In the New Testament, we have very little data on what an evangelist was. In fact, the term is used only three times (Acts 21:8; Eph 4:11; 2 Tim 4:5), most often as merely a “name.”
When it appears in Acts 21, “evangelist” is attributed to Philip, who is currently residing in Caesarea. Philip was one of the original “deacons” in Acts 6. We see Philip’s evangelistic office most clearly in Acts 8. Philip along with some of the other Christians had been dispersed from Jerusalem because of the persecution. Philip first heads north to Samaria and preaches the gospel there to great success (v. 5). Then an angel told Philip to go to Gaza, where he finds the Ethiopian Eunuch (vv. 26-27). Following this, the spirit whisks Philip away to Azotus, where he passes through preaching “the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea” (v. 40). He must have remained in Caesarea for some time, for this is where Paul and his company find him in Acts 21.
Ephesians 4:11 implies that the ministry of an evangelist is somehow bridging the gap between the apostles and prophets, and the pastors and teachers. This could be one of intermediate authority, but it also could be one of logical sequence–the evangelist brings the apostolic gospel to a group of unregenerate and founds a church where teachers and pastors can build on that apostolic foundation. In 2 Timothy 4:5, Paul tells Timothy to do the work of an evangelist, but that does not indicate if Timothy was an evangelist–if he held that office–or if he was merely to do the work that an evangelist did.
One of the only references in the early church concerning an “evangelist” (outside the name given to the four writers of the gospels) is seen Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History:
Then starting out upon long journeys they performed the office of evangelists, being filled with the desire to preach Christ to those who had not yet heard the word of faith, and to deliver to them the divine Gospels.
3. And when they had only laid the foundations of the faith in foreign places, they appointed others as pastors, and entrusted them with the nurture of those that had recently been brought in, while they themselves went on again to other countries and nations, with the grace and the co-operation of God. For a great many wonderful works were done through them by the power of the divine Spirit, so that at the first hearing whole multitudes of men eagerly embraced the religion of the Creator of the universe.
4. But since it is impossible for us to enumerate the names of all that became shepherds or evangelists in the churches throughout the world in the age immediately succeeding the apostles, we have recorded, as was fitting, the names of those only who have transmitted the apostolic doctrine to us in writings still extant (Ecc. Hist. 3.37).
What Eusebius is saying points to what the New Testament seems to indicate, that an evangelist was a kind of “missionary,” bringing the gospel to a new area, where he would found a church, appoint pastors, and move on. Calvin agrees with this assessment in part*:
The evangelists, in my judgment, were in the midst between apostles and doctors. For it was a function next to the apostles to preach the gospel in all places, and not to have any certain place of abode; and yet not be appointed to a fixed station, only the degree of honor was inferior. For when Paul describes the order of the Church, (Eph 4:11) he doth so put them after the apostles, that he shows that they have more room given them where they may teach than the pastors, who are tied to certain places (Commentary on Acts 21:6).
Calvin did not believe that the office of evangelist remained in the church in an ordinary way; only the offices of pastor and deacon remained, though God revives the other three gifts in Eph 4:11 “as the need of the times demands” (Institutes 4.3.4).