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Evangelism - Myers Mott Maggay Linthicum        

(from Walking With The Poor by Bryant L. Myers, Worldvision, 1999, p. 204-215))

Christian Witness and Transformational Development



Why we must witness

"Being Christian means being a witness. By definition the Christian faith is a missionary faith. Gospel means "message" or "good news." Messages are not messages unless they are announced. The word evangelism means to "announce the news."

When Christians say that they accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior, they are also saying that they intend to announce this fact in every facet of their lives and by every means available to them: by life, deed, word, and sign. For Christians, being a witness is integral to who we are and what we believe. But there are other reasons why we must witness to Christ in the context of doing transformational development.

First, the need to proclaim the good news of Christ is directly related to a Christian understanding of transformation. For Christians, belief is the beginning of bowing. Athanasius said that the gospel provided a new arch, a new starting point for the way we understand and make sense of our world. Augustine of Hippo took the biblical story as the point of departure for his radical reconstruction of his former ways of thinking, following the dictum Credo ut intelligam—I believe in order to know (quoted in Newbigin 1995, 9).

In this sense, Christian witness is the beginning of transformation. Melba Maggay reminds us, "Social change is primarily what happens to people in that level of being where the Spirit alone has access" (1994, 72).

Newbigin explains this further by saying that by proclaiming Christ we offer people the possibility of understanding what God is doing in history. By sharing God’s good news with people, we offer the beginning of the process of recovering identity and vocation.

[They receive] a vision of the goal of human history... a vision which makes it possible to act hopefully when there is no earthly hope, to find the way when everything is dark and there are no earthly landmarks (1989, 129).

I have already said that every development program represents a convergence of stories: ours, the community’s, and God’s. God’s story is the only one that has the power to redirect and make sense out of all our stories. The best human future is one that moves toward the kingdom of God. Thus witnessing to God’s story is the beginning of hope and the promise of a new story

Second, we need to bring the best that we have. in our best moments our development processes are empowering and our development technology can make short work of dirty water, parasites, malnutrition, and poor agricultural production. Yet as good as all these things are, they are not the best news that we have. Because our own experience tells us that Christ has the power to seek, to save, and to recompose our stories into stories of hope and purpose, we can hardly help sharing this very best of our good news with others.

Finally, Jesus gave us two simple commandments. We are to love God with all we have and to love our neighbors as our~e1ves. This is the motivation that takes us to the poor in the first place. How can we say we love our neighbors if we limit our work to improving their material lives in the here and now and never share the news that holds the promise of transforming their lives now and forever?

For Christians, therefore, our thinking and practice of transforming development must have an evangelistic intent, although this needs to be understood with some care. This is not a call for proselytism; neither is it a call to coercive, manipulative, or culturally insensitive evangelism. It is not even a call for all development practitioners to become evangelists. After all, no one knows the moment when someone is ready for faith, nor is God limited to the staff of a particular Christian development agency in bringing God’s good news. Rather, it is a call to be sure we do our development with an attitude that prays and yearns for people to know Jesus Christ.

Understanding evangelism

It may be helpful for me to say a little about the meaning of the word evangelism. Evangelism is the verbal sharing of the good news of Jesus Christ anti his offer to fallen human beings, but we need to work a little harder to be clear on what we mean by this. Too often the gospel message is presented as a set of propositional statements. While this is true, it is not enough—and it can be misleading.

Tim Dearborn points out that evangelism is good news about a person, not just a set of propositions. The gospel invitation is to a relationship, not just intellectual assent or agreement to a set of ideas. in this sense, the gospel is not against other religions; it is simply true (1997, 37).

William Abraham, a Methodist theologian, clarifies this further when he reminds us that evangelism is not simply speaking about something that we believe or that we feel compelled to share. Evangelism is announcing something that has happened in the world about which everyone has a right to know

What makes proclamation evangelism is not the proclamation per se, but the message being proclaimed: the coming rule of God.... Without this announcement, people will not know about its arrival, nor will they have a clear view of what it means for the kingdom of God to come now in the present or in the future (1989, 59).

Walter Brueggemann, the Presbyterian Old Testament scholar, defines evangelism as an invitation to choose a new story, employing the biblical story as the "definitional story of our life, and thereby authorizing people to give up, abandon and renounce other stories that have shaped their lives in false and distorting ways" (1993a, 10). Brueggemann describes the act of evangelism as drama, a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The first scene is about the conflict between two powerful forces who battle for control of the future. The second scene presents the witness who gives testimony, telling the outcome of the conflict that he or she has already experienced. In the third and final scene, the listener must make an appropriate response to this witness.

It also may he useful to say a few things about what evangelism LS not. Evangelism is not about sales. The gospel must never be treated as a marketable product that we entice people to "buy." "V/e are not purveyors of a commodity . . . . . but facilitators of a people’s own discovery of their heritage as the children of Abraham" (Bediako 1996b, 187). Nor is evangelism about sales effectiveness. Vinay Samuel is fond of saying that evangelism is a commitment to sharing, not an announcement of expected outcomes. Finally the greatest danger to wrong-headed thinking about evangelism is that we will use evangelism as a way to play god in the lives of other people, believing we know the state of their soul, when they need to say Yes to God, or that we know something about their future that they do not.

We are witnessing anyway

Sometimes we don’t think hard enough about this business of being witnesses. Sometimes we think there are two choices: being witnesses or not being witnesses. This is not true. We are always witnesses to something. The only question is to what or to whom?

In a well-drilling project on the edge of the Sahara, a community watched a soil scientist and a hydrologist converse in highly technical language as they did soil chemistry and studied a hydrological survey. V/hen asked what these two men were doing, the community replied that they were witch doctors. One was consulting the spirit of the earth and asking it where the spirit of the water lived. The other was reading magic texts in the search of power, just as their marabouts did with the Qur’an. Asked if these witch doctors were any good, the villagers replied that they were very good, better than their own witch doctors. "After all, they always find the water."’

When confronted with this interpretation of their actions, the men decided to go back the next day and explain the science behind their work in simple terms the village could understand. Explaining the miracle of finding water in the desert as "just science," however, is a witness, only this time to the efficiency of modern science and technology.2

Development technology continually creates this problem in traditional cultures.’ Whether water is found in the desert or children do not die who normally would die, an explanation is demanded. With no explanation, the traditional worldview provides an animist explanation. Or, if the modern development professional reduces the good news to "just science," the explanation is a secular one. Either way, a witness is made that is not Christian and an invitation to idolatry has been extended.

To make it harder, it is not even enough to announce that we are Christians, as if this will change how the community understands the success of our development interventions. In Vietnam, when villagers were asked why a Christian NGO was helping them reconstruct their dikes, they explained that Christians care about the poor. When asked why Christians care about the poor, they responded that Christians were earning merit for their next life, a Buddhist explanation. When Muslims in Mauritania were asked the same kind of question, two responses predominated. Either Christians were earning their way into paradise, a Muslim understanding of charity, or they were getting rich by working in the aid business, a secular understanding of why expatriates serve overseas.

Finally, to make things even more complicated, even announcing that the intervention is made possible because the Christian God is a powerful God is not enough. If this is all that is said, Hiebert estimates that within three generations the people will be secularized, it is a question of simple pragmatics. As soon as the people figure out, as we in the West have, that technology works without God as part of the explanation, in time God is dropped from the explanation.4

The bottom line is that we need to be concerned about who gets worshiped at the end of the development program. Jayakumar Christian reminds us that whatever we put at the center of the program during its life-time will tend to be what the community worships in the end (1998b). As we have just seen, if development technology is the focus, technology will be worshiped as the source of transformation. If the development agency and its expertise and resources are the central feature of the program, the agency will become the object of worship. In one case in India it was discovered that World Vision had been added to a tribal community’s list of gurus—those who have answers the community does not have—and prayers and sacrifices had been instituted to ensure that this new guru kept helping the community. If money is the focus, then money is perceived to be the key to transformation. What we put at the center of our program is also our witness. We must always ask if we are acting as a dependent people, looking to God for every good thing. We want people to observe us and say, "Theirs must be a living God!"

The twofold challenge of Christian witness and transformational development

Christian witness presents an interesting pair of challenges to the development worker. I’ve just described the first part of the challenge. Every development effort witnesses to something. The only question is, To what is it witnessing?

The second part of the challenge has to do with the traditional framework of Christian witness. Too often Christian witness is pursued in a way that is contradictory to the development framework proposed in this book. In the spiritual arena, the community is assumed to have a problem of which it is not aware. The evangelist assumes the role of answer-giver to those who are assumed not to know the answer. Finally, there is an assumption that the evangelist knows something about the future of the audience that the audience does not know, namely, their ultimate destination if they do not believe.

At the most fundamental level, these claims are true. Christians do have a truth that the non-Christians do not have, and there is an obligation for us to share this news, even if people are not aware they need it. And Christians do believe that eternal life is only possible by believing in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Yet there is a fine line between being faithful to these beliefs and crossing over the line and assuming a smug arrogance, playing god in the lives of those who do not yet believe. There is always the danger that we may act, not as undeserving recipients of a gift, but as people with a sense of superiority, expressing the "teacher complex" that Koyama feels damages the attractiveness of the gospel.

I doubt strongly whether the idea that the "people over there are enemies of God" is central to the Spirit of Christ. The Spirit of Christ does not support the spirit of greed to conquer others and self-righteousness to demonstrate our superior piety (1993, 293).

If done sensitively and without arrogance, the "go and tell" frame for Christian witness may be appropriate for a church or traditional mission agency, but it is not a good fit for a development agency for the simple reason that it is anti-developmental. It cuts across the idea that the community is the owner of its own development. It works against the notion of beginning where the community is and helping it find answers to its own questions. The initiative is with the outsider; the position of power and control is external. Since we don’t do "go and tell" development, we should do what we can to avoid "go and tell" evangelism.

The second challenge of Christian witness in the context of doing transformational development is whether or not an alternative framework for Christian witness can be found that allows Christians to be faithful to the nature of their belief that the gospel must be shared and, at the same time, allows the kind of transformative development process I described in the earlier chapters. Is there a developmental approach to Christian witness? I believe there is.



The book of Acts describes the growth of the early church. Examining these stories reveals an interesting pattern that proves helpful with the dilemma I have just posed. Evangelism, the saying of the gospel, is often the second act of the story. What do I mean?

When Peter gives his first public statement of the gospel, we are told that three thousand believers were added that day. Yet his sermon was spontaneous, unplanned. He begins his message by saying, "Let me explain this to you." What was the "this" that needed explaining? The people of Jerusalem had gathered and heard the disciples praising God. Incredibly, each observer heard this in his or her own language. This powerful act of the Holy Spirit made the people utterly amazed, and they created their own explanation: the disciples must be drunk. Peter’s message was in response to this amazement and was intended to correct an inaccurate explanation. Peter’s evangelistic sermon answered a question being asked by the crowd.

The second articulation of the gospel in Acts follows a similar pattern. After healing the crippled beggar at the temple gate, the crowd gathers, astonished at the sight of the former cripple walking around and praising God. Peter once again finds himself needing to clarify the situation. "Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we have made this man to walk? The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus" (Acts 3:12-13). Peter’s speech is in response to a question from the crowd, provoked by evidence of the activity of God.

The same pattern emerges in the story of Stephen. His opportunity to share the gospel’s recomposition of the history of Israel took place, not by plan, but as a result of his being falsely accused because he "did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people" (Acts 6:8). As a result of Stephen’s preaching in front of the Sanhedrin, a Pharisee named Saul heard the gospel for the first time.

Do you see the pattern? In each case, the gospel is proclaimed, not by intent or plan, but in response to a question provoked by the activity of God in the community. There is an action that demands an explanation, and the gospel was the explanation. "Something has happened which makes people aware of a new reality and therefore the question arises: What is this reality? The communication of the gospel is the answering of that question" (Newbigin 1989, 132).

This framework suggests that, in addition to the "go and tell" framework, we can also think of evangelism as the work the Christian community does—or better, that God does through the Christian community—that provokes questions to which the good news of Jesus Christ is the answer (Newbigin 1989, 133;Myers 1992b).

My search for an alternative framework for Christian witness is provided by this framework of living and doing our development in a way that evokes questions to which the gospel is the answer. It addresses the second of the twin challenges for Christian witness in the context of transformational development. When water is found in the desert, when children no longer die, when water no longer makes people sick, something has happened that needs an explanation. When trained professionals live in poor villages, and everyone there knows they could be making more money and their children could go to better schools in the city, this odd behavior provokes a question. The explanation is the gospel. The answer to the question, Who witnesses?, is that development facilitators do through the life that they lead, how they treat the poor, and how they promote transformational development.

There is much to commend this framework for Christian witness in the context of doing transformational development. First, the questions are asked by the people when they witness something they do not expect or understand. The initiative lies with them. This avoids Tillich’s complaint that "it is wrong to throw answers, like stones, at the heads of those who haven’t even asked a question." Second, the burden for response is on the Christians, not the people. If the people do not ask questions to which the gospel is the answer, we can no longer just say, "Their hearts were hardened," and walk away feeling good that we have witnessed to the gospel. Instead, we need to get down on our knees and ask God why our life and our work are so unremarkable that they never result in a question relating to what we believe and whom we worship.

There is evidence that the framework of living in hopes that the Holy Spirit will provoke questions to which the gospel is the answer is a valid approach. After four years of sacrificially working alongside the poor in a village in India, adhering strictly to a promise not to do overt evangelism, local political leaders came to the humble house of the Christian development worker, asking him and his family to leave. When asked for the reason, the response was, "The way you live is disturbing our people, causing them to ask questions about your God." In an interview in 1997, Sarone Ole Sena commented that, as Appreciative Inquiry gives voice to how the local religious and spiritual views have given strength and life to the community, the question invariably comes back: "What do you believe? What gives you strength and life?" In Mali, a mullah watched every week when the Christian nurse came to hold a clinic. When she had offered to begin her work in his village, he had told her that he was aware that Christians used health care as a mask for doing evangelism. She promised him she would never abuse her profession in this way. After a year he told her that, in addition to keeping her word, he had observed that she truly loved his people and cared about them. He then asked her to tell him more about Issa (the Arabic name for Jesus).



As we develop our thinking about Christian witness in the context o transformational development, we must be sure that our understanding o witness is as transformational as our understanding of development. W must be clear as to the goals for transformational witness. We must under stand the organic nature of the gospel message. We need to overcome th dichotomy between evangelism and discipleship. Finally, we must be sur that our Christian witness shares the whole biblical story.

The goals of Christian witness

The goals of Christian witness are the same as the goals of transforma tional development: changed people and changed relationships. We desir that all people—the poor, the non-poor, and ourselves—be able to experi ence the lifelong process of recovering our true identity as children of Go and the restoration of our true vocation as productive stewards in God’ creation. This comes about only by restoring the family of relationships o which we are a part.

The only difference between the goals for transformational development and the goals for Christian witness is that Christian witness focuses more, but not exclusively, on our relationship with God through Jesus Christ, while the goals of transformational development focus more, but not exclusively, on the other four critical relationships: with self, community, others, and our environment. Because the focus of Christian witness is more on our relationship with God, witness-by-word moves to center stage alongside witness-by-life and witness-by-deed. The fact that the goals for Christian witness and the goals for transformational development are the same except for focus, should be reassuring. They can only be the same if we have overcome the dichotomy between the physical (development) and the spiritual (Christian witness), the modern problem with which this book has been struggling throughout.

One final word on the need to verbalize the good news of the gospel. The motive to invite people to faith is not a form of imperialism or a messianic desire to make everyone over in our image, although I must admit with sadness that some Christians have acted out of these motivations. In our best moments the motive is much less selfish. We want others to know the good news about the Lord. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the best news that we have, better than community mobilization or development technology. As Christians, we have experienced the most fundamental of discoveries: "Ultimately, any social transformation happens in our deepest level of being, that part where God alone can go" (Maggay 1994, 71).

Gospel as life, deed, word, and sign

In Chapter 1,1 commented at length about how the modern worldview of the West has encouraged us to separate gospel-as-word, gospel-as-sign, and gospel-as-deed. Any holistic understanding of Christian witness must reunite these three aspects of what is really a single gospel message. But there is a fourth aspect of the message that must be included in this reunification. The gospel is not a disembodied message; it is carried and communicated in the life of Christian people. Therefore, a holistic understanding of the gospel begins with life, a life that is then lived out by deed and word and sign.

When Jesus selected the twelve disciples, they were appointed so that "they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have the authority to drive out demons" (Mk 3:14-15). When they returned from being sent out for the first time, we are told that they "went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them" (Mk 6:12-13). The activist is eager to get to the sending and acting part, gladly taking note of the threefold nature of the gospel: preaching words, healing deeds, and demon-sending signs.

‘What activists too often miss, however, is the reason for the appointing of the disciples in the first place: so the disciples would be with Jesus. Being with Jesus is the beginning of any biblical ministry. Yet being with Jesus means more than simply being a Christian. As the disciples learned, it also means traveling with Jesus, listening and learning from Jesus, being rebuked by Jesus—truly being with Jesus all the time.

This is the key to Christian witness that provokes the question to which the gospel is the answer. We will live eloquent lives only if we are being with Jesus, following Jesus, and seeking, by his grace, to become more like Jesus. The leading edge of witnessing to the whole gospel is being with Jesus. Only then do gospel words, deeds, and signs follow. Transformation is fundamentally about relationships, remember? Our ability to facilitate transformation depends on our being transformed, and this depends on our life, our relationship with our Lord.

We must also remember that the gospel message is an organic whole. Life, deed, word, and sign must all find expression for us to encounter and comprehend the whole of the good news of Jesus Christ. Life alone is too solitary. Word, deed, and sign alone are all ambiguous. Words alone can be posturing or positioning. Deeds alone do not declare identity or indicate in whom one has placed his or her faith. Signs can be done by demons and spirits or by the Holy Spirit. It is only when life, deed, word, and sign are expressed in a consistent and coherent whole that the gospel of the Son of God is clear (see Figure 2-6).

This organic relationship of life, word, deed, and sign creates an interesting ability for Christian witness to be "customer centered." We can lead with whichever part of the gospel message most closely relates to the needs of those to whom we wish to witness.

The ministry of Jesus is notable for its clarity of focus and the flexibility of its response. In that way, Jesus allowed the other person to set the agenda. But Jesus always responded out of who he was and what he represented (Shenk 1993, 73).

For those afraid of spirits, we pray for the Holy Spirit to do the signs that show that God is more powerful. For those who are seeking intellectual truth, we begin with words. For those who are empirically inclined or seeking evidence that God is concerned for the material world, we begin with gospel as deed. For those who seek meaning in their relationships, we begin with gospel as life.

While we can lead with any aspect of the gospel message, we must never stop there. Any Christian understanding of transformation must find expression for all elements of the gospel message—life, deed, word, and sign— each in God’s time. Everyone needs to encounter and engage the gospel message in its wholeness. To stop short is to truncate the gospel.

One final clarification. Having asserted the inseparability of life, deed, word, and sign, we must not overlook the question, How do people come to faith? Romans 10 points to the unique role of gospel-as-word. Neither gospel-as-sign nor gospel-as-deed is sufficient. In other words, the gospel message points people in a direction and toward a decision. The direction is toward the kingdom of God, and the decision is whether or not to accept Jesus as Savior and Lord and thereby enter God’s kingdom. So, while we must recover a gospel message that is inseparably word, deed, and sign, we must also understand that its purpose is to invite people to reconciliation with God and with each other through Jesus Christ.

Evangelism and discipleship

In carrying out holistic Christian witness, it is helpful to remember that evangelism is not different from or unrelated to discipleship. Another of the inadvertent and unhelpful impacts of modernity and its separation of the physical and spiritual is that discipleship is too often reduced to developing one’s relationship with God, with little or no attention to developing one’s relationship with the community and the environment. This mental separation results in reducing prayer, reading the Bible, and worship to spiritual activities, obscuring their relevance to work and act in the "real" world. This is also the explanation for how some Christians spiritualize and privatize the Bible, and thus have trouble believing it speaks to the physical realms of politics, economics, and issues of race and culture. If the "real" world of Christians is solely the spiritual world, then discipleship is necessarily limited solely to spiritual things. This is an artificial limitation with tragic consequences.

Cesar Molebatsi a Christian leader in South Africa, wrote the following to me in 1991: "My deepest pain is that, in the very continent where the Christian church is growing the fastest and where so many countries are mostly inhabited by Christians, we see rampant racism, ethnic violence, MDS, corruption and increasing poverty. What kind of Christians are we creating?" I must ask the same question of my American culture, which claims the label Christian in the midst of racism, gang warfare, deserted cities, pornography, abortion on demand, drug use, and rampant consumerism. When evangelism is separated from discipleship, we tend to move on once someone acceptsJesus as Savior; there is the real risk that he or she will never know him as Lord. Catholic theologian Avery Dulles reminds us that evangelism is not complete with the first proclamation of the gospel: "It is a lifelong process of letting the gospel permeate and transform all our ideas and attitudes" (1996, 28).

William Abraham has defined evangelism as the "set of intentional activities which is governed by the goal of initiating people into the kingdom Cesar Molebatsi, a Christian leader in South Africa, wrote the following to me in 1991: "My of God for the first time" (1989, 95). Defining evangelism this way, he brings evangelism and discipleship into a unified whole. Using initiation as a metaphor for evangelism, Abraham goes beyond baptism, the traditional endpoint of evangelism, and adds five elements to his understanding of the work of evangelism:

• Owning the intellectual claims of the Christian tradition, without which understanding the kingdom of God is impossible.

• Appropriating the very particular moral vision that serves as the bedrock of moral action in the Christian community and the world. At its heart, this vision is about loving God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself.

• Experiencing in their inner lives the kind of assurance that only the Holy Spirit can give.

• Receiving and developing gifts that equip one to serve as an agent of God.

• Appropriating those spiritual disciplines that are essential for responsible obedience to the joys of the Kingdom (Abraham 1989, 95-103).

Abraham’s frame does one other thing for us that is worth noting. Evangelism always involves proclamation, but, if done with intent, may now include working for peace and justice, prayer, acts of mercy, patient conversation, caring for the poor, and even stern rebuke. "What makes actions evangelism is that they are part of a process that is governed by the goal of initiating people into the kingdom of God" (ibid., 104).

Telling the whole story

Finally, a holistic view of Christian witness requires that we tell our whole story. We must not reduce the good news simply to the account of Jesus in the gospels. We must avoid the risk that the central part of the story will be unintelligible without hearing the biblical story as a whole. To link the gospel to the process of development, the people need to hear about the God who created the world and their culture; the God who wants human beings to worship God and love their neighbor; and the God who wants and will enable them to be productive stewards in creation. Furthermore, in many traditional cultures people find it easier to recognize themselves and make an identity link with the Old Testament stories. The Masai quickly identified with the Old Testament accounts of nomads, cattle, and God’s dislike of sin and then responded eagerly to the unexpected good news that the God of the Old Testament is also a God who forgives. We need to tell the whole story so that the gospel account makes full sense.

There is a second sense in which we need to tell the whole story. Too often the gospel is reduced to a personal gospel that restores an individual’s relationship with God. And this is true. Yet the whole gospel is more than this. More on the role of the Bible and the whole biblical story later.

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