…Even if we acknowledge that there will be ‘gospel’ things happening all over the place in church, it is also important to say that evangelism is not the purpose of Christian assemblies. It is certainly not their focus. In the New Testament, churches are characteristically the fruit of evangelism, not its agent. Evangelism usually takes place outside the assembly—in the marketplace, the synagogue, the prison, and in daily gospel conversation.
More to the point, theologically, the Christian assembly is a fellowship of the redeemed. It is a manifestation, as well as an anticipation or foretaste, of the great assembly that Christ is building—the assembly of the firstborn in heaven that will be revealed on the last Day (Heb 12:22-24). The purpose of our earthly assemblies, therefore, is to fellowship together in what we already share—our union with Christ—as we listen to and respond to him together, and build his assembly by the words we speak.
This runs counter to the common (although often unspoken) assumption that one of the main aims of a church gathering is to be attractive to non-Christians—to draw them in, to intrigue them, and to evangelize them. Perhaps it’s a legacy of the parish model, where those attending the Sunday assembly were often not Christians at all, and evangelism consisted of preaching the gospel to them. Or perhaps it is the influence of the seeker-service model, where the main aim is to attract and win over unchurched Harry. Or maybe it’s a bit of both.
There is an important difference, it seems to me, between running a Christian gathering whose focus is on evangelizing the outsider, and running a Christian gathering that is welcoming and intelligible for the outsider, but where the focus is on fellowship with Christ, in speaking, hearing and responding to his word.
In the abstract, the argument of this post is unassailable. It has a weight of NT evidence behind it. But these are not the only considerations; one must at least have a curiosity as to how historical realities have factored in, at least since the age of Constantine. Since the era when ‘throne and altar’ became intertwined, evangelism in church has been ‘a propos’. Here’s why:
1. For those ministering in broad, comprehensive churches in which the spiritual status and allegiance of attenders is doubtful, you will have to preach the gospel for conversion Sunday by Sunday or miss your best opportunity. I find it paradoxical that among so many pastors serving in the broadly Reformed tradition, there is now such a strong push to focus on the Church as God’s covenant people that the presence of many nonbelievers in our services goes under-recognized and calls to repentance and faith are very rare. Even All Souls (London)-style “guest services” in which the gospel is cogently presented for the benefit of the curious are almost non-existent. Over- correction of course has brought about a new problem: dearth of gospel preaching.
2. For those determined to follow the counsel set out, please indicate where, and in what other venues you are preaching the gospel with a view to the conversion of your hearers if by your own admission, you will not belabor this in your Sunday services. If you can name open-air gatherings in parks and on beaches, accepted invitations to speak to service club luncheons and so on, then fine. But to fall into line behind this argument with no such preaching program in place is to join company with a very large company of perfectly orthodox preachers who no longer press the gospel on the unbelieving, because they limit their preaching to the edification of those who believe already.
3. Perfectly orthodox churches need to hear the gospel preached and to witness its power in transforming the curious and unbelieving. So many perfectly orthodox churches are ‘starved’ of the opportunity to observe people visibly responding to the gospel because that response is no longer sought. So, years pass into decades during which no one has been known to be effectually called under the preaching of the Word, because the preacher has not sought any such result.
Final update: Again, pulled up from the comments–from Tony Payne:
Some quick clarifications, in case I’ve been misheard:
1. Yes, our church gatherings should definitely be evangelistic in the sense that the gospel will always be prayerfully taught and proclaimed in true Christian assemblies, and that if those same gatherings are warm, welcoming and helpfully intelligible to the outsider, then outsiders will come (by bring invited or otherwise), and be gospelled there. Praise God! (I did say this in the original post.)
2. My point was that for various reasons (perhaps historical, denominational or cultural) it has become common to believe not only that church gatherings are places where outsiders will hear the gospel, but that THE focus (or locus) for our evangelistic activity is the church gathering. And so our gatherings become centred around attracting outsiders; and our evangelistic efforts consist almost solely of trying to get people to church.
I was simply pointing that there is something wrong-headed about this, and that the NT would actually push us in the other direction. It’s a matter of emphasis, not an absolute dichotomy.
Thanks to all for the stimulating comments and discussion.