Through the strange and winding road that has been my experience with the church and leadership over the past five or six years, one of the issues I’ve almost constantly wrestled is what it looks like or what it takes for people to put their faith in Jesus and begin walking with and toward him. What is God’s part in the process, what is the church’s, and what is an individual’s? How have cultural changes impacted the way we go about telling people about or showing them Jesus? Is clear proclamation outdated? Will I be more effective if I stand on my head? I was reading Acts today and found a balance there that reflects where I’ve come to on this for the time being. Before I get to that, a quick tour through my journey around this issue of evangelism in my most recent church contexts.
A Suburban Evangelical Church 2004-2007: At this church we focused on biblical teaching. I’m not sure how we hoped evangelism would happen. I think we thought if we really knew the Bible well enough it would really begin to impact how we lived and then that would lead to interactions with others about Jesus. Probably not everyone viewed it this way, but it’s how it came across to me. If it’s not working, learn more.
An Underdefined, Organic, Missional, Missionary, House, (add any other current church buzz words) Church 2007-2009: These two years were a time of incredible growth in what it means to follow Jesus and become more like him for both me and my wife. For the first time in my life I got outside the “Christian bubble” and spent most of my time with people who did not share my faith and beliefs. I went from seeing people who were not Christ followers as “them” to friends. These two years truly changed my life and perspective. During this time the idea was to not really say anything about Jesus, at least not salvation, and just live out faith in hopes people would see the light. We lived out the saying of St. Francis, “Preach the gospel always, if necessary use words.” We didn’t major on the second part of that one. This lack of regular proclamation was deeply shaped by some training we got in how to do this kind of church. In that training I was told not to even tell people I was a Christian or Pastor or anything at first to avoid turning them off.
A Mainline Protestant, Loving, Urban, Poor, Nearly Dying Church 2009-Present: This church has been great for the way I view evangelism. I’ve seen the Holy Spirit working in people to bring them toward Jesus through the imperfect but sincere efforts to love and be truthful with people. There’s no slick presentation here. But there is real love for people and a lack of fear to tell the truth of Jesus.
So back to the balance in Acts. Acts 2:47 says, “The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Then in Acts 4:32-34 it says, “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them.”
In these two passages I see the transforming influence of the power of the Lord, the continued and powerful proclamation of the gospel, and the witness of shared life of the Christ-community. Here’s where I think the balance lies, and all three are important. If the way we live, both individually and communally doesn’t fit with the way of Jesus then words are nearly pointless because it looks like it can’t be a reality. If we don’t proclaim the love and truth of Jesus people may not get a clear idea of who Jesus is and what he’s about. And if we don’t trust God to be the one who’s power will truly change people then we are missing the point all together.
These days I believe in proclaiming the gospel without shame (and still in many different ways, I’m not talking about just walking up and giving people sermons) in a context where they can see that it’s true by my life and the life I share with others, and then trusting God will use those things to accomplish his mission to redeem and reconcile people.