What is the difference between evangelism and evangelization? What do we mean by the word “evangelical?” What really is the Gospel?
These terms carry many different shades of meaning-in their connotative and denotative uses-and they also raise deep and strong emotions.
Webster’s University Dictionary defines evangelism as “Zealous preaching and dissemination of the Gospel, as through missionary work. Militant zeal for a cause.” The term “evangelism” is often tied to the Evangelical Church and with evangelical beliefs.
The same dictionary defines evangelical, in the broad sense, as “relating to, or in accordance with, the Christian Gospel, especially the four Gospels of the New Testament.” In a more specific and Protestant sense, evangelical means “…a group emphasizing the authority of the Gospel and holding that salvation is from faith and grace rather than from good works and sacraments alone.” Then, of course, the term evangelical can refer to specific denominations such as The Evangelical Free Church.
Among some, there is preference for the term “evangelization” over “evangelism,” because the latter with its “ism” ending connotes an ideology, an ultimate loyalty that might even transcend one’s commitment to God himself and the Kingdom. “Evangelization” seems to be used by many across a broad range of the Christian Church-from Roman Catholic to Evangelical and Pentecostal. And it seems to point to process and action rather than to belief and belonging.
Regardless of the term preferred, evangelism and evangelization speak of a deep and strong commitment to the Great Commission, to reaching all unreached people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ-as He himself commanded. Evangelization is the grand mission of the Church.
As with any grand mission, there are serious differences about how this mission mandate should work. Some see the mission strictly as saving souls through personal commitment to Jesus Christ. Others see healing and ecstatic experiences as being part of any full gospel and satisfactory evangelistic accomplishment. In America, Evangelicals, Born-Againers, and right-wing Moral Majority tended to be confused in the 1980s. Some are accused of preaching a “gospel of health and wealth.” Those who minister in destitute sections of the city or under a variety of oppressive situations are often charged with diluting the Gospel with social concern and adding liberating emphases not found in St. Paul’s teaching. Evangelicals may attack sacramentalism and a gospel of works in those of high church or Roman Catholic teaching (who reply that theirs is also a gospel of pure grace). Liberal theologians and churchpeople have a very different understanding of the Gospel and evangelization than do conservative Evangelicals.
How, then, is one to sort through this? It seems the responsibility of theological schools and pastors to help Christians understand the Gospel from Scripture and to ponder the mandate of the Gospel in today’s world.
It might be noted that there are, in general, two different understandings of the Gospel. The one is based on the scope of the text in 1 Cor. 15:1-4 and St. Paul’s emphasis throughout his epistles. A broader interpretation of the Gospel accepts this emphasis (perhaps as the core of gospel content) but understands the Gospel as the Good News of God’s entire Word. Such an interpretation puts equal weight on such an important text as our Lord’s (“inaugural”) address in Luke 4:18ff. Jesus’ use of Isaiah 61:1ff (which relates back to Leviticus 25) would, for those of broader interpretation, bring physical healing and social liberation into the scope of the Gospel. For those of broader understanding, Jesus’ Gospel of the Kingdom included essential features not noted in 1 Cor. 14:3-4. Those of stricter and narrower interpretation fear in this broader view, a disastrous compromise and dilution of the Gospel resulting in a weakening of the Gospel’s call for repentance.
Fortunately or unfortunately, this preliminary discussion of world evangelization is an important prelude to considering the principles of evangelization and missiology.
To evangelize the world, the passion and strategy of St. Paul must be wed to the compassion and model of Jesus Christ, who lived out truth and presented the truth as no else ever has.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
What is your commitment to evangelism or evangelization?
Would you call yourself evangelical?
How do you define and describe the Gospel?
Every Christian and every church is obligated to consider the meaning of the Great Commission (to the first Christians and church) about its mandate for evangelization.
There is no more important study for this task than to understand the meaning, glory, and power of the Gospel as described in Holy Scripture (especially in Isaiah, the Gospels, Romans, and 1 Cor.).
Added to this study one must be aware of the statistics of world demography and evangelization.
Theologians and evangelists must always be aware of the culture to which they are called (see 1 Cor. 9:19-23). Anthropology and sociology, especially, have provided important principles for the out-working of missiology.