Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,
This was my topic for the NCFIC “White Unto Harvest” conference (October 2012), and it was a great honor and pleasure to speak about some of the things God has been doing in our midst. Happy reading!
In the category of evangelism, most local churches acknowledge the need for God to make us what we have not been. We look at our history, and it is painfully obvious that we need for God to give us progress. A lot of progress.
For churches like that, 1 Thessalonians 1:5-8 is an encouraging text. Paul writes, “For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance, as you know what kind of men we were among you for your sake. And you became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became examples to all in Macedonia and Achaia who believe. For from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place. Your faith toward God has gone out, so that we do not need to say anything.” This precious local church received the pure gospel, they were firmly established in that gospel, and then it sounded forth in every place. The evangelistic church is not a mirage! Paul founded one and watched it come to maturity and fruitfulness.
May God give our local churches this testimony, as godly people in years to come see what God has accomplished among us. May they see that we have received a pure gospel, that we have been firmly established in it, and that this gospel has sounded forth in every place.
I was assigned the task of profiling the evangelistic church. Why? Is it that I lead a church which has arrived in this category, so that I can simply exhort other local churches to be like us? Certainly not! If you speak with the members of our congregation, the consistent self-analysis will be that when we were planted a year and a half ago, we were pitiful, and now we are mediocre. So we are not boasting in our mediocrity, but we can point with gratitude to progress that the Lord has given us, and it gives us hope to aspire to so much more, based on the pattern of God’s faithfulness that we have already seen.
There are a few important topics that this article simply presupposes, and doesn’t address. First, it is the pure gospel in view. That is certainly not a given, in this day when so many false gospels are welcome in the evangelical world. Second, a local church which is a mighty voice for the gospel is dominated by people who are actually born again. This too is no safe bet for the modern local church. Finally, evangelism is simply the starting point of the Great Commission, a subset that is only a sliver of what it means to disciple the nations.
Where to Start: Repentance
As I begin to paint the picture of the evangelistic church, there is an absolutely essential starting point, and if we miss this then we miss all. It stems from what Jesus says in Matthew 22:36-40, when asked this question: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
How should this be applied to the Great Commission, and evangelism in particular? In this way: Evangelism is a natural, inevitable outflow, not a separate category. If our churches are genuinely evangelistic, it will be because the love of God and neighbor pulses in warm hearts. Can it be said that we love God with heart, soul and mind, and yet His praise is never on our lips when we are engaged in conversations with the lost? Inconceivable! Can it be said that we love our neighbor when we are so governed by the fear of man that our “comfort zone” is more precious to us than an eternal soul? Unbelievable!
If we intend to become evangelistic, we have to understand why we have not been evangelistic. It will not do to simply say, “We need to make progress,” or “Evangelism is a shortcoming.” The truth of the matter is that our history is displaying the great sin of lovelessness, and we must repent. Our greatest need isn’t a great strategy or a training program, it is repentance. If we start anywhere else, we end up with a lot of short-term activity with no long-term change. To take our place in the Great Commission, we desperately need the long-term change.
Face the facts, brothers and sisters. Our love for God isn’t what we thought it was. Our love for our neighbor isn’t what we thought it was. The outside of the cup looks fine, but the inside needs attention. We should be broken by the implications of our coldness towards evangelism and repent. Then and only then are we ready for progress.
One thing I have learned in life is that, in any category, there are a very few levers that determine success or failure. True in business, true at home, true in relationships, true in evangelism. Pull those few levers with all your might, and you’ll be successful. Ignore them but pull the hundred smaller levers instead, and you’ll fail. Obviously, given that Jesus said all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two great laws of love, love is one of those very few levers that must be pulled with all our might.
Step Two: Fear God
Consider the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:28, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Evangelistic churches have corporately gotten a grasp of this! If you look across the broad landscape of those churches, you find that God looms large and man is a small thing. Why don’t we share our faith? We’re petrified, and most of the time we don’t even really know why. Speaking to people about their soul is just scary, that’s all.
But when we fear God as we ought, we don’t fear man, because the fear of God is a controlling fear, a master fear that subjugates all of those other fears of circumstance and people that would otherwise rule us. And here is what we find: You don’t die. In fact, rather than being killed by proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, we are exhilarated and wonder what we were afraid of anyway!
Are you willing to live in slavery to the fear of man for another decade? Another year, month, week, minute, second? By the grace of God, not me! May God cause us to fear Him in a way that makes our comfort zone nothing in our own eyes.
Why haven’t our churches been evangelistic? Because we haven’t loved God or neighbor as we ought, and we haven’t feared God as we ought. It seems to me that these are the two big levers that will determine our success or failure. Are you surprised? Did you think I was going to spend the space on technique? Undoubtedly there are many tools that can help us be effective in how we share the gospel, but our big problem is that we share the gospel (or that we don’t, to be precise).
If our two primary levers are love of God and neighbor and the fear of the Lord, how do we stoke those fires? Attention to the ordinary means of grace: prayer and the word. Go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place. Open His word and become like a tree planted by rivers of waters, yielding its fruit in season. Nothing cultivates love for God and fear of God than being in His presence and considering His character and His ways. Love for neighbor, and specifically evangelism, will flow from that.
Next: Depend on God
Let’s agree: When you launch the Apostle Paul on his first missionary journey, you get to be called an evangelistic church. Now consider the account, recorded in Acts 13:1-3: “Now in the church that was at Antioch there were certain prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away.”
They are waiting but ready. They are ministering to the Lord, fasting, and praying with all diligence, ready to act on whatever God would have them do. They listened. God spoke. They did. And the world was turned upside down. This is an instance where a mighty work of evangelism wasn’t initiated by “evangelistic activity,” at least not as we might define that term. It was initiated by waiting on the Lord through prayer and fasting. They were ready, but they were not thrashing around, executing whatever idea willy-nilly. Can it be said that we do more thrashing than praying? I think most of us would have to plead guilty. Evangelistic churches trust God, not themselves. They fast. They pray.
Of course, this is simply a subset of loving and fearing God, but it is worth a specific mention. May God fashion us into local churches who patiently labor in prayer, ready at any moment to obey. Does that mean that we do nothing until we sense the leading of the Lord? By no means! But it does mean that we allocate lavish amounts of time, individually and corporately, to seek the Lord and be before Him in humility. In our desire to be more faithful in proclaiming the gospel, we dare not simply launch a program and declare victory. There is so much more to Great Commission fruitfulness than generating activity. Wait on the Lord. Fast. Pray. Then go with the good news of Jesus Christ on your lips.
Something You Can’t Supply: Gifted Evangelists
In Ephesians 4:7-8,11-12, Paul describes something that we can’t do. We don’t even play a part. He says this: “But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore He says: ‘When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men.’… And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ”.
A key element of local churches being equipped for evangelism is the placement by God of gifted evangelists. He Himself gives evangelists to churches in order to equip the saints to go and do likewise. So the text clearly isn’t saying that evangelism is the exclusive domain of a few gifted souls. The Great Commission is a commandment to every follower of Christ until He comes again. But God has supernaturally given some of His people the ability to do with relative ease and effectiveness what is relatively difficult and ineffective for the rest of us. We watch them in action and we are helped. They push us out of our comfort zone, stirring us up to love and good deeds. We should praise God that He has given these gifted evangelists to His church, helping us to be more obedient and more faithful. The body of Christ is indeed edified by their presence.
My experience over a couple of decades is that this coin has two sides. On one side is a gift given to the church for the equipping of the saints, an invaluable blessing. Sometimes the flip side is a youthful zeal that hasn’t been seasoned by much wisdom in the faith yet. Maybe this gifted evangelist has this formula embedded firmly in the brain: evangelism = street preaching, and if you aren’t doing it, you are the worst kind of compromiser. He has lost sight of the fact that he is operating in an area of supernatural gifting, and he hasn’t yet learned to appreciate progressive sanctification. He might be more impatient with his brethren than he ought to be.
What should the more mature do then? Be mature! Put your arm around that young zealot and give him the lenses through which to see his brothers and sisters in Christ, and the mercy and patience of Christ that he also enjoys. Believe me, to whatever extent he needs your wisdom, you need his zeal tenfold. Don’t despise the misdirected zeal, but gently redirect it.
Our Church: A Case Study
We needed progress, and we had been praying for progress, and it was the arrival of some gifted evangelists that God used to really move us forward. I praise God for sending them. I trust we will never be the same.
Here are some reflections on our experiences over the past year and a half:
- It all started with “a bad idea.” One of our gifted evangelists wanted to buy a gas grill and a trailer, and set up in a parking lot on main street to serve hot dogs to the community on Monday nights. Being a know-it-all (as opposed to all-knowing), I knew that wouldn’t work. On the other hand, it was something, and we were doing nothing in the category of public outreach. As it turned out, week after week it totally exceeded all of my expectations. Anywhere from fifteen to thirty people from the community, people we would never have had contact with, would come, sit in a chair, and eat hot dogs with families from the church. The gospel was (and still is) regularly and boldly proclaimed.
My wife and I have an inside joke. I’ll be sitting with my feet up. She’ll be working away, busy as a beaver. She’ll ask if I would do this or that, always something minor that would help with her big list. Without exception, I will roll my eyes and say, “Do I have to do EVERYTHING?” Without exception, she will reply, “No, just SOMETHING…” Then we have a good laugh. It is that way with local churches and evangelism. It is an endless work, but we don’t have to do everything, just something. Sometimes it helps to just get moving. And yes, I perceive how this could be seen as a contradiction to the admonition to wait on the Lord, fast and pray. Trust me, it isn’t.
- We have found evangelism to be self-feeding. Here is what I mean. A person feels paralyzed by the prospect of sharing the gospel, but from love of God and neighbor, and out of a healthy fear of the Lord, they do it. Now, is that person much more inclined to do it again, or much less inclined? Much more inclined by a factor of a hundred! It is exhilarating to hear the gospel on your own lips, and the accounts of all the ways God has been good and faithful to you. It reminds you of what it was like to be without Christ, and gives you a love for souls in that condition. Once you get started, you feel the momentum instantly. It makes you wonder what all the fuss was about, why all the worry, and it puts you on the lookout for the next opportunity. Are you tired of that nagging feeling that you have an area of major disobedience in your life? Then get rid of it!
- Once you start, opportunities abound. Are you near a nursing home? That’s where the widows are! Go be a blessing to them. The nursing home that we approached was happy to have us come and conduct a brief weekly service. The gospel is preached, hymns are sung, the elderly are loved and honored. One of our families, headed by a gifted evangelist, wanted to serve a meal and preach the gospel in the common area of local government-subsidized housing. Several families rallied around that, and it continues today. What is the limit to the places with people who need the gospel? You don’t even need to leave your home. Bring your neighbors and co-workers to your dinner table, clear away the dishes and have family worship after the meal, show them a functioning Christian family that gathers daily to worship God together. You will be surprised at how many people have never once seen that.
- This is not at odds with family discipleship. It is not “either/or,” it is “both/and.” In fact, it is a critical element of family discipleship. Don’t leave your family to go do evangelism (though that may be appropriate or even necessary from time to time). Find ways to engage in evangelism together. That does two things. First, it communicates to our children that we are deadly serious about obeying the Lord’s commandment to disciple the nations. The value of that cannot be underestimated, and the lack of it is a catastrophic gap in bringing up children in the training and admonition of the Lord. Second, it readies the next generation to engage in the Great Commission. If our children have been at our elbows a hundred times as we have proclaimed the gospel, they will be ready themselves. For a while, they will just be observers, but the day will come when they will be able to enter the fray as well.
- Training is a lousy substitute for doing. Yes, there is a place for resources and studying and training, but some of the best training happens by doing. We can never let the lack of training be our reason for neglecting to share the gospel. Every Christian who has felt the crushing weight of the holiness of God and their own desperate need to be pardoned has the wherewithal for evangelism. Pray, then get to it.
So what is the profile of the evangelistic church? As in all things, the Bible defines it.
- The evangelistic church is filled with people who have received a true gospel, have been firmly established in that gospel, and then sound it forth (1 Thessalonians 1:5-8).
- The evangelistic church is growing in the great commandments of love (Matthew 22:36-40).
- The evangelistic church is growing in the fear of God (Matthew 10:28).
- The evangelistic church is seeking the Lord through prayer, fasting, waiting (Acts 13:1-3).
- The evangelistic church has received gifted evangelists from God (Ephesians 4:7-12).
In Romans 1:16, Paul writes, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.” May our churches cherish the good news of Jesus Christ as the great treasure that it is, and may God make us bolder and bolder in the proclamation of it. I know this will be to the glory of God, and that it will result in the joy of His people.
Sovereign Redeemer Community Church