Returning Evangelism to the Local Church
One of the major lessons taught in the New Testament is the biblical centrality of the local church. Each and every congregation is to be an evangelistic, witnessing community. “The Lord’s message rang out from you,” wrote Paul to the Thessalonian church (1 Thess. 1:8), implying that when a church receives the Good News of salvation it has an obligation to pass it on. Our God is a missionary God, and our Lord Jesus Christ commands us to be His witnesses in the entire world, beginning with our own “Jerusalem” (Acts 1:8).
The idea that a local church is to be a witnessing community may come as a surprise to some people. When they think of evangelism they think only of professional evangelists and large, city-wide crusades. And this is partly true. God has blessed the work of fulltime evangelists and their efforts to reach whole cities for Christ. The weakness of this approach is that it sometimes leads local congregations to abdicate their own personal responsibility to reach their communities for Christ.
I often hear people complain that witnessing does not come “naturally” for them. With this I quite agree. Evangelism is not a natural task at all. It is a completely supernatural enterprise. In fact, personal evangelism is utterly impossible unless the Spirit of the Lord Jesus is given free reign in our lives. Thus, while it is our duty to share our faith with others through word and deed, even more it is a divinely-enabled privilege. And unless we learn to view evangelism in those terms – as a great privilege and not merely as a duty to be performed legalistically – we will never be successful in motivating either ourselves or others to share Jesus, no matter how much training we may have had in this or that evangelistic technique or method.
For most of us, the problem is not one of indifference. We long for people to come to Christ and be changed forever. Our problem is inactivity. And behind it all is a lack of motivation or even a lack of faith that God can use us. We must pray that the same missionary Spirit of the Book of Acts would fall upon us afresh. At the same time, we must beware of counterfeit “fads” in evangelism that ignore the incarnational aspect of missions. How easily we reduce witnessing to passing out a tract or placing a bumper sticker on our car, not that those things are bad in and of themselves. We stay aloof from human sin and tragedy. We love the lost, but not sacrificially. It costs us little to leave a tract with our restaurant server. It is far more difficult to engage him or her in conversation. However, the very shape of Christian mission is cruciform. People are receptive to the Gospel when we enter into their suffering. How often we fail to utilize God-given opportunities to witness!
No doubt I have painted with too broad a brush. Many Christians are committed to living sacrificially for the sake of the Gospel. Yet it is a matter of priorities. Biblical evangelism is always costly. And it always combines words with works. Jesus was never content with mere teaching. His was a ministry in which words and works achieved a perfect and beautiful balance. Service was indissolubly linked with preaching. The problem we experience, whenever we think about evangelism, concerns the tension between proclamation and presence. The ideal combination is rarely achieved today, as it was in Jesus’ ministry. As John Poulton has said (A Today Sort of Evangelism, p. 60), “Christians need to look like what they are talking about.” We cannot communicate the Gospel in words only. Evangelism must also include loving deeds.
A large segment of the evangelical constituency, it seems to me, fails to understand the need for holistic mission. All Christians are called both to witness and to serve. The church needs to keep returning to the example of Christ, incarnate and crucified, risen and returning, ruling the church, bestowing gifts, for its model and motivation. On seven different occasions in the Gospels we read that Jesus was “moved with compassion,” and out of that motive came healing, both physical and spiritual. Likewise, Paul reminds us that although we are not saved “by works,” and that neither our salvation nor our faith is cause for boasting (Eph. 2:8-9), we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (2:10), works that befit the new life we have received in Christ and that draw others to the Savior.
If this is true of every child of God, why should the work of evangelism be left to professionals? Surely it is befitting that people who bear the Name of Christ should work tirelessly for the “progress of the Gospel” (Phil. 1:5). Our Lord Himself set the example. It is now up to us to follow Him in love and obedience.
January 23, 2009
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.