EVANGELISM: A Brief History & Place of the Office Today

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By Evangelist John “BJ” Hall

Ephesians 4:11-13 says “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ.”

What is an evangelist? According to Rand’s “A Dictionary of the Holy Bible” published in 1859, the definition of evangelist is, “One who proclaims good news, either by preaching or writing. There were originally evangelists or preachers who, without being fixed to any church, preached wherever they were led by the Holy Spirit, like some missionaries in our own day, Ephesians 4:11. Such was Philip, Acts 21:8. Timothy also is exhorted to “do the work of an evangelist,” because they were the writers of the four gospels, which bring to all men the glad tidings of eternal salvation.

What has the role of the evangelist been in history?

We begin our journey with Philip the Evangelist in the eighth chapter of Acts. Philip was in the midst of a great moving of the Holy Spirit in Samaria when the Lord told him to go down to Gaza. It is of note that the Lord did not tell him why. Just that he was to go. As a result of his obedience the Ethiopian eunuch came to a saving knowledge of Jesus. It is believed that this lead to the Christian movement in Ethiopia. There are Christians in Ethiopia today who trace their spiritual heritage back to this event.

So the first element we see in the evangelist is obedience. Evangelists of today could learn much from this event. We first see Philip as he was ordained as one of the original seven deacons (servants). What better way to serve than by humbly submitting to the direction of the Angel of the Lord; Even when it would seem more logical to stay “where the action was” in Samaria.

Let’s jump forward now to the 1500s. John Hus, from Bohemia (in what is now Czechoslovakia) taught at Charles University in Prague. He was also the preacher at the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague. (Don’t let “chapel” mislead you. Three thousand people packed in to hear his sermons.)

The reform-centered writings of John Wycliffe found their way into Bohemia. Studying in the days before the printing press, Hus painstakingly copied Wycliffe’s books for his own use. Like Wycliffe, Hus emphasized personal piety and purity of life. He stressed the role of the Bible as authority in the church, and consequently, he lifted biblical preaching to an important status in church services.

He denounced the often immoral and extravagant lifestyles of the clergy (including the pope himself), but he also made the bold claim that Christ alone is head of the church. In his book On the Church he defended the authority of the clergy but claimed that God alone can forgive sins.

The Council of Constance condemned the teachings of Wycliffe, and Hus was condemned for supporting those teachings. Formally condemned, he was handed over to the secular authorities to be burned at the stake on July 6, 1415. On the way to the place of execution, he passed a churchyard and saw a bonfire of his books. He laughed and told the bystanders not to believe the lies circulated about him. Arriving at the place of execution, he was asked by the empire’s marshal if he would finally retract his views. Hus replied, “God is my witness that the evidence against me is false. I have never thought nor preached except with the one intention of winning men, if possible, from their sins. Today I will gladly die.” The fire was lit. As the flames engulfed him, Hus began to sing in Latin a Christian chant: “Christ, Thou Son of the Living God, have mercy upon me.”

His statement, “I have never thought nor preached except with the one intention of winning men, if possible, from their sins. Today I will gladly die” is what the prayer of every evangelist should be.

The 1628 charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company stated that one of the chief purposes of establishing a colony in New England was “to win the natives of the country to the knowledge and obedience of the only true God and Savior of mankind.” The seal of the colony had the picture of an Indian and the words of the Macedonian to Paul from Acts 16:9, “Come Over and Help Us.”

In 1637, after an English trader had been killed, the Puritans became involved in an inter-tribal war between the Narragansett and Pequot Indians. Surprisingly, the war spawned the earliest Puritan missions to the Indians. Indians who had previously ignored the Christian God now respected Him, and more began to be converted to Christianity. John Eliot, later known as the “Apostle to the Indians,” first began learning the Algonquian language, spoken by most New England Indians, from Indians captured during the Pequot War.

Eliot is an example of the evangelist doing the work of the Kingdom. He was not interested in a mere outward change of religious beliefs. Rather, his emphasis was on repentance and belief in Jesus Christ as Savior. Having learned Algonquian, Eliot began teaching Christian truths to the Indians in their own language. He would begin by describing the glorious power, goodness, and greatness of God as seen in His creation. By presenting the Ten Commandments to the Indians, Eliot pointed out what God required of them and the punishment which would come from breaking His holy law. All this was preparatory to the comforting words that “God had sent Jesus Christ to die for their sins.”

Jonathan Edwards was born in 1703. He became known as the “the theologian of revival.” Under Edwards’ profound preaching, a revival came to Northampton in 1735, and over 300 converts were added to the church. Edwards recognized this was the work of God’s Spirit, for only God could convert a sinful heart and transform lives of self-seeking into lives of Christian holiness. Edwards shared the stories of the revival with correspondents in America and England, publishing A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in 1737.

When the English evangelist George Whitefield traveled throughout the American colonies in 1740-1741, revival swept through the colonies, bringing a “Great Awakening” to many. Edwards’ preaching in Northampton and surrounding churches continued to call people to recognize their sinful condition and seek the Lord.

Many were affected by Edwards’ preaching. Some cried out or wept in fear as they thought of the eternity awaiting them without Christ.

People were brought under conviction precisely because they recognized truth in the clarity of his words. Salvation is not by works, he taught, but by the grace of God acting in a heart. It depends upon faith in God’s work in Christ on the cross rather than on our works. Under his teaching, waves of revival swept through his community and spread outward in the Great Awakening. With keen insight, he dissected religious experience and distinguished between true and false religious phenomena.

In the 1890’s Dwight L Moody, who had been raised a Unitarian, accepted Christ as his Lord and Savior on April 21st, 1855 in Boston, Massachusetts. When Moody later moved to Chicago he wandered the streets to find young boys to bring to his Sunday School class. He had a passion for saving souls and determined never to let a day pass without telling someone the gospel of Jesus Christ. Often he irritated strangers on the street by asking them if they were Christians — but his pointed questioning stirred the consciences of many. God used the converted shoe salesman to become the leading evangelist of his day.

Billy Sunday, Billy Graham and other great men of the faith have continued the long line of evangelists throughout the centuries.

What is the role of the evangelist today?

Yet in recent years, a new phenomenon has muddied the waters of evangelism. The ubiquitous “Word of Faith” or “Name It and Claim It” preachers, both on the airwaves and in some local congregations, have given the office of the evangelist a bad name.

That, mixed with the reluctance of preachers and churches to have “revivals,” has negatively impacted the office and made the calling to that office seem insignificant in the church. Combined that with what I will call “Buddy” system used by many pastors when they do have “revivals and the office is denigrated even further. We talk in the church about declining conversion and baptism numbers, yet we ignore one very significant factor of revival throughout the life of the church. The Evangelist.

Where can we go from here?

Around our great nation there are hundreds of men of God who have been called by God to the office of the evangelist. Many languish in obscurity, their gifts and calling ignored. They are ready to hit the front lines of the battle. Most have expertise in training believers in personal soul winning, proclamation of the Word, and encouraging the pastor. But they are placed in the shadows by leaders who do not recognize the benefits that can be received and the blessings that can be poured out.

We can begin to use the resources God has given us, once again. Remember it was not man that established this office. God did.

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On March 18, 2016

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