Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Evangelism vs. Mission as the Primary Purpose of the Church

In our recent discussion about how to improve seminary training, regular commentor Earl responded:

Students would be required to examine the efforts and results of churches within their area as well as high profile churches that are recognized leaders in evangelism. Students would be required to interview area pastors who have demonstrated personal effectiveness in winning adults to Christ. Subsequent to these examinations and interviews students would be required to evaluate and then develop and present in a peer setting their personal understanding of evangelism not simply as a concept but as a central objective for ministry and their proposed plan for implementing an effective plan of evangelism in their local church setting.

Students would be required to demonstrate personal experience in winning adults to faith in Christ. Not a punch list of book read or sitting in classes or taking test but actual personal experience. Not working at a shelter or going on a mission trip but personal involvement in presenting the Gospel to adults in such a way that decisions are made for Christ. Evaluation would be based on the number of times a genuine attempt was made to present the Gospel as well as the number of times such a presentation was successful. Regardless of result, in each case the student would be required to do what would constitute a "after action report," in which he/she would evaluate the actual/possible factors that lead to success or failure in presenting the Gospel. This would be reviewed by fellow students in a small group setting. Regardless of any other accomplishments, success in this regard would be absolutely prerequisite to graduation.

Why this emphasis on evangelism? Because there are few if any task that a minister can do that can not be done with equal quality and integrity by a worker in a social service agency. But there is no social service agency charged with the responsibility of reaching people for Christ. Jesus did not found the Church as a social service agency. He fundamentally tasked the Church to reach, teach, win and develop men and women for Christ. Everything else is entirely related to that central imperative.

Will of Ramblings from a Red Rose has an excellent critique of this view. I enthusiastically agree with all five of Will's points.

I hope that he will correct me if I am wrong, but I suspect that Earl and I have very different presuppositions about evangelism and possibly even salvation. He appears to be advocating "propositional evangelism", where a Christian verbally confronts a non-Christian with the basic outline of Christian theology and awaits a verbal decision to accept or reject these theological propositions as true or false. Those who accept the propositions as true are now classed as "saved" and those who reject them retain the classification of "unsaved".

The problem for the Church in the West is not that people have not heard the Christian message; it is that the Church lacks credibility. As the Apostle James said:

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, "You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works." You believe that God is one You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?

Simply 'presenting' the Gospel message is not enough if it amounts to nothing more than empty words, as The Onion deliciously lampooned a while back.

And for this same reason, I reject Earl's distinction between evangelism and 'social service' work. What is more persuasive, a Christian who gives a starving man a tract, or a Christian who gives a starving man a meal? The latter shows out of his/her loving actions that the transformation of God's grace is more than just a switching of invisible soteriological categories; s/he shows his/her love by how s/he lives.

If the Church wishes to spread the Gospel, then it must be credible to a justifiably skeptical world. And if it wishes to be credible, then it must, as the Body of Christ, bring peace where there is conflict, healing where there are wounds, and abundance where there is poverty.*

I also disagree with Earl's position that evangelism is the primary task of the minister, and is not the primary task of other Christians:

Why this emphasis on evangelism? Because there are few if any task that a minister can do that can not be done with equal quality and integrity by a worker in a social service agency. But there is no social service agency charged with the responsibility of reaching people for Christ. Jesus did not found the Church as a social service agency. He fundamentally tasked the Church to reach, teach, win and develop men and women for Christ. Everything else is entirely related to that central imperative.

In his critique, Will notes the common complaint of pastors, "As a minister, I live in the church ghetto. I don’t come across many non-Christians." Ain't it the truth! I have to be very intentional about meeting non-Christians. If it weren't for my gym membership and the blogosphere, on most days, I'd never meet a non-Christian. That's because my workplace is the Church.

Most lay Christians can't claim that. Most are far more enmeshed in the non-Christian world than clergy, and are therefore best able to be a Christian witness to non-Christians.

At any rate, the Great Commission wasn't given to ordained clergy. It was given to the disciples. Evangelism is the job of every believer, not just clergy. But I am interested in understanding how Earl concludes otherwise.

*I would further note that we, the Church, should not do 'social service' work merely as an opening for propositional evangelism. We should not help people who are hurting just because we want them to experience a formal conversion. The Church should alleviate pain and suffering wherever they are found just because it's the right thing to do.

30 comments:

Michael said...

I wholeheartedly agree, John. To judge a seminary student, or even a pastor, on the number of converts personally won is a misguided focus. As a pastor, I would love to see such enlightened moments in my own ministry, but I would more like to believe that I have planted seeds that have sprouted in such ways that I may never see, let alone take any credit for.

This is part of one of my latest posts in questioning how we define relevant worship. Relevant ministry is much the same way in that we don't do it to score points; we do it because it is both good and right ... absent any ulterior (and consequently selfish) motive.

RevDave said...

Showing up late into this discussion. I would find myself siding with you, John and Will. After almost 20 years in ministry, I am firmly entrenched in the church ghetto and find my church members almost resistant to me spending a lot of time not with them in ministry. A couple points that I didn't catch that seem important to me.

I heard someone long ago comment that the best evangelist is not the professional evangelist. Sure there are many who have responded to a particular speaker or revival, etc., but people expect the pastor/evangelist to say those things ("it's their job"). Yet when someone is in a relationship or a conversation with someone who is simply living their Christian life and being a bearer of that free grace and abundant life of God, people see them with more openness and integrity.

The second one is a bit more important: the results are not in our control. Last time I checked it was the Holy Spirit and the Grace of God that saved people. We can focus on faithfully living that grace, and we can rejoice when the Spirit moves in a person's life, but we cannot take credit for it, nor can we condemn ourselves when it is not the opportune time for that person.

benaforn said...

That's always the sort of thing that drove me away from church when I was a kid. We attended an Assemblies of God church in Seattle, where tithes was a game of 'which side of the room could give the most' (not ten percent of your allowance) and the youth pastor was forever saying 'I challenge you' to bring in friends, because the person who convinced the most people to follow him in through the building doors was obviously a 'better' Christian. The thing stank of fund-raising or (as Donald Miller put it) loving people like they were money.

Jeff the Baptist said...

His whole dichotomy of evangelism vs. social work is just a faulty construction. Historically, the church performed evangelism through social work. That is why the church is active in lifting up the downtrodden throughout the third world. We go out, teach them, treat their injuries, and then tell them why we came and who ultimately sent us.

Dan Trabue said...

The problem for the Church in the West is not that people have not heard the Christian message; it is that the Church lacks credibility.

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John Wilks said...

Jeff nailed it.

Just look at the title of this thread. It makes no sense. You can never have evangelism vs. mission. They are inexorably linked.

If you give people facts about Jesus and even try to manipulate their emotions into some perfunctory form of conversion, but fail to meet them where they are, you haven't evangelized. And if you feed the hungry but fail to tell them about the Bread of Life, you haven't done mission.

You might as well ask "heads or tales: which side of a quarter makes it a quarter?"

Dan Trabue said...

And, if I could add anything, I would only add that the Christian's duty is not evangelism, not "winning souls" (a dubiously biblical concept), not "witnessing." Our duty is to be faithful.

We love, we give to the least of these, we join in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, we work to change oppressive systems and policies, we feed the poor, tend to the widowed and orphaned and foreigner NOT as a "tool" to witness. We do these things because that is being faithful to God's Word.

We do for/with/to the least of these because we ought to. Period. Because that is following in Jesus' steps.

I find it a bit repugnant this whole concept (which I've held, to be fair) of "Let's feed them (clothe them, etc) so that we can win 'em..." Sounds more like a smarmy trade-off, looking at it that way.

klaxophone said...

I have some sympathy for Will's position. He looks at what Jesus did, and what he told the disciples to do, and he sees a mistake - running a social service agency disguised as a church. But he has over-corrected. Imagine "Tom" is a nice guy who professes the creed and goes to church every Sunday, but whose actions the rest of the time are indistinguishable from those of his agnostic coworkers. "Bob" is a belligerent sophomore who tells everyone who will listen about the rationality of atheism, but spends every summer with his grandfather rebuilding houses in Mississippi. Both need correction, but I worry more about the functional atheists than the putative ones. Christians aren't rightly defined by what they believe, or by what they do, but by what their beliefs lead them to do. Anyway, Saint James said it better.

Jeff the Baptist said...

"Our duty is to be faithful."

How are we faithful if we do not share our faith with others? They have one need that only Christ can meet. Are we truly faithful if we ignore that? No, we are just making their stay on this world more pleasant before politely ushering then on to damnation in the next. That is not a loving or faithful thing to do.

Should helping them be contingent on their salvation? No, of course not. We should help because we ought to help. It is a reflection of Christ's character within us. That is enough reason to do them.

But if we are doing these things as a reflection of Christ's character, then don't you think that will lead to who Christ is? Christ didn't come into the world to feed the 5000. Feeding them was something he did to show who he was while he was there.

These two aspects of ministry ought to be integrated as they are both Christ's nature working within us.

John said...

Jeff wrote:

His whole dichotomy of evangelism vs. social work is just a faulty construction.

Exactly! As John Wilks writes, they are "inexorably linked".

Dan Trabue said...

Jeff the Baptist queried:

How are we faithful if we do not share our faith with others?

Define "share our faith." Biblically define it.

I'm suggesting that doing unto the least of these IS sharing our faith.

I'm suggesting going door to door and asking, "If you died tonight..." and trying to logically back them into a corner into "accepting" Jesus is a weird way of sharing faith.

I'm not saying it's wrong. Just weird and not represented as a model anywhere in the Bible.

Earl said...

I note with interest the thoughts expressed. I am in a hurry as it is Wednesday and I must shortly get to church. If it is acceptable, as soon as time allows I will respond. Sincerely. Earl.

Will said...

klaxophone wrote:
I have some sympathy for Will's position. He looks at what Jesus did, and what he told the disciples to do, and he sees a mistake - running a social service agency disguised as a church. But he has over-corrected.


If I implied this, then I didn't mean to. My post that John referenced would follow John's rejection of this distinction between something called 'evangelism' (proclaiming some sort of proposition that must be rejected or accepted) and something called 'mission' (which seems to be negatively described as 'social work' by some). In Jesus' sending out of the disciples, he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom, and I believe this to be in word and deed. Perhaps the almost cliché-ish statement attributed to St. Francis ought find it way here: preach the gospel always and only when necessary, use words. klaxophone, I agree that both of the people in your example are missing out on something.

This is a great discussion, and Earl I look forward to your response!

Kevin Watson said...

As I have found myself reading about mission quite a bit lately, I have become convinced that our approach to evangelism and most outreach is that it is attractional, seeking to bring people in, instead of incarnational, and going out where the people are who need to hear the gospel. (These ideas come from Frost and Hirsch in their book the shaping of things to come.) I think there is actually a problem in both will and earl perspective. Both seem to be thinking about how to bring people into the christian "ghetto" (as one of them aptly dubbed it). Maybe the Great Commission is just a lot simpler than that. Maybe we are really supposed to go and make disciples of Jesus where the people are who need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. And when we do this we need to try to remember that Jesus' approach was definitely incarnational and not attractional. He lived among the people he was in ministry with and lived like they did.

I think I'm beginning to ramble, but that is my reaction to reading this interesting series of posts. Thanks for starting the conversation John.

John said...

Take as much time as you need, Earl.

Ken Lowery said...

This seems to be a derivation of the "defined by works"/"defined by declaration" debate. I'm still a neophyte at a lot of this, but I can echo earlier thoughts, as a newly-minted UM...

I came to the church through observing the actions of faithful United Methodists. I'm (overly) intellectual in my learning process; I have to turn something over and over in my mind before I can accept it as fact.

The "proposition" idea was one of the prominent reasons I considered the church to be anti-intellectual, or more accurately, anti-intellectual freedom, for most of my life. "Either you accept us at our word or you're out" is a marvelous way to antagonize people looking for logical or intellectual integrity. We're not all "feelers."

But as i say, I came to the church through the examples of the faithful. One quiet Christian doing good works was worth a thousand noisy proclaimers to me. Actually, that's not quite right; no amount of noisy proclaimers is worth one quiet Christian, as anything multiplied by zero is still zero.

klaxophone said...

Will wrote "If I implied this, then I didn't mean to."

Sorry Will, my mistake. I meant to say I had some sympathy for Earl's position, but...etc. "Preach the gospel always and only when necessary, use words." Yes, indeed.

Will said...

Kevin Watson wrote:
I think there is actually a problem in both will and earl perspective. Both seem to be thinking about how to bring people into the christian "ghetto" (as one of them aptly dubbed it). Maybe the Great Commission is just a lot simpler than that. Maybe we are really supposed to go and make disciples of Jesus where the people are who need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.


I have heard the Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, say something to the effect that in theology, you better say everything or one will think you don't believe what you leave out. I live in a culture that 10-20 years ago people simply came to church because that's what people did. Now with the demise of Christendom, many of my church members struggle with this idea that people just won't come through the door. Therefore, they want to believe that because they have a younger minister with a young family, other young families will just come pouring through the door. They also still want to focus on those things like All-Age worship or getting a well-known speaker that will get folk through the door. Statistics show that won't work. I have even used in my preaching the very language Kevin has used. I typically use the example of what my chair of district (something akin to a bishop in the UMC) Stephen Poxon has used: in Matthew, the story starts with the world coming to Jesus (in the Magi), but by the end of Matthew, Jesus calls us to go out to the world.

Kevin, I completely agree with you, but I think the problem you may have read in my post is that I was critiquing Earl's view and my post was already long enough, so I didn't offer up much of an alternative that would have allowed my understanding of incarnational mission to come through. I had hoped I would imply that when I spoke of my circuit's work among the Blackburn Asylum Seekers and Refugees, etc.

Anonymous said...

In my initial post I did not intend to be caustic, volatile or provoke an argument. I sought to respond to the question specifically and thoughtfully. It is obvious some have found that post offensive. I apologize.

I do not live in and have no knowledge of what might be the dynamics of evangelism in the European context. Having lived in major metropolitan areas I do have some first hand experience with inner city ministry as well as working with a culturally diverse population.

As concerns social ministry, without exception every church that I have led has continued ongoing or instituted practical ministry to needy persons. When need exceeded resources my wife and I have personally taken clothing from our closet, and food out of our kitchen, paid grocery bills, gas bills, and made house payments. By all means we have sought to win lost people to Christ. Not always but at least more than occasionally we have been successful. In the midst of such ministry to have failed to make the best possible purposed effort to so share the Gospel that a person would commit their lives to Christ would have been to act unfaithfully.

With respect and without apology I stand by what I wrote. By advocating for a central primary emphasis on evangelism I addressed the issue of how to improve seminary training. “If the devil is in the details” then I am not surprised that the details of implementing a greater emphasis on evangelism would be disputed.

Evangelism is not antithetical to social ministry but neither is it subordinate. The Gospel intersects life at the point of human need. To say and/or do otherwise is an inexcusable failure of faith. (Matt. 25:31-46). But however laudable social concern is no adequate substitute for evangelism. And in such ministry by inattention or timidity (Matt. 25:1-30) to fail to make practical efforts to lead individuals to personal faith in Christ is an equally inexcusable failure of faithfulness to the imperative of Christ (Matt. 28:18-20). For both lay and clergy Jesus granted no exemption to this imperative. In carrying out this imperative I respectfully suggest a better model for the pastor than equipper is the player-coach. And whether in college, university or seminary level instruction I would suggest that those teaching evangelism should without exception be individuals who have demonstrated effectiveness in actually doing the work of evangelism.

Earl said...

Please excuse my error. I did not at all mean to post as "Anonymous."

Mark Winter said...

I agree that we are not to browbeat, corner or intimidate people into confessing Christ.

On the other hand, many church people I know have no idea how to winsomely express their faith if the need arose. I find that unsettling.

John said...

Earl, I don't think that anyone was offended by your comment. I certainly wasn't. I just disagreed with its content.

Evangelism is not antithetical to social ministry but neither is it subordinate. The Gospel intersects life at the point of human need. To say and/or do otherwise is an inexcusable failure of faith. (Matt. 25:31-46). But however laudable social concern is no adequate substitute for evangelism.

What I'm saying (and I think Jeff the Baptist and John Wilks as well) is not that social concern is not more important than evangelism. What I'm saying is that the two are inseparable. Telling people about Jesus but not healing their wounds is an empty gesture, and feeding people without telling them about the Bread of Life (as John Wilks phrases it very well) is to shut them out from the food that will satisfy a spiritual hunger.

And whether in college, university or seminary level instruction I would suggest that those teaching evangelism should without exception be individuals who have demonstrated effectiveness in actually doing the work of evangelism.

I certainly can't disagree with that. My own evangelism professor (class starts in about an hour and a half from now) is the (in)famous Bob Tuttle.

MethoDeist said...

Once again I will stick my nose where it does not belong and give my two cents which you may give back once I am done.

First, I have been fortunate enough to have read and studied John Wesley. His main thrust was that evangelism and social concern/action were one in the same and it faith and works were inseparable due the belief that works was an extension of faith and grace.

Essentially, by reaching out the poor and oppressed one would demonstrate the power and love of God which in turn could open them up to the Christian message of salvation.

Now, being a Non-Christian I can state that the people that I have known that have converted to Christianity did not do so out of fear (ie: Hell) nor out of argument except in a few cases. Rather, they converted due to the love and respect that was given to them from Christians. Furthermore, of those that did convert based only on fear or argument tend to be fired up for about a year and then slowly fade away.

I can say the following from experience throughout my entire life living in Oklahoma. Each and every time that I have been approached with the method of pure evangelism it back fires horribly on them. There is nothing more rude and disrespectful than a person approaching you with the intent purpose of getting you to convert without even hearing your beliefs or point of view. This approach is fading in our society (thank goodness) because more and more poeple realize how wrong it is.

In regards to the training of future pastors, I do feel that evangelism plays a role but only in the context that Wesley approached it from. The alcholic that has no hope in life can be more easily brought to a full life through the action of love followed by the message of Christianity then just approaching him and proclaiming that Christ is his savior. So, there you have it, you can now throw those two cents back at me.

MethoDeist

cometothewaters said...

Great discussion. I know you did not coin the term, but I love the discussion of "propositional" evangelism/salvation.

Amen.

will said...

Rather than tie up John's blog with a personal response, I have done so at my own blog. This has been a great discussion!

John said...

Mark Winter wrote:

On the other hand, many church people I know have no idea how to winsomely express their faith if the need arose. I find that unsettling.

That's very true, Mark. As much as propositional evangelism is usually not useful, we all need to at least know what those propositions are. Every Christian should be able to express the basic principles of Christian theology.

truevyne said...

When I went to Bible College, I went on a weekend trip to see a successful church with large growth. A few years later the pastor was asked to step down due to infidelity. Christianity will never be a numbers game to me.

Dan Trabue said...

But however laudable social concern is no adequate substitute for evangelism.

Could someone post their opinions about what exactly you mean by "Evangelism"? I know, of course, that "evangel" is Good news and so, evangelism is a belief or sharing of good news.

But do you mean something beyond that when you say evangelism?

Kevin Watson said...

will - thank you for the clarification. very well said. and i apologize if i oversimplified your argument in my response. (i am learning there are always limits to what you can say in the blogosphere... which has advantages and disadvantages.)

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