Christian Witness in the Contemporary World

In its confession, the body of Christ- the Church is both universal and apostolic, which implies its essentially evangelistic nature. In today’s post-Christian environment where evangelism has become suspicious and difficult, there is a need to analyse the reasons why evangelism is a defining part of mission and how it must be approached in the contemporary society. Doubting the seriousness of the role of evangelism in mission may pose question and imply a quite confused understanding of the core belief of the Christian faith itself. This essay attempts to explore and discuss the contemporary debate about the relationship of evangelism to mission and also to analyse the convergence between the two in the light of the arguments presented by Bosch in his well celebrated book ‘Transforming missions’. It lays down arguments in favour of the view that evangelism is an integral part of the wider dimensions of mission and yet distinctive in its nature from mission.

The foremost Christian conviction that drives the mission is that “God has spoken and acted in the world in a decisive way for the liberation of the whole of humanity from the scourge and consequences of sin and evil.” [1] For a Christian, who is called to mission, the Christ’s finished work on the cross and his resurrection is a public truth about God’s changed relationship to the world. Mission which does not assert the indispensable calling of the Church to tell the story of salvation through Christ needs to examine its priorities. The Christian mission, today, is confronted with various challenges that it had never encountered before. They are demanding a response that is both relevant to the current times and is in harmony with the core beliefs of the Christian faith.

How evangelism relates to mission is still under debate today. Andrew Kirk writes “There is no consensus yet among people from different Christian traditions about the relation of evangelism to mission.” [2] Some consider it to be synonymous and see no difference between the two. They resist any sort of division on the basis of their belief that the Church’s mission is evangelism. On the other hand, some people separate the two, and consider evangelism to be an essential “dimension of the total activity of the Church.” [3] This tension was also seen during the debate organised by the Global Connections and the Evangelical Alliance on the motion – “This house believes that sending full stomachs to hell is pointless”. The motion was defeated by a substantial majority but at least a significant percentage voted in favour of the motion. The issue of the relationship of social action to evangelism still has not been fully resolved. [4] Bosch writes that the “relationship between the evangelistic and the societal dimensions of the Christian mission constitutes one of the thorniest areas in the theology and practice of mission.“ [5]

The world we live in today differs drastically in its way of thinking. Post-modernism has left its impact by shifting our minds from units to dimensions, from understanding to undetermined, and has given birth to a more pluralistic society. And this trend is not isolated even from the Western society, which has become more complicated and multicultural. [6] Bosch outlines six different paradigms of mission beginning with primitive Christianity as recorded in the New Testament and ending with what he calls the ecumenical era.

Today, “Christianity is identified in public consciousness with a belief system that has to be self-assured, the mood of contemporary Western society is uncertainty and a cynical suspicion of the claims and motives of all who profess to know the truth.” [7] This calls for a prudent investigation from the Christian community to determine the implication that a post-modern era might have on evangelism and mission, and how relationship between them is determined under the contemporary milieu. David Bosh talks about this paradigm shift which he says provides both dangers and opportunities for the Church.

Most of the disagreements and the extreme polarization seem to emerge from different emphases put upon the meaning of evangelism and mission. Bosch points out that it is not an easy task to define both the terms. He even goes as far as to say that mission is undefinable and that the most we can hope for are some ‘approximations of what mission is all about.’ [8] In comparison to the term mission, the word evangelize has been in use for a longer period and can also be found very often in the New Testament.

“Mission, it is suggested, is concerned with first conversion, with Christianization, with vocare, with a first beginning, with the stranger far away; evangelism has to do with re-conversion, re-Christianization, revocare, a new beginning, the estranged neighbour….Mission, then takes place in a pre-Christian milieu.” [9]

Considering theologically, mission is wider than evangelism as it involves all the activities of the Church and has a more global perspective. We also need to be aware that this inflation of the concept can also have a negative implication. Neill warns us, “If everything is mission, nothing is mission.” [10] Any search for a clearly defined, unchanging presentation of mission will “rather highlight a variety of accentuations and approaches within a broader framework interpreting mission as God’s involvement in the world for the salvation of mankind.” [11]

A closer reading of the history of Christian missions, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century reveals a working unity of thought and practice amongst the mission organisations with regard to evangelism and social action. These were held in a dynamic and creative tension which led to a good and effective transformation of the society that was generated from the gospel imperative along with the proclamation of the gospel at the same time, before they became less cooperative, entrenched in different positions and more polarised. [12] “[T]here has been, over the last four decades or so, a trend to understand “mission” and “evangelism” as synonyms. The Church’s task- whether in the West or the Third World- is [seen as] one, that it is immaterial whether we call it “mission” or “evangelism.”” [13] Another reason for grouping their identity and considering evangelism as more acceptable than “mission” is because of the colonialist overtones still associated with the latter term. [14]

One of the key reasons for synchronizing and identifying mission with evangelism is the fear that, if evangelism is granted an individual status and regarded as a separate mandate among many others of the Church’s mission, “it will gradually be eroded and lose its priority.” [15] Vicedom points out that “[t]he mission is not an independent dimension but can always and only be the result of the Church’s obedience to the Gospel.” [16] Being involved in many worthy activities on behalf of the oppressed and needy people is not specific to the Christian community alone, whereas the proclamation of gospel is.

In maintaining the distinction between evangelism and mission, there is also a tendency of using the “language of primacy or priority for evangelism.” [17] “There has been a long tradition which has isolated the declaratory elements in the Church’s mission and insisted that it must have priority. Evangelism, the direct preaching of the gospel, it is often said, must be the first priority.” [18] There is an understanding that mission is “everything that Church is sent into the world to do” [19] – but everything it does must be pervaded by the overriding commitment to evangelism.” [20] This primacy of evangelism dominated evangelicalism and was also adopted as a mandate within the Lausanne Covenant for long.

The missionary movement at the present time suffers from the running battle between those who make this emphasis on the primacy of evangelism, and those who insist that the first priority must be given to social action. [21] Newbigin points out that this conflict between these two important truths is profoundly weakening the Church’s witness. He asserts that there is an inadequacy of awareness regarding the central reality, “namely that mission is not primarily our work- whether of preaching or of social action- but primarily the mighty work of God.” [22]

Very often from late 70s through early 90s, Bosch critiques the Lausanne covenant in particular for encouraging the primacy of evangelism and making service secondary. Although he recognises the advantages of the “evangelism plus social responsibility” [23] approach and takes time to recognize positive elements of Lausanne, he differs when it came to the primacy of evangelism part. A response towards this dichotomy emerged later at the Lausanne Congress and found an echo at the Pattaya in 1980 (LCWE) and a significant step was taken at the WEF consultation in Wheaton in 1983 without ascribing any priority to either evangelism or social involvement, the Wheaton ’83 Statement, paragraph 26, declared:

“Evil is not only in the human heart but also in social structure…. The mission of the Church includes both the proclamation of the Gospel and its demonstration. We must therefore evangelize, respond to immediate human needs, and press for social transformation.” [24]

For Bosch the ultimate goal of the mission is the establishment of justice, and he doesn’t believe in the possibility that if individuals have a personal experience of Christ in traditional pietistic terms they will automatically become involved in the transformation of society. He uses Mathew 28 as the primary text to argue that mission should not be considered within this view of evangelism being primary, rather within the framework of teaching people justice and love. Bosch was not anti-evangelism but wrote very frequently about it with passion. He attempted to put evangelism within a balanced perspective and asserted that “although evangelism may never simply be equated with labor for justice, it may also never be divorced from it.” [25]

Based on the above discussion, I believe that it is better to consider evangelism distinctive from the wider sense of mission, but it should not be dissociated from it. Evangelism is an integral part of the mission and it needs to go hand in hand with each other. John Sehlby Spong states that “if [evangelism] is not related to everything the church does, then the church is suspect.” [26] Though the terms do not describe the same concept, still there is a crucial interdependency between the two.

One attempt to solve the enigma of the relationship between evangelism and social responsibility is to “distinguish between two different mandates, the one spiritual, the other social. The first refers to the commission to proclaim the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ; the second calls Christians to a responsible participation in the society, including working for human wellbeing and justice. [27] Bosch perceives mission to be wider than evangelism and states that “Evangelization is mission, but mission is not merely evangelisation.” [28] He believes that even though evangelism is an integral dimension of the total activity of the Church, it should not be equated with mission. [29] It is “sufficiently distinct and yet not separate from mission.” [30]

The important question for us today is: How a Christian message can be credible if its meaning is not being illustrated in patterns of action which correspond it? We cannot discuss mission or evangelism without first talking about God. Mission and evangelism are not the novel ideas of contemporary Christian society, but part of the eternal purpose of God for the sake of humanity. Church’s mission in the world is not limited by the proclamation of gospel alone, as Newbigin points out “It is not only declaratory; it is [also] performatory.” [31] For God sends his people out in the world to be his servants and his witnesses. Not one or the other, but both. Jesus came to serve (Mark 10:45) and he came to witness (John 18:37). [32] Meanwhile, the objectives of the church’s mission are outlined as the extension of his kingdom (Matt. 6:10,33; 13:31,32), the building up of Christ’s body (Eph. 4:11-16) and the glory of his name, which is not only the ultimate aim of mission but also “the chief end of man” (Ps. 115:1; Eph. 1:6,12,14). [33] Thus the Church’s inescapable call to evangelism is to be practiced as an integral part of the wider dimensions of mission. It needs to function not only in words, but also in its embodiment as a way of life.

This essay attempted to discuss the role of evangelism as an integral part of the wider dimensions of mission. While it is true that ‘Mission is not mission without evangelism’, I also agree with Borsch in saying that evangelism is not synonymous with mission. Evangelism has a crucial role to play and can only succeed in its goal by maintaining convergence with other dimensions of mission. It will also be necessary to recognize that there can be no genuine evangelism apart from a living testimony to the transforming power of the good news in action.

[1] Kirk, J. Andrew., Mission Under Scrutiny: Confronting Contemporary Challenges, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2006, p.48.

[2] Kirk, Andrew., What is Mission?: Theological Explorations, Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, London, 1999, p.56.

[3] Bosch, David J., Transforming mission. New York: Maryknoll Books, 1991, p.412.

[4], accessed on 09/02/2011 [5] Bosch, David J. 1991, p.400-401.

[6] Orr-Ewing, Frog. Lecture on Theology of Mission (Missiology) dated 03/02/2011

[7] Kirk, J. Andrew.2006, p.51.

[8] Bosch, David J., Transforming mission. New York: Maryknoll Books, 1991,p.9.

[9] Ibid. p.410.

[10] Neill, Stephen., Creative Tension, Edinburgh House Press, London, 1959, p.81.

[11] Bosch, David J., Heil vir die wêreld. Pretoria: NG Kerk Boekhandel Transvaal, 1979, p.47.

[12] Orr-Ewing, Frog. Lecture on Theology of Mission (Missiology) dated 03/02/2011

[13] Bosch, David J. 1991, p.411.

[14] Geffre, Claude, O.P., Theological Reflections on a New Age of Mission, International Review of Mission, vol 71, 1982, p. 479.

[15] Kirk, Andrew.1999, p.56-57

[16] Vicedom, G.F., The Mission of God: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, Concordia Publishing House, Saint Louis, 1965, p.1.

[17] The Grand Rapid Reports, Evangelism and Social Responsibility: An Evangelical Commitment (Exeter, Paternoster Press, 1982).

[18] Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, SPCK, London, 2000. p.131.

[19] Stott, John., Christian Mission in the Modern World (London, Falcon Books, 1975),p. 30.

[20] Kirk, Andrew.1999, p.57.

[21] Newbigin, Lesslie.2000,p.136.

[22] Ibid. p.136.

[23] Bosch, David J. 1991, p.405.

[24] Bosch, David J. 1991, p.407.

[25] Bosch, David J.1991, p.400-401.

[26] Spong, J.S., Evangelism When Certainty Is an Illusion inChristianity Century, dated 6-13, 1982, p.11

[27] Bassham, Roger C., Mission Theology 1948-1975: Years of Worldwide Creative Tension, Ecumenical, Evangelical, and Roman Catholic, Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1979, p.343.

[28] Moltmann, Jurgen. The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology, London, SCM Press, 1977, p.10.

[29] Bosch, David J. 1991, p.412.

[30] Loffler, Paul., The Confessing Community. Evangelism in Ecumenical Perspective, International Review of Mission, vol 66,1977, p.341.

[31] Newbigin, Lesslie. 2000,p131.

[32] Stott, John. The Lausanne Covenant: An Exposition and Commentary: LOP 3 at, Accessed on 08/02/2011

[33] Stott, John. The Lausanne Covenant: An Exposition and Commentary: LOP 3 at, Accessed on 08/02/2011