Evangelism in History: The Examples of John Wycliffe and John Wesley
John Wycliffe was a pastor in England. He lived 1324-1384. At that time, the Bible was not available in the language of the people. People had to depend on what the Roman Catholic Church taught them. Most people did not know the gospel. Even many Catholic priests did not know the Bible well. Priests traveled the country doing religious rituals and asking for money. Most churches were controlled by priests who did not preach the gospel. Wycliffe and his helpers translated the Bible into English. Printing by machine was not available then, so they copied Scripture by hand. They traveled in pairs and taught the Bible to groups everywhere. People called them “poor priests” because they did not ask for money.
Methods of evangelism must be adapted to the conditions of a society. Wycliffe and his helpers accomplished the basic part of evangelism; they took the message of the Bible directly to the people.
John Wesley lived in England 1703-1791. At that time, the Anglican Church had become the church of wealthy people. They were ritualistic and did not teach a clear gospel. Most of the poor people of the nation were not welcome in the churches and did not know the gospel. Wesley was an Anglican priest, but he wanted to get the gospel to the people. One morning, he went to a field where many coal miners were passing through on their way to work. He preached, and many stopped to listen. After that, he preached outside almost every day for the rest of his life. Thousands of people were converted by his ministry.
The Need to Adapt Methods
In 2003, a man was traveling in London with his family and stopped at a park to rest. He noticed a woman standing on a hill in the park. She had a Bible and was speaking. He went closer and could hear her talking about something religious. He noticed that she had a friend standing nearby, so he asked the friend what was happening. The friend said, “We are part of a group that continues the tradition of outside preaching like Wesley did. Occasionally, we go to a public place to preach.” However, the man observed that the woman was standing in a place where few people were passing, not many could hear her, and her style was not effective for getting the attention of people outside. She was trying to continue the tradition, but had lost everything that originally made the method effective.
Methods must be adapted to the circumstances. Sometimes people assume that there is only one way to do evangelism, and they continue a method that is no longer effective. Sometimes people think that a method that was effective in one place will be effective everywhere else, but that is not true.
In many places the church has evangelized by going from house to house and knocking on the doors of people they have not met yet. That method has resulted in many conversions, but it would not be effective in every place.
Some churches have bought buses and offered to bring people to church. On Sunday morning, they drive the bus throughout a neighborhood gathering people. Many people have been converted through the “bus ministry,” but that method would not work in every place.
Many churches have evangelized by preaching the gospel to a crowd that comes to the church building on Sunday. They invite people to come forward to kneel at the altar and pray to be saved. Thousands of people have been converted by this method, but most unsaved people do not come to church. Many people will not hear the gospel unless someone shares it with them individually in conversation.
The Apostle Paul was a model of adapting evangelistic methods. He could speak in the Jewish synagogues because he was a qualified Jewish rabbi, and he explained to them that Jesus is the Messiah. He also spoke in places where people gathered to present philosophical ideas. Sometimes he spoke in marketplaces. Often, he spoke to groups in homes.
Some Modern Methods
People have used many different ways to start a conversation about the gospel. Some churches have used survey questions. They go throughout the community and ask questions like these: “What do you think the church should be doing in the community? What is the most important belief of Christianity? How would you explain what a Christian is? How does a person become a Christian?” After listening patiently to a person’s opinion, a Christian might ask, “Can I tell you what we believe the Bible says that a Christian is?”
Sometimes evangelists in a public place get attention by painting a picture or diagram that illustrates the gospel. Others make drawings with chalk. Some evangelists put colorful pictures on a board as they tell a story. (For examples of this method, see the websites at http://www.oacgb.org.uk/ and http://www.oacusa.org/.)
Some churches offer a seminar on a practical subject that is needed by people in their community. The subject may be marriage, child raising, business principles, health, or training for some kind of work. The church is doing something good when it serves the needs of the community. The church has the responsibility of showing how biblical truth applies to daily life. The seminar may not present the gospel directly, but it teaches biblical truth and develops the relationship between the church and the neighborhood.
Some churches have set up a temporary prayer station in a public place where many people are passing. They put up a sign that says “Prayer Station” and offer to pray with people who are passing. They ask, “Do you have a need that you would like for me to pray about?” They show concern for needs and do not start arguments. Often, they have the opportunity to share the gospel. (For pictures and information, see the website at http://www.goforthall.org/prayerstations.html.)
The most basic essential element of an evangelism method is that the gospel be presented clearly to people who need to hear it. Because God gives power to his Word and the Holy Spirit convicts those who hear, an evangelism method is more likely to be effective if it communicates the gospel clearly and directly.
The challenge for the church in every place and every time is to find a way to get the attention of people and communicate the gospel throughout society.
What are some ways that churches in your city get the attention of people?
Do those methods communicate the gospel?
The most effective form of evangelism is when a person directly explains the gospel to a person who knows and trusts him.
A Christian should be most effective when witnessing to friends and acquaintances because they have seen the example of his life. If his example is good, they are more likely to respect his testimony. It is important for a Christian to show his faith so that people always know that he is a Christian. He should not be embarrassed for people to see him read a Bible or pray. People who know him should not be surprised when they learn that he is a Christian.
A Christian can be respected for his example at school or work even by people who do not like Christianity. Even people who persecute him will respect his example if he is consistent in his actions and attitudes. Some people will come to him for prayer and counsel.
Some people think that they must know a person for a while before witnessing to him. They try to become a friend before talking to someone about God. It is true that a person is more likely to listen to a friend. However, it is possible to show sincere concern and interest in a person immediately. If we do not learn how to share the gospel with people we meet, we will miss many opportunities to be effective. A previous lesson about “Opening Doors” gives methods of starting conversations for the gospel.
One man said, “Any time I am alone with someone for a few minutes, I use it as a meeting arranged by God.” He meant that he believes that God gives him encounters to use for the gospel.
The Gospel in Print
You can do something to spread the gospel that the Apostle Paul could not do.
We have a method of spreading the gospel that was not to the church for many centuries: information can be printed on paper by machines.
What do you think would be different about ministry before printing was available?
Try to imagine ministry in the times before printing. Every copy of a book required days of work by an educated person because it had to be written by hand. You may think that books are expensive now, but imagine paying for a book the same price you would pay to hire a skilled professional for ten days of work.
Almost nobody had their own copy of Scripture. Even the pastor might not have the whole Bible. Imagine if you did not have the possibility of reading the Bible at home.
Training of pastors was done mostly by speaking, and they had to try to remember what they heard. There was no way to send printed training to other places. Without printing, nothing could be written and distributed in a large quantity.
What are some ways that printing helps for the spread of the gospel?
Tracts are small printed articles, usually presenting the gospel. Christians can give them to people that they encounter. They can also be given out in large numbers in a public place. They can be left in places where people will read them.
If a person has not done much evangelism of strangers, giving tracts is a good way to start.
A tract should be colorful and have an interesting title.
When distributing tracts to people on the street or some other public place, smile and greet them. You could say, “Hello, did you get one of these yet?” That makes them curious to see what it is.
It may seem that most people are not interested in the tracts that you give them. Many people may throw them away without reading them. However, there are good results, also. People have been converted because of the message of a tract. Usually you will not know the results of the tracts that you have given.
Meeting Practical Needs
Sometimes people are concerned about some practical need of life. They are without enough food or adequate shelter or medical care. They feel that those needs are more urgent than their spiritual need. The church can respond to practical needs as a way to
share the gospel. The potential problem is that the church’s attention will become focused on earthly needs rather than spiritual needs, just like the focus of unsaved people. Missionaries in India, Uganda, and other places have been accused of “buying” converts by giving them money, famine relief, educational advantages, and medical services, or by according them other kinds of preferential treatment (J. Herbert Kane, “The Work of Evangelism”).
The church should respond to practical needs but should maintain certain practices that emphasize the spiritual priority. (1) They should explain that they are sharing the love of God when they meet needs. (2) They should work together as a family of faith, rather than becoming an organization distinct from the church. (3) They should invite people to commit to the fellowship of the church where people care for one another. (4) They should share the gospel, teaching that eternal life and blessings come from knowing God.
Many ministries offer programs that respond to material needs. They serve the needs of the community as far as their resources allow. Their goal is to create opportunities to share the gospel. They think that helping people in practical ways will make friends and get attention for the gospel. The formula is Program, then Relationship, then Gospel.
There are many ways for programs of help to go wrong. Help may not create any relationship except the giver/recipient relationship. Sometimes the gospel seems separate from the things being given, and people can get the help without being interested in the gospel. Even the people working in the program become busy at providing the help and do not share the gospel.
The formula should be turned around. The church should emphasize the gospel as its first contact with everyone.
When a church presents the gospel to the world, they must be faithful to include a description of a new life in the church. Salvation is not just a personal, individual decision that leaves a person alone in a strange, new life. Sinners will not usually accept the gospel unless they are attracted to the community of faith that presents the gospel.
In the ministry of Jesus and the apostles, we see that the gospel is the “good news” of the kingdom of God. It is the message that the sinner can be forgiven and come into relationship with God. He is delivered from the power of sin and made into a new creature. He enters the family of faith where his spiritual brothers and sisters encourage him and help him with his needs.
The church should see its primary mission to be communicating the gospel. The church should work at that constantly. Everyone should know that working for the salvation of souls is what the church is about. Then, the church attracts the right people. It attracts people who are interested in the gospel. These people come into relationship with the church, so the ministry of the gospel creates a relationship.
Then, the church helps people that are in relationship with the church. Maybe not all of those people are saved yet, but they are in relationship and are attracted by the gospel ministry of the church.
So, the reversed formula is Gospel, then Relationship, then Help (not a program). The church should not be just an organization offering programs for help. Instead, the church is a group of people that help the people who are in relationship with them. If they start programs, people will come for the programs without the relationship.
Assignment A: Observe the methods for evangelism that are being used by churches in your area. Do the methods succeed at getting the attention of people outside the church? Do they communicate the gospel clearly? Write 2- 3 pages on your observations.
Assignment B: Distribute at least 100 tracts. Write a few sentences describing your experience.
Full course available at Shepherds Global Classroom.