Let’s Delete the Words “Evangelism” and “Witnessing” from Our Vocabulary

The words “evangelism” and “witnessing” have become so terribly distorted that they need to be discarded. They engender so much anxiety, fear, and guilt that they are no longer useful. They too often conjure up images of sweaty hands knocking on strangers’ doors asking if they want Bibles studies. They are too often equated with impassioned evangelists preaching through the 28 Fundamental Beliefs. What should be an expansive topic has become terribly imbalanced, narrowed, and constricted.

I am certainly not saying we should no longer engage in outreach. Far from it! I am simply saying that the words “evangelism” and “witnessing” are no longer useful in describing it.

Those two words need to be placed by the curb to be picked up by the Waste Management truck. Like dad’s favorite old lounge chair, they were certainly helpful once, but have outlived their utility, with springs poking out through thread-bare fabric.

You can come up with your own replacement terms for “evangelism” and “witnessing.” I kind of like “Christlike love.” Whatever term you choose, it needs to convey a sense joy, fulfillment, and adventure.

In an attempt to succinctly capture what I understand to be a biblical approach to community involvement, I have created what I call the “Spiritual Interest Line,” seen below. Please refer to the graphic as you read the explanation that follows.

People in your community are at many different levels of spiritual interest. In the graphic above, let’s assume a range from 0 to 100. From 0 to 94, spiritual interest may be growing within their heart, but they do not yet feel any conscious need for God. At 95, they sense an inner longing for something more in life and are looking for spiritual direction and guidance. At 100 they have accepted Christ as their personal Savior.

With those definitions in mind, we can gain a number of important lessons that will help bring our thinking more in line with scripture.

Lesson #1

I cannot create spiritual interest any more than I can create life. Both are completely up to the Holy Spirit. The only thing I can do is discover what the Spirit has already been doing in someone’s life. I used to think that if I could just explain the gospel better, or be more inspiring, or be a better gospel “salesman,” that more people would come to Christ. That is not true. I am asked by God to be an adventurer, a discoverer, not a creator.

Lesson #2

It is the Holy Spirit who moves people forward along that line. He does that through the love and kindness shown by His followers to those within their sphere of influence. Our deeds of love do not create interest, they are the raw material the Spirit uses, just like a potter uses the clay to create beautiful art.

Lesson #3

I don’t have to be the entire process. The Spiritual Interest Line is like a chain with many links. When someone accepts Christ, it may seem to be the work of a moment, but, in fact, it is the result of a long “chain of circumstances” that brought them to that point. The conversion we witness is like the tip of an iceberg, with most of their journey hidden from our sight. I am only one, or at most, a few links in a person’s life.

I may be used by the Spirit to move a person from 43 to 44 on the scale and that is all. It is up to God what part I am called to play in a person’s life. A Christian could go their entire life and never see anyone accept Christ as a result of their influence, but that does not in any way mean they have been an ineffective missionary.

You might visualize a pitcher being filled with water, drop by drop. There will eventually come one drop that causes the water inside to spill out the spout. Suppose we equate the moment it spills over to a person whose spiritual interest hits 95 and they become conscious of a need for God. That is usually the moment we highlight in our Union Papers. But let me ask you, which drop of water was the most important? Of course they were all important and should all be equally valued. Every link in the Spiritual Interest Line is just as important as any other. Even if no one in leadership notices, God does.

Lesson #4

I should relate to people according to where they are on the Spiritual Interest Line. It is not helpful to relate to someone who is at 33 as if they are at 97. Likewise, it is just as inappropriate to relate to someone who is at 97 as if they are at 33.

I have often heard people debate whether it is enough to simply live a godly life, or do we have to actually talk to people about God? The answer is not either/or. We simply have to do what is appropriate for where people are at the time. Prior to 95, people will usually have little interest in “Bible talk,” so loving deeds are our most effective response. From 95 onward, a person is eager to learn from scripture and does not need to be manipulated or convinced.

Lesson #5

One of the greatest skills a Christian can develop is learning how to approximate where a person might be on the Spiritual Interest Line. If my encounter with someone is relatively short, I simply try to demonstrate Christ-like love and kindness. The longer the relationship, the more I can drop hints that give me clues. For instance, if someone talks to me about a difficult problem they are facing, I might say at some point, “I’ll certainly be praying for that situation” and observe how they respond. Watch the eyes, the body language. Don’t press. Just make note for future reference. If they respond positively and say something like, “Thank you very much. That means a lot to me,” you could drop other hints at appropriate times. If they demonstrate a lack of interest or pull back, you probably need to shelve the spiritual talk for now.

I was not raised as a Seventh-day Adventist and my dad was not a religious person. When I first became an Adventist, I ignorantly felt it was my duty to tell him about the Mark of the Beast and the Sabbath/Sunday controversy. He never showed any interest and my overtures actually had a negative effect. He stated clearly, “I don’t want to hear about that Bible stuff.” That attitude persisted. After I understood the Spiritual Interest Line, I guessed that he was probably somewhere in the 30s and I chose to simply love him as fully as I could. Years later he became terminally ill. One day I leaned over his hospital bed and asked, “Dad, would you like me to pray for you?” To my surprise he answered, “Yes, I would like that very much.” He had come a long way. Only God can read his heart.

Lesson #6

Different personalities and Spiritual Gifts can relate more easily to different parts of the Spiritual Interest Line. For instance, some introverts may feel more comfortable helping others by doing things behind the scenes whereas an extrovert might prefer more direct, personal, one-on-one engagement. A person with the Spiritual Gift of “Helps” will be great at doing specific tasks for those at 1 to 94 whereas someone with the gift of “Teaching” or “Evangelism” may want to specialize in working with those at 95 to 100. God wants each of us to reach out through who He has made us to be. No guilt. No fear.

Lesson #7

I now understand how the conference evangelist could get the attendees at the meetings to accept Christ and join the church. It was because he sent out 40,000 brochures and attracted people who were at 95 and above. Those below 95 usually stay home.

Lesson #8

It becomes clear that “Information Evangelism” reaches only a small fraction of society, those at 95 to 100. Information Evangelism produces just enough results to maintain the myth of its superiority, but it is certainly not the best way to reach society at large. Today people are drowning in information. What stands out to them is outrageous love.

Information Evangelism will always be a useful tool for some of the people at 95 and above, but it should be used strategically according to the community’s readiness. It cannot be the main feature of a congregation’s mission to the neighborhoods around them. Our outreach has to focus far more on relationships and incarnational involvement with people’s felt needs, giving high priority to the vast majority of people who are at 1 to 94 on the Spiritual Interest Line.

Our churches in North America are far better equipped to share information than they are to love unconditionally. To become truly relevant to the masses, the unglamorous, ministries of caring and kindness will have to be elevated. Such a dramatic shift will not happen, however, as long as things like tithes and baptisms continue to be the measure of success on pastoral reports to the conference.

The only kind of love the Holy Spirit can effectively use to increase people’s spiritual interest is a love that has no expectations, no conditions, and no ulterior motives. When that truly becomes central to our church culture we will have become full partners with the Spirit in carrying on the world-altering ministry of Christ.*

*The small group lessons “I’m Allergic to Witnessing” delve more deeply into the theme of this article and can be purchased at www.transformyourchurch.com (operated by the Florida Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church).

Kim Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for SDA journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The Gift, The Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at www.transformyourchurch.com (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.

Photo by Robert Koorenny on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9721
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There are a lot of good points made in this article, but I not really sure why the author thinks that replacing the words are necessary in order to shift semantic meaning to where it needs to be?

For example, can’t we place “accept Jesus as their personal Savior” or “Holy spirit working in people” in the same garbage pile of misconceptions?

I’m actually for a lot clearer communication and “spiritualese” language tends to be a problem when we discuss these concepts with people who either have no reference to these concepts, or that have different understanding of these.

So, the irony is that I’m not really sure what the author means when he says “I may be used by the Spirit”. Used how? What is the dynamic reality of such “use”? Or is it mere “religionese” expression that simply means “I hope I understand and do what God wants me to understand and do”? Instead it makes it sound like one is being possessed and Spirit moves your body like a puppet master. Why still use these outdated and vague expressions?

We still use these very vague semantics in the age of precise academic language, and we hang on to the idiomatic linguistic structure as though there’s something magical about these words. Why not be more clear and precise, so that people we talk to understand what we are talking about?

The problem is that our theological framework as it exists today is structured around language that’s largely no longer in use. Even the concept of the “Lord and King” is awkward in the era of presidents and CEOs.

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What passes for evangelism is an ego centric, fear based rant. The evangelist is rated on numbers scared enough to be dunked. He leaves town before reality sets in. The Gospel is not evident nor Grace extended. Three things remain for the convert. tithe, attendance, and shaking hands with the pastor at the close.

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The Adventist church in my area has a programmable sign in front. It makes me cringe when I pass the church and read messages that use insiders’ language that may be familiar only to conservative Christians. I don’t think they do this to proselytize individuals from other Christian churches or to be exclusive. Perhaps some are so used to thinking and speaking in these terms and value highly phrases lifted directly from the Bible (…to seek and to save, etc.) that they don’t understand how quaint these messages must seem to people not connected to a church.

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The Caption at the top of the article made me burst out laughing!!!
The Author wants SDAs who sit in the church pews to delete the
words “Evangelism” from the World Church Vocabulary, the
Dictionary.
The reason I had to burst out laughing is this.
For decades the word “Evangelism” was an unmentionable word
for Episcopalians here in North America. They jokingly called it
“the E word”. and would say, “We don’t say the E-word around here.”
Recently, at least in the north half of Georgia there is a small 3x3
magnetic sign to be put on one’s refrigerator. Has been available
since around 1st of the year.
It is PROMOTING the word EVANGELISM among Episcopalians.
Why I laughed out loud is, Seventh day Adventists are encouraged to
tear “Evangelism” out of their Theological Dictionary, while Georgia
Episcopalians are pasting “Evangelism” into their Theological Dictionary.

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Every group/denomination/company, etc., in the world uses their own internal “language” that conveys meaning to them and to the rest of the world. On this site, I have heard various “voices” from around the world using particular religious word phrases and/or idioms that appear to hold great meaning to them in their sphere of the world. Often, it takes far too long in a contentious conversation to understand that too many things are just semantics. In fact- it generally doesn’t come to any agreement that it IS often just semantics.

This isn’t the only issue…many times various commenters are “married” to a particular “religious” word or phrase. To them, it is tantamount to sacrilege that it be suggested that they refrain from using the said terms or phrases which tends to trigger off another commenting “battle”. It appears that the words/phrases take on a life of their own and, in that vein, the words/phrases become “holy” unto themselves.

I assume that the audience that Kim Johnson is addressing here is an audience that is primarily NAD/European and heavily Post Modern. To this end, his suggestions that “Evangelism” and “Witnessing” be replaced by those which might appeal more in a secular and Post Modern world seems totally appropriate to me. It can only be done by replacing the words in communique from all Top-Down sources in order to change the “Word Culture” that currently exists. The “alternative word/phrases” would have to be introduced in writing and speaking. Not an easy task for a church enamored by their own cultural idioms…but it has been done elsewhere.

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I agree that these words are less than helpful. I also feel that if you are trying to reach someone in order to “save them” and then move on…you should forget it. If you don’t honestly love the person and are simply trying to “Put stars in your crown”, you are doing them and yourself a disservice. Trying to make phony get-to-gather’s so that you can find in an opportunity to slip in a witness is just plain deceptive and they will eventually see through your plot.

The word that I absolutely abhor, but have not heard used recently is what our church we use to call evangelistic series. We called them “EFFORTS”. It is the most disgusting and disingenuous term that I could ever imagine. How would you feel if someone was trying to witness to you but they were doing it under the guise of an “Effort”? I still cringe when I think about such a thing.

We need to love people, the Holy Spirit will provide the means for both the one witnessing and the person being witnessed to. And, for heaven sake, keep your “proof texts” in you notebook.

Our church has been pathetic in this for the past 170+ years.

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One of these days I will inaugurate a new Church, and you won’t see those bizarre signs there. The only sign you will see is,

CHURCH FOR SINNERS ONLY
(Saints please go to the next church down the road)

:laughing:

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I’m sure, however, that the term “evangelism” is understood very differently by Episcopalians than by Adventists. I’ve been employed by the Episcopal Church for about 25 years, although I am and always be an Adventist. The Episcopalians I work with see evangelism as programs such as providing for the homeless to take a shower, providing access to laundry facilities for the homeless, allowing homeless people to enjoy the shade of the church grounds during daylight, hosting AA meetings, providing non-doctrinal spiritual support/counseling at events such as “Burning Man” in Nevada, teaching English to immigrants without questioning whether they are “legal”, etc. Sometimes, then, these people start attending church. Evangelism is far more than teaching doctrines and baptizing people!

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Peter –
Our former priest, Father Dan Edwards, is Bishop of Nevada.

The Lectionary readings for this week-end are Evangelism – Proclaiming
the Kingdom. Luke 10:1-20, the appointing of the 70 to announce the Kingdom
in the towns Jesus has planned to visit.
I like the comment on vs 18, Jesus sees Satan cast down from heaven. It says
“represents God’s liberating mercy, which, through the power of Christ,
delivers humanity from the effects of evil.”
Warns them NOT to rejoice because they have power over the spirits, but
rejoice that their true reward is that they are to be included among the righteous
who have gone before, whose names are written in heaven.

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George –
Nadia Bolz-Weber, in Denver, Colorado has taken that name already.
Her church is named – House for ALL Sinners and Saints.
She wrote a book – Pastrix – telling her story of the church and its
members, and in a way HOW to create other churches like hers.
HOWEVER – you Will NOT Be Required to spend money at the
tattoo parlor for “body painting”. [LOL]
Another how-to book on Evangelism is by Sara Miles – “Jesus Freak”–
“Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead”. " her inspiring book for
undomesticated Christians who still believe, as she writes, ‘that Jesus
has given us power to be Jesus.’" Her church is at St. Gregory’s in
San Francisco. One thing they do – on Fridays they turn their worship
space into a food pantry. Even using the Altar as a spot to place food gifts.
[a very inspiring book – How to be Jesus by doing simple things.]
I had a “strange thing” happen to me on Wed evening. There was a free
dress rehersal for a play in town – Sister Act. I almost didn’t go. Thought about
taking the 20 minutes and walk to town as I thought about all the parking meters
on the street. At the last minute decided to drive, and then thought if I walked 4
blocks I could park on a non-metered area. For some reason I chose a specific
spot to park of all the ones available. When I got our of my vehicle this young man
approached me and said “I’m hungry”. I didn’t bring any money [just credit card].
I knew he didn’t want drug or cigarette money when he agreed to let me buy him
something. He said, how about a cheeseburger? I thought about Burger King,
then said their were food places in town. I started out toward one place, but then
thought of higher end food. Took him to the Ocmulgee Brewery for a sandwich,
fries [servings are HUGE], and drink. Was $15, but it is a LOT of food. Sandwiches
are huge.
He was a very nice young man. Had good upbringing. Needed an ID, social security
card, and birthcertificate.
I got thinking, if I had WALKED to town, I would have taken a different route. And we
would have missed each other. He would possibly gone to “bed”, wherever that was,
hungry.
Weird how God [and his angel] looks out for persons who may not know at THAT TIME
they are a Child of God.
I have had other ODD experiences like that over the past few years.

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I am gad this topic came up frankly. The internal language is not only a problem for people not belonging to that particular church but it also makes at least a good portion of the members uncomfortable.

If a person my age has been uncomfortable for so many years, think how this generation responds? This church, the only one I know, has refused on so many levels to respond to " new light" as predicted by someone we all know.

There are so many issues which need to be addressed as Tom pointed out, but alas don’t hold your breath.

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You have mentioned the issue many times before but mostly in the form of “The Club” mentality. It does go hand in hand with it and I don’t expect that it will change. We are supposed to be “this”…we are known to be or do “this”…so the language will not change. It has become “holy”.

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Those who delete those same words from the Bible delete their names from the Book of Life.

I’m not sure which translation is being referencing, but “evangelism” does not appear in the NIV, NKJV, KJV, NASB. The word “evangelist” is found only three times. As for “witnessing” I found only one reference in the KJV, NKJV other versions use a different word in the same passage.

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Euangellion is to preach the gospel, the good news of Christ and Him crucified. That is true evangelism.

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Pat –
Perhaps in our zeal to be Seventh day Adventists we have been focusing
on the wrong message [the wrong “stories”] to tell people.
How many Evangelism classes promote – Just tell about Jesus? and stop
there?
No, we have 27 MORE Fundamentals that HAVE to be given. Along with
the images and beasts of Daniel and Revelation.
AND, what happens in the end if one belongs to the wrong religious group.

For 3 1/2 years what was the ONLY message of Jesus – the Kingdom of
Heaven. It is coming, then, it is near, then, it is within you. Jesus command
in Luke 10 is “say to them, The Kingdom of God has come near to you.”
Perhaps we do NOT know. So we cannot tell.
Too busy talking about other topics.

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Thanks Steve! The core of the good news is Jesus Christ who died for forgiveness of sins, was buried and resurrected. We are to testify of these things.
Everything else extends from that message for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom. His message of Love and Grace for all types of people. The building up of the church for service and maturing of the saints.
Unfortunately today there is the “offence of the cross.” Every other aspect of human relations is taught but somehow the true gospel, good news of grace in Christ is left out. That I suggest is the social gospel…that does not eternally save.
Regards,
Pat

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These words do not appear in every Bible. And since the Bible was originally not written in English, they certainly did not appear in the earliest versions/manuscripts of the Bible. Or do you mean these exact words or the concepts? There are many definitions of the concepts.

We are NOT saved by the vocabulary we use. I’m sad if you were ever taught that. Where in the Bible does it say you must use certain words in the English language or you will not be saved?

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Churches need to explain and/or rephrase much of their clichés & religious lingo. Churches should be centers where people can come to learn how to …get a life.

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