Evangelism and the Gift of Missionary (Part 1)

Last week, as I was returning from Australia, I began to read Acts of the Holy Spirit by C. Peter Wagner (2000). The author is a former professor of Church Growth at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he served on the faculty for nearly thirty years. (Notable graduates of Fuller include Bill Bright, Rick Warren, John Piper and Rob Bell.)

Wagner’s book is a chapter-by-chapter commentary on the book of Acts with two special twists. First, he places strong emphasis on the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit, discussing the extent to which these gifts are present in the Church today. Second, he deals extensively with issues of contextualization – the challenges faced by missionaries as they bring the good news of Jesus Christ into human cultures radically different from their own.

With respect to the Holy Spirit, Wagner began his academic career as a cessationist. That is, he believed that miraculous gifts of tongues, prophesy and healing ceased to be part of normal Christian experience after the age of the apostles. During his tenure at Fuller, however, he revised his views and became a continuationist, believing that many modern-day displays of miraculous gifts are authentic.

The tension between cessationism and continuationism is a fascinating and important subject, but we will leave that to another day. Here I will summarize some of Wagner’s comments on evangelism and culture.

Wagner describes three different kinds of evangelism, which he designates E-1, E-2, and E-3.

  • E-1 evangelism is monocultural. An E-1 evangelist shares his faith with other people within his own people group. No significant barriers of language or culture are crossed.
  • E-2 evangelism crosses mild cultural barriers. An example of E-2 evangelism would be an Anglo-American preaching the gospel in Australia.
  • E-3 evangelism means carrying the gospel to radically different culture. For example, a Canadian missionary serving in China. Or a British pastor reaching out to Hindus and Muslims in London.

This classification as E-1, E-2 and E-3 is a fairly standard terminology not invented by the author. But he does make two major points which I found interesting and compelling.

His first point is that most converts to Christianity have been made through E-1 evangelism; this has always been the case, and it always will. E-2 and E-3 evangelism are necessary to sow the seeds of the gospel in a new place, but dramatic church growth will rarely take place until the message of Christ takes root among native leaders who begin to evangelize their own.

Examples of this are easy to find. For example, Protestant missionaries successfully brought the gospel to Korea in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but mass conversion of large numbers of South Koreans did not take place until indigenous Korean Christian movements (including UBF) sprang up in the 1960’s.

Another example is the rapid spread of Christianity in modern-day China. Missionaries to China are playing only a minor role in this; most of the growth is taking place through the multiplication of indigenous house churches.

Wagner argues that the gospel spreads more effectively and naturally through E-1 evangelism than through E-2 and E-3. When E-1 evangelism is happening, conversion to Christianity does not require newcomers to cross significant racial, linguistic or cultural barriers. They will not need to disavow their current ways of life to adopt radically new patterns of behavior presented by foreign missionaries. Most of their relationships with family members, friends and neighbors can remain intact. Wherever true E-1 evangelism is going on, as opposed to E-2 and E-3, the decision to accept Christ remains a religious decision to join the family of God, rather than a cultural or social decision to leave one people group and join another.

Wagner’s second point is that E-1 evangelism is a general mission given to everyone in the Church, but E-2 and E-3 evangelism is a special calling that only certain individuals have. There is little excuse for Christians not to engage in E-1 evangelism; in one way or another, every believer ought to be sharing his faith in Christ with the people around him. Therefore, a healthy church will usually be growing in numbers, because E-1 evangelism will be naturally taking place day in and day out.

But E-2 and E-3 evangelism are another matter. These are a specific ministry which require a specific gift. Wagner calls it the gift of missionary, and he defines it as follows: “The gift of missionary is a special ability that God gives to certain believers to use whatever other spiritual gifts they have in a different culture.”

Wagner estimates that only about 1% of Christians have this gift. He admits that this is just a rough guess, based on his own experiences and impressions. The figure of 1% is unimportant. His major point is that, while everyone in the church should be sharing his or her faith within the immediate community, E-2 and E-3 evangelism are a special mission to which only a few are called.

Interestingly, Jesus was an E-1 evangelist. He did not seem to have the gift of missionary. Or, if he had it, he chose not to use it during his three-year public ministry, because as he said in Matthew 15:24, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

And his twelve apostles were also E-1 evangelists. They ministered primarily to Hebraic Jews like themselves. On a few special occasions, God did use them to evangelize beyond their culture. For example, on the day of Pentecost, they received supernatural ability to communicate the gospel to Grecian Jews from many parts of the Roman Empire in their own native tongues. Another example occurs in Acts chapter 10, when God calls on Peter to evangelize the Roman centurion Cornelius, who was a Gentile. This was a special event, and Peter was prompted to do it by a special vision from heaven. Afterward, however, Peter seemed to return to his usual ministry to the Jews, and wholesale evangelization of Gentiles did not begin until the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas as missionaries in Acts chapter 13.

Although we would like to think that the message of Christ breaks down barriers and creates unity in the human race, Christian history has shown — and the book of Acts also testifies to this — that differences among people-groups are stark, and significant hurdles must be overcome whenever Christians from one group attempt to evangelize another.

This is the fundamental problem of missiology. When E-2 and E-3 missionaries carry the gospel to another place, how do they contextualize the message and implement it there? Which of their own beliefs and practices are non-negotiable and must be carried into the new context, and which must be sacrificed to give the native peoples freedom to develop their unique identity in Christ so that the spread of the gospel is not hindered? There are no easy answers to these questions. The Bride of Christ has always wrestled with these issues, and until Christ returns, she always will.

The most significant example of this in the early church occurred when some Jewish Christians from Judea began to teach that circumcision was necessary for salvation and church membership. In their minds, this was a non-negotiable practice that defined them as God’s people. “If a new Gentile believer accepts Christ, why shouldn’t he be willing to be circumcised?” they thought. The influence of these Judaizers was so strong that even the Apostle Peter began to waver, until Paul personally rebuked him on this matter (Gal 2:14). The battle over circumcision reached a climax in Acts chapter 15, when Paul and Barnabas arrived in Jerusalem to present their views to the Jewish believers. At this so-called Jerusalem Council, Peter played the pivotal role; he strongly urged the church to accept Gentiles as full members on the merits of their faith in Christ alone.

Most people are simply unaware of how deeply they have been shaped by their own cultural upbringing, by their own national and ethnic identity. This is why the missionary calling is a special gift. A missionary needs an unusual kind of discernment and willingness to sacrifice many values (even good ones) that he holds dear. Even the twelve apostles who were personally trained by Jesus had great difficulty with this. It was hard for them not to impose additional requirements on new believers from other cultures to make them resemble their own culturally influenced notions of spiritual maturity and piety. Therefore, it is perfectly understandable and natural to expect similar difficulties to be going on in our midst today.


  1. david bychkov

    thanks, Joe. have many thoughts on this topic. Waiting for a next article, which I believe will be more applicable.

  2. Hey Joe, do you think that UBF chapters with mostly Korean members should focus on Korean/American evangelism instead of Caucasians?

    • Hi David,
      I feel uncomfortable advising people on what they should specifically do. I think everyone should do what they believe God is calling them to do. Historically, many UBF members have believed that God called them to cross-cultural evangelism. If God calls us to engage in E-2 or E-3 evangelism, we ought to do it. But we have to realize that it is quite different from E-1 evangelism. For example, someone who has been trained for and successfully carried out E-1 campus ministry in Korea is not automatically qualified or gifted for campus ministry in Germany, the United States, Africa or other places. Cultures really are different, and how we contextualize the gospel really does matter.

    • Having said that, I do think that multicultural ministry is a wonderful thing. But it is also exceedingly difficult. The work of the Holy Spirit makes it possible, but it is uncomfortable and there will be many difficult struggles along the way.

  3. Hi Joe, I’m wondering if Wagner addressed this, or if others have experienced this: When an E3 missionary evangelizes an E1 native, the E1 native adopts the cultural Christian norms of the E3 missionary. So even though the E1 native eventually carries out E1 evangelism with his own indigenous group, isn’t this equivalent to E3 evangelism with it’s “lesser” results? Sorry for the mathematically confusing question!

    • I have wondered this also Ben. I recently read a testimony in which one missionary in Guatemala realized that many of the Guatemalen converts believed that their form of Christianity was what had been around since the time of Christ. But in reality, they were essentially practicing a form of American Christianity that had only been around for 150 years or so. And just as the Guatemalen converts adopted the worship practices of American churches, so too did they begin to create splinter churches and form their own denominations.

      E3 evangelicism brings the gospel of Christ to people but it also brings the ideological baggage as well.

    • Hi Ben.
      I’m not sure what you meant when you said, “When an E-3 missionary evangelizes an E-1 native…” because the E-classes are for types of evangelism, not types of people.

      I believe that whenever E-3 evangelism takes place, the disciples naturally adopt some of the cultural norms of the missionaries. I don’t think that is a lesser result; it is the natural, realistic outcome. In my case, it was good for aspects of my American culture to be challenged by Korean missionaries. However, I do believe that missionaries in general need to be more careful than they have been to respect the culture of the disciples, to see the good in it, and to stop trying to make disciples who are replicas of themselves.

      I think that the cultural tensions in UBF right now are healthy and normal. They are exactly what one would expect in any cross-cultural missionary movement at this stage in its development. A while back, I read The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society by Lesslie Newbigin. Newbigin lived as a missionary in India and experienced firsthand what happens when Christian missionaries bring the gospel to a society vastly different from their own. Along with the gospel, they carry a great deal of their own cultural baggage, but they are not really aware of it. This causes everyone to struggle with the fundamental question, “What is the gospel?” He observed that all cross-cultural missionary movements tend to go through four stages.
      • Stage 1: Missionaries bring the gospel to a foreign land, carrying along their own cultural values and understanding.
      • Stage 2: Native people are converted and discipled by the missionaries, imitating both the missionaries’ faith and elements of the missionaries’ culture.
      • Stage 3: As the native disciples become more mature and independent-minded, they notice some discrepancies between (a) their own independent understanding of what the Bible says and (b) what the missionaries who discipled them are actually doing.
      • Stage 4: A three-way dance ensues among the missionaries, the converts, and the Bible as everyone tries to figure out how the gospel message brought by the missionaries should be contextualized in the native people’s culture.
      UBF is now engaged in that Stage-4 dance. The dance can be awkward and painful. It tests the integrity of our faith and our relationships with one another. As I recall, Newbigin came to two basic conclusions about what should happen.
      • The missionaries cannot fully contextualize the gospel in the new culture. Although they will need to make concessions to the new culture, they cannot fundamentally change who they are.
      • Therefore, it is the job of the converts to contextualize the gospel in their own culture, and it is the job of the missionaries to allow them to do this.

    • david bychkov

      Hi everyone. I just want to mention that this is very similiar to the Nevius plan. I believe you have heard about it. And as I understood from Mother Berry’s testimony, she used it when she had go to Korea. BTW, I happened to see the article about this Nevius Plan written by one of our most senior Korean leaders.