For churches seeking a minister, a common theme seems to be the question of how to evangelize and grow as a church. Some churches realize this question is bigger than any simple answer while others seem as though the church just needs a minister who is good at starting new programs. This desire is certainly laudable but I would like to suggest that this is placing the cart before the horse. I’m not against programs, evangelism, and other ministries but any such movement and the way a church organizes itself for that movement must flow from the way a it follows Jesus and embodies the gospel among the community.
I’m reading Michael J. Gorman’s book Becoming The Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission, since it relates to my Doctor of Ministry studies. As the title suggests, Gorman argues that the churches Paul ministered among were not called just to believe the gospel but also become the gospel. This is what I mean when speaking of the way a church must follow Jesus and embody the gospel. Gorman describes this becoming the gospel as “…the church is a living exegesis of the gospel of God” (p. 43). That is, the local church serves as a faithful interpretation of the gospel, which is how the disciples participate in the mission of God.
[Let me pause here and point out too that faithful interpretation of the gospel does not mean a reproduction of first century, fifth century, sixteenth century, or even twentieth century ecclesial forms, as the interpretation must always speak contextually in the social-anguage of the local community but that is really another issue. I just want to be clear that we are not talking about restoring any past easier segment of the church, this is about participating in God’s mission of restoring life by reconciling people to be a new creation in Christ. Now back to the point.]
For Gorman, by becoming the gospel, a church becomes a proclamation of the gospel in word and deed. This must happen both in an inward (“centripetal”) and outward (“centrifugal”) direction. However, the deed of the gospel must always proceed the word of the gospel. Those worried about whether this diminishes the evangelistic need of teaching the gospel to those who do not belong to Christ need not worry. Such evangelism will happen naturally as the church becomes the gospel in deed.
Driving this point even further, Gorman says, “As they [local churches] become the gospel, they will have opportunities to speak the gospel” (p. 45). What he is getting at is the natural response of a church speaking the gospel by virtue of being what a church is always called to be, an embodiment of the gospel or, to use his words again, a living exegesis of the gospel. He illustrates this point by referring to a barking dog, which never needs someone to instruct it to bark… Dogs know naturally when to bark and how to bark so as to alert of a danger, warn a possible intruder, etc… Ergo, when churches become the gospel, they will naturally know how and when to speak the gospel.
So why is this so important? Beyond the need for local churches to become living embodiments of the gospel (which is immensely important), this also has something to say about not putting the cart before the horse. Local churches want to engage their community, evangelizing and ministering to people outside the body of Christ, which is a good thing. But instead of focusing on that per se, which is the cart, focus on the horse. That is, the focus should be on the formation of disciples who learn how to follow Jesus and embody the gospel amongst themselves and within their local community. So instead of asking how to develop a new evangelistic program, a church might ask:
- What does it mean to live as a follower of Jesus and what is involved?
- What changes (repentance) are necessary in order for a church to continue following Jesus?
- What particular practices are vital for embodying the gospel among various gatherings, different neighborhoods, and even in the home?
- What means of creative expression might help make this living gospel contextually intelligible among the local community?
I’m thinking out loud a bit with these question but I believe that by asking them and listening for how the Spirit of God speaks in the conversation, churches will begin seeing the way forward. When that happens, the beginning of renewal among local churches is at hand.