Evangelism & the Church

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.

18 thoughts on “Evangelism & the Church

  1. Jerry Goodman

    I wondered if we in North America (in the places we worship) live up to Jesus call to make disciples (in other words reproducing ourselves as Christ followers) expanding the gospel in our homes and where we work and shop0. The mystery of the gospel in our places of influence, which by the way, I can be better at (less of me and more of Christ) !

    1. timgombis

      It’s worth noting that Jesus’ command in Matt. 28:19-20 is to make disciples, which includes far more than evangelism, and might even temper our evangelism, making it part of a larger, multi-faceted effort.

  2. Jeff Lash

    So what would evangelism look like in this context? Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the nature of the church’s witness. I wonder if we too often dismiss the corporate aspect of our witness. As Americans/Westerners, we focus a lot on the individual responsibility of the believer. However, we rarely talk about the witness of the entire community of believers within the larger communities for which we exist. So as Paul addresses these community issues (how to treat people, taking care of the poor, vices and virtues, etc.), he may be thinking of the collective witness of each body of believers. As we embody the Spirit-filled life, we become a collective example of transformation in Christ and the counter-culture of the new kingdom of God.

    So I certainly want to capture this in our church. But where do our current notions of evangelism fit into this? Or going back to my initial question…what does evangelism look like in this context?

    1. timgombis

      It seems to me that if we’re in a church, then we are in a gathering that is the result of evangelism. So, we should be asking, Now what do we do? What should we be doing now that we are a church? What are our priorities? Each community will have to answer that for itself, and each community will have challenges that it must meet, but it seems to me that what will be high on the priority list will be the sorts of priorities Paul lays out in his letters, centered around community cohesion, serving one another, and demonstrating the love of God to outsiders.

      As far as evangelism, I just wonder if that should be much of a priority at all. The community and its corporate life may well bear witness to God’s work in Christ (and should!), but there are just so many other things to get to, that evangelism would be way down the list.

      An analogy: Once a team holds tryouts, forms the team, trains, and gets ready for the season, it actually plays the season. It doesn’t come to opening day and hold more tryouts. In the same way, once evangelism forms a church, the church then gets busy becoming the community God wants it to be. It doesn’t do evangelism!

      1. Jeff Lash

        I follow you but I have a few more questions. Does the command to “make disciples” apply to all believers or just the apostles? I’ve heard both views argued. Concurrently, is Jesus’ statement in Acts 1:7-8 applicable to all believers or just the apostles (you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth)?

        If I’m following you so far, you are saying that the apostles are the evangelists of the early church. Evangelism is only the work of establishing the gospel (a church) in an unreached area. So today, modern missionaries who go to unreached people groups would serve as evangelists. But their work ends when a church is established in that town/city/region. Furthermore, evangelism (work of an evangelist) is the calling of some but not all (i.e. Eph. 4:11).

        The natural question from all of this is: how do more non-believers become believers in these areas if evangelism is not a priority of the church? Undoubtedly, it is the Spirit who transforms our lives. But some would appeal to Romans 10:14-15 as a text that describes the process for which people come to Christ. So in their words, we must go and preach to them (evangelism) so that they might hear the gospel and be saved. Of course, I would suppose that you could say that Paul is referring to the initial work of an evangelist.

        But if God used evangelism to establish the church in the first place (make disciples), doesn’t it make sense that evangelism plays an important role in the continuation of that process?

        I hope this all makes sense. I’m feeling a bit scattered today. I am really enjoying this conversation though. 🙂

      2. timgombis

        Good questions, Jeff! I think you could certainly argue that Matt. 28 applies to the church–it’s our task to make disciples. For some reason, that text is typically taken to point to evangelism, but somehow not interpreted in terms of the two participles (grammar!)–baptizing and teaching them to observe everything Jesus taught. So, these are longer-term projects of the church. The Acts text I think pretty obviously applies to those who saw the events of Jesus–they were to be witnesses.

        It certainly does seem that only some are evangelists, but they are evangelists in places where there’s no gospel presence. In that sense, perhaps missionaries are in some sense our contemporary version of evangelists.

        As far as the church perpetuating itself through the ages, it seems that there are so many other factors to consider–churches that have rich community life that can be passed down through generations; churches that have rich community life that attract others to join with it; churches that are content with their current size(s) and need not feel that they must constantly grow. So much else to consider on these matters, and there’s just so many other components of the church’s existence that are diminished when evangelism becomes something like a priority.

      3. Andrew Z

        So I may be approximately five years late to this party . . . (anybody still here ?. . . .). I’ve been thinking that we ought to think of evangelistic outreach as akin to the recruiting function in an army. It’s hugely important and a volunteer army needs recruiters in order to grow, but it would seem a bit ridiculous if one thought that the purpose of the army is to recruit new soldiers. Beyond that, it would seem appalling if the church “army” neglected training, and neglected proper spiritual warfare, because it was too busy figuring out how to increase recruitment. I do think that’s largely the situation we’re in in many parts of the evangelical church.

  3. Andrew

    Theologically there are sufficient biblical grounds to argue there are two relationships; there is a relationship between the messiah and Israel (both Houses), and between Israel and the world. If so, it’s important to not mix these up.

    For example, there is clearly an evangelical role contained in the Abrahamic covenant:

    [Exo 19:5-6] “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you will be my treasured possession amongst all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you will speak to the people of Israel.’” (cited in [Rev 1:6], [1 Peter 2:9][ Rev 5:10])

    Similarly [Isa 42:6] “I am YHWH; I have called you in righteousness; I shall take you by the hand and keep you; I shall give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”

    Clearly God elected a nation (or a Kingdom of God) to evangelise to the world. Now some may point out the [Isa 42] verse and say that was pointing to the Messiah but look at vs 18-19:

    [Isa 42:19-19] “Hear, you deaf, and look, you blind, that you may see! Who is blind but my servant, or deaf as my messenger whom I send? Who is blind as my dedicated one, or blind as the servant of YHWH?”

    Jesus was neither blind or deaf, so clearly the servant here is the same servant Paul speaks of in [Romans 11:25] saying:

    [Rom 11:25-27] “For I would not have you ignorant of this mystery, brothers, lest you be wise in your own conceits; that a partial blindness has befallen Israel, until the ˻multitude of nations˼ (referencing [Gen 17:4-5][Gen 48:19]) is come. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,

    ‘The Deliverer will come from Zion,
    he will banish ungodliness from Jacob’;
    ‘and this will be my covenant with them
    when I take away their sins.’

    The problem is, when we read the citations of evangelism in [1 Peter 2:9] and [Rev 1:6; 5:10] we ‘assume’ this to be a description of the church (ekklesia). However the Greek word (ekklesia) has only been applied to the church since the translation of the KJV. The word means ‘assembly’ or congregation (as can be seen in its use in the LXX), so it could be talking about assemblies of Israelites who recognized the Messiah (‘my sheep hear my voice’). We also see the Messiah’s mission to Israel [Matt 15:24][Matt 10:6] as assume his mission was to the world.

    Perhaps we should see the Messiah’s mission to Israel as the example for Israel’s mission the world. Regardless, we must ask the question you are asking:

    Q. “Does the ‘church’ have an evangelical role?”
    A. “If by church you mean assembly (applied to Israelites) the answer is yes – Israel was to be the Kingdom of God, a royal priesthood, and a light for the nations (of the world). If by church you mean something else [Rom 9:4] “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.

    Q. “Does Jesus have an evangelical role?”
    A. He certainly has a universal redemptive role – for it is only by the blood of Jesus anyone can be saved, but no Jesus came to evangelis to Israel, redeem them as ‘kinsman redeemer’ so that they might be his kingdom of priests: [Matt 15:24] “He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’

    Summarized, this can be seen in the prophetic language of rock, mountain and wind and sea.

    Jesus was the rock of stumbling [Isa 8:14][Rom 9:33][1 Peter 2:8], that stone that struck babylon [Dan 2:35] (last manifest as Rome). The purpose being to separate the goats out of the sheep so that the sheep (Israel) could be restored as a great holy mountain [Dan 2:35][Isa 56:7,13][Joel 2:1] to grow in the midst of the waters (fill the whole earth). Unbelieving people are ‘waters’ ([Rev 17:15]) and their doctrines of rebellion waves and wind ([Eph 4:14]), unstable in all its ways [James 1:8].

    This is the vision of evangelism of the Kingdom of God as God represents it in His word. It is rejected (by Christians) because Christians cannot see how Israel is the instrument of evangelism today (looking instead at ‘church’) – which is really evidence of that blindness Paul spoke about. Biblical language is clear – the Kindgom was to be Israel, Christian theology is what is muddled.

  4. thebarrowboy

    Very thought-provoking. Having spent many years (hoodwinked) in a fundamentalist (US-inspired) sect, I only started to mature as a Christian late in life. In the sect, evangelism was everything. I now doubt the validity of it completely. I’m a big fan of both Wrights (Tom and Chris) and have learned a lot from them in recent years. I now believe, as you suggest, that Paul’s vision was much broader, and all the better for it.

  5. Joe

    Reblogged this on The musings of a humble servant and commented:
    Great and provoking thoughts about the role of evangelism in the church today. Very relevant for living in a city like Grand Rapids, where there are close to 1,000 churches. I’m reminded of Israel’s role to be a light to the surrounding nations, as well as Jesus’ command to make disciples.

    It’s great if we are going out into the world and bringing the Word of God to those who have never heard it before, but how are we encouraging their walk with God once they choose to follow him? Are we helping them mature in their faith, or is it all about getting them to believe and into our churches?
    I’m currently in the midst of Philippians right now, and I think Paul’s letter provides a great case study for finding this balance of evangelism and maturation of faith. On Paul’s visit to Philippi he brought the Gospel to a people group who didn’t know it, or knew it and rejected it. Soon thereafter, the church was established and it continued to grow, impacting the Greeks and Jews in Philippi and the traders who came from all across the ancient world (Philippi was situated on a major trade route, the Egnatian Way). But when we come to Paul’s letter, a couple years later, we find it is full of encouragement to become more mature in Christ, so that they might be presentable on the day of Christ. Paul doesn’t specifically mention “go out and evangelize”, but recounts the way the Gospel was spread during his first visit.
    These are just my thoughts, but maybe Paul was thinking that after an initial period of focused evangelization and a church was established, the people would turn to deepening their knowledge of Christ and maturing in their faith. If they strove to live more like Christ, to clothe themselves in Christ, others would ultimately notice, the Spirit would still be at work, conversations would be had, and lives would be saved. In a time where it seems like we are leaning more towards evangelization, maybe our focus needs to turn back to maturing the faith of the believers. Bible literacy is terrible in America and a multitude teens and college students are walking away from their faith every day…maybe it’s because when they look in the church, they are having a hard time finding older people who are mature and passionate about their faith and modeling Christ in all aspects of their life.

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  7. Dave

    Interesting post. How would you define evangelism?
    I have noticed there isn’t a whole lot of direct commands to evangelize in Paul. He seems to be for it though, since he does it, he talks about evangelists who are given to the church, and judging from the growth of the church in next few hundred years I would guess that quite a bit of evangelism was going on. Paul says that he “fully proclaimed the gospel” but there was still a whole of evangelism that went on by ordinary folk living there lives as the church and adding people to their number. I get a funny taste in my mouth when I say the word evangelism but it seems to me that is what was going on. Probably not forced cold calls or forced presentations, but evangelism none the less.
    I have heard some people say that there aren’t direct commands to evangelize because people naturally did it as part of their daily lives. It was an overflow of joy in the gospel. Do you think there is any credence to that? I’m not sure what I think, but I think history bears out that a lot of people became Christians in the years to come.
    I would say that focusing on the other things Paul commands is top priority, but aren’t they a top priority because they proclaim the wisdom and love of God to a watching world. The church being the hermeneutic of the gospel embodies the truth we proclaim. I know that when people who have no history of attending church begin to become part of our community the way we live our lives as a community has a large impact on them. They see the grace, peace, and hope of the gospel we share with them lived out in real places and in ordinary life. So we may not go knocking on doors or pass out tracts but isn’t welcoming people into our community and sharing what God has done for us an important activity and maybe even a priority?
    As a church, we are working through 1 Peter and have just gone through 1 Peter 2:9-12 and I was struck by our calling to proclaim the excellencies of God and that our lives result in people also praising God. This seems to be built into the very identity of the people of God.
    Thanks for your posts.

    1. timgombis

      Hi Dave, thanks for this. Just to respond to some of this — I think evangelicals assume there’s more evangelism going on in the early church, just because that’s a priority for us. It’s what WE would do, and it’s what WE want to see.

      Paul does indeed preach the gospel and do the work of an evangelist, but I think that’s because he’s an apostle. It’s part of his commission. And evangelists are given to the church (along with teachers, pastors, etc.), because that’s their task. But it’s not that everyone is supposed to do this, just as not everyone is an eye, or a foot, or a hand. Different body parts make up the body of Jesus.

      It is indeed the case that the church displays the character of God to a watching world, but I think we’ve taken that consideration and mainly tried to force it–that is, we’ve oriented much of our church life in order to make an impression on the watching world (which often isn’t watching and isn’t interested and doesn’t like what it sees anyway). Many of our churches have forgotten the part about cultivating a rich community life in which we look after each other, love each other, grow together, and strategize about doing good to those around us. Doing those sorts of things seems to be the priority of the church.

      It may indeed be the case that through these things others are drawn to the faith and to our communities of rich love, but we must focus on cultivating that reality and trust the Spirit of God to do the rest–drawing others to himself through us.

      1. Dave

        Thanks for the reply. I think we are probably reacting to some of the same things we see in Evangelicalism, but I am reluctant to say that evangelism should be less of a priority.
        I guess I would say we prioritize “cultivating a rich community life in which we look after each other, love each other, grow together, and strategize about doing good to those around us.” My motivation is always the glory of God, and my hope through all of our actions the Spirit would draw people to himself who would then give praise to God. We are always looking for ways to welcome people into our life, and we are intentional about being good neighbors and with these relationships we are sure to introduce them to other people in our church community. This is all evangelism in my opinion…maybe more of a way of life, than a particular task or program of the church. We aren’t giving canned presentations, but we are witnessing to the reality of Christ and his kingdom in both word and deed.

  8. David Drake

    While I see some of what you are saying,this seems to be a rehash of the same argument the majority of those declining churches in Grand Rapids have made for the last 50 years… And it seems that they got neither evangelism nor true discipleship…

    Also: Was Timothy an Apostle? I don’t think so, but he was commanded to do the work of an evangelist.

    I feel like you approaching scripture piecemeal at some points instead of taking into account the whole narrative. Unless we are defining evangelism only as coercive, make em’ pray a prayer behavior, the church by its nature is told to be evangelistic in 1 Peter, in fact, that seems to be the them of the book. Relate to culture by being like Jesus, and then answer peoples questions…So live the kingdom and then explain the kingdom seems to be the pattern there.

    1. timgombis

      I can’t speak to what churches in GR have been doing for 50 years, but if churches have been following Paul’s instructions for how to be God’s people, I wouldn’t be against that.

      That’s largely my point–that certain people are appointed to do the work of an evangelist, but not that everyone is, nor that this is the church’s main task. Timothy is supposed to do that, but when we consider the church, there are many body parts and not all have the same function.

      In what ways am I taking Scripture piecemeal? How does the whole narrative provide context for Paul’s instruction? I’m not sure that’s a fair reading of 1 Peter, either. He’s writing to slaves to be ready to give an answer for why they continue to hope in Jesus Christ despite terribly unjust treatment.

  9. pdavidy8

    I would disagree with the characterization as slaves in 1 Peter. I would agree with outsiders and cultural exiles… Which given the nature of America’s move toward post-christendom seems to speak perfectly to our time. In our time, instead of brow-beating or politiciing, it will be faithful witness in marginalization that causes other at the margins to ask what it is that gives us hope. This is especially true for those of us in urban and very post-Christian, high emigrant neighborhoods.

    The narrative of scripture beginning to end is a sending God. The Father sends the Son the son sends the Spirit, the Spirit sends the church. That sets up Paul’s narrative. At the basic level the whole of scripture is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.” Again that is witness.

    I think you are conflating the office of evangelism with the more general concept of witness in general.

    Even so all said if the church is supposed to be the community of Christ is must strive to be like Jesus and he himself said “If I am lifted up I will draw all me on time me” and “come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden” he also said “come follow me” all of which suggest a heart for the lost that we can not possibly hope to be disciples if we do not have the same heart.

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