Connecting Evangelism and Church
Is evangelism an individual sport or a team sport? Really, it’s both.
Think of fishing. There are times you might saunter down to the dock by your lonesome, dangle your feet off the side, and cast in a line. But ask the men on an ocean trawler what it takes to haul a ton of wriggling mackerel out of writhing seawaters. They desperately need one another.
The fishing analogy does not say everything we would want to say about the relationship between evangelism and the local church, but it’s biblical, and it’s a start. Jesus told the disciples to follow him, that he would make them fishers of men, and then he sent them out two by two to preach that people should repent (Mark 1:17; 6:7, 13). Like fishermen on a trawler, we need the church to do the work of evangelism.
Yet there’s a bigger picture to see in relating evangelism and the church. Think of the first chapters of Acts, where the apostles proclaimed the resurrection, and behind them was the church, living together and sharing everything in common, “praising God and enjoying the favor of the people” (2:47; also 5:13). Somehow, the life of the church, sitting there as a backdrop to the proclamation of the gospel, served as a witness to the gospel. It caused many in Jerusalem to view the saints with favor, and it seemed to lead to more conversions.
Was it these early days in Jerusalem that Peter had in mind when he later described the church as a people, a priesthood, and a nation “that you may declare the praises of him” who called us out of darkness, and to live such good lives that pagans would see our good deeds “and glorify God?” (1 Peter 2:9, 12)
In both the early chapters of Acts and 1 Peter 2, one gets the feel of the church as a beehive, a buzzing ball of honey-making sweetness, swarming with the comings and going of busy worker bees. The hive is essential to the individual bee’s work, and part of the work. What might all this say about the relationship between evangelism and a church?
No analogy goes all the way and captures everything. Let’s see if we might sum up the relationship between the church and evangelism in the Bible in four systematic statements, and then ask what practical lessons follow for churches.
1. EVANGELISM POINTS TO GOD, NOT THE CHURCH
If you were trying to convince someone to join your club, you would point to all the benefits of the club: the fun members have with one another, the annual table tennis tournament, and so forth. This is not how it works with evangelism and the church.
Evangelism points to God, not to the church. That’s the first statement.
Paul tells the Corinthians that Christ had given him (and them) a “ministry of reconciliation” and a “message of reconciliation.” He (and they) were “Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” And this message of reconciliation is simple: “Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:18-21).
The evangelist’s good news is not, “Be reconciled to other people,” even though the good news will lead to being so reconciled. Rather, the evangelist’s good news is how a person can be reconciled to God. Everything else flows from this.
2. THE CHURCH IS ONE OUTCOME OF EVANGELISM
By the same token, the first hoped for outcome of evangelism is reconciliation with God. But there is a second hoped for outcome: reconciliation with the people of God, the church.
If your doctrine of conversion is missing the corporate element, it’s missing an essential piece of the whole. A covenant head must have a covenant people. Our corporate unity in Christ is not just an implication of conversion, it’s part of the very thing. Being reconciled to God’s people is distinct from but inseparable from being reconciled to God (see my “The Corporate Component of Conversion”).
All this is put on display wonderfully in Ephesians 2. Verses 1 to 10 explain forgiveness and our vertical reconciliation with God: “By grace you have been saved.” Verses 11 to 22 then present the horizontal: “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (v. 14). Notice that the activity of verse 14 is in the past tense. Christ has already made Jew and Gentile one. It’s what they are because God has done it, and God did it in precisely the same place he accomplished the vertical reconciliation—in the cross of Christ (see also Eph. 4:1-6).
In short, we are saved into a people.
The early chapters of Acts demonstrate what this looks like in practice: “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (Acts 2:41; see also 2:47; 4:4; 6:7). People trust in Christ and are added to “the number” of the church in Jerusalem. They are counted. Their name gets added. If they had had cameras, a photo no doubt would have gone into the church directory!
The converted life is congregationally shaped. Christians belong in churches, and so this is where the evangelist will send people.
3. EVANGELISM IS THE WORK OF THE CHURCH
Third, evangelism is the work of the church. Once a person is reconciled to God and (therefore) to God’s people, he or she gains a new job: sharing the gospel with others. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,” said Jesus (Mark 1:17; also, Matt. 28:19). Every Christian and church member, in other words, is charged with sharing the gospel (see Timothy Beougher, “Must Every Christian Evangelize?”).
The first chapters of Acts emphasize the preaching of the Apostles, but when persecution broke out in Jerusalem and the church scattered, “Those who had been scattered preached the gospel wherever they went” (Acts 8:4).
Local churches exist to worship God and share the good news of Jesus Christ. This is why the teachers teach and the members learn. In fact, Jesus gives the so-called evangelists, pastors, and teachers to the church to equip them to do ministry (Eph. 4:11f), a ministry that surely includes evangelism.
We work together to haul in the fish.
4. THE CHURCH IS AN APOLOGETIC IN EVANGELISM
The life of a converted people, grouped together in congregations, should also commend the gospel that saved them. “Gospel doctrine,” Ray Ortlund has written, “creates a gospel culture.” And that culture, embodied in our churches, should be attractive to outsiders, at least to some (see 2 Cor. 2:15-16).
This brings us back to the picture of the church as a humming, honey-filled beehive. We see this in Acts and 1 Peter 2. We also see it in Matthew 5, when Jesus talks about the church being salt and light (vv. 13-16). And it’s remarkably pictured in John 13, where Jesus observes, “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (vv. 34-35).
Our good deeds toward outsiders and our love for our fellow church members points neighbors and colleagues to Jesus!
All that to say, the local church is an apologetic in evangelism. The life of the church argues for the gospel. Believers living with one another testifies to the power of God in salvation. As we sit under the preaching of God’s Word week after week, and as the Spirit conforms us to the image of the Son little by little, we exemplify what the gospel can do to us as individuals and as a people.
Slowly, we are becoming the new humanity, following after the one who is the firstborn of the new creation (Col. 1:15). And this new humanity serves as a wonderful backdrop or billboard in our evangelism. It offers a contrast culture to the cultures of this world.
What are some practical lessons we can take from these four systematic principles? Often, pastors try to strengthen a church’s evangelistic ministry by exhorting people to share the gospel. Surely that’s one piece. But it’s also critical to grow the church as a contrast culture, which acts as this attractive backdrop for evangelism.
1) Evangelism should lead to baptism and membership. Churches should not evangelize and then leave new converts out on their own. Nor should they evangelize, baptize, and then, maybe, someday, get around to bringing someone into church membership. Except for exceptional circumstances (e.g., Ethiopian eunuch), churches should do what the church in Jerusalem did: baptize people into their number (Acts 2:41). Baptism, after all, is the corporate and authorized sign by which a church formally affirms a person as a believer. That affirmation should then be protected and nurtured by the ongoing oversight given through membership and the Lord’s Supper. We don’t leave new hatchlings outside of the nest, but bring them inside.
2) Teach members to integrate their lives with one another. In order to strengthen a church’s apologetic power, members should constantly be reminded through the teaching of the word and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper that we are one body (e.g. 1 Cor. 10:16-17; 1 Cor. 12). Hardly a Sunday should go by when members are not reminded to build relationships with one another so that they might encourage, build up, strengthen, speak truth, warn, and love one another (e.g. Rom. 12:9-13; Eph. 4:11-32). They should be exhorted to show hospitality (Rom. 12:13; 1 Peter 4:9). All this creates an attractive witness for the gospel.
3) Teach members to sacrifice for one another. Even more specifically, Christians should think about how they might better sacrifice for one another, financially and otherwise (e.g. Acts 2:42-46; 2 Cor. 8-9; 1 Peter 4:10). In a consumeristic nation, especially, the example of shared generosity among believers presents a powerful contrast culture. Remember, Jesus told Christians to love one another as he has loved us (John 13:34)—a sacrificial love if there ever was one.
4) Practice church discipline. Christian hypocrites and heretics in our midst compromise the witness of the church. When the church members in a community are known as liars, backbiters, and adulterers, that church’s evangelistic work will not go so well. That’s not to say that a church should discipline every saint who still struggles with sinning in their midst. Then there would be no church left. Rather, churches should confront and discipline unrepentant sin. This serves, ironically, to evangelize the unrepentant member (see 1 Cor. 5:4), as well as a church’s city more broadly (see 1 Cor. 5:1-2).
5) Equip members to share the gospel. Church leaders should look for various ways to make sure every member can explain the basics of the faith. This can be done from the pulpit, the Sunday School classroom, the membership interview, and elsewhere (see Kevin McKay, “Overcoming Objections to Evangelism”).
6) Encourage members to live lives that bless outsiders. Church members, hopefully, are known as kind, friendly, and quick to lend a hand. We should be quick to jump in with a rake to help clear the neighbor’s leaves, quick to offer help to an office-mate, quick to defend a victim of abuse, quick to work hard at preserving the jobs of hard-working employees in difficult times, quick to bless in all sorts of ways. Good deeds should adorn our evangelistic words.
7) Invite people into formal and informal gatherings of the church. Countless stories could be given of how non-believers heard the gospel and then watched the church in motion, both in formal or informal gatherings, and then came to faith. The church’s life together compelled them. It pointed to something they had never known in their family, school, or workplace. In other words, inviting outsiders into the life of the church surely must constitute one part of our evangelism.
8) Set the example in evangelism. Wherever a church’s elders are known for their evangelism, you can expect to find an evangelistic church. Where the elders don’t, you won’t.
9) Feature evangelism and conversion stories. Church leaders should pepper stories of evangelistic encounters into their sermons and lessions. Church members should share prayer requests for evangelistic opportunities. Baptismal candidates should be given the chance to share their conversion experience. Things like these all help to make evangelism a “normal” part of the Christian life and the church experience.
10) Brag about your church. The apostle Paul sometimes boasted about his churches as a way of boasting about Christ (see 2 Cor. 9:2; 2 Thes. 1:4; cf. Phil. 2:16). Christians, likewise, should look for ways to speak positively and gratefully—not obnoxiously or pridefully—about their churches around non-Christian friends. When a colleague asks about the weekend, mention how your church gave your wife a wonderful baby shower. Mention something encouraging the preacher said on Sunday. Mention the work your congregation is doing at the shelter when the subject of homelessness comes up. Doing this well, no doubt, takes practice.
Rightly relating church and evangelism in our understanding and practice requires more than exhorting people to evangelize. It requires attending to matters of polity and governance, membership and discipline. It requires building a healthy church that sits under God’s preached Word, and knows what God has tasked the church to do.
It requires godly leaders who teach and set the example. And it requires members who love Jesus and increasingly can’t help but sing the praises of him who brought them from death to life—inside and outside the church building.