At the beginning of this quarter, I did a quick survey in my Sabbath School class on the topic of this quarter’s lessons, “Evangelism and Witnessing.” Not only do I have a strong preference for lessons rooted in the text of Scripture rather than those based on a theme, but I also know that the theme “Evangelism and Witnessing” really excites some people, but terrorizes others. I told the class that I wasn’t enthusiastic about the plan for this quarter, but wanted to check their pulse on the topic as the basis for class discussion. I refer to the class as “my” class even though I am only one of four teachers. We rarely announce in advance who is teaching because we want to develop loyalty to the class, not to a particular teacher. And it mostly works. Our class meets in Chan Shun Lecture Hall on the campus of Walla Walla University and typically packs in some 120 saints, mostly in the “mature” category, but with a sprinkling of younger souls as well.
Mine was not a scientific survey; it was simply based on a show of hands. But it did trigger lively discussion, just as I had hoped. The question: “On a scale of 1 to 10, what was your reaction when you first saw the topic for this quarter’s lessons, ‘Evangelism and Witnessing’?” The hands shot up. “Let’s separate evangelism from witnessing,” several voices urged. “Patience,” I replied. “We’ll come to that. I simply want to know your initial reaction to the topic as the basis for a full quarter of study.” After some additional grumbling, we got down to the vote. I started with the negatives, number one at the low end and asked for a show of hands at each number on up to ten. The visual impact of the scores on the whiteboard was striking. At virtually every number we had a good cluster of votes, climaxing with five votes at the top end. “Why don’t we just let these five do the work since they really enjoy it?” I asked. The discussion took off from there.
Before we were through, we had addressed the perception that “evangelism” is something for the professionals, while “witnessing” is what lay people do. Actually, I don’t like the flavor of either word, in part, because of my early experience with “witnessing” when I was growing up in Clarkston, Washington. With encouragement from my father, I took on a Sabbath literature route, handing out a series of papers to a group of homes on Ninth Street where our church was located. Every week I brought a paper to the door, not staying to visit or get acquainted, but simply to hand a tract to the residents. As the weeks passed, more and more of the people on my route graciously indicated that they didn’t want any more papers and that I didn’t need to come back. In short, the experience didn’t impress me as being positive for anyone. Was that “witnessing,” “evangelism,” both, or neither? In my case, neither. True witnessing is telling what the Lord has done for us, just as the healed demoniac did after Jesus’ miracle. He begged to go with Jesus, but his newly-found Lord had other plans: “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19, RSV). The man went and told his story. “All men marveled,” reports Mark (vs. 20).
Did anyone marvel at my witnessing? I don’t know of anyone, certainly not in a positive sense. The literature may have touched a life somewhere along the line. But I didn’t know about it. Would my efforts fit better under the heading of “evangelism”? Not really. Translated more literally, the word simply means the bearing of “good news.” One can define this “good news” more narrowly as the “Gospel,” often understood by Christians as a particular view of salvation in Christ Jesus. But more broadly understood, “evangelism” is simply the sharing of any kind of good news, religious or non-religious, and the “evangelist” is the bearer of the good news. From an Old Testament perspective, even “law” is Good News (“Gospel”). Moses actually quotes Israel’s pagan neighbors as recognizing the value of this “Gospel.” Careful obedience to God’s law, he declares, “will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’” Then, adding his own nickle, Moses declared: “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him? What other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?” (Deut. 4:6-8, NIV). And from that broader perspective, the contributions from our Sabbath School class were heartening. The saints might not have liked the labels, but the experiences many of them shared made it clear to me, at least, that they understood what it meant to bring good news to others.
Several years ago, a well-known novelist with Adventist roots, David James Duncan (see especially The Brothers K), visited our campus and spoke to our students in several settings. In one instance, he expressed his dislike of “evangelists.” I knew what he meant, but pressed him on his definition, insisting that in his own way he was an evangelist sharing what he believed to be good news. Surprised, he hesitated for a moment, but then agreed that given the right definition, he was indeed an evangelist.
And so each of us can be an evangelist, just as the healed demoniac was. Sharing the good news is not something limited to the professionals. It’s God’s gift to all who simply can’t resist telling about the good things the Lord has done for them. Now the particular focus of this week’s lesson is on “spiritual gifts,” one of which is listed in Ephesians 4:11 as “evangelism.” But the New Testament list of gifts is remarkably inclusive. Of the five primary passages where the New Testament provides a list (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:8-10; 12:28-30; Eph. 4:7-13, 1 Peter 4:10-11), “evangelism” appears only in Ephesians, and the list in Ephesians is more focused than the others on gifts usually linked with formal ministry. In the other lists (using the NIV vocabulary), Romans 12 speaks of “serving,” “encouragement,” and “giving”; in the two lists in 1 Corinthians 12 we read of “wisdom,” “knowledge,” “faith,” “helping,” and “guiding.” And if we really want to broaden our understanding of “spiritual” gifts, we can turn to the Old Testament where the “Spirit of God” helped the master craftsmen, Bezelel and Oholiab, build the wilderness sanctuary (Exod. 31:3) and where the “Spirit of God” empowered Othniel to go to war (Judges 3:10).
Finally, one other way of illustrating the diversity of our gifts is to focus on the kinds of people we are most willing to help. In a number of church and classroom settings, I have used Jesus’ three parables of the lost in Luke 15 (the sheep, the coin, the boy) as the basis for another of my quick hand-raising surveys. The question: “In your service to God, church, and world, which one of the following types of people would you like most to help? 1) Those who don’t even know they are lost (the lost coin); 2) those who know they are lost, but need help getting home (the lost sheep); 3) those who know they are lost but are just a decision away from heading home (the lost boy); and finally, 4) those who think they are saved, but whose anger suggests that they may actually be lost (the angry elder brother).” Given those choices, even with a relatively small sample – twenty usually does the trick – I typically have found takers for all four categories. Working for the lost sheep usually garners the most volunteers. But others feel the call to reach out to the more problematic sinners: the oblivious secularist, the troubled prodigal, the angry saint. And if we take two pages from Paul’s Corinthian model, we have everything we need to make the church an effective and exciting instrument to transform the world.
The first Corinthian page is Paul’s model of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12: Every part of the body belongs to the whole, and when even the smallest part is hurting, the whole body knows it. The second page follows immediately with Paul’s commentary on the more excellent way, the way of love as described in 1 Corinthians 13. Love probably shouldn’t be seen here as a separate gift, but as leaven or salt permeating the whole. And Peter’s passionate appeal to use our gifts of hospitality, giving, and speaking to the glory of God, is part of the same picture as are these moving words: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8, NIV).
With that kind of good news throbbing in our souls, the church could become one of the most powerful change-agents on earth. Some of us will be really excited about going door to door; others will be scared to death at the thought. But each of us has our work to make the body whole. No one has to feel guilty for not doing it all. God simply calls us to use the gifts he has given us. We may never knock on a door, never even utter a peep. But we can be part of the body of Christ that is seeking to win the world to him.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3922