to reflect the grace that Christ provides?
Jay: Sharing the Gospel while preserving one’s religious culture and academic understanding of Scripture are not mutually exclusive. They may sometimes confound and even conflict with one another but more often they complement and strengthen one another. That is why I want my children to attend Adventist schools and be indoctrinated in the Adventist ideology. Of course there is a danger of coming to think that this ideology is, or should be, the “best” or the “only” true ideology. But I believe that children who attend Adventist schools develop an ability to share the true Gospel.
Donald: Was it not in a similar context, though, that Christ upbraided the Pharisees?
Jay: Definitely. But it goes back to the definition of evangelism. We must be careful that our primary goal is not to make people become just like us. The goal should be to spread grace, to heal, and so on. It should not be to produce Adventists. If the Great Commission is timeless and therefore applies to the time before Christ on Earth and thus before His Gospel was recorded, what was there to spread before then? The Great Commission, coming from God, has to be timeless and applicable throughout all history. A timeless, universal evangelism must go beyond doctrinally bound evangelism. Christ exemplified and reset that very priority, and was killed for His pains.
Kiran: Yet the purposed of Moses’ ministry was to make people like him. He eliminated any deviants.
Jay: It’s very possible that evangelism then was getting more and more distorted, such that there needed to be a hard reset, a new awakening for Mankind—which is what Christ came to do and sacrifice His life for.
David: Jesus specified His Gospel in blissfully few words: Love God and one another. Paul told the Romans to get back to their inner light, which God gave everyone. All Jesus wants is for that light to be rekindled, or have the cover taken off. To do so is to recognize the God—the holy spirit—within. To recognize God is to love Him. To love Him is to love your neighbor, in whom God also resides.
Ministering to the sick, building hospitals all over the world as the Adventist Church has always done, is laudable provided no quid pro quo attaches to the ministry.
Dion: Do we evangelize in the expectation that people will become Adventist? What would our evangelism look like without that expectation?
Kiran: Would it bankrupt the church?
Jay: I would argue the opposite. I think people are highly attracted to people who minister selflessly and want to help, to participate. Their energy and enthusiasm ensures that the ministry—the service provided—will thrive. Telling people who we are, as Adventists, is not a contentious issue as I see it. It becomes one only if we claim exclusivity in representing God.
Kiran: Serving others is hard.
David: Knowing something of his story, it seems to me that Kiran’s conversion 20 years ago was not from Hindu to Adventist. It was from a man dejected and depressed by the morally questionable life he was leading into a man who rejoices in going out to help others. To me, the religion of the converter seems irrelevant. It might as well have been another Hindu.
Robin: Love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).
Donald: I visited a (non-Adventist) church school in Ohio that had an unique way of evangelism. Everybody—students and faculty—attended chapel every day except on their Sabbath (Sunday). On that day, they closed the chapel and went out to serve the community. That would be controversial with us—it would totally disrupt our tradition.
Dion: We used to do something like it, though, here at the Oakwood SDA church. We would come to church on the Sabbath, bringing food and clothing etc. which we then packed into care packages which we took out into the community to give to people in need.
Kiran: On those days, church services were canceled. We formed teams. Some teams would go to visit the sick in hospitals, others to visit prisoners in jail, some to nursing homes to sing to the residents, and so on.
Dion: My church in Maryland is a new concept: a multi-site church. It does a great deal of community work. It has a food bank, vegetable garden, and other resources to minister to the community. It built a school for one community. Now, community officials and activists who are not members of our church come to the church to participate in these activities. This is a different kind of evangelism, where the priority is not to recruit bodies to the church but rather to serve the needs of those bodies.
Don: Next week we will consider what Jesus meant by going out to “make disciples” and what this model of evangelism looks like.