On Evangelism, Missional Church, and Whatnot

This is a paper on evangelism that I have written for my Intro to Evangelism class at Princeton Theological Seminary. (26/30)

In this paper I will present the central biblical text to mission which is Mathew 28:18-20, my definition of evangelism, what missional ecclesiology is and how evangelism functions with in that context, and models of evangelism that are consistent with my own theology of evangelism. The central theme throughout this paper is the following: “As Jürgen Moltmann has observed, What we must learn is not that the Church has a mission, but the very reverse: that the mission of Christ creates its own Church.”[1]

The central biblical text to the missional work of the church is Matthew 28:18-20. Darrell Guder places this biblical text as a central text to our call to mission. Here is what the biblical text states: “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Some people call this passage from the Gospel of Matthew, the great commission. Darrell Guder, on the other hand, in The Edwin H. Rian Lecture given this year, calls the great commission, the Great Apostolic Mandate. This Apostolic Mandate, mandates Christians to go in to all the ends of the earth making disciples and teaching and mentoring them in the faith. This passage in the past was interpreted through the lens of Western Christendom, as Guder calls it, as evangelizing the world, doing world mission, instead of our local communities we live in. Western Christendom was good about evangelizing the world but not so much with our own nations or communities. In The Message, Eugene Peterson translates the teaching part of Matthew 28 this way: “Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you.” The way that Eugene Peterson translates that part of the passage tells me a great deal. What that tells me is that we are to bring people to Christ (evangelize), baptize them, disciple and instruct them in the faith (ie: theology, doctrine, etc), and then teach them the ways Christ taught us to live. Consequently, we are good about teaching them about the faith and religious aspects of the faith but we are not good and tend to miss the part about teaching the Way of Christ (the way he lived and taught his disciples to live). Hence, we forget to teach people in how to live in to Christ, indwell Christ, and behave in ways that Christ taught to live and act. This part is seriously missing from most churches curriculum when it comes to the teaching part of the great commission. Churches are good about teaching orthodoxy but they are not so good about teaching orthopraxis. The orthopraxis part would be teaching them the Way of Christ.

As The New Interpreters Study Bible notes on Matthew 28 states, “Jesus commissions the disciples. Like Hebrew prophetic call narratives, the risen Jesus encounters the disciples (the church) and overcomes their doubts (28:17) to commission them (with reassurance) for worldwide mission (28:18-20).” So the great commission is a command to go out in to the entire world to make disciples but it is also a call narrative to the disciples and the Church. It is a call narrative due to Jesus calling them to do so. In order for Jesus to command the disciples (and us) to do this, we need to be called to do so first. The modern church is called to go to all the ends of the earth, both local and worldwide. With the introduction of the disciples doubting in verse 17 shows that the disciples are not perfect and are just plain human. This tells me that we do not have to have right doctrine (orthodoxy) and right practice (orthopraxis) in order to do mission, we just need to do it because we are commanded to do so. Furthermore, in the New Interpreters Study Bible states about Matthew 28: 19-20a is, “Disciples do not live for themselves. Jesus commissions this group of Jewish and Gentile disciples that lives out Jesus’s teachings. To do so is to be an alternative community with commitments and practices that are antithetical to Rome’s values and practices”. In addition, in the same commentary notes: “Instead of military power, it employs compassionate power, healing mercy, an inclusive community, and life-giving words to proclaim and enact God’s empire”. What this commentary tells me is what our readings have essentially have been saying. The church in doing evangelism needs to be countercultural and antithetical to “Rome”. Western Christendom took the Great Commission to go make disciples of all nations, literally. However, what Christendom forgot was Jesus’s teaching to be countercultural so half way missing the point of the great commission, especially the part “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you”. Christendom missed the mark when it came to creating an inclusive community that is compassionate and like Christ. They tried to bring God’s empire but instead it was a purely human empire. What is essential to fulfill the great commission is that “Jesus commissions this group of Jewish and Gentile disciples that lives out Jesus’s teachings”.

A summary definition that Darrell Guder gives of evangelism, and I resonate with, is, “The benefits of knowing God’s love in Christ cannot be separated from the vocation to become witnesses to that healing love in the world into which Christ sends his church. The mission of God in Christ has the whole world in view. Evangelism is communication of good news, meant to be communicated to everyone everywhere, like the sower of the Gospel parable spreading his seed on every kind of soil as he crosses the field. The over-arching Biblical description of the church’s purpose is “witness,” which is public demonstration of what God has done and is doing in Christ so others may make decisions about the claims of this message.”[2]

Which now leads to the question, what is missional ecclesiology? Missional ecclesiology, according to a document put out by the PC(USA), and that resonates with Darrel Guder, is: “Missional ecclesiology demands more of the church than deciding which community service projects to undertake or setting congregational priorities for the coming year. Missional ecclesiology is a way of understanding the church. It begins with the missio Dei – God’s own “self-sending” in Christ by the Spirit to redeem and transform creation. In a missional ecclesiology, the Church is not a building or an institution but a community of witness, called into being and equipped by God, and sent into the world to testify to and participate in Christ’s work. The Church does not have missions; instead, the mission of God creates the Church.”[3] In addition “Mission does not happen at the initiative of the church; mission happens at the initiative of God. Mission is not an item on the “to do” list of the Church; the mission of God is the reason for the Church”[4]. So a basic missional ecclesiology of the church is that we are called to be sent ones, to be witnesses of the Lord Jesus Christ to the whole world. Without God, the Church would not have a mission. The Church exists to show God’s redeeming and graceful love to the world. We are not here in the world to win people to Christ or guilt people to come to Christ. Instead, our mission from God is to be a witness by being an example of Christ to the world.

What is the place of evangelism within a missional ecclesiology? A quote to start us off: “Just as Jesus sent the Spirit upon the community of his disciples to equip them with the gifts necessary to be his witnesses (Acts 1:8), so the Spirit continues to bestow on the congregation the gifts necessary for the ministry of witness. Individual believers are called in their Baptism to share in these gifts, and through the gifts of the Spirit to the Church they are sustained in their individual ministries.”[5] One of those gifts that the spirit equips us with, through missional ecclesiology, is evangelism. A definition of evangelism that Rick Richardson provides is: “Evangelism is telling the story of God’s ultimate victory…..Evangelism is inviting people to take their part in that big story.”[6] Evangelism looks different within a missional ecclesiology due to the fact that in that ecclesiology, evangelism is not about winning souls to Christ or saving people from hell. Rather, what that evangelism is within a missional ecclesiology is that it is about being a witness to the world. Basically the church should equip it’s people to go out in to the world and be a representative of Christ by being a witness, that is by leading by example.

In Rick Richardson’s book Reimagining Evangelism, he describes different ways of carrying out evangelism. Instead of being a sales person for Christ, he argues for being a travel guide evangelist instead. Subsequently, instead of a hell-fire and brimstone type of evangelism, he argues for a type of evangelism that goes along side of someone and guides them in their journey of life. This is not so much being a soul saver, rather it is about being a witness by building relationships with others. Then by building those relationships with others – they may see Christ in you. In a missional ecclesiology, evangelism includes the following: seeing ourselves as collaborators with others and helping them see where God is at work in their life already – in other words: “Evangelism could become an adventure in detection rather than a burden of making it all happen”[7]. Secondly, it is more about the community being equipped to do evangelism rather than just the individual to do so – “God is far more committed to raising up witnessing communities than to raising up witnessing individuals”[8] and “Belonging comes before believing. Evangelism is about helping people belong so that they can come to believe. So our communities need to be places where people can connect before they have to commit.”[9]

Another part of evangelism within missional ecclesiology is that is about friendship rather than agenda, “But the model of conversations with spiritual friends delights in the relationship itself and rejoices over every spiritual conversation. As Brian McLaren likes to say, we count conversations and not just conversions. So we learn the art of spiritual friendship and authentic conversation.”[10] In addition, evangelism is more about story than dogma within this model. As Rick Richardson puts it, “The new model doesn’t lose those truths but realizes we don’t start there. People today are much more concerned about an experiential reality of God than about dogmas and beliefs. Whenever we have been able to tell a story about God’s reality, then we have had good spiritual conversation. We have evangelized!”[11] Furthermore about evangelism in this new model, “The old model emphasized how we could be forgiven of our sins and go to heaven after we die…” but in this new model of evangelism it is more about seeing the kingdom as being here a now and not the future. Lastly, this new model is more about journey, then winging people, “The new model, a model based on the image of journey, sees all of us as moving either toward the goal or away from the goal.”[12] It is our job to help people on this journey with us and Christ.

Now to explore some models and methods of evangelism that are consistent with my theology of evangelism and that is consistent with the missional ecclesiology I have explained thus far. I will be using Rick Richardson’s book Reimaging Evangelism to explain models of evangelism. First off, “Here is Jesus’ secret to powerful evangelism. He is a collaborator, a partner. He does only what he sees the Father doing.”[13] Moreover, “Jesus is our model for witness, just as Jesus is our model for life. Our evangelism is often ineffective and guilt ridden because we think it all rides on us. Jesus reminds us that we can do nothing on our own. The only witness that bears fruit is collaborative witness, directed by the Holy Spirit.” [14] It is absolutely essential that we understand that. We can do nothing on our own when it comes to mission; we need to be empowered by the Holy Spirit to do so. We need to “intentionally listen and discern what God is already doing so we can ride the wave of the Holy Spirit’s witness in the lives of others”[15]; this is so we can be an effective witness. What are skills that we need to listen to and for the Holy Spirit, first off “we listen to the whispers and nudges of the Holy Spirit to show us where God is at work in the lives of those around us”, secondly “we ask questions of others to find clues for where God is already at work in their lives”, and thirdly “we collaborate with God in prayer for seekers and skeptics and with the seekers and skeptics” [16] that we are in interactions with. Also here are some questions you can ask God in prayer: “Jesus, where are you already at work? Lord, lead me to people who are receptive. Is there someone you want me to talk to, care for or pray with? Is there someone here who is hurting?”[17] Those questions to God in prayer can lead you to people who need a witness.

Secondly, “Most people today will come to faith in the context of a community. Belonging comes before believing. Evangelism today is about helping people belong so that they can come to believe. There are a number of reasons for this shift to a central focus on community in the process of conversion, but none may be as important as the parallel shift from a culture in which Protestant faith is dominant to a culture that is postmodern and post-Christian.”[18] This, I see, as a primary way of “conversion” due to the fact that (1) my job as a future pastor is somewhat dependent on being apart of a Christian community and (2) what people need and lack these days is authentic community where they can be themselves and let loose. Community is essential for bringing people to Christ due to the fact that Christianity is all about Christian formation in community since the early church. We become disciples by being apart of a community that is learning about Christ and learning how to live in that way. So belonging before believing is essential due to people, before becoming apart of something, need “their needs met first”. If the church doesn’t meet their so-called needs, they move on. Thus, a way for a local church to help people belong so they will believe is be intentional in the way we welcome guests. A way to do this is to have a welcoming committee who intentionally does this on Sunday before, during, and after worship and than have the pastor follow up with those people during the week or on Sunday. Furthermore, if the people are not in the door yet is that you invite them to a program like a Wednesday night program that includes dinner and a speaker. This is a good way to get people in the door. I have seen the belonging before believing happen at the local church I am from. We have had various “un-churched” people join the church due to this Wednesday night program and we have had “churched” people join our church through this program as well. This belonging before believing I believe is essential in evangelism. People need to feel comfortable first before you evangelize them with orthodoxy and so forth. If they are not comfortable with you they will not let you influence whether you are an individual or a community.

Therefore, once the person feels they belong, that leads to helping them come to believe. As Rick Richardson states: “Whenever people embrace a new identity-a transformation that is at the heart of conversion-they are embracing the community that makes that identity possible. And with that comes adoption of the language and conceptual framework that constitute this community. Identity, community, language and conceptual framework are all so interrelated that you cannot separate their roles in the conversion process.” Hence, in order to lead the person to believe after they feel they belong is to help them embrace their new identity in Christ. This is step one in leading them to believe – the heart has to be grabbed first. Consequently, this leads the community to embrace that person so they embrace the community. A good way to do this is get the person involved with different aspects of the church life in whatever they are comfortable with. This can be ushering, helping in the kitchen, helping with the AV system, or even getting them involved in a committee where the person’s passion is (like the mission or Christian education committee; I have seen this work).

Additionally, in order for them to come to believe, someone needs to explain the language and conceptual framework that constitute the community. This can be done one-on-one or in some type of introduction class. A big hindrance in people not joining a church or becoming a Christian is the language learning curve. As Marcus Borg states in his book Speaking Christian: “Christian language has become a stumbling block in our time. Much of its basic vocabulary is seriously misunderstood by Christians and non-Christians alike. Big words like salvation.. Jesus, and Bible and collections of words like the creeds, Lord’s Prayer, and liturgies have acquired meanings that are serious distortions of their biblical and traditional meanings.” [19] Furthermore, “Christian language is grounded in the Bible and postbiblical Christianity. It includes the words used, heard, sung, and prayed in worship, devotion, teaching, and community. To be Christian is to know, use, and be shaped by this language—to live one’s life with God within the framework of this language.”[20] Thus, in order for the person to believe after belonging, we need to help them understand our language. We need to help them be shaped by our language so their lives can be transformed. After learning the language, another hindrance is explaining the conceptual frameworks and structure of the church. This can be a hindrance especially at a church that is apart of a denomination that has a certain polity they follow. The way this is usually done in a PC(USA) church is that we explain our structure, frameworks, language, and beliefs in a new members class. However, that is not always effective. So another good way of doing that is before they become a member is that a member of the church mentors that person along the way to help them in the journey of believing after belonging. Once they join the church, that mentoring continues so that person feels they belong.

Before I close, here is another view of belonging before believing from Living into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us by Christine D. Pohl: “.…..Good communities and life-giving congregations emerge at the intersection of divine grace and steady human effort…..The biblical images suggest closer and more significant relationships and a life together that draws people in. Religious as well as secular researchers have recently rediscovered the human need to “belong,”…a place where one is known, or at least a group where everybody knows your name… Many of us are looking for community.”[21] The Church should take on the need for community by providing a space where people can come and just feel they are valued for nothing in return. Also we should help them comprehend that they are created in the image of the Triune loving, redeeming, and sustaining God.

In closing, we as individuals and congregations should help people belong so they can believe. Furthermore, we need to make it known that the Christian life is all about a journey, not a destination. So, that needs to be in our evangelism like Richardson advocates for. As Marcus Borg advocates in the book mentioned earlier, we need to change the way we speak about our faith. We need to redefine our vocabulary, the ways we function and behave, and especially about explaining what our faith is all about to others so people feel like they can belong and believe.

[1] Hooker, Paul. “What Is Missional Ecclesiology?” Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – Resources. August 1, 2009. Accessed October 26, 2014. http://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/oga/pdf/missional-ecclesiology09.pdf.

[2]Hooker, Paul. “What Is Missional Ecclesiology?” Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – Resources. August 1, 2009. Accessed October 26, 2014. http://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/oga/pdf/missional-ecclesiology09.pdf.

[3] Guder, Darrell. “Evangelism and Justice: From False Dichotomies to Gospel Faithfulness.” Unbound. February 1, 2012. Accessed October 26, 2014. http://justiceunbound.org/journal/current-issue/evangelism-and-justice/.

[4]See Hooker, Paul footnote above

[5] Hooker, Paul. “What Is Missional Ecclesiology?” Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – Resources. August 1, 2009. Accessed October 26, 2014. http://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/oga/pdf/missional-ecclesiology09.pdf.

[6] Rick Richardson. Reimagining Evangelism: Inviting Friends on a Spiritual Journey (Reimagining Evangelism Curriculum Set) (Kindle Locations 197-198). Kindle Edition

[7] Rick Richardson. Reimagining Evangelism: Inviting Friends on a Spiritual Journey (Reimagining Evangelism Curriculum Set) (Kindle Locations 208-210). Kindle Edition.

[8] Rick Richardson. Reimagining Evangelism: Inviting Friends on a Spiritual Journey (Reimagining Evangelism Curriculum Set) (Kindle Locations 210-211). Kindle Edition.

[9] Rick Richardson. Reimagining Evangelism: Inviting Friends on a Spiritual Journey (Reimagining Evangelism Curriculum Set) (Kindle Locations 214-216). Kindle Edition.

[10] Rick Richardson. Reimagining Evangelism: Inviting Friends on a Spiritual Journey (Reimagining Evangelism Curriculum Set) (Kindle Locations 217-219). Kindle Edition.

[11] Rick Richardson. Reimagining Evangelism: Inviting Friends on a Spiritual Journey (Reimagining Evangelism Curriculum Set) (Kindle Locations 221-222). Kindle Edition.

[12] Rick Richardson. Reimagining Evangelism: Inviting Friends on a Spiritual Journey (Reimagining Evangelism Curriculum Set) (Kindle Locations 234-235). Kindle Edition.

[13] Rick Richardson. Reimagining Evangelism: Inviting Friends on a Spiritual Journey (Reimagining Evangelism Curriculum Set) (Kindle Location 304). Kindle Edition.

[14] Rick Richardson. Reimagining Evangelism: Inviting Friends on a Spiritual Journey (Reimagining Evangelism Curriculum Set) (Kindle Locations 304-306). Kindle Edition.

[15] Rick Richardson. Reimagining Evangelism: Inviting Friends on a Spiritual Journey (Reimagining Evangelism Curriculum Set) (Kindle Locations 307-308). Kindle Edition.

[16] Rick Richardson. Reimagining Evangelism: Inviting Friends on a Spiritual Journey (Reimagining Evangelism Curriculum Set) (Kindle Locations 319-321). Kindle Edition.

[17] Rick Richardson. Reimagining Evangelism: Inviting Friends on a Spiritual Journey (Reimagining Evangelism Curriculum Set) (Kindle Locations 345-346). Kindle Edition.

[18] Rick Richardson. Reimagining Evangelism: Inviting Friends on a Spiritual Journey (Reimagining Evangelism Curriculum Set) (Kindle Locations 453-456). Kindle Edition

[19] Borg, Marcus J. (2011-04-12). Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—And How They Can Be Restored (Kindle Locations 65-69). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[20] Borg, Marcus J. (2011-04-12). Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—And How They Can Be Restored (Kindle Locations 125-127). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[21] Christine D. Pohl. Living into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us (Kindle Locations 41-48). Kindle Edition.

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