"Evangelism: Who's Responsibility is it?"
Evangelism: Who's Responsibility is it?
Many people today seem to think that evangelism is the exclusive domain of “professional” missionaries - monastics and clergy. While it is true that priests and monks have often spearheaded the expansion of Christianity, much of the ongoing missionary work of the Church has been carried out by the one-on-one activity of individual lay Christians. They are the ones who have worked among the non-Christian populations and who, because of their daily contacts, have been in a position to announce the present reality of the Gospel of salvation. They are the ones who, themselves transformed by the Gospel, have done all manner of good works and made positive contributions to the stability and moral fiber of society. The expansion of the Church has often been a kind of “grass-roots” movement spreading the faith from person to person by means of practical works and verbal witness. The basic pattern was, of course, envisioned in the teaching of the Holy Scriptures and clearly demonstrated in the history of the early Church.
Our Lord brings together the two aspects of this living witness – proclamation and good works – in His description of disciples as illuminating light and preserving salt (Mt. 5:12-16). The light of their proclamation and good works shines into the darkness of a sin-stricken world and causes others to glorify God. St. Paul confirms this by teaching all believers that their lives should be characterized by moral excellence and good works, and that their speech should be a proclamation of the truth marked by “grace and seasoned with salt” - a witness to those seeking the truth (Col. 4: 5-6). St. Peter picks up the same two themes, insisting that the Christians' conduct be such that the non-Christians see the good works done by the believers and glorify God (I Pet. 2:11-22). He also instructs Christians to be ready at all times to give a defense of their hope in Christ (I Pet. 3:15).
This being the teaching of Christ and the Apostles, it is not surprising to find evidence of this living witness in the early Church. In Origin's third century answer to the anti-Christian philosopher, Celsus, he quotes his adversary's complaint that “...in private houses workers in wool and leather, and fullers, and persons of the most uninstructed and rustic character... pour forth wonderful statements, to the effect that... that they alone know how men ought to live...” (Contra Celsus III, 55). Apparently, wealthy Greeks and Romans had artisans among their slaves, who seem to have been converts to Christianity. In spite of the rather negative tone of this report, there can be little doubt that the Christians were spreading the gospel by word of mouth in their places of work and education.
Origen's answer to Celsus focuses on the fact that, as a result of this activity, men and women turned from an undisciplined life of perversion. Indeed it is the moral excellence of lives thus changed by Christ, which had major drawing power. In fact, this may have been the most important aspect of early Christian witness. That Christians were the most upstanding citizens was one of the prime arguments of the earliest apologists. For example, Aristides, writing to Hadrian (reigned 117-138) in about the year 125, bases part of his defense of the Christians on the obviously different quality of their character. Having found the truth he points out that these Christians “...do not commit adultery nor fornication, nor bear false witness, nor embezzle what is held in pledge, nor cover what is not theirs. They honor father and mother, and show kindness to those near to them; and whenever they are judges, they judge uprightly” (Apology 15). Aristides goes on to tell how Christians took care of strangers and supplied the needs of the poor and the imprisoned. Churches were even reported to have arranged for the burial of the poor. It seems that part of their witness took the form of discerning and responding to the moral and physical needs of the world around them.
Who, then, is responsible for evangelism? We all are! The teaching of the Scriptures and the lessons of history indicate that every member of the Church has a part to play in the overall responsibility of bringing men and women to Christ. It may well be that priests and monks spearhead the advance, organize and oversee it. Yet, once the Church has been established, the continued growth of the Church and the proclamation of the Gospel to non-believers becomes the responsibility of all Christians. So it is that the Church in its entirety – clergy, monstics, and faithful – bears the responsibility for a living witness in word and deed.