Thursday, October 31, 2019

Revisiting Our Evangelistic Mandate

Sunrise over Nashville
Alycia Janelle Art
"To Make Christ Known"

What is the Christian church supposed to be doing? 

A few years ago while trying to draft a purpose statement for the church I was pastoring, I found it difficult to not “borrow” the famous slogan of Dawson Trotman, founder of the Navigators:  “To know Christ and to make Him known.”

Who could possibly improve upon those words?  I still think that Trotman’s statement profoundly summarizes the two greatest priorities of the Christian life:
  1. Knowing Christ intimately and 
  2. Making Him known to a world that does not yet know Him.
When we get to know Jesus deeply, we cannot help but become overwhelmed with His heart for people—especially those who do not yet know Him. The mandate to “go into all the world,” to “preach the Gospel,” and to “make disciples” becomes a purpose that we gladly embrace. 

How can the church practically live out Christ’s heart for the world?  The answer is found in three key actions. 

International festival in Redding, CA
Photo by Alycia Janelle
1.  Preach the Gospel

Jesus said to “preach the Gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15).  Why preach?  

The Apostle Paul taught that people cannot believe in Jesus if they do not hear about Him, and the only way they can hear about Him is for someone to tell them, or preach to them (Romans 10:14).

Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians 1:21, the Apostle states that “it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.”  The spoken communication of divine truth will always have the power to persuade men’s hearts toward Christ. 

Evangelistic preaching will never be obsolete; it exposes the condition of the heart and introduces saving grace. Those who truly hear the Gospel become convinced of their need for Jesus. However, while evangelistic preaching does address the need of fallen humanity, ultimately it should not be "man-centered."

Why the concern over "man-centeredness"? Here is the point: evangelism is more about exalting Christ than it is about improving the human condition. Of course, we are supposed to be concerned about the human soul, but love for the lost is only part of what motivates us to reach them. 

The primary motive for evangelism is love for Christ. In other words, we reach out to the lost because Christ deserves to be honored, praised, and exalted through the lives of those people. Think about it. Evangelistic preaching is Christ-centered. 

Effective evangelistic preaching does not assume that people know how to become Christians. When speaking to an unsaved audience, the preacher would do well to steer away from saying things like, “As you know…,” or “You have heard the story of…,” because more likely than not, they don’t know, and they haven’t heard the story. The preacher needs to tell them, using terms that the unchurched person can understand.

Altar call in Europe
Photo by Alycia Janelle
Effective evangelistic preaching also provides an opportunity for response, such as through an altar call. Some pastors feel that once the message is preached, the people should respond after they walk out the door, living out the truth of the Word in their daily walk. From their point of view, altar calls are not necessary—perhaps even a distraction. They argue that an emotional “catharsis” at the altar is not what people really need. 

My counter-argument would be that much more than “catharsis” experiences occur in the altar. The altar call is a time for God-encounter. The altar call provides the focused setting in which God Himself can transform lives in remarkable ways. Besides, how can we be sure that unsaved people will know how to make the needed application of the Gospel message after they walk out the door?  Providing regular opportunities in the worship service for the unsaved to respond to the Gospel in a clearly defined manner makes a lot of sense.

Some question the effectiveness of evangelistic preaching in the context of a church worship service.  Aren’t most of those in attendance already saved? Perhaps that is true. However, when I was pastoring, I found that whenever I started preaching more evangelistic sermons, church members started inviting more unsaved friends to church. The result was that more seekers visited the church, resulting in more people coming to faith in Christ.

Others object to a regular evangelistic emphasis in church services stating that the Sunday morning gathering is a time for discipling believers. That argument is understandable; however, it cannot excuse a church from its evangelistic mission. If a church has two or more services on a Sunday, perhaps one of them could be designated as a regular evangelistic service.

Introducing people to Christ through the ministry of preaching in the church context is beneficial in that it immediately familiarizes seekers and new believers with the environment in which they will be nurtured. They experience the “new birth” in the presence of their new spiritual family.

While the ministry of preaching deserves the attention given here, its limitations as an evangelistic method should also be noted. Evangelistic preaching requires unsaved hearers to be present. Bringing the preacher and the unsaved hearers together is a matter that often requires a great deal of creativity and planning on the part of the church. Preaching works best when used in conjunction with other evangelistic methods.

Preaching is also limited in that many people will never accept an invitation to listen to a preacher.  “Personal evangelists” and non-confrontational methods are needed. 

Bill Johnson praying before teaching
Photo by Alycia Janelle
2.  Make Disciples

Jesus said to “make disciples” (Matthew 28:10).  I once thought that this part of the Great Commission meant that we were first supposed to get people saved, and then we were to take them through a process called “discipleship” in hopes that they would one day become an authentic disciple.
A careful examination of verse 10 reveals something a little different. Discipleship involves the ministry of teaching, and a disciple is made at the point when a person chooses to submit his or her life to that which is being taught—in other words, at the point of conversion.  From this point of view, the process of discipleship or teaching starts prior to conversion. Many people who come to faith in Christ do so because they have already become convinced of a number of foundational aspects or truths of the Christian faith.     

Can the ministry of teaching be used as an evangelistic method? The above interpretation of Matthew 28:10 suggests that it can. What are the implications for the teaching and discipleship ministries of the church? Rather than viewing discipleship ministries as exclusively post-conversion functions designed for the saints, perhaps creative ways need to be sought to include unsaved people in the discipleship processes of the church.

One ministry that effectively integrates discipleship and evangelism is the Alpha Course, a ministry that began among Spirit-filled Anglicans in England in the 1990s.  Alpha is a relational approach to establishing new believers.  It provides a ten-week opportunity to explore the validity and relevance of the Christian faith.  The course includes a practical introduction to the basics of Christianity centered around a meal, a talk, and small-group discussion.

Evangelistic art outreach
Photo by Alycia Janelle
3.  Go into Every Man’s World

Over the years, Oral Roberts University frequently paraphrased “Go into all the world” (Mark 16:15) as “Go into every man’s world.” The global aspect of the Great Commission should always be a priority; however, the “every man’s world” perspective is very important as well. Neighbors living on the same city block can be living in different worlds socially and culturally. How can the barriers be crossed to connect with “every man” in his or her world?

Will “every man” go to church on a Sunday morning to hear evangelistic preaching? Some men will, but not “every man.” While the scheduling of traditional methods such as revival services should be applauded, the question should still be asked, will “every man” attend these meetings? Again, some will, but not “every man.” To reach “every man,” the church needs to think and plan creatively and strategically. 

The planning of evangelistic events, both inside and outside of the church, is one way to strategize to reach the lost. Evangelistic events of multiple and varied types are often the answer to reaching people that would not otherwise be reached through traditional means. 

Why not conduct an evangelistic block party, alternative "Halloween" festivals (i.e., fall festivals), sidewalk evangelistic art activities, or outreach events at Thanksgiving and Christmas? Special days such as Mothers Day, Fathers Day, and Easter are good times to integrate an evangelistic emphasis as well. Baptisms, baby dedications, plays, concerts, and fellowship meals provide opportunities to invite a large number of unsaved relatives and friends.  Even conducting some of these functions in a location other than the church building may be a helpful innovation. 

A very effective way to move the church beyond its own walls is to conduct servant evangelism projects—projects geared to overwhelm the community with kindness. Christians should be encouraged to get involved in their communities, become outwardly focused, and help to serve both the felt and real needs of people through the love of Christ. 

It is time for the church to get beyond the “been there, done that” attitude regarding evangelism. The power of preaching and teaching is already resident within the church.  All that is usually needed in addition to these resources is a passion for Jesus that compels us to love people and a Spirit-directed strategy to connect with “every man” in his or her world. When we consider the great effort that Jesus made to get into every man’s world, it inspires us to do the same.

J. Randolph Turpin, D.Min.

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