What is an Evangelist?

Posted by admin | Church planting | Thursday 3 September 2009 11:18 am

What exactly is the New Testament office of the evangelist? Here is an article that a website editor asked me to write that he hoped would shed some light on the office and responsibilities of a Biblical evangelist. Please forgive the autobiographical details and let God burden your heart about your personal responsibility to do the work of evangelism.


“What is an Evangelist?”

Since I entered the ministry in 1974, I have served as a church planter, itinerant revivalist, and pastor. My wife Claudia and I now live in a fifth-wheel trailer and assist couples who plant churches in America. We typically spend about six months with each new church, helping to gather a core of people and lay a foundation for growth. Looking back at these varied ministries, I can accurately say that I have done the work of an evangelist. When our family planted two churches, we were doing the work of the evangelist. When we traveled for nine years conducting week-long revival meetings, we were evangelizing. Claudia and I are now involved in church planting, which is the heartbeat of first-century evangelism.

The apostle Paul provides a cogent, Biblical list of qualifications for and responsibilities of a pastor in I Timothy 3, II Timothy 4, and Titus 1. No such Biblical information can be found for the evangelist. The word evangelist appears three times in the New Testament. Acts 21:8 speaks of Philip the evangelist. Ephesians 4:11 lists evangelists among God’s gifts to the church. In II Timothy 4:5 Paul exhorts Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist”, making “full proof” of his ministry. In that verse, the Greek word for work is ergon, which is the same word used in II Thessalonians 3:10: “If any would not work, neither should he eat.” Biblical evangelism is more a work to be done than an office to be filled. It is difficult for some pastors to personally evangelize and maintain evangelistic zeal in the church. Maybe that’s because it is hard work. For an evangelist, evangelism is a like a cold Coke in the desert. For a pastor gifted in teaching, administration, and counseling, it may be compared to having a tooth pulled without Novocain.

Easton’s Bible Dictionary describes an evangelist as a “publisher of glad tidings, a missionary preacher of the gospel (Ephesians 4:11). This title is applied to Philip (Acts 21:8), who appears to have gone from city to city preaching the word (Acts 8:4, 40). Judging from the case of Philip, evangelists had neither the authority of an apostle, nor the gift of prophecy, nor the responsibility of pastoral supervision over a portion of the flock.” Though it is not possible to offer a dogmatic apologetic of the office of evangelism, from the New Testament uses of the word and a few sketchy examples (aside from Paul) of the life and ministry of evangelists, we can at least conclude that an evangelist is a God-called servant who does evangelism. That is, he proclaims the gospel and labors to get the gospel around the world. That may involve preaching an organized meeting in a local church; starting a new church that will constantly do the work of evangelism in the USA and around the world; teaching others how to evangelize; personally sharing the gospel with a lost soul; or other activities that contribute to proclaiming the glad tidings that Jesus saves.

With this in mind, I share my story which has taken me, an evangelist, from church planting to an itinerant preaching ministry, back to church planting, and now to our present ministry of assisting church planters. In the summer of 1974, my wife and I borrowed a well-worn green pickup, loaded it with our one-year marriage’s worth of stuff, and moved to Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin to plant our first church. I was 23 years old and only two years young in Christ (my testimony). August 18th was our first wedding anniversary and the first service our new church, Falls Baptist Church.

I knew little about the scriptural office of the evangelist when we planted Falls Baptist. I was sure that I did not want to pastor an existing ministry with its built-in problems, established patterns of church administration, and lingering loyalties to the last pastor. I did know that I wanted to start a church from scratch. I longed to enjoy the adventure of moving by faith to a God-appointed field, watching God open the door to an appropriate meeting hall, and provide the people who were hungry for truth and open to the gospel.

God blessed our new Wisconsin church with slow, steady growth for 12 years. By 1977, three years after the first service, our congregation of 180 had purchased property and built our first building. That year we had our first weeklong revival meeting with Ron Comfort and Larry Brubaker. Souls were saved in the meeting and many believers challenged and changed. After the final service, I stood in our parking lot and watched them drive away. It had been a wonderful week of revival and encouragement. I had a new understanding of the evangelist. He preached the same principles as I in my pastoral ministry. But God used his different voice and direct, illustrated messages to accomplish as much in one week as I seemed to accomplish in six months.

I made a couple of decisions that night. I decided to take advantage of one of God’s gifts to the church: the evangelist (Ephesians 4:11). I also decided that if God should call me to be a blessing to churches like the Comfort team had been to ours, I would be honored to serve. During most of my 12 years as pastor of Falls Baptist, we had revival meetings twice a year. God used those weeks and those evangelists to produce godly decisions and results that enhanced my pastoral ministry.

In retrospect, my Friday night longing to do the work of an evangelist was more than just a reaction to an encouraging week of meetings. It was an indication to me that, by God’s grace, I am an evangelist. Maybe that’s why I have always loved to preach for immediate results, I enjoy sharing the simple plan of salvation with anyone who will listen, and I feel like a failure if I go for months without seeing someone come to Christ through my life and ministry.

Several years after that Friday night decision, Dr. Bill Hall preached a spring revival meeting at Falls. We had grown to an average attendance of about 280 and souls were being saved regularly. I told Brother Bill about my inner itch to serve churches as an evangelist. He wisely said, “Dave, why don’t you take a few meetings and get your feet wet? See if God really wants you to do this.” I told the church of my burden for evangelism and asked them to pray.

God soon opened doors to preach some meetings, but I did not enjoy it. Though I loved seeing God work in the services, I hated being away from family. At the end of the year, I told the church how happy I was that God was leading me to continue to pastor Falls Baptist.

We soon built a wing on the building and started a double-service Sunday morning schedule. I loved that schedule because I could repeat my sermon at the second service (after polishing it a bit in my office during Sunday School), and we’d usually have a capacity crowd back for the Sunday night service. Evangelists enjoy polishing their sermons and preaching them more than once!

My itch to enter itinerant evangelism continued as the church kept growing. By 1986, after 12 years of ministry, our Sunday morning attendance had grown to about 500 (which included 90 from our bus outreach). God had given us a Christian school, bi-weekly radio broadcasts, foreign missions programs, and many new believers. We were still in double services and needed to build a bigger auditorium. Just before major jaw surgery in January, I made a personal re-commitment to stay in Menomonee Falls and lead the church into another building program. That was a firm decision . . . I thought.

Following the jaw surgery, my mouth was wired shut for six weeks (“Hallelujah”, said Claudia). I started working on the introductory message for a new sermon series on the book of Jeremiah, convinced that I could overcome my itch for evangelism and get back to shepherding and expositional preaching. All was well . . . until I discovered that to set the stage for the book of Jeremiah, I would have to explain the historical context, which happens to be a revival lead by Josiah.

I didn’t preach through many chapters of Jeremiah, because I soon left Falls Baptist Church. During the spring of 1986, God worked obvious miracles, including a clear, unmistakable call to leave the pastorate and enter full-time itinerant evangelism; a truck and trailer to live in on the road; and a pastor to lead the church. For extra measure, He also provided an almost-full schedule of meetings to get us started. On September 1, 1986, I pulled our trailer loaded with wife and three children, out of the parking lot of Falls Baptist to head to our first meeting. That same week, Pastor Wayne Van Gelderen, Jr., arrived as the new pastor. Falls Baptist was never without a shepherd.

Our first meeting was for a Christian school camp. Years later, I met a young man who told me he received Christ in that meeting! After a few months on the road, I knew for certain that I was an evangelist. Road life was not easy, but I loved–and still love–the constant variety of the itinerant life, the privilege of seeing souls saved regularly, and now the thrill of seeing new churches birthed in the USA. God also had given me a wife who became a road warrior with me, home schooled my children in our home on wheels, and served next to me with music and children’s meetings every night.

We spent nine wonderful family years holding revival meetings in the USA and foreign mission fields. After about six years, I began to experience unrest and some discouragement. It seemed as though we would have a “good” meeting at a church, only to return to the same church in a few years to find it the same as we had left it, or weaker. My ministry experience in Wisconsin had been one of slow but steady growth. I was not satisfied to simply have a “good” meeting and then return in a few years to repeat the same. It is true that the ministry of an itinerant evangelist is uniquely valuable to a local church. God uses pointed preaching to bring souls to Christ and produce life-changing decisions. This needed, Biblical ministry should be used often by churches. But after eight years on the road, it was leaving me a bit unfulfilled. God simply was working to change my direction.

In the summer of 1994, after 8 years in itinerant evangelism, God spoke to me about the need for more good churches in America. By December of that year we had cancelled most of our revival meetings and raised support to start a new church in Franklin, TN, a Nashville suburb and the womb of Contemporary Christian Music. Though the Nashville area boasts over 800 Baptist churches, there are few that maintain a balance of solid Bible preaching and Christ-honoring music. Most have gone the way of man-centered worship, complete with pragmatic methods of outreach such as “we must be like the world to win the world.” As an evangelist, I was anxious to exalt the holiness of God in that place.

To plant a church in Franklin we had to get the word out to many people. A friend in Wisconsin told me about a program called “The Phone’s for You,” which involves live volunteers making thousands of phone calls and building a database of folks who request mail about the new church. With the instructions my friend gave us, our family and a few others stumbled through our first phones project. We installed seven lines in our rented mobile home and for one month made phone calls to find people who would let us send them information about the soon to be planted Trinity Baptist Church.

After we made 23,000 calls and sent five mailings, 120 people attended our first service on April 9, 1995. Souls were saved at that service, during the following week, and the next Sunday. Of course, not everyone came back. However, we never dropped below 40 on Sunday morning. The church began to grow.

God blessed Trinity Baptist in Franklin. Growth was slow and difficult, but within five years we had purchased land and built our first building. We purposely bought a small plot of land (five acres) so we could focus on planting other churches. I told the folks from the beginning that my burden was to see God build a church that would be willing to “lose” some families to plant other churches in the greater Nashville area.

In the fall of 2000, while speaking to a church planting class at Bob Jones University, I mentioned that I had received a number of phone calls from would-be church planters. They all asked the same thing, ”What advice can you offer me as a church planter?” I told the class that each time I spoke with a church planter my heart was burdened to help him. When the class ended, the teacher, Dr. Bruce McAlister, suggested that I follow my burden. “I know church planters all around the USA who would benefit from the assistance you and Claudia could offer,” he said. “I don’t know of anyone of our persuasion who is doing exactly what you would like to do.”

We prayed about it, and God clearly confirmed our call. We left Franklin in 2001 to begin Press On! Ministries, and now serve as missionary church planters helping to re-seed the USA with solid churches. Our primary ministry is to team up with a couple to plant a church, but we also enjoy preaching revival meetings for churches we have helped plant.

An evangelist does the work of evangelism. Whether planting a church, witnessing to someone on the street, or preaching the gospel from a pulpit, it is an honor to be a co-laborer with the Creator and King of the universe in the glorious work of proclaiming the good news that Jesus saves.

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