Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a six-part series of articles commenting on the missionary task. For the official and complete version of the missionary task as defined by IMB, please refer to the IMB Foundations Magazine. Each article in this series covers a single component of the six-part missionary task in the following order: Entry, Evangelism, Disciple Making, Church Formation (forthcoming), Leadership Development (forthcoming), and Exit and Partnership (forthcoming).
Evangelism is the responsibility of every follower of Jesus. Not surprisingly, then, evangelism is an element of every IMB missionary’s job description—regardless of the assignment. Even in areas where the focus of the work is on training leaders, you’ll see missionaries and local believers actively sharing the gospel. IMB missionaries engage in evangelism because it’s simply part of what is expected of every believer. It’s also a critical component of the overall plan that IMB calls the six-part missionary task.
“Prayer and deep reliance on the Holy Spirit are built into all of our evangelistic strategies and activities. Without his work, proclamation accomplishes nothing.”
A Healthy Plan
While IMB missionaries approach the task of evangelism with intentionality, planning, and accountability, we also rely on the Holy Spirit to empower our witness. Without his work, proclamation accomplishes nothing. Prayer and deep reliance on the Spirit are, therefore, built into all of our evangelistic strategies and activities.
Furthermore, IMB missionaries strive to share the full content of the gospel message. While any given conversation may only include parts of the message, we believe that evangelism is incomplete until all components of the gospel have been communicated and connected in the mind of the hearer. In that regard, the evangelistic task is urgent, but it’s not something to be hurried.
We are also careful to contextualize the gospel message to make it clear. The aim of contextualization is not to make the gospel comfortable or acceptable but understandable and meaningful in the mind of the hearer. Often, we may make use of bridges to the gospel from within the host culture and religion to mitigate the offense of unnecessary foreignness. Even when Paul entered Areopagus, he pointed out an inscription that read, “To the unknown god,” to bridge to gospel proclamation (Acts 17:23).
Of course, the message of the cross will always seem offensive to those who are lost without God, and conversion will come from the power of God’s Spirit, not from our packaging of the message. But we still need to think about how to best present the message of the gospel so that even if it’s rejected, the person understands what it is he is rejecting. Gospel clarity stems from effective entry where the IMB missionary first gains proficiency in cultural understanding and worldview of the people.
Effective evangelism also requires sensitivity to learning and communication styles of the host culture. Although researching those things begins in the entry phase, continuous learning helps missionaries present the gospel in ways that make sense to their hearers.
Pitfalls and Benefits
It’s true that in light of a local context, it can be valuable for each missionary team or church to identify dependable evangelism tools to use that they know well. For example, some environments call for chronological storytelling to communicate the gospel. However, every tool must be evaluated in terms of effectiveness and faithfulness to every element of the biblical gospel.
The gospel must also not be shared in a hurried manner for the sake of expediency, without sensitivity to social structures. By first learning how information spreads within a culture (through whom and to whom), the missionary can form an effective strategy for how to proclaim the gospel among a people. Once again, entry lays the foundation for effective communication to people, but the strategy to create gospel movement beyond original hearers to neighbors often comes thereafter.
Furthermore, while mercy ministry is a tool often utilized to enter a culture with the intention to evangelize, these compassionate actions must not replace evangelism. Mercy ministries provide pathways for enabling IMB missionaries, partners, and churches to assist missionary teams in missions work, and these various acts of compassion are complementary but do not replace evangelizing or the remainder of the missionary task.
Finally, we cannot be satisfied to call our communication “evangelism” unless we challenge our hearers to respond to the message with repentance and faith. We must call for a response. And newly evangelized believers should receive training and encouragement to share the gospel with others as well. Evangelism leads to the beginning point of the third aspect of the missionary task, disciple making.
Evangelism in the Framework of the Six-Part Missionary Task
Since evangelism is only the second part of the overall missionary task, the full context of the task must be kept in mind. Depending fully on the Holy Spirit, effective evangelism builds on the underpinning of effective entry and is done in such a way that appropriately leads to discipleship—part three of the missionary task. Discipleship, in turn, ought to lead directly into church formation and development of leaders. Once leaders are in place, we can begin moving toward healthy partnership and exit.
D. Ray Davis serves on the mobilization team at IMB. He and his family previously served among Sub-Saharan African peoples. You can follow him @DRayDavis.