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Helping others navigate the evangelism journey

| by Bob Whitesel

To describe evangelism as a journey reminds us that outreach is a bridge-building process, requiring time, patience, mapping and perseverance. 

Bridge building requires a plan

A helpful metaphor for depicting this planned and purposeful process is that such bridge building can be thought of as a journey. A journey reminds us that outreach is a bridge-building process requiring time, patience, mapping and perseverance.

Sociologists James Engle and Wilbert Norton depicted this journey as a process of deepening communication. They noted that it took place over time with a variety of adaptations, stating “Jesus and His followers … always began with a keen understanding of the audience and then adapted the message to the other person without compromising God’s Word. The pattern they followed is as pertinent today as was two thousand years ago”[i]

Richard Peace, professor of Evangelism and Spiritual Formation at Fuller Seminary, looked carefully at the 12 disciples in the New Testament and concluded that a step-by-step process unfolds through which the disciples eventually have a transforming experience.[ii] Peace calls this “process evangelism,” summing up,

“The Twelve came to faith over time via a series of incidents and encounters with, and experiences of, Jesus. Each such event assisted them to move from their initial assumptions about Jesus to a radically new understanding of who he actually was. In his Gospel, Mark invites his readers to make this same pilgrimage of discovery.”[iii]

Esther de Wall, in The Celtic Way of Prayer: The Recovery of the Religious Imagination notes that the Christian life has always been viewed as a journey, stating,

“Life seen as a journey, an ascent, a pilgrimage, a road, is an idea as old as man himself. One of the earliest titles for Christians at the time of the Acts was “the people of the way’. We see the individual Christian as a pilgrim on earth having here no abiding city; we speak of the Church, particularly since Vatican II, as a pilgrim church. But we cannot think of life as a journey without accepting that is must involve change and growth.”[iv]

Lesslie Newbigin sums this up nicely, saying that “as a human race we are on a journey and we need to know the road. It is not true that all roads lead to the top of the same mountain. There are roads which lead over the precipice. In Christ, we have been shown the road … God has given us the route we must follow and the goal to which we must press forward.”[v] Thus, the journey metaphor accommodates the imagery of planned, deliberate and unfolding bridge-building across cultural chasms.

The holism of a journey

A journey also denotes a flexible progression with varying scenarios, milestones, interruptions and course corrections. The journey metaphor conjures up the image of strenuous assents, downhill traces, varying impediments and careful mapping. Maps, sextants, and modern GPS devices attest to the desire of a traveler to pinpoint where she or he may be on their journey. Thus, the use of the journey metaphor accentuates the importance of understanding place in relation to process. Wilbert Shenk emphasized that the “flaw” with most thinking about outreach is that the “parts rather than the whole” are emphasized.[vi]

The metaphor of a journey can help overcome this flaw, by emphasizing the totality of the journey. In three separate books, Ryan Bolger,[vii]Eddie Gibbs,[viii] and this author[ix] have noted that younger generations seek holistic understandings of evangelism that do not separate the Great Commission (to make disciples of all people) from the Great Commandment (to love one’s neighbor as oneself). Gibbs and Bolger suggest this be viewed as “different sides of the same coin”[x] which is an attractive metaphor because only one substance is involved. But, coin imagery suggests that the coin at some point must be flipped over, and a new emphasis begins. The coin imagery in this author’s mind, unfortunately, separates into two phases the inseparable progression of a common and continual journey.

Author Bryan McLaren appropriates the term “story” to describe this process, noting,

If you ask me about the gospel, I’ll tell you as well as I can, the story of Jesus, the story leading up to Jesus, the story of what Jesus said and did, the story of what happened as a result, or what has been happening more recently today even. I’ll invite you to become part of that story, challenging you to change your whole way of thinking (to repent) in light of it, in light of him. Yes, I’ll want you to learn about God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, and about the gift of salvation.”[xi]

This is a more attractive metaphor. But still, a story is static, inflexible and even when modernized … historically captive. It carries none of the dynamic, flexible and indigenous attributes of the varying obstacles, excursions, accompaniments and progressions encountered on a journey. Thus, the imagery of a journey better highlights continuity, commonality and elasticity. And, a journey is often a communal undertaking, and thus the journey metaphor accommodates the idea of accompaniment, companionship and inter-reliance.  

A journey of breaking and refreshing news

The term evangelism is maligned today, often associated with churches that coerce or force conversion in a self-seeking or exploitive manner. Yet Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourn Magazine, argues that a response to bad religion should be better religion.[xii] In similar fashion, the argument could be made that our response to bad evangelism should be better evangelism.

Such disparagement was not always the case. The term evangelism originally signified breaking and revitalizing news. Evangelism is an English translation of the Greek work euangelion (Matthew 24:14), which described the “good news” that Christ and His followers personified and preached.[xiii] Customarily an optimistic message brought by a courier, euangelion was a combination of the Greek words “good” (eu) and “messenger” “angel” or “herald” (angelion). For early hearers “to evangelize” or “to bring Good News” carried the connotation of great responsibility, fantastic insights with more news to follow. Alan Richardson says, “for those who thus receive it the gospel is always ‘new’, breaking in freshly upon them and convincing them afresh...”[xiv]

Because evangelism is a process of bringing this refreshing and breaking news, it is logical that not all of that news could be communicated at one hearing. Because the news we bear is both deep and broad, it requires a journey of dialogue. And as with any subject, this news is best understood when the learning starts with the basics and the moves into more complex and complicated themes.

Is the joy in the trekking, or in the destination?

Some readers may wonder if merely heading out on this journey of Good News might be sufficiently rewarding, feeling that the recompense is in the going. Robert Lewis Stevenson once famously intoned, “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move.”[xv] While a trek by itself can be a rewarding experience, the journey of which we speak is comprised, as Doug and I discovered, of life-changing renovations and eternal destinations. Such consequence indicates that simply enjoying the journey along an adventuresome route is not sufficient.

John Stott reminds us that there are spiritual triumphs on this journey and their importance dwarfs even the excitement of the trek., writing:

Evangelism relates to people’s eternal destiny, and in brining them Good News of salvation, Christians are doing what nobody else can do. Seldom if ever should we have to choose between satisfying physical huger and spiritual hunger, or between healing bodies and saving souls, since an authentic love for our neighbor will lead us to serve him or her as a whole person. Nevertheless, if we must choose, then we have to say that the supreme and ultimate need of humankind is the saving grace of Jesus Christ and that therefore a person’s eternal, spiritual salvation is of greater importance than his or her temporal and material well being.[xvi]

Howard Snyder, in his book The Community of the King, agrees with Stott, stating that, Evangelism is the first priority of the Church’s ministry in the world (italics Snyder). This is true for several reasons: the clear biblical mandate for evangelism; the centrality and necessity of personal conversion in God’s plan; the reality of judgment; the fact that changed persons are necessary to change society; the fact that the Christian community exists and expands only as evangelism is carried out. The Church that fails to evangelize is both biblically unfaithful and strategically shortsighted.[xvii]

Wagner creates a good summation, stating “When a person dies without hearing that ‘God so loved the words that he sent his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes on him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16, RSV), it is too late. The best thing that could possibly happen to that person has been denied.”[xviii]

Some rightly fear that prioritizing either one can undermine the other. Concern about this could be a reason for the evangelical church’s nearsightedness. But Snyder reminds us that, “an evangelism that focuses exclusively on souls or on an otherworldly transaction which makes no real difference here and how is unfaithful to the gospel.”[xix] As such, both the trek and it’s destination are important.

Excerpted from Bob Whitesel, Spiritual Waypoints: Helping Others Navigate the Journey (Abingdon Press, 2010).

Photo source: istock

Footnotes:

[i] James F. Engel and Wilbert Norton, What’s Gone Wrong With the Harvest (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975), 35.

[ii] Richard Peace, Conversion in the New Testament: Paul and the Twelve (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999). Peace offers a helpful examination of Mark’s account of the 12 disciples and their conversionary experiences. Peace argues that they were not converted while traveling with Jesus as members of his apostolic band, but that Mark’s Gospel is organized in part to underscore that “were brought step-by-step to the experience of repentance and faith,” 12.

[iii] Ibid. 309.

[iv] Esther de Waal, Seeking God, 69.

[v] Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1989), 183.

[vi] Wilbert Shenk, Changing Frontiers of Mission, 28.

[vii] Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Grand Rapids, MI; Baker Academic, 2005), 149.

[viii] Eddie Gibbs, Church Next: Quantum Changes in How We Do Ministry (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 22-27.

[ix] Bob Whitesel, Inside the Organic Church, xvi-xvii.

[x] Gibbs and Bolger, Emerging Churches, 149.

[xi] Brian McLaren, The Method, the Message, and the Ongoing Story,” in Leonard Sweet, ed., The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 214-215. For a critique of McLaren’s perspective see Martin Downes, “Entrapment: The Emerging Church Conversation and the Cultural Captivity of the Gospel,” in Reforming or Conforming: Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church, ed.s Gary L. W. Johnson and Ronald N. Gleason (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008), 224-243.

[xii] Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and The Left Doesn’t Get It (New York: HarperOne, 2006), 66.

[xiii] Though familiar to the New Testament hearer this term would be strangely unique because it was rarely used as a verb, i.e. “to evangelize.”

[xiv] Alan Richardson, A Theological Word Book of the Bible, ed. Alan Richardson (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1950), 100.

[xv] Robert Louis Stevenson, Selected Writings, “Travels With A Donkey in Cevennes: An Inland Voyage” (New York: Random House, 1947), 957

[xvi] John Stott, Evangelism and Social Responsibility, 25.

[xvii] Howard A. Snyder, The Community of the King (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press), 101.

[xviii] Church Growth and the Whole Gospel (San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1981), 52.

[xix] Snyder, The Community of the King, 102.


Bob Whitesel

Bob Whitesel (D.Min., Ph.D.) is a sought after speaker, church health consultant and award-winning writer of 13 books on missional leadership, church change and church growth. He is founding professor and former professor of missional leadership of Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University. He also holds two earned doctorates (D.Min. and Ph.D.) from Fuller Theological Seminary where he was awarded “The Donald McGavran Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Church Growth.” His website is ChurchHealth.net.



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