Showalter: The evangelists we need

Sep 25, 2017 by

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In my young adulthood, evangelists were preachers who publicly called people to commitment to Christ. “If you are ready to invite Jesus to be your Lord and Savior, raise your hand.” Or stand to your feet. Or come to the front of the auditorium. Often these invitations were given in a series of evening meetings.

Richard Showalter


Many in my generation met Jesus that way. I did. And many still do. It’s a good way.

In many congregations, though, evangelistic meetings gave way to “renewal meetings.” These, too, are becoming a thing of the past. Now I observe North American Mennonite teenagers say yes to Jesus in summer camps.

There are many other ways. C.S. Lewis, the great English apologist, wrote in Surprised by Joy that he became a Christian alone on his knees because of “the steady, unrelenting approach of him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet . . . [I was] perhaps . . . the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” My spouse invited Jesus into her life when she was afraid to leave for boarding school, and her dad held her on his lap and pointed the way.

In the Eph. 4:11 list of five leadership gifts, “evangelist” appears right in the center, surrounded by apostle, prophet, pastor and teacher. It is a pivotal gift. Without evangelists, we miss the spiritual harvest all around us.

It was not until I came to East Africa and got acquainted with the largest Anabaptist communion in the world, the Meserete Kristos Church of Ethiopia, that my eyes were opened to the evangelist’s crucial role. Here there were far more evangelists than pastors commissioned and supported. In fact, a congregation might exist without a pastor but almost never without an evangelist or two.

At first, I thought the evangelist was another name for “pastor in training.” But no, that was a distortion based on my North American assumptions. In fact, these evangelists were busy sharing the good news in communities scattered around their “mother” church, and new bodies of believers were being raised up. Today, the Ethiopian church has more of these new satellite churches than it has established churches.

I came back to North America and tried to introduce the idea of ordaining at least one evangelist in every Mennonite congregation, but it didn’t take. Maybe it was good it didn’t. After all, it’s not clear in the New Testament we should ordain anyone, and certainly not if we limit ordination mainly to pastors.

Even if we don’t ordain every leader, we must somehow recognize and commission them. Among them should be evangelists aplenty.

This summer I slipped into a North American Anabaptist leadership assembly and sat beside the pastor of a large congregation. “One of our members just died, leaving a huge vacuum in our church,” he said.

“Tell me more,” I inquired.

Tears filled his eyes. “Ed was an evangelist,” he said. “Almost every Sunday morning in our sharing period he had a new story to tell about someone he’d talked with about Jesus. Sometimes he cried as he described how a person turned away from Christ or how it was no longer possible to give New Testaments to students in the local school.

“Other times he told how people came to Jesus. Then he had us weeping with joy. He was irrepressible. His presence was a constant reminder of our neighbors who haven’t met Jesus. He helped to keep us on task.”

Richard Showalter lives in Irwin, Ohio, and travels in Asia, Africa, the U.S. and beyond as a teacher, preacher, writer and servant.

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