A Theology of Evangelism

By John R. Corts

How can we distinguish the true God-gifted person who is called and anointed of God as an evangelist?

1. The evangelist will tell the story—proclaim the good news. The word evangelist contains the smaller word evangel, which means good news literally. The evangelist is also able to give a reason and defense of the faith against false and untenable claims.

2. In a compelling, persuasive way the evangelist urges the hearer to make a decision to follow Christ as a natural step of commitment. The evangelist is a persuader, born of the conviction that a person without God is headed for eternal punishment. He is passionate about rescuing the perishing, caring for the dying who are lost.

3. The evangelist works within the church, the body of Christ. Along with other gifted ones, the work of the evangelist is to prepare people for God’s work in the harvest—work that extends naturally into discipling those who are born into the Kingdom and nurturing of God’s people.

No list of criteria determines that a person is a true evangelist. However, responsible discernment seeks to know that the evangelist is:

1. Communicating the basic message of Christ, which is essential for one to respond to Him.

2. Urging a personal response to Christ’s provision—a step of personal faith.

3. Acting as an accountable ambassador of Christ, connected to and fully integrated in the life of the body of Christ, His church.

These three tenets provide the basic spine of a structure that identifies an evangelist and his or her function.

Unfortunately, Sinclair Lewis’ novel, Elmer Gantry, crystallizes for the masses what most people think of as a typical evangelist. Yet, only an infamous fringe of persons who call themselves evangelists operate by such standards as the shady Gantry character in the novel.

According to this contemporary, erroneous mind-set, evangelists should:

1. Be handsome—striking in physical appearance. It is even better if they have a photogenic TV appearance with the charisma of a celebrity.

2. Have a hypocritical lifestyle that is extravagant, casual, and careless—with no inclination to live in a devout, pious, or sincere way. Self-denial or a disciplined lifestyle is unthinkable.

3. Be impure, loose-living, and morally lax. The raucous Elmer Gantry character was all these things. His lingering image can sometimes cause people to view modern-day evangelists with suspicion.

4. Be simplistic, insincere, and manipulative in their preaching. Characterized as feigning sincerity, the Gantrys have no intellectual prowess. Evangelists are thought to be incapable of grappling with the troubling, intellectual questions of faith in a real world.

5. Have the gift of gab—verbose. Little true thought or substance is found in their words. Speech is essentially a tool of manipulation.

6. Be greedy for money. Evangelists supposedly become rich by taking advantage of their faithful followers.

7. Be rebels to structures and renegades to the established church—unaccountable and irresponsible. They are characterized as independent entrepreneurs of religion, supersalesmen to their own brand of faith.

The image is not true of most evangelists, and evangelical Christians deny that Elmer Gantry represents a biblical view of an evangelist. Yet, consciously or unconsciously, the influence of Lewis’ Gantry character has marked the church’s, as well as the world’s, perception and definition of an evangelist.

While most sincere believers would deny this Gantry imagery, they are unwittingly victims of our cultural perception. Thus it is vital for the church to discover a biblical understanding of the true evangelist—the gift aflame—to the church of Jesus Christ.

It is a mistake for the church to expect an evangelist to provide leadership in all kindsof ministry beyond evangelization. Yet a successful evangelist, who is well known because of his achievement in exercising his evangelistic gift, is often elevated to leadership within an organization, a college or seminary, a mission, or a denomination. He may even be elected to a political office or other position. The point is that, like the Peter principle, the evangelist is elevated beyond the capacities of his or her spiritual gift. Such is usually disappointing if not disastrous. Why? The giftedness of the true evangelist does not qualify one for personal vocational choices nor for the popular notions of a majority.

For example, being the Lord’s servant, who is honored to preach Christ, does not automatically qualify that person to counsel just because he or she is a gifted evangelist. Counseling requires its own special giftedness, which is different from the gift of evangelist. Some may be given more than one gift, but it cannot be automatically assumed.

Giftedness is the work of a sovereign. It must be recognized by the body of believers. Commitment must be made by the gifted, but giftedness equips us only to do His calling and does not extend, like natural talents, for our own choices within organizations or careers.

A famous British preacher, who highly regarded God’s call, is supposed to have said, “If you are called to be the Lord’s servant, God forbid that you ever shrivel up to become King of England.”

The enemy of righteousness skillfully diverts evangelists from using their giftedness by giving them position in the calling of humankind. Rather, the Lord’s special enabling of evangelists is lost to other human pursuits that hold greater prestige, human honors, and distorted success. Singularity of vision and commitment is required to be the evangelist God has called and enabled. Human wreckage results from forsaking the gift and calling of the Lord.

Evangelists are on the endangered species list, from the human perspective, and on their way to extinction. Every day fewer seem to respond to their calling to do the work of evangelizing. At a time when our world needs messengers aflame with the Word from heaven, this is truly alarming.

Why are so few still in the field of evangelism on a full-time basis as a total calling today? Why do so few enter the field of evangelism as a ministry calling?

At least a part of the answer is that evangelicals within the church have an uncertain or distorted view of what an evangelist is. Too frequently, any person with enthusiasm or a gift for speaking to others with boldness is termed an evangelist.

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The confusion seems to be a tactic of the enemy. To cause the body of Christ to ignore the specialized role of a true evangelist weakens the strategy of world evangelism. At the same time, the neglect of the evangelists among us allows the enemy to render us ineffective. The unique role of bringing others into Christ is not even anticipated. No one is quite sure if there are any true evangelists.

If confusion can be maintained, the church will be naive about evangelism and the task of bringing others into faith. Let none of us who follow our Lord in sincerity contribute to this aberration; rather, discover clearly what the evangelist is, how to know one, how to support one properly, and how to nurture the work evangelists are called to do.

Maximize the special gifts of the evangelists and honor their place in the Body by careful and full use of their role.

See also, The Evangelist’s Personal Life

John Corts is president and chief operating officer of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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