Evangelism. There may not be any other word in the Christian lexicon that stirs more hearts than this one. For the devout Christian, evangelism is at the heart of God's call and the work of the church.
Certainly, evangelism was at the heart of the Latin America Mission when it was founded.
When, in 1921, Kenneth Strachan founded the Latin America Evangelization Campaign (what was to later become the Latin America Mission or LAM), he wrote into its objective that the organization "has been founded under the guidance of God, to reach the unevangelized millions of Latin America by a forward movement of aggressive evangelism, carried out in cooperation with the missionaries of all denominations working in the field."
More recently, in a 1999 memo, the current president of the mission, Dr. David Befus, wrote: "I have tried to emphasize the fact that ALL mission projects should involve evangelism, that evangelism includes discipleship (following Jesus as Lord and believing in Him as Savior)."
In those intervening 80 years, the methodology of evangelism has changed and developed, moving from massive, all-encompassing campaigns involving churches, Sunday school groups and roving evangelists to outreach through meeting the human needs of God's people throughout the region. But, at the heart of the mission's work has remained a commitment to evangelism.
In the early days evangelistic work was easy to identify. Large preaching campaigns were set up in central plazas, workers went door to door talking to inquirers, books and tracts were published and churches were planted throughout the Americas.
Today, while LAM is actively involved in church planting in Ecuador, Mexico, Honduras, Spain and other countries, much of the mission's focus is on ministering through already-existing Christian entities and takes the form of social work ministries. In these contexts, evangelism and its fruits are a little more difficult to identify and enumerate.
Yet, each of LAM's personnel in Latin America and Spain are reaching out to preach the good news of Jesus Christ.
"Evangelism is immersed in our work," explains Doris Evangelista De Leon, an El Salvadorian who is working as the Coordinator of the Community-Building Program with LAM's partner ministry ENLACE. "The first day we came here (to an earthquake-devastated town), the people identified us as Christian workers. The people have lost so much and we have been able to bring to them a word of hope."
Doris says that as a result of the ministry "people who were separated have come back to the church and people have accepted Jesus Christ."
Witnessing vs. Social Concern
Witnessing in the midst of social concern ministries can take the form of silently reflecting the Lord in all that is done or of overt verbal communication of the claims of the Gospel, or a combination of the two.
For some, whether or how to share the gospel with someone who is hurting or hungry can present the dilemma of how to witness effectively and appropriately.
"I used to really struggle with this issue," reflects LAM missionary Greg Burch who works with street children in Caracas, Venezuela. "In our work we often had 'altar calls' for the kids. We know of other groups that did the same thing. The kids would always seem to stand up and accept Christ."
Greg says he wonders if children make that gesture to please the sponsors or to receive something from the workers. "I don't doubt their sincerity in wanting to know their creator," he explains. "However, I do believe their desire to have contact with their creator was also mixed with a motive to please us."
Describing a child on the streets who is malnourished and struggles to keep his eyes open, Greg says, "I pray for him, but I certainly don't aggressively preach the Gospel to him, at least not with words. I do my best to live the Gospel to him. What he needs is food and love, not mere words."
Yet, while doing, many missionaries also speak. "This kind of ministry opens the door to relationships with people who you may not otherwise have access to," reports Bill Gibson, an LAM missionary who worked with street children in Mexico City and now edits a magazine at LAM's Miami office for those who work with at-risk children. "It is difficult for people to ignore tangible expressions of genuine care. Loving one's neighbor speaks volumes about God's love for us."
Mission experts warn against ministries that focus either on the doing or the speaking to the exclusion of the other. "Mission involves both evangelism and social involvement, both preaching grace and doing justice, both the expression of compassion and the articulation of verbal proclamation," says Dr. Ken Mulholland, a former LAM missionary who teaches missiology at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina.
"Social ministries are not the same as evangelism, but can have an effective evangelistic impact by demonstrating the reality of the gospel message in terms both of God's Kingdom purposes and of life impact of those involved in the social ministries."
"Verbal proclamation is essential to evangelism," Mulholland explains. "The Gospel is a message. If we don't speak, those we serve may wind up glorifying us rather than glorifying God as the one who motivates our service."
How to combine the two elements can present a dilemma to the evangelistic missionary who struggles to be sensitive and does not want to abuse people's trust. "The Bible clearly tells us that there is a time for everything," remarks Ron Neptune, an LAM missionary working with street children in Medellin, Colombia. "Therefore, I believe that timing is everything. We need to be led by the Holy Sprit, not controlled or led by fear of offending."
To read the rest of this story, or to learn more about Latin America Missions, please visit http://www.lam.org
This story first appeared in LAM's magazine, Latin America Evangelist.