An Important Mark of a Healthy Church: A Biblical Understanding of Evangelism

By Mark Dever

(Adapted from chapter 9 of What Is a Healthy Church?)

In other volumes in this series, we have described healthy churches as marked by expositional preaching, biblical theology, and a biblical understanding of the gospel and conversion. That means when churches don't teach the Bible and sound doctrine they become unhealthy.

What does an unhealthy church look like? It's a church where the sermons often veer into cliché and repetition. Worse yet, they become moralistic and me-centered, and the gospel is recast as little more than spiritual "self-help." Conversion is viewed as an act of human resolve. And by varying degrees, from bad to worse, the culture of the church is indistinguishable from the secular culture surrounding it.

Such congregations do not herald the tremendous news of salvation in Jesus Christ, to say the least.

Evangelism Shaped by Understanding of Conversion

As we turn in this volume to consider another important mark of a healthy church—a biblical understanding of evangelism—it's worth considering how much our view of this mark will be shaped by our understanding of the previous ones, especially conversion.

On the one hand, if our minds have been shaped by what the Bible teaches about God and how he works, as well as by what it teaches about the gospel and what sinful human beings ultimately need, then a right understanding of evangelism will generally follow. We will attempt to spur on evangelism principally through teaching and meditating on the gospel itself, not through learning methods for sharing it.

I am always heartened by how new Christians seem innately aware of the gracious nature of their salvation. You may even have heard testimonies in the last few months that confess that conversion is the work of God (Eph. 2:8-9). "I was totally lost in sin, but God..."

On the other hand, if what the Bible says about God's work in conversion is left to the side in our churches, then evangelism becomes our doing whatever we can to produce a verbal confession. One sign that a church may not have a biblical understanding of conversion and evangelism is that its membership is markedly larger than its attendance. Such a church should stop and ask why its evangelism produces such a large number of members it never sees yet who feel secure in their salvation. What did we tell them that discipleship in Christ means? What did we teach them about God, sin, and the world?

For all members of the church, but particularly for leaders who have the responsibility of teaching, a biblical understanding of evangelism is crucial.

What Is Evangelism?

According to the Bible, Christians are called to care, to plead, and even to persuade unbelievers (2 Cor. 5:11). Yet we are to do so by "setting forth the truth plainly," which means renouncing "secret and shameful ways" (2 Cor. 4:2 NIV).

Evangelism, in other words, is not about doing everything we can to get a person to make a decision for Jesus, much less about imposing our views. Attempting to force a spiritual birth will prove to be as effective as Ezekiel trying to stitch dead, dry bones together to make a person (Ezekiel 37) or as likely as Nicodemus giving himself a new birth in the Spirit (John 3).

Furthermore, evangelism is not the same thing as sharing a personal testimony. It's not the same thing as presenting a rational defense of the faith. It's not even doing works of charity, though all three of these things may accompany evangelism. Nor should evangelism be confused with the results of evangelism, as if to say we've only successfully evangelized when a conversion follows.

No, evangelism is speaking words. It's sharing news. It's being faithful to God by presenting the good news that we discussed in chapter 8—that Christ, by his death and resurrection, has secured a way for a holy God and sinful people to be reconciled. God will produce true conversions when we present this good news (see John 1:13; Acts 18:9-10). In short, evangelism is presenting the good news freely and trusting God to convert people (see Acts 16:14). "Salvation comes from the Lord" (Jonah 2:9 NIV; cf. John 1:12-13).

Week 1 Who Should Evangelize?

Getting Started

Question 1

1. What drew you to this study on evangelism?

Question 2

2. What are you hoping to get out of these six sessions on evangelism?

Digging In

Question 1

1. Do you have any questions about what evangelism is?

Now that we've established what evangelism is and isn't, let's consider a few texts that speak to who should evangelize. Acts 8:1-4 gives us a window into the early church's evangelism:

1 And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. 4 Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.

Question 2

2. Who was scattered by the persecution in Jerusalem (v. 1)?

Question 3

3. Who went about preaching the word, that is, the good news about Jesus (v. 4)?