The subject of Christian evangelism notoriously raises problematic questions for those who believe that it is one of the clearest imperatives that Christ gave to his church. Now, in the last few decades, a new term (with slightly different meaning) has arisen: evangelization. In the magnificent and important book, World Christian Trends, AD 30 – AD 2200, by David B. Barrett and Todd M. Johnson (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2001), we have definitions that can prove to be helpful in understanding these important words and why they matter to earnest followers of Christ today.
Barrett and Johnson make a distinction between evangelism and witness, which I believe to be most helpful. They conclude that evangelism is “the church’s organized activity of spreading the gospel, in circumstances it can control in contrast to witness, which is the normal term for the informal, spontaneous unorganized sharing of the the faith by individual Christians in circumstances they do not control.” Evangelism, by their definition, is an “organized activity” of the church which spreads the gospel. Witness is a “spontaneous unorganized sharing of their faith by individual Christians.” Note also the emphasis on the surrounding circumstances: control/not control. Evangelism is a planned and controlled activity while witness is spontaneous and not so directly rooted in the life of the congregation. Both activities are needed and desirable based on the biblical narrative.
Barrett and Johnson say that evangelization includes: (1) the whole process of spreading the good news of the kingdom of God; (2) the extent to which the good news has been spread; (3) and, the extent of awareness of Christianity, Christ and the good news.
The second term I introduce here is evangelization. This extremely useful term has developed in Catholic contexts due to the influence given to it by recent popes, beginning with Pope Paul VI but particularly by Pope John Paul II. These popes, and thus many Catholics, often use words like the “new evangelization.” What is this?
In Pope John Paul II’s encyclicals, speeches and other related writings he uses this term, new evangelization, very regularly. Catholics, as well as other Christians, have been intrigued, even inspired, by this term. What are the characteristics of this new evangelization?
According to the pope, “The expression New Evangelization was popularized in the encyclical of Pope Paul VI Evangelization in the Modern World, as a response to the new challenges-that the contemporary world creates for the mission of the Church.” By this use John Paul II, it seems to me, was saying two important things:
- There is a need for a “great relaunching” of evangelization in the present life of the Church and this needs to happen in a variety of ways.
- In Redemptoris Missio, a 1990 papal encyclical, John Paul II presents a new synthesis of the Church’s teaching about evangelization in modern times.
The pope was not saying, as we shall see in subsequent posts, that we have a new message, or a new evangel. When he talked about the new evangelization he stated that “evangelization can be new in its ardor, methods and expression.” This is a way of saying that our evangelism, or our proclamation of the good news, must be adapted to the people of our day. This insight is important and it is often misunderstood and misused. We shall consider why and how in future blogs.