Jesus’ Great Commission, traditionally seen as the motivation for evangelism, strangely enough says nothing about evangelism. What Jesus actually commands is three things-making disciples, baptizing, and teaching them to obey (Matthew 28:18-20). Of course, one could argue that those three together add up to a fair definition of evangelism. Yet how does one make disciples and bring them to baptism, so that they want to learn to obey Jesus?
The example of Jesus himself suggests that teaching is often the key to evangelism. Consider, after all, how often the words “evangelize” or (as it is often translated) “preach the Gospel” and “teach” occur together in the New Testament. Matthew’s Gospel, in particular, links the two, speaking of Jesus “teaching in their synagogues and preaching the Gospel” (4:23, 9:35, 11:1).
The Book of Acts follows suit, with five such references. Acts 5:19-20 is typical: “Every day they did not cease to teach and preach [literally ‘proclaim as good news’] Jesus as the Messiah.” And occasionally (as in the Great Commission), the verb “to teach” seems synonymous with evangelism: “An angel said . . . ‘Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.’ When they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and went on with their teaching.” (Acts 5:19-20)
Often evangelism is understood to be the challenge to turn and follow Jesus. Which, of course, is crucial. Yet if I do not know who this Jesus is, nor why I should turn from my present course, nor what it means to follow this strange man, then I need to be taught. Until then, I cannot understand what the challenge means, let alone respond to it. And in the western world these days, increasingly that is the case: people do not know enough about Jesus and the Christian way to make a thoughtful response to him. Thus evangelism will often begin with teaching. So how is it to be done?
Jesus’ own teaching seems normally to have included:
- Some “lecturing”, as we might call it: the Sermon on the Mount would be the classic example.
- Lots of question and answer-and, just as often, question and counter-question-in other words, dialogue, around what he had said.
- Plenty of meals and parties, which formed the context (and sometimes the stimulus and even a subject) for discussions.
- A practical demonstration of the truth of his words, whether through his compassionate care for the needy, or through breaking bread with the marginalized. (I would argue that this was not just an illustration of his teaching, but part of the teaching itself.)
Since teaching is a cumulative experience, it is important to note also that Jesus spent three years with his disciples, and that by the time he left them, there were still many things they had not really understood. Teaching is a process that takes place over a period of time-a semester, a school year, three years . . . a lifetime. It is, by definition, not a quick fix. So the teacher needs to be patient, to repeat some lessons, to say the same things in a dozen different ways. Jesus does all of these.
I suspect one of the reasons for the phenomenal success of the Alpha course is that it makes use of some of these same teaching strategies. Consider the following. During an Alpha course:
- The teaching takes place in the context of a meal-the traditional (and of course liturgical) symbol of God’s kingdom.
- The video is followed by discussion with the same group each week, so that the content is processed in the context of growing relationships. As a result, people often “belong before they believe” (John Finney’s powerful phrase)-which then catalyzes the believing.
- The length of the course offers people plenty of time to consider what they are learning, to ask all their questions, to “count the cost,” and even to try putting into practice what they are hearing.
I realize that Alpha is not for everybody. People have theological and methodological qualms about it. But evangelistic teaching in some form or other should be a central and regular part of every parish’s program. As John Baycroft said to his clergy when he was Bishop of Ottawa, “You don’t have to use Alpha: but if you don’t, then you have to use something better!” If we are not intentionally teaching the faith to newcomers, we are probably not evangelizing at all.
In days gone by, confirmation classes, baptismal preparation courses, and even marriage preparation offered some kind of opportunity for clergy to teach the faith. And, of course, in many cases they still do. But there are thousands of people who are not in a space to be enquiring about baptism or confirmation or even marriage, but who are (as the phrase goes) “exploring their spirituality,” and who would respond readily to the right kind of invitation to the right kind of Christian course.
Various possibilities are in use around the world. Many congregations make effective use of videos in the same way that Alpha does. Harold Percy’s recently-released four-part series, “Christianity 101,” has quickly become popular across Canada (see page 8). Some churches use Rico Tice’s “Christianity Explored,” which is similar to Alpha but less charismatic, from All Souls, Langham Place, in London (England). “Seasons of Celebration” (also known as “Emmaus”) is not video-based, but offers a more liturgically grounded program which follows the church’s year. And some parishes in the Diocese of Ontario have used my own eight-part video course, “Building Blocks.”
The advantages to a video course are that there is less preparation for the leader, the quality is always of the same standard, and viewers feel more free to question and criticize a speaker who is only a face on the screen than someone who is present in the room!
Yet there is much to be said for “home-grown” courses which do not depend on a video. Indeed, some research in the UK suggests that the numbers of people asking for baptism as a result of home-grown courses can be similar to those of (say) Alpha. Presumably the personal influence of the teacher, and the ability to gear the content to local interests and needs, are what make the difference.
This edition of good idea! looks at some of the ways the Gospel is being taught across Canada. Two people write about courses they have developed in their parishes; two working with youth talk about how they have “taught the Gospel” to young people. Maybe a video series is right for your context. Or maybe one of these first-person stories will catch your eye and suggest ideas for your situation.
The learners are out there, hungry to be taught. Effective evangelists are those who will provide the appropriate teaching and obey our Lord’s command to “make disciples.”