Gospel Witness Through the Ages
A History of Evangelism
By David M. Gustafson
Eerdmans, pp. 471, $39.99
Reviewed by Grant LeMarquand
Years ago, when I was a theological student in Montreal, our parish was privileged to receive a visit from the Primate of Canada, Ted Scott. Archbishop Scott was a champion of social justice. In a church that was, even then, somewhat divided between left and right, he was usually considered on the left.
I was somewhat surprised, therefore, when during his sermon he spoke about the importance of evangelism, of verbally sharing our faith. He used a quintessentially Canadian image in pleading his case: “The Anglican Church of Canada,” he said, “is a bit like the St. Lawrence River in the winter — frozen at the mouth.” We needed to learn how to do evangelism, he urged.
This self-criticism of the Church in Canada could be widened to include most Anglican churches in the Western world. Very few of us will argue that Anglicans in Europe or North America have been very enthusiastic about verbal proclamation of the gospel outside the walls of our churches.
Of course, there are churches that are much more animated about evangelism — Baptists, Pentecostals, and many others. And there are Anglican churches that seem to have little problem giving verbal public witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ: Anglican churches in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are growing partly because their members reach out to the world around them and invite their neighbors into a living relationship with God in Christ.
Many of us in the Western world are hesitant to engage in evangelism, perhaps because we have seen it done badly, or perhaps because we have lost confidence in the importance of the world hearing the message of Jesus. Anglicans in the non-Western world have noticed that we in the older churches have been in numerical decline.
At the Lambeth Conference of 1988, non-Western Anglican leaders presented a motion (No. 43 for those interested) that was passed enthusiastically encouraging member churches of the Communion to use the final years of the 20th century as a Decade of Evangelism. Sadly, it was far from successful in our Western contexts.
David Gustafson’s thorough review of the history of gospel proclamation provides us with a starting point to rethink how Christians in the West can participate in the task of evangelism. Gustafson’s book is not a handbook for how to do evangelism — there are no recipes or quick solutions. The book is a fairly full history of how the gospel has been spread over two millennia. Gustafson introduces the reader to a variety of evangelistic methods and practices and to the theological underpinnings of gospel proclamation.
A strength of this volume is its desire to be denominationally inclusive. Gustafson is an evangelical: he is from a denomination that identifies not only with the Reformation tradition but with the pietistic movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. He teaches at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is a member of the Evangelical Free Church, a denomination with its roots in Swedish revivalism.
This does not mean he limits his attention to traditions similar to his own. The book gives attention to the ways the good news of Jesus was spread in the early Church, giving special attention to the role of the monastic movement.
He does not ignore the Medieval church. Gustafson draws out attention to the importance of Boniface, Gregory the Great, Augustine of Canterbury, Boniface, Cyril and Methodius, and of course St. Francis of Assisi. For evangelicals who have sometimes ignored everything between the closing of the canon and the emergence of the Reformation, this should a welcome move of reclamation, although there are some gaps in this presentation.
A second strength is that Gustafson makes a good attempt at being global. In Chapter 11, “Global Indigenous Evangelism,” he paints a picture of the cultural diversity of the contemporary global Church and how local people preaching within their own cultures has led to a vigorous expansion in the last 150 years. Perhaps more attention could have been given to the efforts of non-Western Christians before the modern period. Not enough is said about the ancient origins of churches in China, Ethiopia, India, or Nubia, for example.
A third virtue of the book follows from the second. Gustafson reveals how the verbal proclamation of the gospel (evangelism) and the demonstration of the gospel in holy living, in acts of mercy, and in advocating for social justice have often gone hand in hand. In Chapter 10 (“Social Gospel Versus Soul-Saving Evangelism”) and Chapter 12 (“Personal to Holistic Evangelism”), he grapples with an issue that has often divided churches in the West, but in the contemporary period has re-emerged in the non-Western world as an interconnected whole.
Perhaps to oversimplify somewhat, the Enlightenment period resulted in Western churches losing confidence in the Bible and in the universality of the Christian message. Many churches reconfigured the idea of mission around the idea of the church as a community that could be of help in a suffering world, but they de-emphasized the importance and necessity of the message of conversion and saving faith.
Non-western Christians have not bought into this split between word and deed. I was once present at the consecration of a new bishop in western Kenya. At the end of the service, Archbishop David Gitari dismissed the congregation with the words, “Go forth and preach the gospel — but remember that empty stomachs have no ears.” Word and deed go together.
As Anglicans, we should take heed to the General Thanksgiving, which reminds us that we must show forth God’s praise “not only with our lips, but in our lives.” The opposite is also true. As the English evangelist Michael Green sometimes said, we should show forth God’s praise “not only by our deed but by our lip.”
There are, of course, weaknesses in Gustafson’s presentation. Any work of this size that attempts to cover this much territory will provoke questions of various kinds. I will focus only on issues that Anglicans might be concerned about.
First, it seems a bit strange that Anglicanism as a global reality seems to be virtually ignored. For example, the index has entries such as “Presbyterianism,” the “Salvation Army,” “Pentecostals,” “Methodists,” “Lutherans,” “Baptists,” the “Evangelical Free Church of America,” and so on, but no entry for “Anglicanism.” What makes the Anglican omission so strange is that so many Anglicans are mentioned in the book: Augustine of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, Roland Allen, Stephen Neill, J.I. Packer, and John Stott, among others. To be fair, we are not alone in being downplayed. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches don’t receive index entries either, so I suppose we are in good company.
This does, however, lead us to consider a second weakness. Despite the ecumenical nature of Gustafson’s work, there does seem to be a subtle pro-Protestant bias. The great missionary movements that follow the Council of Trent receive scant attention, barely two pages (pp. 199-200). Cyril and Methodius receive a page (pp. 121-22), but nothing is said of the conversion of Russia.
Although Anglicans are largely overlooked as a group (not completely — the English Reformation receives a short account on pages 233-34), at least some Anglican thinking on evangelism is acknowledged. Early in the book, for example, Gustafson quotes the marvelous definition of evangelism that was produced by the 1918 Anglican Archbishops’ Committee of Inquiry into the Evangelistic Work of the Church.
Committee members reported: “To evangelize is so to present Christ Jesus in the power of the Spirit that men [they meant ‘people’ — it was 1918] shall come to put their trust in God through Him, to accept Him as their Saviour, and serve Him as their King in the fellowship of His Church” (quoted on p. 3). Numerous other Anglicans are quoted through the book, although the fact that they are Anglicans is rarely acknowledged.
But perhaps my Anglican quibbles are a bit petty. Gustafson has provided a volume describing the practice and theory of evangelism that covers the breadth of history and the global Church. I know of no other volume this comprehensive. Gustafson has done the Church a great service. What is needed now is for us heed the call to make Jesus known by word and deed, so that people everywhere will (as the 1918 statement says) accept him as Savior and serve him as King within the fellowship of God’s Church.
The Rt. Rev. Grant LeMarquand is professor of New Testament and past director of the Stanway Institute for Mission and Evangelism at Trinity School for Ministry.