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Christian Union: The Magazine
January 13, 2022

Q and A with Professor David Gustafson

Editor's note: This Throwback Thursday article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 edition of Christian Union: The Magazine.

 David M. Gustafson is Associate Professor of Evangelism and Missional Ministry at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He teaches courses in evangelism, missional church, discipleship, and theology of mission and evangelism. Professor Gustafson served in ministry for 25 years as a campus director of Cru and pastor of evangelism and discipleship. He holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (MDiv, ThM), Fuller Theological Seminary (DMin), and Linköping University (PhD). He is the author of several books, including Gospel Witness: Evangelism in Word and Deed.  

CU MAGAZINE: How would you define evangelism?

DAVID GUSTAFSON: Evangelism is communication − and often a conversation − between a believer in Jesus and a non-believer, in which the person and work of Jesus enters the conversation. In other words, the Gospel or some aspect of it is explored, discussed, or explained. Sometimes the question is raised as to whether the Gospel can be communicated exclusively by works through social action, benevolent deeds, and seeking justice. The popular saying that is incorrectly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi states, “Preach the gospel at all times; use words if necessary.” The problem with this saying and others like it is that it disconnects works from words. The essence of evangelism is communication of the good news. The gospel is verbal at its core (Rom. 10:14–17).

CU: What has fueled your passion for evangelism over the years?

DG: At first, I shared the Gospel because it was something that I knew I should do. I am thankful for ministry staff that trained me in ways to share my Christian faith. I also trained others to share the good news. However, a passion for evangelism is sustained over the long haul through several means. Gospel witness is about whom we worship, who we are, what we receive, what we say, and what we do. In fact, I think that Gospel proclamation can run the risk of imbalance. This is particularly true when Gospel proclamation is separated from the whole life of a Christ-follower. The act of sharing the Gospel with others is not an isolated part of the Christian life, but one of multiple, interconnected activities. Worship of the triune God, hospitality, reconciliation, service, study of the Scriptures, forgiveness, prayer, compassion, sharing resources, justice, and friendship all come together to inform and shape this practice. Only through such integral practices of Christian faith and life does Gospel proclamation retain its integrity in practice and endure over the years.

CU: Why did you decide to write Gospel Witness: Evangelism in Word and Deed?

DG: I have taught evangelism at the seminary level for the last nine years and used several books as texts. Some books were written for different readers in mind. Of course, some authors repeat others and some say things that I do not find helpful. Gospel Witness is my best effort to communicate to students, pastors, and Christian leaders what I think is formative to understanding the task and practice of evangelism. One of the benefits for me in this writing process has been for my classes to read drafts of the book. Students have raised questions, challenged some of my ideas, and offered suggestions based on their insights and experiences. I have edited the book with these things in mind. I have also written the book with our current Western context in mind. I believe that we must engage in Gospel witness by speaking the good news in words and demonstrating it with deeds.

CU: In Gospel Witness, you write about living out the good news in addition to proclaiming the good news. How does this happen?

DG: I advocate that the disciple-making mandate and cultural mandate come together in holistic witness, so that the Gospel is heard in word and experienced in deed. It is proclamation and presence, explanation and example, word and works. In other words, we do not merely speak of God’s mercy toward us in the Gospel, but embody mercy in our care of others (Matt. 5:7). As we declare God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ, we forgive those who have sinned against us (Matt. 18:21–35). As we speak of Jesus’ sacrificial love for the world, we love others, even our enemies (Matt. 5:43–48; James 2:8). As we speak of Jesus Christ, whose atoning death reconciled us to God, we practice the ministry of reconciliation, being reconciled with others— even those different from us—and exhort others to be reconciled with God (Matt. 5:23–24; 2 Cor. 5:18).

CU: What are some of the keys to missional engagement in a post-Christian, Western context?

DG: Missional engagement requires rethinking paradigms that previously shaped Gospel proclamation and practice. Since the West is now a mission field, we must adopt a missionary stance and approach that takes seriously the shifting cultural context. Christian leaders need to rediscover redemptive analogies and identify ways to communicate the Gospel in their local contexts. The church must consider how to engage society from the margins and how to announce the good news of Jesus Christ to the world from a position of political weakness and social humility. To engage in witness, we must equip Christ-followers to live as disciples sent by God to their neighborhoods, workplaces, and broader communities.

CU: You write about a “Gospeling Culture.” What Bible verses are central to creating this kind of church community?

DG: The aim is to create a culture that prepares and reinforces Gospel praxis, shaping a local body of disciples in a way that supports, practices, and celebrates evangelism. A key text is Ephesians 4:7-11; gifted leaders are to prepare disciples for works of service. Those who are gifted as evangelists, for example, need to be identified, so that they can model evangelism and equip those who are less experienced.

Moreover, while a pastor is a shepherd who leads and feeds the flock, he, too, equips disciples for works of service (1 Pet. 5:2; Eph. 4:11). Thus, the church should understand itself as a gathered community that is equipped and sent into the broader community in order to participate in God’s mission. Certainly the pastor must “preach the word” and “do the work of an evangelist,” but the emphasis is to prepare disciples and leaders who will make other disciples (2 Tim. 2:2; 4:2, 5). The inspired Scriptures are taught in order to prepare disciples for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16–17), including sharing the good news.

CU: Finally, who are some Christians in church history you can identify as examples of people who did evangelism well?

DG: Basil of Caesarea (330-379) served as a preacher, theologian, bishop, and social activist, advocating for holistic Gospel ministry in word and deed. While he is best known as a Cappadocian church father who defended Nicene orthodoxy against the Arian heresy, he, more than any other of his time, showed concern for the poor and sick. Nevertheless, he regarded preaching the gospel as central to his work. Among German Pietists was August Hermann Francke (1663-1727), a Lutheran pastor and professor at Halle University. Francke combined the study of the Scriptures with charity to orphans and the poor and ministry to prisoners. In the late seventeenth century, he founded a school for the poor and an orphanage that was imitated by others over the course of the next two centuries. These institutions in particular became lasting examples of Francke’s desire to share the Gospel. He was concerned not merely with physical poverty, but also with spiritual poverty. He wrote, “For a time, I had bread distributed at my door, but then I thought this would be a chance I had hoped for, to help the poor by giving them God’s Word for their souls.”

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