In various settings over the years, I’ve heard evangelical leaders and pastors claim that the church’s main task is evangelism. All sorts of evangelism initiatives have been kicked into gear based on this assumed obvious fact regarding the purpose of the church. Many people raised in evangelical churches can tell tales of guilt-motivated canvassing efforts involving humiliating encounters with complete strangers or forced “gospel presentations” to friends and relatives.
But is it obvious that evangelism is the main task of the church, or even a task of the church?
Two brief considerations from Paul’s letters may call this into question. First, in Romans 15:18-20, Paul says this:
I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.
It appears that for Paul, the task of gospel proclamation has been accomplished. He bases this extraordinary claim on the founding of churches in the cities he’s visited.
That is, Paul’s evangelistic efforts are directed toward the founding of churches. Now that they’re established, they need to grow in maturity, become cohesive and committed communities, develop practices of love for one another, look after one another’s needs, cultivate corporate patterns of service and mutual care, and serve others in the name of Jesus.
I live in a city with a church on every corner. I wonder what Paul might think if he were passing through town and heard that one of them was conducting an evangelism initiative. I wonder if he’d ask, “Why would you do that? Churches are already established!”
The pattern for Paul is that gospel proclamation leads to the establishment of churches. Once they exist, they should set themselves to doing the sorts of things Paul elaborates in his letters.
Which brings me to my second consideration: Among the many commands and exhortations Paul addresses to his churches, none have to do with evangelism.
Paul has much to say about resolving conflicts, getting rid of slander and gossip, caring for the poor, restoring sinning Christians, establishing leaders, educating believers in the faith, praying for one another, hoping in the return of Christ, meeting the needs of churches in difficult circumstances, and confronting pride, arrogance, and complacency. But nothing about evangelism.
Now, I’m not arguing for the complete elimination of evangelism here. I’m calling into question the assumption that the church’s main task is evangelism.
I’d also go a step further to say that it seems wiser to make priorities of those things Paul clearly directs his churches to do, rather than making a main priority of something he never mentions.