When I was 15 years old, I joined my church youth group as we took a Sunday afternoon outing in late October to a Haunted House. Only, it wasn’t a Haunted House, it was a Haunted Church. One of the nearby churches had turned their education building into an evangelical fundraiser. Yes, it was an evangelical fundraiser. It was in part a way for the church to raise some extra money for their youth program. Visiting youth groups would pay an entrance fee to wander through the well decorated classrooms filled with youth members and adult leaders dressed up in costumes like Freddy Kruger, Jason, and a ghostly mixture of zombies, witches, and devils. Each room was set up to give you a good fright.
But the Haunted Church wasn’t just a fundraiser, it was an evangelical fundraiser. Part of the House was designed to scare the living hell out of you. Literally, to scare the hell out of you. In the final room, following their biggest and best scare moment, which elicited the loudest scream of them all, they turned the lights on and one of the adults offered a very simple message: “If you think this is scary, you don’t want to know what Hell is like. You should ask Jesus into your heart today as your Lord and Savior so you never have to find out.”
This was how I learned about evangelism. I attended events during which I was asked as a youth in the church if I was ready to give my life over to Jesus.
This continued in college. I remember during my freshman year at Ferrum that the Christian Fellowship student group offered a bingo night. They had collected some gift cards from the school book store, the pizza shop, and Walmart (because really, a Walmart and a pizza shop were all we had at Ferrum). After about an hour of playing bingo, they invited one of the leaders of the organization to stand up in from of the room and give their personal faith testimony. The person talked about why they were a Christian, and explained why they thought everyone else should also become a Christian. After speaking, the group handed out index cards to everyone in the room that asked three simple questions: 1) Are you already a Christian? 2) Did tonight’s testimony help you to know Jesus? 3) Would you like to invite Jesus to be your Lord and Savior? … If you answered yes to number 3, you were invited to meet with one of the group members to pray.
Another experience I’ve had with “evangelism” is what can only be referred to as bull-horn proclamation. This is the Westboro Baptist Church approach, that suggests the best way to convert someone to Christianity is to scream their sins at them loud enough and in the most public space possible. Not too long ago I saw this here in Alexandria. A man with a 4-foot-tall anti-abortion sign stopped at the corner of King and Columbus, just across the street from Five Guys. He pulled a microphone out of his bookbag, which clearly housed the rest of the speaker system, and he started screaming about how we are a sin-filled city and how, unless we all repent of all our wrong doing, we’re all going to hell. I stopped a few stores down and just listened to his words. I don’t think he had anything to say about the signs he held, but his words made it clear, he was convinced that we Alexandrians are all going to hell because we live in such a liberal community.
Sadly, for many reasons, the word evangelical has come to mean little more than acting and thinking along these lines of “Christian proclamation.” As a noun, evangelical has been granted as a defining term for the more traditional or conservative subsets of Christianity. As an adjective, it has been grafted on to the acts of Christians that offer little more than a public statement that others need to repent of their sin and accept Jesus as Lord into their lives.
I want to challenge this understanding, and reclaim the word evangelical for its original intent. This is not a matter of semantics or petty English quarreling. For the faithfulness of the gospel, I think understanding this word with its Biblical foundation is important in our work as the Body of Christ.
Just a quick recap on the past few weeks to set the conversation in context.
The Pentecost story in Acts 2 makes it clear that at the most foundational level, God created the Church to proclaim the goodness of God to everyone in the world. God gifted us as believers with the Spirit so that in a unified mind we might be led into the community to make God’s love known to everyone. This work is the focus of who we are as a church, and it drives everything we do – from the formation of small groups, to the creation of missional events that serve the needs of the community, to giving and stewardship of our time, talent, and treasure. At the forefront of who we are as a church is this focus of proclaiming God’s goodness in the world, or as we have named it here at Washington Street, we believe God is love, so we’re making a place for everyone to know that love. To live into this call, to better understand this call, is what we’re calling The Quest – becoming the church God has created us to be.
Here’s why reclaiming the word evangelicalis important. The work of proclaiming God’s goodness in the world … the work of Making a Place for Everyone to Know God’s Love …this is evangelism. This is evangelical work.
In the Biblical text, the Greek word that translates to evangelical is the word euangelion (εὐαγγέλιον). It appears 77 times in the New Testament, almost every time being translated in the English text with the words “good news” or “gospel.” For example, in Matthew 4:23, we read, “Jesus went through Galilee, teaching in synagogues and proclaiming the euangelion of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” Jesus was preaching the gospel – the good news – the evangelism of the kingdom.
During the Reformation, Martin Luther used this term to define the church that broke from Catholicism. He called this breakaway movement the “evangelical church,” which for him recaptured the original call of the church to be working as one body to proclaim God’s goodness in the world. It was Luther’s belief that given Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 12, we are all gifted by God with the Spirit for this work. We are all to be ministers or priests responsible for proclaiming the gospel truth – for being evangelists – for making God’s love known in the world.
But how do we reconcile the often negative connotations the word evangelicalelicits in today’s society with our Biblically supported call to be evangelical?
To reframe our understanding of this word, let’s consider what Paul says about our call to gospel proclamation in today’s text, found in 2 Corinthians 5.
Verses 11 through 15 set up the call to evangelism. Paul says that we try to persuade others –we proclaim God’s goodness to others – because we know the fear of the Lord. We know that Christ died for everyone, and because Christ died for everyone, we have all died to ourselves. That is, in Christ’s death, the living for self that is the result of sin has also died. In response to Christ’s death, and our death to self, we are given new life through Christ who conquered death and was raised to life. This, Paul says, is why we proclaim God’s goodness in the world. This promise of our selfish ways being dead, and our receiving a new life in Christ, is something that everyone should know about. This promise of new life, this gift of new life in Christ, offers an assurance of hope, comfort, and joy that everyone needs to hear … and so we proclaim it. We proclaim the good news to the world; we evangelize to make this good news known.
After making this theological claim about the need for evangelism – why it is we proclaim the good news – Paul explains how evangelism should work.
What he offers makes a fine distinction as to how we understand evangelism, so we have to pay close attention to what Paul is saying. Usually, this text is used to say, “others are sinful because they are not in Christ.” Because they are not in Christ, we have to convict them of their sin. A traditional reading on this text says we, acknowledging the sinfulness of others, teach them about their sinful ways and invite to know Christ, because “anyone in Christ is made new.”
To be blunt, I don’t think this is what Paul says at all.
In verse 16, Paul begins, “We regard no one from a human point of view.” In some Biblical translations, this reads, “We regard no one according to the flesh.” Paul is saying that we no longer see others from a sinful worldly perspective – a perspective that is grounded on humanity’s sinful desires. Paul begins by saying we (the focus is on us) don’t see others for their faults, because to do so is to look from a human point of view. But we aren’t looking from a human point of view. We aren’t looking at others in a desire to “other” them, because our human perspective is no longer the driving force as to how we see others.
The reason we don’t see people like this anymore is because, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away.” Paul continues by saying, “see, everything has become new. All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”
Reading closely, Paul makes this pretty clear. The new creation that is being talked about in this text is not the “others,” it’s not everyone we think is sinful in the world. The new creation being talked about in this text is us. It’s you and me. If anyone is in Christ – and you and I are – there is a new creation. Everything old from our lives has passed away, including the way we used to look at people.
Because we are new creation – because the old has passed away in our lives – because we no longer look at others from a sinful, worldly, and fleshly perspective, we have been called to the work of reconciliation. This work – the work of reconciliation – is only possible when we stop “othering” the other. This isn’t Paul trying to convince us that everyone else better find Christ to be new. This is Paul’s way of saying we should see anew because we are in Christ. “This is a new creation that relegates to the past the old things like class and prejudices, stereotypes and misconceptions. Such old realities are not part of this new existence in Christ. … The new creation has overthrown our human judgements filled with prejudice and bias.”[i]
Why are we called to reconciliation? We are called to this work, because it is the work God began in Christ. Look back to the text, beginning in verse 19, “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.”
“The result of this cosmic reconciliation is that now we look at everything differently. We look at everything and everyone through the lens of reconciliation.”[ii] We look at others differently because God looks at us differently. We are no longer seen as this sinful and dying people, but as those who have been given new life through Christ. This change is not just “about the vertical dimension between God and us. Being caught up in God’s salvation changes everything on this human, horizontal plane, too.”[iii]
In his teaching, Paul is trying to shift our understanding of what it means to proclaim the gospel in the world – what it means to evangelize. Given our modern day examples, evangelism tends to get a bad rap because we see it being used to try and convince others that we Christians have our lives together, and that because others don’t – because they are still sinful – it’s our job to help convince them that they need Jesus Christ to be forgiven of their sin. I think this shift, or perhaps it should better be called, this reclaiming of evangelism, is what our world so desperately needs of the church today … because that’s what God wanted of the church to begin with!
Rev. Scott Hoezee, out of Calvin Theological Seminary, says, “The basis of such a [shift] is that Jesus took upon himself all that estranged us from God. In doing so, he makes it possible for us to experience a new relationship with God based upon trust and love. So transformative is this new relationship that we are now asked to become the visible expressions of this new reality to our world. This ministry of reconciliation awakens us to God’s love so that our lives proclaim it.”[iv] We believe God is love, so we’re making a place for everyone to know that love.
Our very mission statement is evangelical in nature. We are proclaiming God’s goodness and love in the world because we believe God is love. This is our call as the church.
When we grasp this shift – when we grasp that evangelism is not about our seeing others as sinful and therefore in need of God, but instead about how we have been given new life in Christ and therefore are able to see God in the midst of everyone – it changes the way we live, serve, and engage in the world. Such a shift allows us to proclaim with every word we speak, every action we take, every conversation we have, every look we offer, and every bit of ourselves we give away that everyone is worthy of God’s love. Such a shift makes us rethink the words we use to talk about others, the phrases we utter that are built upon systemic prejudices, the people we invite to be part of our communities and neighborhoods, the places and systems in which we invest … when we are a new creation in Christ, it changes our realities such that we see in every person and every place the image of God in which they were created.
And this change, this new life that leads to reconciliation, it affects our own approach to evangelism. It doesn’t require that we tell others how sinful their lives are. This shift means we don’t have to convince others that they are wrong, evil, or in need of God’s grace. “In the midst of all the violence and corruption of the world God invites us today to create new places of belonging, places of sharing, of peace and of kindness, places where no one needs to defend [themselves]; places where each one is loved and accepted with one’s own fragility, abilities and disabilities.”
This is the work of making a place for everyone to know God’s love – it is claiming God’s intent, and Paul’s affirmation, that we are to take up the work of evangelism in proclaiming by our actions, and our spaces, and our words, and our relationships the good news of God in Jesus Christ, that God is love, and that you – and you, and you, and you, and you … and all – are loved by God.
For the glory of God, may we be led to proclaim God’s goodness for all. In the name of Christ we are sent for the work of his kingdom. Amen.