The priority of evangelism is incontrovertible according to the Bible. And yet, most Christians probably feel they don’t do enough of it.
Perhaps one reason is that we tend to think of evangelism as an individualistic endeavor. Yes, we must share the gospel as individuals. But exclusively lone-ranger evangelism is far from the biblical ideal.
While some people prioritize individual proclamation, others emphasize the importance of community in evangelism. Both are good ways of thinking. But we see the most evangelistic fruit when we merge the two together in the local church.
Anyone who has listened to or read Ray Ortlund probably, like me, has a barrel load of admiration for him. He’s said many things that have helped all of us—especially young church planters like myself. But nothing has stuck with me like the equation he wrote near the start of his little book The Gospel.
- Gospel doctrine – gospel culture = hypocrisy
- Gospel culture – gospel doctrine = fragility
- Gospel doctrine + gospel culture = power
I’ve found that equation immensely helpful as I’ve led our young church plant. If we proclaim the gospel but fail to live it out, we’ll become hypocritical: people who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. Conversely, if we live out the gospel but don’t proclaim its truth, we’ll become fragile: people who jump from the latest fad to the next. But if we both speak and embody the gospel, we’ll be a church through whom others can both hear and experience the good news of God’s grace in Jesus. And when that happens, it’s powerful.
Therefore, when thinking about how we do evangelism, we must begin with doctrine. Our church plant is part of Acts 29, which means we’re convinced God’s people are at the heart of God’s mission. In other words, the church is central to what God means to achieve in the world.
The church is central to what God means to achieve in the world.
Even the briefest biblical-theological overview shows this centrality. In Eden, God planted Adam and Eve to bear his image in creation (Gen. 1:27). In the Old Testament, he chose Israel to be his light to the nations (Isa. 49:6). In the New Testament, he purposed the church to proclaim his excellencies (1 Pet. 2:9). And in the new creation, his purified bride will display the radiance of his glory (Rev. 21:9–11).
From Genesis to Revelation, then, the Scriptures teach us that God makes himself known in his world through his people—plural.
We plant churches to that end. But as we do, we must guard against the rampant individualism of our day. If we’re not careful, our church plants will perpetuate the same kind of sinful self-centeredness we see all around us. And this can seep into our evangelism.
If it really is through our life together that God makes himself known, then we can’t settle for lone-ranger evangelism. Again, I’m well aware of the need for individuals to share the gospel in their everyday spheres of life. I’m emphatically not arguing against that need. But if we’re passionate about our unbelieving friends coming to know God, then our evangelism must be overwhelmingly corporate, not overwhelmingly individualistic.
If we’re passionate about our unbelieving friends coming to know God, then our evangelism must be overwhelmingly corporate.
And church plants can make that ambition a reality. Every church should begin with a specific evangelistic focus—to make Jesus known within a specific geographical area or, if overseas, among a specific people group.
As we plant churches, we’re not merely gathering a crowd to attend weekly services, nor are we gathering servants to run weekly programs. We’re gathering Christ’s ambassadors, who through their shared lives will represent their Savior to their neighbors and the nations.
So we share our dinner tables together. We wait at the school gates together. We serve our community together. We become regulars at the local coffee shop together. We have BBQs together. We watch sports together. We exercise together. We live our lives together so that our unbelieving friends might not just meet one Christian, but might meet the church.
In a gospel culture, church planting won’t allow for rampant individualism, especially not in the realm of evangelism. We’re not a bunch of individuals trying to talk about Jesus in isolation. Rather, we’re a chosen people through whom God intends to display his glory (1 Pet. 2:9–10). This truth transforms evangelism from whom I want to reach to whom we want to reach.
And when we live like that, it’s powerful. Our church recently saw an example of this power. About 18 months ago, one family in our church introduced a man to our church community. He’d never been to church in his life, but on the final Sunday of 2018, he professed faith in Christ.
When I asked him more about it, he said: “Through the church I’ve heard the gospel and it makes sense to me. But what convinces me it’s true is the community you share.” Through the doctrine of our church he heard the gospel message; through the culture of our church he saw the gospel’s truth; and through his salvation we experienced the gospel’s power.
Or, in Ray’s words: gospel doctrine + gospel culture = power.