Evangelism…An Encounter With Christ in the Church

          In my experience, churches have been very programmatic in regards to local missions and evangelism.  That is, evangelism is something done usually by the ministry staff and a few other members who feel the call and burden to share their faith with others and lead people to faith in Jesus through evangelistic Bible studies.  I am not opposed to church ministers and others sharing their faith with others and being involved in evangelistic Bible studies…in fact, I love such opportunities and wish there were more of them.  However, I do believe the programmatic approach that has led to local missions and evangelism being something which a church does rather than what a church is must change.  The programmatic approach may have worked in the era of Christendom but it ought to be clear based on casual observance that this approach is failing in the emerging post-Christendom era

          So if it is no longer sufficient for a missions and evangelism to be just one of many things a local church does, what then does it mean for a church to be a local mission and evangelistic people?  I have been reading a fabulous book titled Transforming Conversion: Rethinking the Language and Contours of Christian Initiation by Gordon T. Smith.  The book stresses that conversion is a journey rather than a punctiliar event, that to be converted is to become a disciple initiated into the journey of being transformed into the image of Christ rather than just an event of getting saved.  Thus evangelism cannot be:

…an act of helping people cross some border, getting them in the door.  It will rather be an invitation to a particular life, according to a specific vision of human life and existence.  …evangelism at its best will hold out a specific vision of the Christian life, a vision that is theologically consistent, with biblical and theological coherence, and compelling as an authentic vision of what it means to be mature in Christ.  (p. 108)

It is also interesting to note that Smith argues persuasively why repentance and baptism are the normative means of how a person becomes initiated into this journey (chapters 6-8 are devoted to the necessary importance of repentance and baptism).

          For Smith, in order for the church to be evangelistic then it must be “Christ-focused” in everything it does.  As such, evangelism “is about being a people, on a journey and in mission, who together are a place and a people in dynamic communion with the ascended Christ” (p. 184).  This means that in everything the church is and does, the story of Jesus Christ, his life and his reign, must be encountered in us by the seeker who begins to journey along with us.  Thus God can be seen at work in who the church is and what the church does.

          There are two further consequential points of practicality that need to be considered then.  First, in most Churches of Christ, worship is a central gathering point of the church as a collective people.  This means that our worship time and everything that is done during that time is done so with the intentionality of encountering the story of Christ as it is lived in us.  This is not about progressive vs. traditional worship nor is it about a rigidly planned vs. a spontaneous worship.  This is about asking questions about what songs we sing and the prayers we offer, and when we read scripture, etc…  Does it lead us into an encounter with the Christ or is what we are doing in worship a result of rote routine, last-minute default choice, or because that is how it always has been done?

          Secondly, because evangelism occurs when the seeker encounters the ascended Christ within the church community, it means particular attention to the message the church preaches and teaches.  A former professor of mine had a saying “What we win them with is what we win them too.”  Some think evangelism means convincing people of why their church doctrine is right over the nother church.  Others think evangelism means promising a certain degree of prosperity (i.e., health and wealth) upon conversion.  Yet, what we win them with is what we win them too.  Win a person with the message of church doctrine and it becomes evident when the only “gospel” message they are passionate about is why their church is right and other churches are wrong.  Win them with a message of prosperity and it becomes evident when they give up faith in the face of a promise that has proven to be false.  But if we win them with the story of God’s redeeming work in Jesus, the story of his life and death, his resurrection and ascension, and the promise of hope in his second-coming, it becomes evident in the way they talk about Jesus and are drawn to his life as the template for their own life. 

          Churches must come to accept that their evangelistic witness is the sum total of everything they are and do as an encounter with the ascended Christ, in which God is seen to be at work.  Evangelism is not something done as program of the church but is who we are…a living witness of Jesus Christ.  That changes everything about the way we live as a community of worship, hospitality, and mission.

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2 responses to “Evangelism…An Encounter With Christ in the Church

  1. Right on:
    when Christ is Lord of the warp and woof of your life, in its totality, then when we enter into relations with folks, they will encounter in us the life of Christ as it is being lived in our lives.
    When I was a podiatric medical student a few years ago, I was avoiding a particular young lady, because she was attractive, but not a Christian. But the Lord kept throwing her in my path in the most unusual ways. She was also deathly sick with an auto-immune disease, either Lupus or one of its cousins. She fell very sick, and we prayed for her. She managed to return to school and wound up in a neuro-sciences anatomy lab with me sharing a tray of spinal cords for dissection. It was quite apparent that the Lord was throwing her in my path (spiritual discernment), and because of that it seemed that the only safe path was for my conversation with her to be about the Lord.
    I shared my walk and the experience of knowing Him and being led by the Spirit. She had learned of spiritual reality by being involved in some witch craft, and had rejected Calvinism ten years before because it meant that God decided that her friends were going to hell. She had no interest in such a God; but the Christianity that she had had back then was all doctrine and ethics and not on-going experience of the living God; no Theosis.
    Well, she became jealous, then decided she wanted what I had, and she prayed a prayer of repentance. Next day she had a baptism of the Spirit and a powerful experience that turned out to be a healing, something she had not even asked for. It turns out that her Lupus had also begun ten years ago, about the time she turned from Presbyterianism. She then went on to be baptized as she had not as a Presby. (I called the local Church of Christ for the use of their baptistry and they refused (hrmph).)
    Turns out that young lady also wound up being called to be my wife.

  2. Back in the Seventies there were a bunch of Campus Crusaders; really gung-ho. Led several hundred thousands of college students in decisions for Christ. Then they went back and did a survey, and discovered that not one in a hundred persisted. They were shocked and went back to the drawing boards to figure out what was the Church and how did it do mission. Several thousand of them all over the US formed the Evangelical Orthodox Church, because they had read history. But then they realized that any attempts to re-create the Church were synthetic, and that God’s call was to unite to the Church, not to restore it. So, they were eventually re-united through the Church of Antioch- where the believers were first called Christians. One very active and zealous Christian in that bunch was a direct descendent of Zacchaeus, mentioned in the Gospels. My Bishop was from the valley of the Christians in Syria, where, until the end of the 19th Century they prayed the Liturgy in Aramaic- they were the descendents of those who fled Jerusalem before the depredations of Titus in seventy AD. Lord have mercy, what a narrative.

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