The Priority of Proclamation: The “New” Versus the “Old” Evangelism

The World Congress on Evangelism in Berlin was to most of us who attended the inspirational experience of a lifetime. The Congress will be remembered in history as the most representative gathering of evangelists and missionaries in the mid-twentieth century. The figures of Billy Graham and Carl F. H. Henry were predominant at the Congress. The Evangelism of the Congress was the Graham-style Evangelism that puts the emphasis upon personal conversion, decision, and the changed life that comes as the result of regeneration. This is the Evangelism that has drawn millions to the Graham crusades, and is still predominant among most missionaries and evangelists throughout the world. There are, however, some who are calling it the “Old” Evangelism in distinction from a new way which they consider far better.

Shortly after the close of the Berlin Congress, Billy Graham found himself on quite a different platform, before an audience that was far from sympathetic to his “simple, old-time religion.” The setting was the luxurious Fontaine Room of the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, and the audience was composed of delegates to the seventh general assembly of the National Council of Churches. The NCC represents quite a different style of evangelism, with an emphasis upon social rehabilitation, economic reform, racial integration, and the ending of the Vietnam war. The “New” Evangelism of the NCC had the chief exponent of the “Old” Evangelism as its guest speaker, and the contrast in their respective points of view made Berlin and Miami Beach seem worlds apart.

The theory upon which the New Evangelism is based goes like this: the mission of the Church in our time is to change the social structures that make for poverty, discrimination, war, and human misery. Unless and until the Church attacks the problems of inequality and injustice, it will not be able to carry out its mission in the world. The mission of the Church, in other words, is first of all social, political, and economic, calling both clergy and laity to get out from behind the carved doors and stained glass windows into the world where men are struggling and suffering. Out there in the world the Church must serve mankind through social reform. That is where Christ is at work—out there in the world, not inside the Church as we know it—and that is where the Church must find her Lord. Proclamation in the sense of verbal communication of a message is not the important thing. Service, action—that is the Church’s mission today, according to the New Evangelism.

The goal, according to Colin Williams, chairman of the Department on Studies and Evangelism of the World Council of Churches, is “the fulfillment of His purpose for a world in which there will be reconciliation between men and God in it society where there is reconciliation between man and man and between man and creation.” The way toward the fulfillment of this goal is through the manifestation, on the part of the “servant” Church, of the servant love taught by Christ. The Church should direct its efforts towards the centers of hostilities among men, such as those between nations, races, cultures and “religiousness” (Williams ), and there the Church should attempt to be a reconciling agent through love and service. The Church’s mission is to be a servant to the world, and the goal placed before it is a healed and reconciled society.

The practical working out of the New Evangelism’s theory and goal is seen i.n the vast array of social programs being carried on in the name of evangelism by the National Council of Churches. The Delta Ministry, for example, a civil-rights and antipoverty agency that helps register Negro voters in the South and resettles homeless families on a new 400-acre “Freedom City” near Greenville, Mississippi, costs the NCC hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. There are other programs also, such as a church “Peace Corps” for young adults, an NCC antipoverty task force, a ministry to migrant workers, and dozens of special projects in ghettos, high-rise apartments, and new planned cities. The voices of NCC spokesmen, both officially and unofficially, are often heard on international issues, particularly on the wrongness of the Vietnam conflict and the rightness of admitting Red China to the United Nations. The NCC record leaves no doubt that the New Evangelism that it represents is a social-action evangelism that leaves little room for the verbal communication of the New Testament evangel.

The Miami Beach assembly had a lot to say about political and international affairs, family planning, and racism. But it had a hard time deciding just what the message of evangelism really is. “That the World may Know” was the theme of the assembly, and it was very revealing that so much time had to be spent debating what it was that the Church should tell the world. The issues ranged from Vietnam to South Africa, from planned parenthood to government aid to the poor. Involvement in these problems was considered an essential form of evangelism. The New Evangelism’s concept of social salvation stood out strong and clear in the discussions.

Just what is the mission of the Church in this world? This question is being re-examined in many quarters today. Some historically conservative denominations are coming up with new interpretations.

The “Confession of 1967” of the United Presbyterian Church finds the pattern for the Church’s mission in the “life, death, resurrection, and promised coming of Jesus Christ.”

His life as man involves the church in the common life of men. ‘His service to men commits the church to work for every form of human welfare. His suffering makes the church sensitive to all the sufferings of mankind so that it sees the face of Christ in the faces of the poor, sick, and oppressed. His crucifixion discloses to the church God’s judgment on man’s inhumanity to man and the awful consequences of its own complicity in injustice. In the power of the risen Christ and the hope of his coming the church sees the promise of God’s forgiveness for all wrong and the renewal of society in all aspects of its life. (11.214–24)

The dominating theme in the Confession’s description of the mission of the Church is this demand for social action. The Confession calls upon the Church to act in three particular areas at the present time. First there is the matter of racial discrimination: “God’s reconciliation of the human race creates one universal family and breaks down every form of discrimination based on alleged racial or ethnic difference” (11.298–300, italics added). This means that the Christian mission is “to bring all men to accept one another as persons and to share life on every level, in work and play, in courtship, marriage, and family, in church and state” (11.301–3). The second area that calls for action is that of war and conflict between nations. Here “the church is called to practice the forgiveness of enemies in its own life and to commend to the nation as practical politics the search for cooperation and peace” (11.310–13).

The third area of action is that of “enslaving poverty” (11.320), whether caused by “unjust social structures, exploitation of the defenseless, lack of national resources, absence of technological understanding, or rapid expansion of population” (11. 324–27). Poverty “in a world of abundance is an intolerable violation of God’s good creation” (11.320–321).

Plainly, the “Confession of 1967”interprets the mission of the Church as lying completely within the area of social, economic, and political action. It is optimistic about the world, “God’s good creation,” and believes that it is improvable by human efforts. It sees the Church and those outside the Church as united in this task of human betterment. The “reconciliation” that it calls for is a horizontal reconciliation between men and nations, apparently attainable. The standpoint of the Confession is that all men are already included in divine reconciliation (11.298–300) and now the task is left for the Church to help bring about more equitable and harmonious relationships within the “one universal family.”

Is this the mission of the Church according to the Scriptures? We do not believe so, The Church in the New Testament is the community of the “called out ones.” Men and women, called out of the world and called into the fellowship of the redeemed, constitute a new race, a chosen generation, a royal priesthood. The primary task of these “called out ones” is to call others to separate themselves from their allegiance to the world and come to Christ, confessing their sins and acknowledging Christ as their Saviour and Lord.

The mission Christ gave to Paul is essentially the mission of the Church over against the world in all times and places:

But arise, and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you; delivering you from the Jewish people an from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you, to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me. Acts 26:16–18.

And Paul went out and preachedl There were plenty of wrongs in the Roman empire against which he might have organized strikes, marches, sit-ins and sit-outs. He might have organized a Salem march (the originall ), scnt letters to the emperor, or gotten busy cleaning up slums and helping :’Ilaves. But he did not. He saw his apostolic mission as the proclamation of the Gospel that calls men “from the dominion of Satan to God.” He preached Christ and urged men to surrender themselves individually to him. He was

not against social reform, but he knew that the indwelling Holy Spirit who lives in the hearts of converted people would bring about the changes through the obedient lives of born-again indivjduals.

Paul did not put the cart before the horse. He did not try to convert “society” as though it were a person, a living being that can be addressed by the Gospel. He went to individual people and preached to them Christ Jesus.

The Apostolic mission was a proclamation mission, a calling out to men everywhere to come out of the darkness and into the light of Cod’s love, forgiveness and fellowship. Nowhere do we see the apostles confusing Christian service with Gospel proclamation, nor substituting the one for the other. Nor is there any hint that the day might come when kerygma would mean diakonw , and verbal proclamation would be submerged in social service. The New Testament docs not tell us that the apostles tried to improve the darkness; they rather denounced it. They did not attempt to make men comfortable in. the world; they called men to come out of the world to God.

When the apostles spoke of the “world” from which men needed to be separated, they described it as Satan’s dominion, as spiritual death, as being under God’s wrath and condemnation. The world is the place of rebellion against God; it is human life with God left out. The mission of the apostles, and of the Church in all ages, is to call men into another “world,” that of the Kingdom of God, where Christ is King. The apostles did not run away from the world’s filth, sin, and unbelief. They waded in deep, so deep it cost most of them their lives. But they did so for a redemptive purpose, to call men in the power of the Gospel to come to Christ in the fellowship of his Church. They did not try to pour oil on the world’s troubled waters in the hope of calming the chaos; they proclaimed the Name that saves and changes the human heart, the basic unit of any society, the foundation upon which all social reform must be constructed. Theirs was a radically different outlook from that which we see in the New Evangelism.

Mention should be made of the second, and equally important mission of the Church, which is to nurture the spiritual growth of those that have been called into its fellowship by the preaching of the Gospel. God wills not only the salvation of his elect, but also their spiritual growth, sanctification, and ultimate glorification. He has predestinated them “to be conformed unto the image of His Son,” that they should be “like Him,” “holy and without blemish, in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.” The Church, therefore, has a twofold function and together they make the Church of essential importance in the carrying out of God’s plan in history. The Church is God’s instrument to call out from the world those who have been predestinated unto eternal life, and the Church flourishes in the faith those whom God, through the Church’s evangelistic witness, adds to it fellowship. This is quite different from the viewpoint of those who today depreciate the importance and role of the Church and refuse to distinguish between the Church and the World, saying as they do, that God is often more at work in the latter than in the former, and God is as concerned with the one as with the other. For all its weaknesses, the organized Church is still God’s instrument for the evangelization of the world and the sanctification of his people. Christ is there, in the Church, in a unique and special way, and it is through the Church that he speaks to the world’s sin-sick inhabitants, calling them to come to him. Hence. the Apostolic concern for the Church, the epistles to the churches, and the apostle’s joy that through the Church the glad tidings were being sounded forth.

Consequently, I find it extremely difficult to locate the apostolic attitude toward the mission of the Church in such writers as Colin Williams. That Dr. Williams is one of the foremost spokesmen for the New Evangelism is well known. His ideas are imaginative and challenging and his concern for human need is most commendable. He senses deeply the Church’s failure to apply Christian principles to life’s problems. But tragically, he confuses social action with evangelism. He constructs a philosophy of mission that is quasi-biblical, employing biblical illustrations without giving the biblical meaning. The social-action program which he suggests, and which he calls the Church’s missionary task in the world, the apostle Paul would not be able to recognize as the work which Christ sent him to do.

Dr. Williams asserts that it is a mistake to say that God’s primary interest is with the Church, “as though the church is sent into the world to bring people out of the world and back into the church, the home of God.” This, he says, is a “tragic distortion of our mission. God’s purpose is for the world, and the church is simply called to the service of God’s purpose for His world.”

In a recent article entitled, “The Church is for the World,” Dr. Williams draws two significant conclusions from his fundamental premise that the church exists for service to the world:

1) The church must not be a separate “religious” world separated from the central affairs of “secular” life. The church instead must be a sign to the world of true secular existence; of what life in the world under God is to be like. So the “religious club” church, which refuses to get mixed up in the ordinary social, political, and economic struggles, is a false church. The true church is called to be in the midst of the real human struggles seeking to reveal Christ’s purpose.

2) The church must be discovering the ways by which she can develop forms of solidarity (“pro-existence”) with men in the midst of their struggles, so that she can witness to the servant presence of Christ in history. The church must remember that her task is not to bring Christ to the world, but to help the world see the presence of Christ and to acknowledge Him. The church’s task, then, is to join Christ in the world, seeking by deed and word to witness to His servant presence.

There is a wide theological gulf between the conception of the Church’s evangelistic mission explained in these quotations and that which the Christian Church has historically believed and which we are convinced is still true. That Christians ought to engage themselves in the social and moral issues of our day goes without saying, but that is not the issue at hand. The question before us is that of the evangelism, the confrontation of unbelievers with Christ’s meaning for their lives. How are men to be turned to Christ in a redemptive relationship? How would God have us call out his chosen people unto himself? That is the basic question. The differences lie in the area of the nature of the Church, the meaning of redemption, and the condition of the world. The Apostle Paul told his converts that before their conversion they were “dead” in their sins and “without hope and without God in the world.” Mr. Williams and others seem to think that modern worldlings already have God, though they may not as yet have awakened to the fact. We do not need to “bring” the Christ of the Gospel to them, they tell us, for he is there ahead of us, and the Church needs only to join him in his universal service program for the good of mankind.

This is not evangelism according to the New Testament. Nowhere in the Bible do we find that the task of the Church is to build the world into a place of greater social or political or economic security. 1t is true, of course, that the Bible is filled with social injunctions, most of which we have miserably failed to keep. But it is of great importance to observe that the social implications of the Gospel are addressed to those who have been saved, converted, born again through the Gospel. They are regenerated men and women in whom the Holy Spirit dwells and in whom he is producing spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22). To be sure, their renewed lives are a witness to God’s work in them. But they are as illustrations of the Gospel message, not the message itself. The illustrations are incomprehensible without the “old, old Story” first being told. The telling of the Story is evangelism. It is the Church’s primary responsibility, its mission to the world.

The substitution of social action for Gospel proclamation is one of the greatest, long-range threats to world evangelization today. Its deleterious influence is already being felt in many parts of the world. The worst of it is that the leadership of the larger denominations seems to have already surrendered to it.

The question, we must clearly state again, is not that bf involvement or non-involvement in the great social and moral issues of our day. Evangelicals should certainly battle with all their strength to right the wrongs of human society. Political, social, and economic action is part of our duty as Christians, and Christian principles should govern our thinking and acting in all these spheres. But this must not be confused with evangelism! The apostolic mission of the Church is to preach the Word, and as Peter pointed out, the serving must not replace the preaching (Acts 6:2). Christian service (diakonia) and Gospel proclamation (kerygma) should be neither confused nor separated, divided or changed, within the body of the Church. But the primary concern of the Church, in relation to the world, is still to proclaim the Gospel of Christ crucified.

One of the most immoral customs in Roman society was the gladiatorial contest in the great Colosseum. Gladiators, armed with swords and spears, fought each other to the death for the sport and pleasure of the audience. If there was anything that the Christian conscience had to protest against, it was the Colosseum.

On a certain afternoon, the bloody show was going on, when something unusual happened. Many brave men had already died, and others were in the heat of the fight, when a little, old man leaped down into the arena, and threw his thin body between the struggling gladiators. “In the name of Jesus, Stop it!” he shouted. For a few moments the fighting men hesitated. But then the spectators burst forth in anger. Angry shouts drowned out his voice, but still the man persisted, attempting to keep the gladiators apart, until together they stabbed him to death.

The man’s name was Telemachus, a Christian monk from Asia. His Christian spirit had been stirred by the sight of so many thousands flocking to see men slaughter one another. In his simple-hearted zeal he had tried to bring it to an end. “In the name of Jesus, Stop it!” He gave his life for his protest.

He did Dot die in vain, however, for the sight or the death of a religious man whom even the Romans respected had an effect. The moral conscience of the people, pricked and quickened by the preaching which by then was known throughout the Roman Empire, made them see the hideousness of this their favorite vice. One by one they left the Colosseum, never to return. It was the last gladiatorial contest in the city of Rome.

Saint Paul would have rejoiced if he had been there. But he would not have said: “Oh my, why didn’t I think of that earlier! Why didn’t I jump into the arena instead of preaching repentance and conversion! I should have used a different method of evangelism.”

No, he would not have wished to change his method, nor his message, nor would he have told the Church that now was the time to change the apostolic pattern of proclamation. Rather, he would say that he knew that it would come about if those who heard the Gospel would put it into practice. So preach on! Beneath every vice, every wrong, there lies a bad religion that only the Gospel can eradicate. And Gospel proclamation is still the greatest service the Church can render to the world.

The new theology continues to use all the terms of historic Christianity, meanwhile filling them with radically different content. This has happened also to the definition of “missions.” Here the Rev. Roger Greenway, professor at Juan Calvino Seminary in Mexico City, sounds a much-needed warning by calling attention to the Biblical view of the church’s calling.