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Community and Evangelism

July 6, 2009
S. Michael Craven
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Apparently some might have perceived that I was suggesting Christians abandon personal evangelism in last week’s article. Certainly not! Let me also say I am not offering absolutes here. I am, like Christians have throughout the ages, seeking to understand and best express the mission of the church in light of our changing cultural and social reality.

What I am concerned with is that the Scriptures offer a much broader understanding of the gospel than the contemporary American church generally seems to understand and that this gospel of the kingdom demands expression beyond the exclusive act of individual presentations of propositional truths. Namely, evangelism must proceed from a distinct community that through its life together bears witness to Christ’s kingdom come into the world. This is not alternative to personal evangelism but rather a complementary and necessary part.

God is, by grace, gathering “a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9, ESV) the body of Christ. This body, the church, provides an essential witness that emanates from the visible unity and conduct of a people who are distinct from the world. An essential purpose of God’s called people, living in a particular relationship to each other, is to display evidence that God the Father has sent the Son to atone for the sins of men offering the hope of salvation (i.e., the gospel).

In Jesus’ high priestly prayer he first declares his authority “over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom [the Father has] given him” (John 17:2, ESV). Jesus later says “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world…” (17:6, ESV). This people is the corporeal church.

Later Jesus expands his prayer beyond the disciples to now speak of all Christians throughout history who would come to faith through their testimony.  Here Jesus specifically prays “that [we] may all be one” (17:21, ESV) just as he and the Father are one. Jesus is praying for a relational unity among Christians that is visible to the world. In the very next passage Jesus tells us why this relational unity within the body is necessary: “so that the world may know that [the Father] sent [the Son] and loved them” (17:23, ESV). This unity cannot be visible to the world unless they can actually see a particular people who are living in actual relationship to one another.

Earlier in John chapter 13, Jesus again emphasized the necessity of our relationships to each other as being essential to our witness in the world when he said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (13:35, ESV).

My point is this: the reductionist gospel, divorced from the kingdom, only emphasizes what an individual must do to be saved. I am not saying we shouldn’t share this. It is not community versus proclamation; it is both! However, there is an order to it. The lost individual is joined to the community of God’s people upon receiving salvation. Jesus gathered the first twelve and we have been gathering ever since. The visible community of God’s people must exist first. Because, as George Hunsberger so aptly wrote, “Before the church is called to do or say anything, it is called and sent to be a unique community of those who live under the reign of God” (Guder, Ed., Missional Church, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998], 103). Again, this distinct community, according to Jesus, provides credibility to the gospel message.

Of course, you must be always “be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you're living the way you are” (1 Peter 3:15, MSG). However, this implies that someone actually noticed you were living differently—presumably better. This better way of living is revealed in community through our interaction and life with other Christians. Jesus underscores this in John 13:35. One of the dangers of relying on individual lifestyle as our witness is that we fail as individuals almost daily. This then edifies the unbeliever in his hardened condition. Heaven forbid that an unbeliever judges Christianity on my life alone!

This is where the church in America has become so weak; and this weakness deprives the church of an essential witness that ultimately hinders the gospel proclamation. We are too individualistic, judgmental, divided, and guarded in our relationships. There scarcely exists a discernable Christian community distinct from the world that is distinguished by its love for one another. The modern American Christian treats his obligations to the body of Christ as optional, when they are not. This undermines an essential evidence of Christ come into the world. Our gospel proclamation lacks credibility because it rarely emanates from a community whose love for one another is all that evident or distinct.

It is within the community of God’s people that we both learn and practically express the selflessness to which every Christian is called. This self-sacrificial love, most demonstrated by the suffering Christ, is the radical evidence of conversion and the fact that Christ’s kingdom has come into the world. This is the overarching characteristic within the church that distinguishes it from the world. The call of Jesus is to lose your life (see Matt. 10:39); you must “turn from your selfish ways [and] take up your cross” (see Matt. 16:24). Scripture tells that we no longer belong to our selves but to God (see 1 Cor. 6:19–20, NLT).  

Clearly, God values the individual; but God also calls the individual to abandon his individualism and sinful sense of autonomy that elevates itself above others. We are called to a life of humility and submission to others (see Eph. 5:21). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls for even more radical acts of submission: to not resist those who are evil, not respond to offense, turn the other cheek, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. These are distinguishing features of kingdom life; when they are absent, we look just like the world and there is little evidence of Christ and his kingdom come into the world. To the natural man, this is impossible and so the supernatural intervenes in the form of God’s grace working in and through his people.

This is what I am emphasizing when I speak of community and of the different gifts and their varied expression in service of the gospel. Proclamation is only one of the ways in which we manifest the gospel of the kingdom; I will address that later. For now, it must be understood that there is an essential relationship between the visible community of God’s called people, the church and the proclamation of the gospel.

So I am stressing the recovery of relational unity (community) because it appears that this witness is most absent in the American church.

© 2009 by S. Michael Craven

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Responses
Response from : Steve LeBlanc  

July 6, 2009 8:15 AM
 

Classic example of the American Christian mind set of concluding either/or when it is a both/and truth. Well done Michael.


 
Response from : John  

July 6, 2009 8:41 AM
 

Amen and preach it, For further reference and deeper study, find John Stott's "Christian Mission in the Modern World".


 
Response from : Warren Greene  

July 6, 2009 9:39 AM
 

I appreciate this "corrective". Just as humanly speaking one cannot become a mature human without first being born, similarly one cannot become a mature Christian without first being "born again". One who exercises the gift of evangelism is as important to our Christian walk as is the obstetrician to our human walk. Nevertheless the other gifts also are necessary as is the love which is the substrate of Christianity and which builds and marks the community of believers.


 
Response from : Kevin Taylor  

July 6, 2009 10:27 AM
 

Very well put. I was a little put off last week by some of your comments concerning the lack of importance of personal evangelism. However, I am glad that you cleared up your view in this week's article. I completely agree that today's church has moved too far from the idea of "what I can do for others as my service to my Lord", and has gone into the realm of what can this church offer me and my family, similar to choosing a spa or country club instead of a corporate community of worship. We want salvation without a LORD. We either don't emphasize, or either we readily forget, that we are to die to self. People join a church for a ticket out of hell; but that is not the complete package that God is offering. If there is no evidence of change, other than reporting to duty on Sunday morning, then what is the difference in the rich ruler who recognized and wanted Christ's rewards, but went away sad because he would not give up his old life? You are right that our society is raising up selfish individuals; just look at the financial fiasco of our country and the world. Our churches continue to fill with members who want Christ's blessings but not his cross.

http://charter communications

 
Response from : Steve Nienhiser  

July 6, 2009 11:53 AM
 

It is my observation that this "loss of community" in American churches is partly due to the transient nature of individuals and families. Relationships and bonding take time and commitment. Unfortunately, the priority of building and maintaining relationships with a group of brothers and sisters in Christ for a lifetime is a foreign concept to most church leaders. Have you done any research on this issue that would show the trends of how Christians have increasingly "church-hopped" over the past 50 years. It is my belief, that the shallowness of our typical church relationships does not provide an avenue for the local church to be the salt and light it is called to be. I am looking for a church and other believers who recognize this issue and are ready to develop this community you describe. Thank you for your article.


 
Response from : Bob Gander  

July 6, 2009 6:27 PM
 

Within the church, the ever increasing faulty enlistment (members) has generated an immense amount of mistrust that has made us “guarded” in our relationships. Outside the church, the lack of outright persecution stagnates the social mix into a blended shade of gray. In church history, I believe this is unique to “The West”. My question is this: How is the church to demonstrate the unity of the body of Christ when there is no clear demarcation between the church and the world?


 
Response from : Keven Winder  

July 6, 2009 8:51 PM
 

This is a great article, but I'm not suprised at some of the pushback. I preached a sermon a few months ago about this very issue where the gospel is reduced to ones personal salvation. I equated it to going to Magic Mountain and only riding Colossus. Yes is a wonderful ride, but its not the only ride. The gospel is not the ingredients for salvation, but a lens through which we can see everything. When I do an action of pulling up my sock, I'm am recognizing that there is a small deficiency in the cosmos, and my imago dei tells me I can make a difference in this way, and that it will bring me some satisfaction and sense of purpose-be it small, I nonetheless fix my sock. The gospel is the power to adjust my sock or weed out my lawn because it is empowering me to build the promised city. The freedom and power to renew things are animated by the gospel, and the work of weaving together the unraveledness of our world via the people in it are visible only through the lens of the gospel. The gospel is so much bigger than personal salvation, but our Christian sub-culture has been too wounded for too long, its afraid to believe again. But God is raising up a people who aren't!

http://www,L2today.com

 
Response from : Joe Barcenes  

July 6, 2009 10:10 PM
 

very good article!

Would you help me pray for God to heal my finances and my body?

Please read my story at:
www.plea4help.com

God bless!


 
Response from : Jack Herman  

July 9, 2009 10:26 AM
 

Great article, Michael!

Thanks for the balanced view of the impact of the true gospel leading to true community. When people respond to Christ in truth, the love that they will feel for God's other children is the proof that the Spirit of God has come to them in truth.

Spirit-enabled witnessing leads to the true community of the Spirit.

Blessings to you and your team,

Jack


 
Response from : Alexander Coleman  

July 17, 2009 7:33 AM
 

What a balanced, thoughtful and important piece!


 
Response from : Bernardita Yanez Dadole  

July 17, 2009 6:57 PM
 

I thank you very much for your article it is true I am working full time in the vineyard of the Lord, however , may work as registrar of the Bible School sometime I fail to share the Gospel to others already although I am inviting people to go to church but I have not share to my neighbors which is he nearest to me .Thank you for your article it serve as a reminder that I must do my duty which is the great commission which God has in trusted to us.Please always include me in your prayer that in all my work I may glorify the Lord Jesus Christ.I will always pray for you.


 

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