Thinking About Evangelism Means Thinking About the Church

Article
03.01.2010

Preface to the 9Marks Series on Evangelism

The aim of this series of nine articles is to provide a biblical, God-centered framework for understanding and doing evangelism. The main idea in this series of articles is that biblical evangelism begins with the church. To put it another way, the local church itself is the best and biblically-prescribed “evangelism program.”

This series of articles hopes to add value to the study of evangelism in two particular ways. First, it seeks to provide a biblical framework of evangelism that accurately captures the corporate and individual nature of witness in Scriptures. Second, therefore, it seeks to address and equip primarily pastors and church leaders, since these are the people principally responsible for training local churches.

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The Church is the mirror, that reflects the whole effulgence of the Divine character. It is the grand scene, in which the perfections of Jehovah are displayed to the universe. The revelations made to the Church—the successive grand events in her history and, above all, the manifestation of “the glory of God in the Person of Jesus Christ”—furnish even to the heavenly intelligences fresh subjects of adoring contemplation.  – Charles Bridges [1]

I love the church. And I take great encouragement in God’s love for the church. It amazes me that God loves his church so much that he calls it his bride and uses it to display his glory (Eph 3:10; 5:23ff; Rev. 21:2, 9).

My love for the church is relatively new. I wasn’t impressed with God or his church growing up. I grew up attending a Unitarian church. I did know several impressive, godly Christians, but none of these individuals were able to impress me with the grandeur of Jesus Christ and the gospel. This was particularly true the few times I visited a Christian church with them. What I saw in these corporate gatherings was not compelling, because I didn’t see any difference between the folks at church and my friends who didn’t attend church.

Then, at age 23, right after college, God saved me. And he did it through the corporate witness of one local group of redeemed sinners. These brothers and sisters shared the gospel with me by proclaiming its message against the backdrop of their lives together as a family. Like all families, they were far from perfect, but something made them different. There was a distinct aroma. The Lord used them to confront me with his holiness, my sin, the justice and love of Jesus Christ, and the call to repent and believe.

Many Christians today think of evangelism and missions almost exclusively in individualistic categories. Evangelism tends to be understood as what an individual does when he or she leaves church and shares the gospel with outsiders. And missions tends to be understood as what an individual does when he or she leaves church, moves overseas, and meets with people who don’t know the gospel.

The New Testament, however, offers a perspective that focuses at least as much on the corporate nature of Christian witness. It does not disregard the individual’s witness. Indeed, churches are made up of individuals. But God, who is passionate about displaying his glory to the world, means to carry out the mission of displaying his glory through individuals gathered together in local churches. Hence, our understanding of evangelism and evangelistic activity must begin here—with God, his church, and what he’s told us in Scriptures concerning the nature and activity of mission and witness.

OVERVIEW OF THE EVANGELISM LANSCAPE: 4 POPULAR APPROACHES

Before we jump into the biblical evidence for the above assertions—which we will do in the next articles in this series—it’s worth pausing to consider how evangelicals tend to conceive of the relationship between evangelism and the local church. Most evangelism strategies, methodologies, and programs in North America assign some role to the church in the practice of evangelism. But that role changes as the underlying conception of the local church changes.

We can get a high level overview of the church landscape in evangelicalism by looking at four dominant approaches to church and evangelism in today’s churches.

Liberal

The liberal or accommodationist church is the farthest away from orthodox, evangelical beliefs. Yet it bears mentioning because of its influence on evangelicals over the past 200 years. This approach to church can be summarized by the motto, “If it feels right, believe it!”

In an accomodationist church, biblical theology and the historic doctrines of Christianity are often left to the side as these churches seek to “save Christianity” by “being relevant” and in sync with contemporary times and thinking. An accommodation approach, at its worse, can create “Christian” churches that do not hold to the teachings and beliefs of Jesus Christ and the Bible.

What does this mean for evangelism? Evangelism becomes the mechanism used by such churches to address whatever they perceive as most wrong with human beings. Is poverty and physical want humanity’s greatest enemy? Then the church evangelizes by addressing physical needs. Is political oppression our worst foe? Then evangelism means offering spiritual hope and political change. [2]

In the process, of course, such leaders deprive the church of the very things that distinguish it from any other social organization or society, and so weaken the church’s purpose for existing. This approach can accommodate the gospel to the prevailing cultural ideas of the day and lead to a marginalized church. In the end, we are left with no true “evangel” in our evangelism. The gospel—which addresses our greatest need of all: guilt before God—is gone.

Revivalist

The revivalist church, on the other hand, rightly perceives the church’s primary task to be proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ’s propitiatory death on the cross. But the task of proclaiming the gospel falls almost exclusively on the preacher, and the task of responding to the gospel is often reduced to a mere decision on the part of the listener. The revivalist church might be summarized with the motto, “If it yields a decision, say it!”

On the one hand, the revivalist church is involved in evangelism. Christians might bring their non-Christian friends to hear the preacher preach. But the Christian who belongs to the revivalist church tends to rely entirely on the church—or the preacher, really—to do the evangelizing, and largely through his altar calls. Souls are considered “won” as soon as “decisions” are made and a prayer is prayed.

On the other hand, the revivalist church is not involved in evangelism, in so far as it yields false decisions and doesn’t pay sufficient attention to discipling all those “decision-makers” to Christian maturity. And it’s the life-together of increasingly mature Christians—we will see in the next articles in this series—that give rise to the church’s corporate witness.

The sincerity, zeal, and love for the lost in many revivalist churches are commendable. Yet the practice of “decisionism” is the result of a meager conception of the local church, a shallow conception of sin, and a weak understanding of conversion. The psychological, manipulative techniques tend to shame or guilt people into a false, temporary decision that leaves individuals very much like the seed that sprouts up, but quickly withers (Mark 4:3-8). Sadly, the weaknesses of this model often show up in the countless secular novels and movies that use such churches for their punch-lines and parodies.

Pragmatic-Seeker

If the revivalistic approach to church was more common half a century ago, and increasingly common kind of church today must be the “pragmatic-seeker” church. This pragmatic-seeker approach is often driven by the desire to “meet people where they are at.” With great evangelistic motives, churches regularly plan and structure their corporate gatherings with a focus on “what works” for attracting as many “seekers” as possible. The pragmatic church abides by the motto, “If it works, go for it!”

Like revivalistic churches, pragmatic-seeker churches both do and don’t involve the church in evangelism. The church is involved in that its services and many of its programs are geared toward the unbeliever. The church is not involved in so far as evangelism is not perceived as a product of the church’s corporate witness—in spite of best intensions—but of the leaders offering the right programs and playing the right music. In a sense, the pragmatic-seeker church is just a more sophisticated version of the revivalistic church. Instead of the single preacher giving an altar call, there’s a “worship team” and a “leadership team” offering a whole host of incentives.

In the process, unfortunately, a church culture of “theo-tainment” can emerge as the dominating ethos, and the doctrine of “what works” can eclipse many biblical doctrines that characterize the Christian life, such as repentance (turning away from sin). The astonishing visible growth of these movements speaks to the success of their practices. Yet while these organizations start with Scripture, they often add “business best practices” to the Bible in order to achieve their goals.

A pragmatic approach frequently works well in the short-run. Yet if history is a reliable teacher, it can produce compromised churches over the long run that reflect the culture rather than shape it.

In recent years, the pragmatic-seeker church has borne a very unhealthy child—the optional church. If the motto is “If it works, go for it,” what happens when an individual decides that the church itself doesn’t work? According to the optional-church model, the church is no longer regarded as essential for Christian discipleship, evangelism, and other aspects of the Christian life. George Barna’s argument in his book Revolution embodies this increasingly popular attitude. Barna writes on behalf of disheartened “revolutionary” Christians who yearn for a more robust, authentic spiritual experience than what his or her local church offers. Barna’s prescription is truly revolutionary:

Being in a right relationship with God and his people is what matters. Scripture teaches us that devoting your life to loving God with all your heart, mind, and strength and soul is what honors him. Being part of a local church may facilitate that. Or it may not. [3]

Barna’s call to abandon the local church (or not–whatever is best for you) suggests a growing attitude in American evangelicalism that primarily understands the heart of Christian discipleship and evangelism as personal and individualistic. Emphasis falls on Christ’s coming to reclaim individual sinners and reconcile them to God.

On the surface, such an individualistic focus on discipleship and witness offers an attractive alternative to the superficiality and boredom of many local churches. But such individualism also raises fundamental questions about the warp and woof of biblical Christianity and its corporate nature and mission.

Parachurch organizations can also unwittingly contribute to the optional church problem if believers begin to think all their spiritual needs can be met through this or that organization and then dismiss the role of the local church. Many evangelical parachurch ministries helpfully recognize the need for biblical theology to inform Christian thinking and living. These ministries can do an excellent job educating pastors and individual Christians with good theology. However, this approach does not always go far enough. Sometimes they miss the biblical argument for the centrality of the congregation in the individual believer’s life as one of the most crucial components for evangelism and for growing as a Christian.

Missional

The newest and most distinct approach to church and evangelism is the “missional” approach. Their understanding of the church could be summarized with the motto, “The church itself is on mission!”

Craig Van Gelder provides a good, nutshell description of the missional church:

This view considers mission to be inherent with the very nature of the church. . . . With this understanding, mission shifts from naming a function of the church to describing its essential nature. . . . According to this view, church and mission are not two distinct entities. They speak about the same reality. . . . Ecclesiology and missiology are not separate theological disciplines, but are, in fact, interrelated and complementary. They start at the same point, with the Triune God in mission to all of creation. [4]

It’s difficult to provide a single characterization of the relationship between evangelism and the church among advocates of the missional church, since writers from both conservative and liberal circles—each with their respective “gospel”—will endorse the so-called missional church model. What advocates from both circles seem to share, however, is an emphasis on the need for every member of the church to carry the “good news” of Jesus to their communities and neighborhoods. Yet not only should Christians speak this message, they should “incarnate” it with their lives. Ed Stetzer explains that

the movement defines itself by the mission and incarnation of Christ. . . . Proponents of this way of planting churches let their incarnation of Christ drive the mission in their community and beyond; and the church emerges out of that journey. . . . They pray and move intentionally as God moves to see people come to Christ in their various contexts – work, neighborhood, social circles, etc. They aim for new faith communities to spring up naturally, birthed out of relationships. [5]

There is much in the missional approach that I can promote as part of a biblical understanding of evangelism, and there is a sense in which this series will endorse the idea of the missional church. Every member should be evangelizing in word and deed. Nevertheless, to limit the nature of the church to mission is reductionistic and risks driving the church towards an unbiblical, social gospel direction that is more liberal than biblical. [6] Also, writers on the missional church tend to miss the importance of the church’s holy and loving life-together as witness to outsiders.

CONCLUSION

Evangelicals may be accustomed to discussing the topic of evangelism separately from their discussions about the local church. But it’s my basic contention that this is an illegitimate divorce. We must think about evangelism and church together for at least two reasons. First, our understanding of church will necessarily shape how we think about evangelism, as I hoped to demonstrate above by viewing the whole landscape.

Second, we need to think about evangelism and church together because the New Testament teaches that evangelism, missions, and discipleship are best accomplished corporately through a congregational “body life” that’s committed to growing in godliness through the word of God and the power of the gospel. Such an approach is the best program and prescription for evangelism, missions, and discipleship today. In parts 2 and 3, we’ll turn to consider this proposal more carefully.

1. Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry, with An Inquiry into the Causes of its Inefficiency (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2005), 1.

2. Here I am merely adapting B.B. Warfield’s argument concerning different theories of the atonement. Every theory of the atonement, he argued, presents the solution to whatever it regards as humanity’s fundamental problem. If ignorance is the problem, the cross enlightens us to God’s love. If guilt is the problem, the cross removes that guilt. And so forth. From “Modern Theories of the Atonement,” in The Works of B. B. Warfield, Vol. 9 Studies in Theology. (Repr. Baker, 2003), 283.

3. George Barna, Revolution (Tyndale, 2005), 37.

4. Craig Van Gelder, The Essence of the Church, 30-31.

5. Ed Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 163.

6. Michael Green helpfully explains the distinction of evangelism and the mission of the church: “Evangelism is not the same as mission. Mission is one half of the reason for the church’s existence. Worship is the other. In these two ways we are called to display what it means to be ‘a colony of heaven.’ But the mission of the church is, or course, much broader than evangelism. It embodies the total impact of the church on the world: its influence; its involvement with the social, political and moral life of the community and nation where it is placed; its succor of bleeding humanity in every way possible. This mission includes evangelism. The greatest thing we can do for anyone is to bring them face to face with Christ who died for them. But it is clear that evangelism is one aspect, and one only, of the total mission of the church.” Michael Green, Evangelism Through the Local Church (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993), 9.

By:
Ryan Townsend

Ryan Townsend is the Executive Director of 9Marks, and an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D. C.