Book Review: Evangelism by J. Mack Stiles
Author: J. Mack Stiles
Reading Level: Leisure
“You see the church as God’s great plan for evangelism and that developing a culture of evangelism in the context of the church is the best thing we can do for the proclamation of the gospel.” (100)
Forthright from the start. This will not be a positive review because of fundamental theology differences with the author. J. Mack Stiles brings many things to the table worth appreciating in his book Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus (henceforth Evangelism). Enthusiastic head nodding should occur from all while reading “for Christians, how we forgive, how we live, how we work and lead, and, really, everything about our lives should be rooted in the gospel” (90). But Stiles oversteps the importance of the issues when he states that “evangelism is to be a front-burner issue in our churches” (98). How is this an overstep? In Stiles excitement to provide a vibrant culture of evangelism, he has pushed the Scripture to say things about evangelism that it simply doesn’t say.
Throughout Evangelism, Stiles argues for an evangelism that at its root glorifies conversion. This is not to say that the sole purpose of evangelism is conversion. Stiles does an excellent job of showing how “sharing our faith, regardless of the response, is a key to spiritual health for the individual and for the community” (112). But this type of conversion oriented evangelism often takes for itself gospel passages that emphasis lifelong discipleship and boils them down to a simple conversion/regeneration moment of truth. Evangelism attempts to not reduce the gospel merely to conversion (32) but it struggles get beyond conversion (32-34). The call on the church to make evangelism a “front-burner issue” when the definition of gospel is not focused also on the Lordship of Christ seems to neglect discipleship and undermine the very gospel it seeks to present. Since Evangelism is focused on evangelism, and not discipleship, this level of focus is expected to a degree. However, the poor exegesis and application of Scriptural passages to support this evangelism focus is less acceptable. The usage of three key texts, Matthew 5:16, Matthew 28:19-20 and 2 Corinthians 5:20-21, in Evangelism demonstrate that the Scriptures are being gently twisted to serve a predominantly modern obsession with conversion oriented evangelism.
Addressing 2 Corinthians 5:20-21 Stiles says “Ambassadors exist to deliver messages” (101). There are a couple problems with this. First this is more appropriately the definition of an apostle (literally a messenger). Perhaps with this in mind John Calvin associated these “ambassadors for Christ” with “a duly ordained minister” (Commentary on 2 Corinthians). Calvin’s insight reveals this is not a clear instruction/exhortation to individualistic evangelism. Second, a more appropriate understanding of the Greek term “ambassador” is reflected in modern English definition of “the highest-ranking person who represents his or her own government while living in another country” or “an accredited diplomat sent by a country as its official representative” (Merriam-Webster). This moves beyond Stiles’ definition and shows that the word “ambassador” highlights and emphasizes much more than message bearing. So even if Calvin’s insight is place aside, and “ambassador” refers to each Christian, the believer is more than a message bearer and that more is what Paul emphasizes in this passage. In fact they are to be a constant prophetic voice for the kingdom of God. Does this include evangelism and the gospel? Certainly but this text openly requires that Christian go beyond it and may in fact not even refer to individual Christians.
This similar conflict and behavior is seen in the usage of Matthew 5:16 quoting Don Whitney, “Evangelism is a natural overflow of the Christian life” and then “Unless we discipline ourselves for evangelism, it is very easy to excuse ourselves from ever sharing the gospel with anyone” (95). Say “yes!” and then “huh?” for this text occurs in the middle of a passage concerned with “good works” (the rest of Matthew 5:16). All Christians should agree that evangelism must naturally flow out of a faithful life. The Protestant Reformation brought back this concept in its faithful refocusing on “vocation.” The idea that the words “let your light shine” can be used to argue for “evangelism as a discipline” (94-95) is reaching too far and demonstrates a poor hermeneutic that falsely places on the church a singular mission of evangelism.
This tendency to overreach in the area of evangelism reaches its climactic conclusion in Stiles’ expression of Matthew 28:19, “All Christians are called to share their faith as a point of faithfulness, not gifting (Matt. 28:19)” (54). Sadly this type of commentary is far too common among those who share the “church needs more direct evangelism” attitude. But once again there are hermeneutical issues. First, this is a command given to the eleven disciples (Matt 28:16) as part of their particular relationship to the church that was to be formed (Acts 1-2). The church as a corporate entity is still responsible to fulfill this but it is interesting to note that Peter, John and Paul never give such a command in their epistles. To ignore this important omission is to deny that evangelism is a particular gift (Eph 4:11) for the building up of the church. Secondly, the Great Commission does not say “go and evangelize” but go and make disciples. This obviously incorporates sharing the gospel but it includes and is specifically focused on more. The Greek of the verse supports the understanding that “make disciples” is incorporated by baptism and teaching to obey Jesus. Since part of this “making disciples” consists of baptism, this highlights the honest admission that credobaptists and paedobaptists cannot completely agree on who is a disciple (principally concerning children) and what type of evangelism, if any, comes before baptism. Seen all together, it should be clear that Matthew 28:19 is not a direct calling on each individual Christian but on the church as a corporate entity.
A dangerous example of this radical evangelism is Stiles’ application directly to children. In more of a side comment than full argument, he endorses children in public school specifically to be a witness (67). This level of evangelism at all costs is neither Biblical nor covenantally sound. Ultimately Evangelism’s attempt to restrict itself to only Scripture (24) is not successful in exegesis or consistency. By highlighting the special role and calling of the disciples and early apostles, Stiles is guilty of making doctrine out of historical narrative and conviction about his spiritual gift.
Despite many reservations, Evangelism is likely a book of value for the community in which it resides. Stiles makes important statements concerning humbleness in evangelism and its method (23). He properly demonstrates the often-unchecked dangers of pageant programs (43-47) and the false mindset that often develops when the church leadership is the sole proprietor of evangelism (65-67). Evangelically oriented Baptists will find many places to nod their heads in agreement as well as experience valuable conviction. Those with Presbyterian views will find the Evangelism valuable but admittedly shallow on what a healthy church consists of. In conclusion, the practical outworking of Evangelism should prove helpful to the churches convinced of its paradigms despite the many faults in the paradigm.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”