Please peruse the following list and ask yourself this question: Are the activities on the list below evangelism or outreach?
- Inviting a friend to church.
- Printing an ad in the local yellow pages.
- Participating in a local parade.
Evangelism or outreach? We aren’t always careful with how we use these terms. They are often used interchangeably. However, an important distinction needs to be made between them. The purpose of this article is to help you distinguish between evangelism and outreach as you engage others with Jesus.
Evangelism, in its narrowest definition, is “proclaiming the good news.” The good news, that is, the gospel, is the message that Jesus lived, died, and rose from the dead to save all people from their sins. Therefore, any proclamation of this message—whether by means of print or voice—is evangelism.
Outreach is, again speaking narrowly, “making contact with people.” Outreach focuses on gaining an audience. By this definition, we may consider outreach to be “pre-evangelism.”
With these two definitions, you can see how closely evangelism and outreach are connected: Evangelism requires an audience, and outreach without a message is pointless. To fulfill the “great commission” of our Lord, the church needs to do both.
Why is this distinction important? Consider the following fictional example:
Good News Lutheran Church has a food shelf. It is well-organized and stocked. The congregation sincerely desires to make a difference in their community and help those in need. The program has been very successful, gaining the congregation a reputation as “the church that feeds the hungry.” By default, it has fallen to the overworked church secretary to field the requests and distribute the food. She doesn’t have the time to dedicate to witnessing the Gospel to the recipients, so they often leave grateful for the food, but without hearing about Jesus.
Is this outreach or evangelism? Clearly, in this example it is outreach without evangelism. The message is missing! The congregation, though well-meaning, is feeding the body but leaving the soul hungry. People are not being engaged with Jesus.
What could be done to realize the full potential of this program? Printed gospel material could be placed in every bag of groceries. A volunteer with time and training could distribute the food and make sure that every recipient is engaged with Jesus. Every food recipient could be added to the “Good News Lutheran Church” prospect list so that a one-time contact turns into a lifetime of invitations and opportunities.
This same analysis can be applied to your personal life and vocation. You may take a plate of cookies to the new neighbors, mow the neighbor’s lawn, volunteer at a nursing home, or be kind to a coworker—that’s outreach. Once you have established a rapport with them, you engage them with Jesus—that’s evangelism.
It is important to distinguish between outreach and evangelism. Each has its own purpose. Outreach provides the audience; evangelism provides the message. With these activities properly defined and used, your outreach and evangelism efforts will engage others with Jesus.
Timothy Hartwig is pastor of Peace Lutheran Church in North Mankato, Minnesota.