Missions, Evangelism, and Idolatry

          Missions, evangelism…the Christian bookstores are full of literature geared to assist churches at becoming more evangelistic and more missional.  For those called into the vocation of missions and ministry, there are even seminary degrees focused on the specific studies of missions and evangelism.  Few Christians would deny that in some way and some capacity, the church is called into mission and a part of that call is to evangelistically announce the good news of Jesus Christ to those not belonging to Jesus Christ and his church.  However, is learning to communicate the good news of Jesus Christ the only important factor for evangelism?  If “sharing, telling, preaching, teaching, communicating, etc…” the good news is the first thing that comes to mind, have we skipped a step?

          See if you can hear the evangelistic implications in this scripture where the prophet Jeremiah calls Israel unto repentance:

“If you, Israel, will return, then return to me,” declares the Lord.  “If you put your detestable idols out of my sight and no longer go astray, and if in a truthful, just and righteous way you swear ‘As surely as the Lord lives,’ then the nations will invoke blessings by him and in him they will boast” (Jer 4.1-2, TNIV). 

Here Israel is being called to abandon their idolatry but not simply because this is a detestable offence to God and his glory.  To be clear, idolatry is an offense to God.  However, this passage illuminates another problem with Israel’s unfaithfulness.  Israel was called to be the missional witness of the greatness of God and this was accomplished through faithfulness…by living in covenant relationship with God (cf. Duet 4.5-8).  Without Israel’s faithfulness, how will the nations come to know the awesome greatness of God?  This is what Jeremiah recognizes.  If only Israel will abandon their idolatry then the nations will “invoke blessings” by God and “boast” in God.

          God’s mission is to all nations of the world and his people are thus vessels through which he accomplishes his mission.  Assuming the punitive consequences of Israel’s idolatry, Jeremiah deals with the bigger implications:

If Israel will return to their proper place of covenant loyalty and obedience, then God can get on with the job of blessing the nations, which is what Israel was called into existence for in the first place.[1]

The missional purpose of God and the missional calling of Israel have been thwarted by Israel’s idolatrous disobedience (unfaithfulness) to God.  The point is clear:

Let Israel return to their mission (to be the people of YHWH, worshiping him exclusively and living according to his moral demands), and God can return to his mission – blessing the nations.[2]

Mission, God’s mission, and its evangelistic thrust for Israel is not accomplished simply upon their ability to effectively and truthfully communicate the blessings of God’s grace.  Prior to any preaching or sharing of such good news, Israel’s evangelistic effort hinges upon their faithful obedience to God.

          There are deep implications for the Christian church.  We are called to discipleship in Jesus, to live obedient (faith) lives unto Jesus who is Lord.  It is this life of discipleship that bears witness to the Lordship of Jesus.  While the church still preaches and communicates the good news, without the witness of faithful living our preaching and communications of good news appears useless.  To be candid…it makes no difference if the church preaches Jesus Christ as Lord but lives as though he is not Lord.  It made no difference if Israel declared the greatness of God while living as though the idols were great. 

          I raise this issue because I am increasingly convinced that idolatry has become the biggest challenge to the Christian church living in North America and specifically the United States (you can read my previous two posts Idolatry, Then and Now and Idolatry, Then and Now: A Follow Up to understand some of my reasons for making this claim).  Idolatry is an obstacle to our missional calling.  How can we convince the people of our community and culture to become followers of Jesus if we are caught up in idolatry, either in the way we live or by the things we worship?  By way of example, what good does it do to claim “one hope” (cf. Eph 4.4) in Jesus Christ but functionally live as though hope resides in our finances, careers, retirement, government, etc…?

          I am now living in Brighton, Colorado, a suburb of Denver, and have taken on the calling to help plant churches.  I am not the only one who has been called to this missional task.  Church planting efforts are taking place all over North America as well as all around the globe.  As part of this effort we must tell the good news of Jesus Christ but before we tell, our community must see a people who live out this good news in faithful obedience to Jesus.  This means we must deal with the issue of idolatry.  We must ask ourselves what are the idols, not only to call others out of such darkness but also to come out ourselves.  Until we deal with this issue, our vocal witness will remain weak at best and mute at worst.

Questions

  1. What are the idols of the North American culture?  How do we discern their identity and the cunning schemes by which people, even Christians, are ensnared into such idolatry? 
  2. With boldness and urgency, how do we truthfully but lovingly expose idolatry and call people to Jesus Christ within this context? 
  3. Assuming that a rejection of certain culture idols will result in an unwelcomed counter-cultural stance, what does it look like for a church to balance such a life with the open welcoming nature that Jesus also embraced the world with?

 


[1] Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 2006), 241.  In chapter 6, Wright discusses numerous Old Testament passages that connect this missional intent to Israel’s covenant life with God.

[2] Ibid.

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4 responses to “Missions, Evangelism, and Idolatry

  1. I whole-heartedly agree. I think the idols among us are as subtle as they are numerous. From relationships to nationalism to materialism, idols distract us from our true mission.

    I think that idol-rejection has to be tied into accepting the lordship of Jesus. We don’t just call people to give up something; we call them to replace the false with the real, the impotent with the omnipotent. That sounds like something we only preach to outsiders, but I think many believers need to learn the same lessons. (self included)

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  2. “…we call them to replace the false with the real, the impotent with the omnipotent.”

    That is a great statement of we and all others are called to. Thanks for the good insight Tim.

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  3. Rex, I think you’ve hit upon the sin of the Pharisees. No matter what kind of doctrine I teach, liberal or conservative, if I treat my wife ugly, have bitterness in my heart, look at porn… (list goes on) then our ministries are nothing but 9-5 jobs to give us insurance and a little spending money. Not really a good return on the investment now, is it?

  4. Jody B,

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. You are exactly right and this is one reason why the letters of the New Testament are not just worried about what Christians believe but also about how that belief demands a specific moral/ethical response.

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

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