Lay Evangelists, as related to overseas missions, refers to the ministry of lay national workers, men and women, employed by missionaries or mission organizations, in the task of evangelism. The men were variously referred to as "evangelists," "catechists," or "colporteurs." The women were known as "Bible women." In north India they were called "zenana workers" (workers with women). These workers were the foot soldiers of the modern missionary movement through the 19th- and up to the mid-20th centuries. As much as anyone, they were the ones who introduced the Gospel in terms the masses could understand.
Lay evangelists were used in missions in the Middle East, Africa, and throughout Asia. At the end of the last century a survey among major mission societies in India showed that more than 2,000 workers were employed by missions. The largest employer was the British and Foreign Bible Society, which employed 552 Bible women in 1899. The American Marathi Mission (India) reported a team of 109 Bible women and 84 evangelists in 1902. During a peak year in 1918, the American Mennonite (Mennonite Church) Mission (Dhamtari, Madhya Pradesh) had an evangelistic task force of 23 evangelists and 41 Bible women. Other missions in areas of rapid church growth employed relatively larger numbers of lay evangelists.
Lay evangelists generally had only a modest education (primary or middle school) with a year or two of Bible training in a mission school or by a missionary supervisor. Over the years, missions in India, China, and Japan developed many excellent training centers for lay workers, particularly for the women. Both the American Mennonite Mission (Dhamtari) and the General Conference Mennonite Mission (Champa) operated schools for training workers.
The lay evangelist's work was to share the Good News in the spirit of Matthew 10:5-15. They usually worked in pairs, moving out into surrounding villages and confronting people with the claims of Christ, holding meetings in village squares, market places, and country bazaars. Much of their preaching was simple and conversational, explaining the great missionary texts of the Bible. Women met separately with women and children, perhaps in a private courtyard. The workers sold Gospel portions and other Christian literature. They prayed for the sick and offered counsel in health and hygiene. They were generally held in high esteem.
Lay workers had to keep careful records of where they went, what they talked about, and the number of listeners and inquirers. They reported regularly to the missionaries.
During the cool season and dry months in India missionaries engaged in "touring" (extended evangelistic campaigns in the villages beyond the normal reach of the lay workers). Together with a team of evangelists and Bible women, a missionary would live in tents and carry out an intensive evangelistic effort.
Where many people were coming into the church, lay workers were indispensable as catechists and disciplers of prospective converts. Many workers went on to become pastors and church leaders. Of the first five ordained ministers in the Mennonite Church in India (Dhamtari) four had served many years as village evangelists. Undoubtedly, one of the most gifted spokesmen of the gospel in this century was Simon Patras, or "Blind Simon," the singing bard of Chattisgarh. India will be forever indebted to the saintly ministry of Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922; see Bundi Bai Chauhan Walters).
Paid lay evangelism had run its course by the end of World War II. In Japan and China the war had drastically altered the course of missions. In India, independence and the resurgence of Hinduism and Islam forced the Christian church to voice its mission in less arrogant tones than had been characteristic of much open-air preaching. The Mennonite Church in India, taking over the evangelistic ministry from the American Mennonite Mission (Dhamtari), phased out its workers in 1955. Some conservative groups and independent missions attempted to carry on as before but by the mid-1960s paid evangelism was no longer considered a valid model.
The Encyclopedia of Missions, 2nd edition. NY: Funk and Wagnalls Co., 1904: 89-91.
Murdoch, John. The Indian Missionary Manual. 4th edition London: James Nisbet and Co., 1895: 450-459.
Asirvatham, Eddy. Christianity in the Indian Crucible. Calcutta: YMCA Publishing House, 1955.
American Mennonite Mission, Annual Reports (1918, 1955).
Malagar, P. J. Mennonite Church India. 1981: 40-52.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 513-514. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Friesen, John A. "Lay Evangelists." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. 24 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/L3979.html.
APA style: Friesen, John A. (1987). Lay Evangelists. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/L3979.html.