As is so often the case, much of the discussion between the two factions deals with the subject of evangelism. It is a common charge levelled against Calvinists that Reformed doctrine somehow reduces the desire to share the gospel with the lost. Whether fairly or unfairly, Calvinists are notorious for their lack of evangelism.
This is not a fair charge and I believe that, in many ways, Arminian churches can be every bit as lax in their efforts to evangelize. I would go so far as to say that millions of Americans, sitting in Evangelical churches week after week, have never been evangelized. The reason for this is that too many believers do not understand the difference between outreach and evangelism. Efforts have been made to reach out to unbelievers and they may even have been drawn in to a church, but without ever hearing the gospel message.
Every Christian should agree on the necessity of reaching out to the world with the Good News of Jesus Christ. Through history some Christians and some groups of Christians have placed more emphasis on this than others, but nearly all have agreed on its importance. In the English language we have two terms that are often used synonymously to describe the sharing of the Good News – evangelism and outreach. In this article I would like to address the difference between outreach and evangelism, for I believe we often confuse the terms. We often feel that we have fulfilled the Lord’s command to preach the gospel through evangelism, when in reality we have been involved in outreach. While both are noble pursuits and can bring honor to God, it is evangelism that best fulfills His command to take the Good News to all the world.
The root of the word evangelism, evangel, is derived from the Greek word euangelion which is translated good news. From that same word, we derive the word gospel. We find also that many words we use in English are in reality synonymous – evangel(ism), gospel and good news all speak of the same thing and find their root in the same word. They speak of the act of spreading the gospel and to the content of the message that is given. This is an important point to note – they refer both to the method and the message.
The word euangelion is found in many places throughout the New Testament. “The term is often used to express collectively the gospel doctrines; and ‘preaching the gospel’ is often used to include not only the proclaiming of the good tidings, but the teaching men how to avail themselves of the offer of salvation, the declaring of all the truths, precepts, promises, and threatenings of Christianity.” It is termed “the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24), “the gospel of the kingdom” (Matt. 4:23), “the gospel of Christ” (Rom. 1:16), “the gospel of peace (Eph. 6:15), “the glorious gospel,” “the everlasting gospel,” “the gospel of salvation” (Eph. 1:13).” (Easton Illustrated Dictionary)
In the Elwell Evangelical Dictionary we read specifically about Paul’s application of the term which he used over 60 times and is found in every one of his letters except for Titus. “Paul’s ministry was distinctively that of the propagation of the gospel. Unto this gospel he was set apart (Rom. 1:1) and made a minister according to the grace of God (Eph. 3:7). His special sphere of action was the Gentile world (Rom. 16:16; Gal. 2:7). Since Paul accepted the gospel as a sacred trust (Gal. 2:7), it was necessary that in the discharge of this obligation he speak so as to please God rather than man (I Tim. 2:4). The divine commission had created a sense of urgency that made him cry out, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (I Cor. 9:16). For the sake of the gospel Paul was willing to become all things to all men (I Cor. 9:22-23). No sacrifice was too great. Eternal issues were at stake. Those whose minds were blinded and did not obey the gospel were perishing and would ultimately reap the vengeance of divine wrath (II Cor. 4:3; II Thess. 1:9). On the other hand, to those who believed, the gospel had effectively become the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16).”
We can find insight into what the gospel means to Christians through the words of William Tyndale, who was a great English Reformer and Bible translator. To him it signified “good, mery, glad and ioyfull tydinge, that maketh a mannes hert glad, and maketh hym synge, daunce, and leepe for ioye.” It truly is Good News!
Evangelism is more than telling people that Jesus loves them or that He died for them. It is telling people that they have offended a Holy God and stand before Him as condemned sinners. It is sharing with them that the good news, the best news of all, is that Jesus died for that very type of person. Jesus died to reconcile those condemned individuals to this God of justice. It is sharing with people that through faith they can be saved and can avoid an eternity of suffering for their offense to God. The Good News can only be understood in context of the bad news. If people do not understand the bad, if they do not realize that they are repugnant to God, befouled by their sin, they can not understand just how good the Good News is!
Unlike evangel, the term outreach is not found in the Bible, though the idea certainly is. Outreach implies action more than message. Perhaps it is best defined as a business term: “an act of reaching out, bringing an organization’s services or products out into the community.” When a church engages in outreach, it is reaching out to the community in order to meet needs or to let people know of its existence. The Salvation Army is an excellent example. When tragedy strikes, especially in the case of natural disasters, the Salvation Army is often on the scene, providing food, clothing and other necessities. The Southern Baptist Convention does much the same as we saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Local churches in my hometown have some excellent outreach programs. For example, every year our town has a festival in a park down on the shores of Lake Ontario and one church brings in a climbing wall and allows all the children to scale the wall for no cost. This is an act of love by the church and allows people to make a connection with the church – a connection they hope will eventually draw people into fellowship. They see this as a selfless act and an act of grace as they give people something for nothing. So often people are shocked that a church would do this, for this activity usually represents the only activity in the entire festival that costs nothing. And so the church reaches out to people to give them an opportunity to see Christians in action and to learn about the church.
This is outreach. Unbelievers are given a glimpse of the love of Christ through believers. Believers take their love for the lost into the community and allow them to see changed hearts in action. There is usually nothing offensive about outreach, and it is often regarded as noble, even by those who are opposed to Christ.
The Great Commission
Jesus’ final words to His disciples, the foundation upon which His church would be built, were “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” This “Great Commission” was given by our Lord to direct the actions of His church from the moment of its birth until He comes again to bring it to Himself. Jesus’ words imply not outreach, but evangelism. We are to go to all nations and share this awe-inspiring message with people of every nation, race and creed. We are to share the full truth of the gospel. Needless to say, we can only share such news with our words. Our actions are important and should not be under-emphasized, but people are not saved by actions – they are saved by this message which holds the power to convict men’s hearts.
1 Corinthians 1:21 tells us “it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.” This speaks both of the method, which is preaching, and the message, which is the Gospel. When we share the Gospel, then, we share a message that is offensive to the natural human mind. No human likes to be told that he has offended God and stands before Him as a condemned man. No human, in and of himself, would humble himself before this God and seek repentance. It is only through the power of God through the message of the Gospel that people can be saved, for God has ordained that He will work through this message to save His people. God uses this seemingly foolish and offensive message to reach people’s hearts and turn them to Him.
When we evangelize, we share this message in all its offense, for in the offense of the Gospel there is power! When we remove the offense, we remove the power.
Outreach vs. Evangelism
There is clearly a significant difference between outreach and evangelism. They are both noble actions and bring honor to God. It is important to realize, and this should be clear through the descriptions, that they are not synonymous. The greatest difference is that evangelism is primarily a message while outreach is primarily an action.
We should note that there may be an important link between outreach and evangelism. Often times we reach out to people to draw them into a place where we can evangelize to them. We may provide children with an opportunity to have fun so that we can invite their parents to come to our church where we will take the opportunity to share the Good News with them. It is the hope of any believer that his actions will cause others to realize he is somehow different and convict that person so he can ask what makes the believer different.
It is important that we do not confuse outreach with evangelism. Jesus gave His church, the body that He valued so highly He gave His life for it, a commission to go to the world and share the Good News of what He did. Every believer is responsible before God to do this – we are to tell others of their condition and to share with them God’s remedy. This can only be done through evangelism, through sharing the evangel which God uses to draw His people to Himself.
Don Whitney likens the evangelist to a mailman. The mailman has fulfilled the obligation of his job when he has delivered the mail to me. The measure of success in his job is to carefully and accurately deliver the message. How I respond to the letters I receive is none of his business. And the same is true of the evangelist. We have successfully evangelized when we have shared the Gospel. When we have carefully and accurately delivered the message of God, we can trust that we have pleased our Father. The message is delivered not through outreach, but through evangelism. It is simple enough to attract people to a message through outreach, and we can gather a large group of people through simple outreach, but we may not have evangelized them, even if they fill the pews of our churches.
Do you wish to fulfill our Lord’s great commission? Then go boldly, sharing this foolish, offensive gospel message, knowing that it carries in it the very power of God. Trust and believe that in so doing you are bringing honor to our Lord and Savior and doing your part to build His Kingdom. Reach out to the lost, but ensure that you always leave them with the message of the gospel. Actions may draw them, but words are necessary to convey the message through which God saves His people.
Article by Tim Challies