Creating an evangelistic movement in our churches starts with the way we think about church in the first place.
By David Gustafson
A community of disciples is the primary environment for nurturing new Christians, providing for their spiritual protection, direction and edification. New disciples need good soil in which to grow. The condition and health of this environment is important because it either nurtures or stunts spiritual development. In part, the congregation’s leadership shapes this environment as the Holy Spirit works to nurture disciples and produce in them spiritual fruit in Christlike character and witness.
While some churches have discovered how to make outreach among members a significant part of their ecclesial life, many have not. If believers are to make sharing the good news of Jesus Christ a regular rhythm in their lives, church leaders must learn to cultivate a healthy environment for evangelism. Pastor Kevin G. Harney reports:
“I’ve been conducting an informal survey of church leaders. I’ve asked more than a thousand of them this simple question: ‘Is the problem with people in your church that they are overzealous and too forceful in bringing the gospel to their friends, neighbors, and community?’ After listening to answers, I then ask, ‘How many of you feel that what your church members need is a warning to back off and be a little tamer when it comes to sharing Jesus with others?’ … The answer—none. Then I ask these same leaders, ‘How many of you would say the greater need is for the people in your congregation to be more impassioned, more committed and more zealous about sharing their faith?’ Though it’s not a scientific study, the best count I have to date is about 1,000 out of 1,000 people. In other words, I haven’t encountered a single leader who has complained that the people in their congregation are pushing too hard in the area of outreach.”
So leaders must ask: How do we shape an environment that fosters sharing the gospel with others? How can we equip and encourage disciples for sustained witness in their neighborhoods, workplaces and third places? How can we mobilize believers to missionally engage those around them? Before we answer these questions, however, it is helpful to consider two ways the church has been organized for community life and gospel witness in history.
Clergy-Oriented vs. Disciple-Oriented Ecclesiology
For the early church, the way of Jesus was a revolutionary and countercultural force, offering an alternative to the way of the surrounding Greco-Roman society and power structures of the Roman Empire. After Christianity was legalized under Emperor Constantine in AD 313, the church became increasingly defined by rituals, buildings and authority structures as it moved toward Christendom with the political alliance of church and state. Nevertheless, prophetic and monastic communities formed and continued to teach the way of Jesus as a compelling alternative to the development of Christendom ecclesiology. Throughout church history the actions of such smaller communities including Anabaptists, Lutheran Pietists and early Methodists called people to more intentional disciple making that led to gospel praxis in word and deed.
The challenge in the West is that for centuries perceptions of the church have been shaped by a Christendom ecclesiology that defines church in a limited or restricted way, often by the kind of building in which a congregation meets, the doctrinal beliefs that it holds and the pastor it employs. Even evangelical churches—especially those that identify historically with free-church traditions of gathered believers and have stood in contrast to the established state churches—have gravitated over time toward Christendom ecclesiology, in part because of opposition from the state churches and in part from voluntary conformity to the pattern of the established churches, seeking an “ecclesial respect” from others. The West has tended to see Christendom ecclesiology as normative for the church.
In light of this historical background, two types of unspoken arrangements or social contracts emerged between the pastor and the congregation. The first, following from Christendom ecclesiology, is the clergy-oriented church, where the underlying social contract says that believers ought to attend worship services, listen to sermons and tithe their income, and in turn the pastor will care for and feed them spiritually, mostly by preaching from the pulpit but also by visiting them in their homes or in the hospital when they are sick. Often in this model the pastor is the sole provider of religious services as he cares for souls within the parish.
The second type is the missional, disciple-oriented church, in which the underlying social contract holds the pastor or elders responsible to equip the congregation for ministry and gospel witness. While the pastor is a shepherd who leads and feeds the flock, he equips disciples for works of service (1 Pet. 5:2; Eph. 4:11). Under this social contract the church understands itself as a gathered community that is equipped and sent into the broader community in order to participate in God’s mission. Certainly the pastor must “preach the word” and “do the work of an evangelist,” but the emphasis is to prepare disciples and leaders who will make other disciples (2 Tim. 2:2; 4:2, 5). The inspired Scriptures are taught in order to prepare disciples for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16–17). Whereas in the clergy-oriented church of Christendom the locus of evangelism and ministry is centralized in the pastor and pulpit, in the disciple-oriented church evangelism and witness are decentralized and multiplied in believers in mission to the broader community and context.
In order to shape a gospel-sharing culture within a local congregation today, church leaders must resist the gravitational pull of Christendom ecclesiology. Darrell L. Guder says:
“We are handicapped by some of the assumptions and attitudes of Christendom that are still very powerful in our minds and congregations. Our ecclesiologies of institutional maintenance and the tending of the savedness are not adequate to that task that faces us now. We cannot evangelize under the assumption that most of what it means to be a practicing Christian is already handled by one’s being born and raised in so-called Christian North America—so that all one needs to do is accept Jesus, join a church and perhaps start tithing. … And much of our understanding and practice of the church’s calling and ministry is based upon a reductionistic ecclesiology that cannot pretend to be ‘evangelical’ because it is not ‘missional.’”
Thus, pastors and church leaders must stay the course of disciple-oriented ecclesiology with a missional identity that draws from the disciple-making practices of Jesus and the mimetic example of the apostle Paul. Anglican bishop John Finney says, “It is easy to see ecclesiology as a dry as dust subject. But how a church is organized, what its theology of the body of Christ is and how this is expressed is of the greatest importance for evangelism.” We have to keep pushing toward the making of people into “little Christs,” into disciples.
To prepare people for witness and evangelism in the neighborhood and broader community, we may need to reformulate our received ecclesiology and pastoral theology, reshape congregational expectations and renegotiate the pastoral job description to be that of an exemplar, equipper and encourager as well as an expositor. The aim is to create a culture that prepares and reinforces gospel praxis, shaping the local body of disciples in a way that supports, practices and celebrates evangelism.
Excerpted from Gospel Witness by David Gustafson. Copyright 2019. Wm. B. Eerdmans. Used by permission.