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.