Nothing focuses the mind like decline. It is a common rule that as football injuries begin to happen to middle-aged men and begin to heal more slowly, their desire to go running also quickens. Of course, this new habit creates still more injuries that heal even more slowly and only hasten the decline. Decline may focus the mind, but it does not always lead to the best of strategic remedies.
As churches struggle in a society that is either indifferent or antagonistic to Christianity, we become more and more precious about our churches. Decline hurts. We are acutely aware when they are lame, slow, old, conservative or irrelevant. But when we feel worried about the future of churches, and worry much about church, we often choose the wrong strategic remedy. I think the anxiety causes a very simple and understandable mistake. At the centre of the error is a confusion regarding church and evangelism. Because church feels like the problem, we are easily persuaded that we need a church-centred approach to growth, rather than a gospel-centred approach to growth. We need to fix our churches more, and more, rather than communicate the gospel more and more. For if evangelism and church are effectively the same thing, then success in one is success in the other. But I hope to show this understandable thought is an error and show the results of this error. But if you find that analysis a little dry, hang in there, because what I really hope to do in this post is give a renewed vision for evangelism beyond church.
An Understandable Error
The relationship of church and evangelism is confusing by nature because the relationship is so very close. It seems obvious that church and evangelism are intrinsically linked. They are. The evangel (gospel) is the thing which creates and grows the church. The church always co-exists with the evangel (the gospel). Take the gospel away and you may have a church-like building or even a church-like community, but it is not Jesus; church. Consider three obvious truths about the closeness of the gospel and the church:
- The deepening of a gospel-shaped life is what the church enjoys as the key reality beneath all church activity (Col 3:14)
- The proclamation of the gospel is what the church does now and will do in eternity and for eternity (Rev 5:12)
- The demonstration of the wisdom of God’s gospel is what the church showsby its existence before the hostile powers and authorities (Eph 3:10)
So we see that the church exists only by the gospel, and only where the gospel remains. Church and gospelling (evangelism) are, therefore, so close! They go hand in glove.
However, despite the closeness, we cannot make the hand the glove and we cannot make the church evangelism. Evangelism happens in church, for sure, but as we will see it often happens slowly and blurrily. But evangelism mostly exists outside the church, borne by scattered individuals as they bear the gospel. And it does not always create a church! This is clear in two places among many.
- The gospel produces opponents, and not always churches (Mark 13:9-13)
- The gospel is veiled to the perishing, and cannot make churches of them (2 Corinthians 4:1-3)
Clearly, evangelism does not only exist in churches and it nor does it always produce churches.
So you can see that the relationship between church and evangelism is close, but they are not the same thing. Evangelism is the instrument by which the church exists, but the church is not the only instrument of the evangel. Confusing the two is an understandable error, but it is an error. So when we think of how Christianity might grow, and even flourish, we must stop thinking always about church. We must think more of evangelism, and less of church.
The Results of Error
I have lived all of the following three unhappy results of this error of church-obsession. I have seen evangelistic pace slow, flexibility decline, and confidence in the gospel dim. How has the error produced this?
1. Church-obsession has made us slow
My observation is that where church and evangelism are not understood in both close relationship and right distinction from each other we will want to always take the church out for a walk in the world when we should be taking the gospel. A church is a heavy thing to carry on your back when you need to move light and quick. Before you can step out the door you must launch a website, create a service roster, and when you do step out you need to keep the stepping out co-ordinated together because you are, after all, a crowd. Paul is often regarded as a model church-planter. But Paul painfully shucked off churches even though he loved them in order to go elsewhere with the evangel (Acts 20). He was an evangelist, and his evangelism planted churches. However, he often left churches for the sake of evangelism. There is a cost to church-life in being an evangelist. We might well remember the reckless shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep in open country to pursue the one (Luke 15). I think from memory that this is recommended by Jesus as good shepherding. In contrast, the confusion of evangelism and church produces a cumbersome, slow mission. It also reduces our flexibility.
2. Church-obsession has made us one-dimensional
For all the talk of new churches, and hip churches, and churches for this and for that….a church is a church is a church is still a church. As long as we are comparing churches to churches we are amazed by the difference between the café church and the Church of High Liturgy. But we are still comparing apples and apples. When we allow other instruments of God’s mission into the picture we see a dazzling range of flexible alternatives in evangelism. When we stop only thinking anxiously about our churches, we think immediately of the beach missions of Scripture Union, Young Life clubs, outreach to seafarers, ISCF groups in schools, transport workers outreach, Catholic-focussed evangelism, Crusaders study camps, street outreaches, cross-cultural bridge-builders, University missions. An array of evangelism has historically happened without church being the giant that carries the mission! It is interesting to me that much of our discussion around cross-cultural ministry has been around whether we should plant culture-specific churches. This seems an end-product question to me. Why not just begin cross-cultural evangelism? But cross-cultural church-planting enters the discussion early whenever church, and not the gospel, has been made the main vehicle of evangelism. Our desire to refashion church in ever more interesting expressions is like listening to music on a very narrow bandwidth. We have, in fact, become more one-dimensional in evangelism than we realise. Our diversity of churches simply masks the fact that we now have less diverse ways of doing evangelism.
3. Church-obsession has made us confident-in-community, and less confident-in-the-gospel
I believe our very likable confidence in church as the mission-bearer has hidden our lack of confidence in the gospel as the mission-bearer. There is something essentially safe about doing mission by sitting next to your brothers and sisters. As we tinker with church promotion and communication strategy we feel edgy and on the verge of evangelism. But nothing could be more safe than redesigning a church to be more missional. I want to question whether our obsession with church might indicate a faint heart about sharing an unadorned gospel, by ourselves, without mates sitting next to us? In short, I believe our confusion of church and evangelism has made us slow, one-dimensional and under-confident.
Evangelism and the Church
Now we must state some positive paths. It is clear that churches can be more intelligible to their culture and more missionally-focused in their gatherings and life, and should be. That is good. But we need much more to recover a vision for evangelism where the load carried is as light as the gospel message, and feet can move swiftly because they are not keeping step with a congregational crowd. Where this happens, there is a simplicity to evangelism. After all, you have little present but a person and the evangel! There we can be confident of a trust in the evangel as the means of mission, for there is simply nothing else there to put the trust in! Such evangelism nourishes the church. The church cannot do without such evangelism, as it simply labours slowly under the weight of tasks and logistics. What the church should do is teach such evangelism. It should commission its evangelists and send them out. And it should not ask them to take the whole church with them. It should ask itself to pray for them, and send just enough as to support. It should be ready to assist when people come to church, and work hard to be clear and loving then. But we have to get church out of the way a little.
A Call to Evangelists and Partners of Evangelists
If you are an evangelist, do not clutter your calendar with church-building activities. Your evangelism will build Jesus’ church better than anything else you could do. If you are not an evangelist by gifting, then don’t engage in overly-long conversations about how we could make our church three-thousand percent better with evangelists. Don’t let that suck all the oxygen from evangelism which begins so far away from church that what church is or isn’t doesn’t matter so much. Instead, be a partner of evangelists – pray for them. Encourage them. Let them talk about it, and for heaven’s sake, let’s talk less about church.