Jerry Root and Stan Guthrie’s book, The Sacrament of Evangelism (Moody Publishers: 2011), is the must-read book of recent years on evangelism, which I recommend for first-time inquirers or for those of us that lead in the areas of discipleship-training, outreach and evangelism. It not only effectively deals with evangelism fears and anxieties, but it also provides time-tested wisdom and practical insight for how to skillfully grow in your witness.
The book’s twenty chapters are short and to the point, written in an easy-to-understand manner, full of many examples and stories, and instructive toward a realistic framework for thinking and acting fruitfully about evangelism and its value. The authors offer their perspective from the standpoint of having over fifty years, collectively, of active experience in evangelism. Each chapter concludes with well-written “discussion questions,” which are useful for individual or small group study and intentional growth.
Although not written by self-identified Vineyard authors, Vineyard readers will be strengthened by this book. Why? Because it can be a wonderful way to work-out some of our heritage, some of our view and practices about the importance of the presence of God in our lives. How? Let me explain …
Help People See How God is at Work
First, the book recognizes the value of the transformational power of the very presence of God. Part one and two of the book seeks to demonstrate what is meant by the “sacrament of evangelism” and how it is so significant to our co-laboring with God in His work in His world. For the authors, seeing and doing evangelism as a sacrament involves the following:
- “a way of looking at life and the world that is open to God’s presence everywhere” (15);
- It is not trying to “make something happen” to God or to the person we are ministering; it is recognizing that the Spirit is “already with the other person whom we want to bless” (36)
- It is, in my words, learning to be at work where God is at work in his workplace in our world. We live in our Father’s world … and that isn’t the church building or a Christian subculture. Our Father’s world is his workplace. That is where we move and have our being. Do you believe that? If so, it involves learning to be “faithfully present” to our neighbor; to offer authentic witness of God’s work in their lives. Thus, “to discover God’s work in the world is to engage in a sacramental activity” (49).
- We can take meaningful risks like being vulnerable and hospitable with our neighbor, yes, even with the “stranger.” For behold,God is near and present to support us, indeed support us for their sake (53).
- Of all people, self-identified Vineyard people should find great encouragement here, given our view and practices regarding the presence of God. The Sacrament of Evangelism is a gentle reminder that God’s presence is not merely bottled-up and exclusively served during “times of worship” in a church service. Do we have a grand enough view of God to see him normally at work in our world? Do we live – eating, speaking, sleeping, working, loving, serving others – as if the trinitarian presence of God is real in our world?
Notice also how the sacramental view turns “fear of evangelism” on its head. This is where it gets even more interesting. Indeed, to fear evangelism would mean to actually run away from God’s movement in our world. I am here reminded of the story of Jonah. But we must also remember that being MIA on evangelism doesn’t mean that God’s ultimate will is thwarted either. But “What is at risk,” writes Stan and Jerry, is “our opportunity to be part of what [God] is doing” (61). We would never want to miss-out on what God is doing during some season of “renewal,” would we? But are we content in missing God in our everyday world? That is the question we must encounter if we are to take evangelism seriously.
God is Intent on Maturing People in Life-Giving-Life
Second, The Sacrament of Evangelism does not divorce evangelism from discipleship. Unfortunately, “evangelism” is often viewed in isolation from “discipleship.” A different “gospel” usually underwrites the former, at the expense of the later. For example, if the gospel is merely good news for how to stay out of hell (“fire insurance”), then it’s hard to see how that has any bearing on the kind of person I am now becoming under Jesus’ authority.
A “gospel of the Kingdom of God” should underwrite both evangelism and discipleship-making endeavors; it is announcing God’s good reign through Jesus in our world. It is inviting people to “come and see” how God is at work in our community, for example. But even more, it helping them come to realize and acknowledge how God is already at work in them; His movement is on display, available and present to them here and now. It is for the “poor in spirit,” as Lance Pittluck would say: to “those that are needy and they know it.”
The sacrament of evangelism is an invitation into life; life as it is meant to be. To receive and enter into this blessing involves far more than just a profession of faith or even willingness to commit. It is deeper than giving credence to some theological beliefs, however true they may be. It is more than a “one-hit-wonder” kind of God-experience. It is an invitation into whole-life transformation, which involves change at the deepest levels of life lived. This requires training and the tools of discipleship, including integrating newfound practices and habits, beliefs, worldview, and desires reformed. Do we evangelize as if discipleship is true, as if it is the goal of evangelism? How we “do ministry” here does matter.
Again, this turns “fear of evangelism” on its head. For to fear evangelism is to really not care for people as people. Moreover, for us, to fear evangelism is to also remain undeveloped, if not malnourished, in our relationship with God. Could it be that the main reason someone is not experiencing real transformation is that they are not entering into God’s workplace? God save us from being consumed by the glitter of our own projects and agendas! This is not meant to shame, as much as recognize that God’s plan for our growth is intimately tied to evangelism in the sense that I am articulating. But do we teach as if that were the case?
God’s Workplace is Public
Third, Jerry and Stan’s book affirms and gives central place to the value of Kingdom “words” and “works” as part of the process of evangelism. What do I mean? I mean that there is no ultimate bifurcation between “social” and “proclamational” ministry (64-67), between being socially responsible to the needs around us vs. heralding the gospel. In both cases, we are bearing witness to God’s work in our world. How? Well, as Dallas Willard would say, to witness means to help others come to know what you know about reality. Witnessing is at the heart of what it means to know something. We share it. We give it away. Doing the “words” and “works” of Jesus are indispensable means of bearing witness to what is real.
When we bring the Father’s compassion to effectually bear upon the downtrodden, we are, by word and deed, bearing witness to the goodness and mercy of God to them; we are helping them come to know, to recognize, or become acquainted with the Father’s love for them. That is as much part of the process of evangelism as proclaiming the good news, since God is present in both.
The value of the words and works of the Kingdom is a reminder to us of how we are meant to enter into life before others, even if we are not with others for sake of “building community.” For Kingdom words and works are social realities; they are designed to bless people. Being a Christian is a way of living publicly; a way of truthfully and lovingly living before others for their good.
If we “fear evangelism,” are we then content to live some privatized life, hidden in some corridor of a Christian subculture, where safety is defined by whether a “Christian” label or brand exists in that space? It’s not really a matter of whether Christians should be “in the public square” (whatever that means). We are all public to varying degrees because we are made to be social beings. Being Christian, though, is a distinct way of living life publicly, which will look different for different people. Evangelism is not just for extroverts! The point being: let us be present as a resourceful presence of Kingdom words and works for those in our reach.
Learn to Skillfully Discern People’s Longing
Fourth, The Sacrament of Evangelism is person-centered in its conversational approach. We are caring for people as people. We might even want to ask, do we care for people as our people, as members of our communities where we belong in the world. Do we pastor our neighborhoods in this way? Do we engage our places of employment, where we shop, eat and enjoy recreation, as entering into public spaces where our people reside? How does our leadership figure in these places? Or, do “our people” and our leadership only reach to those who “attend the church”? If so, perhaps we have a small view of “neighbor” and “church.” Dallas Willard rightly says that our neighbor is the one “with whom we have effectual contact.” That is, if someone is our neighbor, we can do something about the relationship by virtue of our social and moral proximity to that person.
Evangelism as a sacrament reminds us that all human beings have longing. Part of our “job” is to find points of connection between the longings of our neighbor and God’s desire to fulfill them, complete their longing, be present to them in their journey for “something more.”
Stan and Jerry’s entire part three includes five powerful chapters on how to distinguish various types of human longing and how to discern with a person how these longing can be met, ultimately, in relationship to God. Here, Jerry’s long-standing expertise on C.S. Lewis comes to fruition in this book. Lewis understood the power of human longing as a potential God-indicator.
If we “fear evangelism,” we potentially miss out on helping people flourish as human beings. Longing and desires have to find their fulfillment somewhere. Without the credible witness of the “sacramental evangelist,” people, indeed our people in our care, will be left to their own devices, if not destruction.
Skillfully Practice Question-Asking to Engage Hearts
To be people-centered and conversational, interpersonal skills are valuable when being a “sacramental evangelist.” Yet, evangelism is not merely for outspoken “extroverts” (see Adam McHugh’s helpful book, Introverts in the Church). The skill of listening and paying attention to both God’s heart, work, and presence and listening to the longing of people’s heart’s and how it shapes their questions, are all indispensable for answering the more “intellectual questions” For this reason, I highly recommend Randy Newman’s award-winning book, Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People’s Hearts the Way Jesus Did (Kregel, 2004).
Similar to Jerry Root’s background, Newman has extensive experience in evangelism ministry on non-Christian campuses, and especially evangelism to Jewish people. He’s a first-rate thinker and practitioner about how the Jewish context of Jesus’ life shaped his use of question-asking and the manner in which he answered questions.
I recommend Randy’s book if you are seriously intent about growing in your interactive conversational skills (part one) and if you want a model of how to answer some of the toughest questions that Christians are often asked (part two). Randy is a stellar and accessible communicator and thinker on the nature of questions and their role in growing God-confidence. Here, the value of “apologetics” can serve a rewarding purpose.
Receive the Sacrament of Evangelism by Practicing It
The Sacrament of Evangelism and Questioning Evangelism are worthwhile resources – no, a stimulating education! – that can help encourage us be faithfully present to our neighbors by learning to help them discern God’s movement in their life and help to bear witness.
From the wisdom of these books, I close with the following five encouragements:
- Learn to INTEGRATE the practice of evangelism from within your everyday routines. It is too easy to be tempted to think that evangelism is just another “add-on” to an already busy, religious/churchy existence. As a practice, it needs to enter deeply into the sort of Jesus follower you are becoming. Remember, it’s not about you making something happen per se, yet nor are you passively waiting “off on the sidelines.”
- Be faithfully present to others wherever you belong in the world. You know you are effectively present when people trust you as a credible witness of what is real. They will know that you are credible and winsome, when you can attend to their questions and longings of their heart, even if you don’t honestly know all the right answers. They will know a little more of life as it’s meant to be lived under the reign of God if they can belong with you and journey with you and experience the Father’s blessing of being loved as they are. They will know that following Christ is worthwhile when they experience deep, abiding transformation by the Spirit.
- When conversing with people, engage in two-way listening: listen to them, especially the longings of their heart and listen to the Spirit’s discernment of what God might want to do with that person. Evangelism is as much a ministry of spiritual direction as it is a ministry of service and proclamation. Be slow to speak, yet eager to listen. Hold your our studied answers at bay; have them ready as a possible resource. Discern how answers to questions can be communicated in such a way so as to “target” the longings of a person’s heart. This takes skill and discipline.
- Lead with loving people, and through that love, as my pastor Nigel Morris reminds me, God’s power will come. Let us not forsake the Spirit’s demonstrable power, but let us not reduce His power to only that which is demonstrable or overtly supernatural. God’s power is as much at work in the Spirit’s manifesting of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives or in how we exercise patience and long-suffering with people and their questions, for example.
- Where possible, teach, model, and lead as if evangelism really is a sacrament, and how it is a continuation of what it means to truly live in our Father’s world. Think carefully about how to form and foster a culture of evangelism wherever you belong with other Christians in the world. This is more than just a set of classes, or a group/program at church. If evangelism is a sacrament, then that entails acquaintance with its virtues wherever Christians are being formed under the reign of God.
Be truth-filled and loving.
Be present in faithful service and goodwill to others.