What do all these words mean? That will greatly help us understand the commission given to Christians to “go and make disciples…teaching them to observe”. And particularly, we need to look at the difference between missions and evangelism.
Missions. Think of the word missive, as in ‘to send out a missive’. It is ‘to send’, which would mean it carries the same meaning as “apostle”, ‘one sent out’. A disciple is a learner, but the Disciples became Apostles when they were sent out. So, missions is when someone is sent. A missionary is the person who was sent. “Mission parish” is a small problem, unless we think of it only as a parish established in a place that required the Church to stretch out and develop a parish in a new place; that could be seen as ‘sending’, I guess.
How is that different from “evangelism”?…
Evangelism. From the Greek word for ‘good news’ or ‘good message’. An angel is a messenger, and even in today’s English word, you can still see “angel” inside of “evangelism”. The word “evangelism” is directly tied to “gospel”, because every instance of “gospel” in the Scriptures is a translation of the Greek, εὐαγγέλιον or “evangelion”. So, if evangelism means ‘good news’, and “gospel” is the exact same word, then when we say “spreading the good news”, that is not just some old-fashioned style of speaking, it is a literal English translation of the original meaning.
Evangelism is simply sharing the good news. It is helpful to remember that the gospel was preached before Christ’s death and resurrection. In most uses of “gospel” in the Gospels, it is connected to healing, casting out demons, and raising the dead. This physical aspect of the gospel is a key component of what the good news is. All those healings were possible, because, as St. Peter said, Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” They were possible because God assumed human flesh: the Incarnation.
It is tempting to separate social programs from evangelism and missions. Feeding the poor, caring for the sick, and the like, are often considered to be good work, but not “preaching the gospel”. This is a complete misunderstanding of the gospel. As we have seen above, in the words of our Lord himself, these physical acts themselves are the good news. This love toward neighbor points directly at the Incarnation of Christ, God taking on human nature, healing it, and raising it to its godly potential.
Our evangelism and missions should never be separated away from this physical love for our fellow man, away from all this “parish work”, which is establishing the Church as a place of healing for all. This is missions. This is the good news.