The Mission of the Church: Evangelism, Part 1

Eucharist-Mission1When we say “mission,” most people think “evangelism” — which is not wrong. It’s just very badly incomplete and in desperate need of repair.

I’m hardly an expert, but I would like to share a little of my learning, for whatever it’s worth.

  1. Thompson is, I believe, quite correct to notice how evangelism is at best a very minor theme of scripture. The Great Commission is, of course, an important evangelism passage, but after it, there’s not much. Paul’s many epistles to churches he founded or planned to visit rarely speak of evangelism except indirectly. He doesn’t urge his readers to go tell their neighbors about Jesus. He urges them to live together as Jesus would have them live. Therefore, our most important evangelism is found in first being the church we’ve been called to be. We’ve got to live the Sermon on the Mount.
  2. On the other hand, I think the far more serious error is in imagining that the world will find Jesus all by itself, without sacrifice or cost by us.

(Rom. 10:9-15 ESV)  9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.  11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.”  12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him.  13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?  15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 

This is not only a key “plan of salvation” passage, it’s a key “send missionaries!” passage. If no one preaches Jesus, no one will be saved. And thereby Paul destroys the “available light” theory that good people who’ve never heard of Jesus will be saved. That theory can’t be reconciled with “And how are they to believe in him of whom they’ve never heard?”

3. Our traditional evangelism is built on a questionable theory of atonement — and our theology pretty much begins and ends with: “You’re a sinner, you’re going to hell, and Jesus agreed to take the punishment that you deserve — if you’ll be baptized. (And then we’ll teach you about the Five Acts and a whole bunch of other rules.)” You’ll notice that our best thinkers are urging us to think and teach and evangelize in light of a more complete story — the fuller narrative of scripture. After all, our usual “pitch” ignores the Kingdom, the Lordship of Jesus, the curse on creation, the brokenness of humanity, and the church. We only speak of individual brokenness and individual fear of hell and individual hope for salvation — and then wonder why our converts don’t want to attend church.

I’ve frequently quoted this from Mark Love (paragraphing modified) — and I will continue to quote it until it becomes second nature to everyone here.

Let me start, though, with a scene from last night at Starbucks. I was sitting uncomfortably close (within my introvert perimeter) to a young couple having a very passionate conversation about God. She was a winsome evangelical. He was a skeptical something-or-other. She was giving this her all, because it seemed to me, they were serious about each other, but she could only marry a Christian. This was an all-or-nothing moment for her and she was pulling out all the stops. And she was getting creamed.

She was not getting creamed because she lacked the intellectual ability or because he was a better debater. She was getting creamed because she had a story that’s tough to defend. It wasn’t just that he disagreed with her. He was offended by her view of God.

Her story was predictable. All of us are sinners, and it takes only one to make us unacceptable to God. And there’s hell to pay, literally. God can’t simply forgive us our mistakes. He has to have a victim before he can forgive, a blood sacrifice. So, he sends his own son to die for us, to appease his otherwise unappeasable wrath.

For the young man, this made God a monster. It failed for him precisely at the level of being moral. God really can’t forgive me for a mistake unless someone dies? With all that’s wrong with the world–disease, war, hunger, slaver–God is obsessed with who I sleep with? He kept telling her that he was a good person who cared for others and took care of the earth and cared about global issues of justice. God was going to send him to hell for pre-marital sex? (He did seem a little pre-occupied with sex).

She was preaching penal substitutionary atonement, which we often confuse with the gospel. But the gospel is much bigger.

What if she had started this way: we live in a world that is totally screwed up. Sex-trafficking, poverty, disease, environmental disasters. We’ve made a hash of it. (He agrees). And being a really good person isn’t the answer. We’re both really good people and know a lot of other really good people and we fix some things and some don’t get any better and some get worse (He agrees). Even science, which makes our lives better in so many ways, also threatens to wipe us from the face of the earth (He agrees). And my question is, where is God in all of this? (And he agrees and hopes you have a satisfying answer).

The Christian story says that God has revealed his power in a story of selfless love, which is the opposite of what the Bible calls sin and identifies as the root of this whole mess. God’s solution to the problem is not power as “control over” the contingencies of this life. Rather, the Christian view of the world is that God suffers with us, joins us, endures with us, and works for justice through paths of faithful love. Love, not as an emotion, but love as a way of always acting for us. And ultimately, this is the power through which all things will be made whole.

The death of Jesus on a Roman cross is a demonstration that there is no power or circumstance that places us outside of his love. And his resurrection from the dead says to us that the powers of sin and death don’t have the final word. And the church is a group of people who live by the power of this selfless love, which the Holy Spirit gives to us, and who live in resistance to all other powers that would shape life in distorting or unjust ways, who live as a sign of God’s future where all things will be made whole.

This takes more than just good people or moral people. Christians hardly have that market cornered, but it takes people who share a commitment to this way of being in the world. And when you live this way with others, you learn to recognize the unmistakable ways that God shows up, like those moments of power when we learn to forgive each other the way God lavishly forgives us. And when I live in this story, I find myself being transformed by the love God. The way this world gets on you and in you and contaminates you and weighs you down with shame and guilt and condemnation is defeated. And this transformed way of life survives everything, even death. …

Maybe he buys it, maybe he doesn’t. But the point is a different starting place makes a huge difference. By moving the primary issue from the individual to creation and history, the story unfolds in a different way. And you might tell it differently than I did. For instance, Paul doesn’t tell it precisely this way. But he’s starting with a different audience. 

A better, more complete story of God makes for a different, better evangelism. And when people are converted, they aren’t converted to fear of hell but love for God.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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9 Responses to The Mission of the Church: Evangelism, Part 1

  1. David Himes says:

    I have a friend who lives in China and is seeking to introduce people there to Jesus. What I have learned from his experience is that the story of Jesus is not relevant until you settle the questions about God.

    This post hits the mark

  2. Price Futrell says:

    I was reading a book by a friend of mine yesterday and he said something along the lines that there is a revolution taking place in the church… Evangelism has been based on the concept that we are sinners and God is angry and He’s going to burn you alive in hell forever unless you repent. He suggested that perhaps a better way is to convey to people that we were created in the image of God. That we each have a light in us (spirit) that God is desperately trying to connect with because He loves us. That He wants a personal relationship with you !! I found myself agreeing that this new approach based on love and relationship would probably be far better received than shame and condemnation.

  3. (Another vanishing comment? I’ll try again, just in case that didn’t go through)

    Recognizing that this is an excerpt from a single blog post, I still need to say that this presentation seems pretty short in one area: Jesus. He seems pretty incidental to this whole presentation.

    Mark said: “The death of Jesus on a Roman cross is a demonstration that there is no power or circumstance that places us outside of his love.”

    That’s it? All that is said about the cross when talking to a non-believer? It’s a demonstration?

    The power of the preaching in the New Testament was the cross. I love the emphasis on the Kingdom; we need more of that. I love the community focus; we definitely need more of that. But any time we present the gospel without the cross at the center of it, we’ve missed the point, in my rarely humble opinion.

    Please tell me that Mark hasn’t thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

  4. Dwight says:

    Jesus said, “I have come to seek and save the lost”. Sounds like a mission statement to me.
    While Jesus did tell people of their shortcomings, he basically pushed them towards Himself as the King and the Kingdom.
    When Peter taught salvation, he taught Jesus. When Paul taught salvation, he taught “Jesus and Jesus crucified”.
    Should we teach Hell, well yes, because it is a reality, but we should mostly teach Jesus as the “way, the truth and the life”, the savior, who will save us from death and Hell.
    We often teach people to run from the lion, by looking behind us, instead of running towards the light, which requires us to look straight ahead and fixated on the goal.

  5. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Dwight,

    This is one of the most misunderstood statements in scripture.

    (Lk. 19:8-10 ESV) 8 And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” 9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

    It’s an allusion to —

    (Ezek. 34:15-16 ESV) 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.

    First, Jesus is claiming to be God — because it is God who is prophesied as becoming the shepherd for his people, the Jews.

    Second, in Eze, God is promising social justice: “I will feed them justice.” He will bring the rich down and lift the poor up — which is exactly what’s happening with Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus had been exploiting the weak sheep, abusing his power, and now he is repenting and restoring social justice by no longer abusing his office and giving back the money he extorted.

    See how well this fits the Eze prophecy:

    (Ezek. 34:20-21 ESV) 20 “Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad”

    To seek and save the lost is not just to evangelize. It’s to restore shalom. It’s to set things right — so that Jesus provides the just rule of the true King, so that the wealthy no longer take advantage of the poor.

    So, yes, salvation by faith in Jesus is part of the story — but it’s much more.

    So I agree: it’s a great mission statement. It’s just one that we under-understand.

  6. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Tim,

    You raise an interesting point.

    First, Mark says,

    The Christian story says that God has revealed his power in a story of selfless love, which is the opposite of what the Bible calls sin and identifies as the root of this whole mess. God’s solution to the problem is not power as “control over” the contingencies of this life. Rather, the Christian view of the world is that God suffers with us, joins us, endures with us, and works for justice through paths of faithful love. Love, not as an emotion, but love as a way of always acting for us. And ultimately, this is the power through which all things will be made whole.

    The death of Jesus on a Roman cross is a demonstration that there is no power or circumstance that places us outside of his love. And his resurrection from the dead says to us that the powers of sin and death don’t have the final word.

    I’m pretty sure that all of this is about Jesus. Rather than preaching penal substitutionary atonement, I hear Mark speaking more in terms of a blend of Christus Victor (Jesus defeating the powers) and the NT Wright point of view that the resurrection demonstrates inaugurated eschatology, that is, that the victory at the end of time is brought forward to the victory over death at Jesus’ resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus guarantees our resurrection. God’s defeat of death in Jesus (who will never die again) promises the same for those who follow him in his faithfulness by being faithful/having faith.

    But he adds to that Wright’s argument from Evil and Justice of God — that God’s love for us is shown not in his protecting us from all evil (obviously) but in joining with us an suffering evil just as we suffer evil. God can’t protect us from all harm, but he can dwell beside us and suffer along with us — and take some of the blows himself.

    Mark is admittedly HIGHLY compressed in his writing, but he was trying to throw a lot of deep stuff into a short presentation.

    As C. S. Lewis might say, this is deep magic.

  7. Yeah, okay, but…

    Mark is acting like he’s presenting something much more in line with the Bible than the nameless girl from Starbucks. But the New Testament consistently talks about preaching Jesus, preaching the cross, preaching the gospel of Christ… etc.

    Jesus is NOT a footnote in the presentation. Step away from penal substitutionary atonement if you feel there’s a more biblical explanation, but any presentation of the Kingdom that doesn’t focus on the King has completely missed the point of the story. Any presentation of the gospel that doesn’t understand the centrality of the cross falls short of presenting the good news.

  8. Had to comment… C.S. Lewis’ “deep magic” is penal substitutionary atonement. Irony that you would use that phrase. 🙂

  9. Dwight says:

    I agree Tim. The focus is squarely on Christ…the Son of God and savior.
    I agree somewhat Jay, in that I believe Jesus in that he said he came to “seek and save the lost” was from sin and death, not social from ills.
    But he also taught people how to act towards one another as a saint should. Jesus at one point said that “we should treat our brother with love since he was made in God’s image as well”. And to not feed your neighbor is to not feed Jesus.
    On the other hand Jesus didn’t come to earth to repeal slavery or make all equal in power and position or even roles or monetarily…this would happen after our death. In fact the rich would arguably have a harder time reaching heaven than the poor. The poor while suffering were not at a disadvantage spiritually.
    It was Jesus love and compassion that made him heal and feed others and it should be ours as well.

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