Let's Not Stumble Over Words Now!
What does it mean to evangelize, reach, convert ... individuals, families, groups, cities, countries÷the world?
by Ralph D. Winter
There are many differing doctrines and practices within evangelical circles around the world in regard to the Lord's Supper, Baptism, worship liturgy, etc. But in one matter I believe it is plain that the impact of pietism in all its various forms following, but also preceding, the Reformation, is so great that we have on our hands what is well nigh a universal among Great Commission Christians today.
For so basic a concept as this there are inevitably many alternate phrases and terms. We talk about
÷bringing people to Christ
÷winning people to Christ
÷people accepting Christ, receiving Christ, etc.
Campus Crusade talks about people praying to receive Christ when they do not wish to claim that every such person is actually converted, but only when, to the best of their evangelistic intentions, people really are being converted.
But, for an evangelical, to say someone is converted we really mean that, as far as we can tell, it is virtually certain that this fabulous and important evangelical experience has actually taken place. If, at a later date, the supposedly converted person does not act as though converted, we say he apparently was not converted, or is no longer converted (the holiness tradition holds that you can lose your salvation).
In any event, there is no question about what is intended by the word conversion.
Ultra important at this point in this discussion is to note that so far we have ONLY spoken about activities and ministries focused on individual persons. We have not thus far even mentioned the idea of converting a group, reaching a group, or evangelizing a group.
Individuals or Groups?
All of this leads up to the first main point of this little discussion: if we move these terms over to talk about groups of individuals we cross over into mainly undefined territory.
I myself warned about the inevitable semantic shift taking place in such an extension of use, in a document I produced, Penetrating the Last Frontiers, way back in 1975 or so. I thought it would be troublesome to invent a new definition for so well-wom a phrase as Unreached (in regard to individuals). This was part of my reason for trying to introduce the phrase Hidden Peoples.
However, in March of 1982 a group of about 30 people worked for two days. under the sponsorship of the LCWE to arrive at a number of very key definitions, one of which was one for Unreached as applied to a certain kind of "people"÷a special kind of a group (which they also defined). I have employed the definitions arrived at in 1982 ever since.
That historic meeting was, to my knowledge, the only time a sizeable, deliberately representative group (Southern Baptist, Wycliffe, you name it) has ever attempted to redefine any of these various terms (which normally make sense only when you are talking about individuals) over the line to any kind of a group.
To my knowledge the meanings for city and country are equally lacking any such representative group backing.
However, if we do see a new group brought together to establish such definitions, there will undoubtedly be a considerable body of opinion, following Donald A. McGavran's lead, which will emphasize that the only kind of effective evangelization of an individual or of a group is that which is accomplished through a prior, substantial beachhead being made in which a "viable, indigenous, evangelizing church movement" has been planted.
McGavran's point is that you cannot say, and you must not say, that any significant beachhead has been made at all apart from this basic people movement type of thing coming into existence.
Chicken or Egg?
First of all, it is obvious that some individuals, perhaps individuals who are partially bicultural, need to be effectively evangelized in the mysterious but essentially mission operation even before the required church movement has been established, even if you do not wish to speak of an evangelized group until that has happened.
Secondly, note in passing how very ticklish and difficult this unique mission task is÷evangelizing without a church movement to build from. This is why many people fail readily to distinguish between evangelism and missions. They don't quite understand that getting a mission beachhead started is usually 100 times as hard as proceeding to evangelize and plant churches. This is why we must keep on speaking about missions, not just evangelism!
A third corollary, however, is that in a very technical sense, you cannot speak of "degrees" of evangelization, including percentages, unless two things are true:
1) there already is the essential church planted, and 2) the degrees you are talking about refer to percentages of individuals who have been effectively exposed to the invitational outreach of the viable, indigenous, evangelizing church movement that has already been achieved by the still mysterious process called mission.
Thus, if this kind of McGavran beachhead is crucial, then to speak of degrees of evangelization of a group is to employ a concept that is derivative and secondary to that church-planting accomplishment. Why? Because effective evangelism cannot proceed without this kind of valid beachhead.
This, then, puts us back to the foundational nature of church-planting as an all-important measure of closure. From there it is only a skip and a jump away from recognizing the crucial weight of the March 1982 definition of reaching the un-reached groups of the world as the only representative-group definition which employs church-planting as a fundamental criterion of progress, completion, or closure.
But more groups are in the near future going to be meeting! Perhaps not with the sole purpose to treat this subject, precisely, for two days. But, no doubt, decisions will be made, for better or worse.
Please do pray that improvements, not setbacks, will take place!