On the big E word….evangelism

That is one word which can bring embarrassment to Christians due to their lack of understanding, experience or lack of comfort. Unfortunately many pastors and church leaders then completely shun,  not only using that term, but actually doing it!

While at #PYM16, I attended a seminar lead by John West, the Visiting Assistant Professor of Evangelism 


I first met John at PYM 14 in Chicago when his own church, the historic Fourth Presbyterian Church hosted the inaugural conference.  John is a brilliant thinker, passionate youth worker and was deeply committed in the re-imagining of Confirmation for today’s youth.  He now teaches on evangelism, faith and the advancement of Christianity within the intersection of progressive and conservative contexts.  I applaud his vision and commend his writings.

Part of this methodology lies in retaining the purpose of evangelism.  This is not about finding new tactics or strategies, but rather by entering into meaningful discussion with other and (most importantly) living authentic lives of faith as examples.

Re-imagining evangelism lies in discovering what resonates  within people, and how to bring others into greater resonance with God’s activity in their lives and the world around them.  That will, and must, look differently for different people, since everyone is wired uniquely. Therefore, how we communicate the gospel and how they understand, articulate and live it needs to also fit uniquely.

Some of his seminar was influenced by a recent book Unbinding the Gospel : Real Life Evangelism by Martha Grace Reese.



Some challenging questions asked by the author, and also by John in the seminar include:

Is there good news in our churches?

Is there good news in our lives?”

Reese writes, “Our most important discovery is that a vivid relationship with God lies at the heart of real evangelism.”

The premise is simple but provocative:  You cannot give what you don’t have.”

We should be asking “How do you know God is real?”, rather than “What do you believe?”

Perhaps instead of seeing our “duty” of evangelism as an obligation to convince others our a particular set of beliefs, we can see ourselves as spiritual directors;  helping others to see God’s activity in their life and the world and then learning how to talk about it in real and relevant ways.

John offered some interesting questions to help engage in this process, which I have found to help discover an evangelism that doesn’t suck! (the subtext of his seminar title)

“What was the most important time in your life with God

“How have you experienced God’s presence in your life?”

Perhaps the most thought-provoking and convicting question asked was this:

Does it matter to you 
if other people 
follow Jesus? 
Why or why not?

In many ways, one’s answer to this question holds a key to how to think of and approach evangelism.  I suppose like every Q, this one assumes additional subterranean questions about heaven/hell, what “eternal life” is, the exclusivity of Christ, and whether or not one can live a full and flourishing life outside the contexts of Christianity. These are all worth contemplating in our highly pluralistic society and ever-changing religious context.

After fifteen years of ministry in the Chicago metropolitan area, most recently as the Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry at Fourth Presbyterian Church, John W. Vest currently serves as the Visiting Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. He holds degrees from Rice University (B.A.), the University of Chicago Divinity School (M.Div.), and McCormick Theological Seminary (D.Min.), and has studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is co-founder of the Progressive Youth Ministry conference, recently published a collection of confirmation sermons called It’s Not Conformation, and blogs about his “Adventures in Post-Christendom” at johnvest.com. An enthusiastic pitmaster, John dreams of one day achieving the mystical union of church and BBQ.    


1 thought on “On the big E word….evangelism

  1. I agree that evangelism is a problematic word for many Christians and is in need of a makeover. For many, it still means convincing someone that we have the only right answer. Actually for many it means persuading people to come to their specific church. I wonder how today’s church members can be trained to meet people of different faiths or no faith, the previously churched, those who have been harmed by the church, etc. In my opinion, we have to learn how to be better listeners. Only in developing relationships can we hope to be trusted enough to share our faith with others.

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