Apparently some might have perceived that I was suggesting Christians abandon personal evangelism in last week’s article. Certainly not! Let me also say I am not offering absolutes here. I am, like Christians have throughout the ages, seeking to understand and best express the mission of the church in light of our changing cultural and social reality.
What I am concerned with is that the Scriptures offer a much broader understanding of the gospel than the contemporary American church generally seems to understand and that this gospel of the kingdom demands expression beyond the exclusive act of individual presentations of propositional truths. Namely, evangelism must proceed from a distinct community that through its life together bears witness to Christ’s kingdom come into the world. This is not alternative to personal evangelism but rather a complementary and necessary part.
God is, by grace, gathering “a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9, ESV) the body of Christ. This body, the church, provides an essential witness that emanates from the visible unity and conduct of a people who are distinct from the world. An essential purpose of God’s called people, living in a particular relationship to each other, is to display evidence that God the Father has sent the Son to atone for the sins of men offering the hope of salvation (i.e., the gospel).
In Jesus’ high priestly prayer he first declares his authority “over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom [the Father has] given him” (John 17:2, ESV). Jesus later says “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world…” (17:6, ESV). This people is the corporeal church.
Later Jesus expands his prayer beyond the disciples to now speak of all Christians throughout history who would come to faith through their testimony. Here Jesus specifically prays “that [we] may all be one” (17:21, ESV) just as he and the Father are one. Jesus is praying for a relational unity among Christians that is visible to the world. In the very next passage Jesus tells us why this relational unity within the body is necessary: “so that the world may know that [the Father] sent [the Son] and loved them” (17:23, ESV). This unity cannot be visible to the world unless they can actually see a particular people who are living in actual relationship to one another.
Earlier in John chapter 13, Jesus again emphasized the necessity of our relationships to each other as being essential to our witness in the world when he said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (13:35, ESV).
My point is this: the reductionist gospel, divorced from the kingdom, only emphasizes what an individual must do to be saved. I am not saying we shouldn’t share this. It is not community versus proclamation; it is both! However, there is an order to it. The lost individual is joined to the community of God’s people upon receiving salvation. Jesus gathered the first twelve and we have been gathering ever since. The visible community of God’s people must exist first. Because, as George Hunsberger so aptly wrote, “Before the church is called to do or say anything, it is called and sent to be a unique community of those who live under the reign of God” (Guder, Ed., Missional Church, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998], 103). Again, this distinct community, according to Jesus, provides credibility to the gospel message.
Of course, you must be always “be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you're living the way you are” (1 Peter 3:15, MSG). However, this implies that someone actually noticed you were living differently-presumably better. This better way of living is revealed in community through our interaction and life with other Christians. Jesus underscores this in John 13:35. One of the dangers of relying on individual lifestyle as our witness is that we fail as individuals almost daily. This then edifies the unbeliever in his hardened condition. Heaven forbid that an unbeliever judges Christianity on my life alone!
This is where the church in America has become so weak; and this weakness deprives the church of an essential witness that ultimately hinders the gospel proclamation. We are too individualistic, judgmental, divided, and guarded in our relationships. There scarcely exists a discernable Christian community distinct from the world that is distinguished by its love for one another. The modern American Christian treats his obligations to the body of Christ as optional, when they are not. This undermines an essential evidence of Christ come into the world. Our gospel proclamation lacks credibility because it rarely emanates from a community whose love for one another is all that evident or distinct.
It is within the community of God’s people that we both learn and practically express the selflessness to which every Christian is called. This self-sacrificial love, most demonstrated by the suffering Christ, is the radical evidence of conversion and the fact that Christ’s kingdom has come into the world. This is the overarching characteristic within the church that distinguishes it from the world. The call of Jesus is to lose your life (see Matt. 10:39); you must “turn from your selfish ways [and] take up your cross” (see Matt. 16:24). Scripture tells that we no longer belong to our selves but to God (see 1 Cor. 6:19–20, NLT).
Clearly, God values the individual; but God also calls the individual to abandon his individualism and sinful sense of autonomy that elevates itself above others. We are called to a life of humility and submission to others (see Eph. 5:21). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls for even more radical acts of submission: to not resist those who are evil, not respond to offense, turn the other cheek, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. These are distinguishing features of kingdom life; when they are absent, we look just like the world and there is little evidence of Christ and his kingdom come into the world. To the natural man, this is impossible and so the supernatural intervenes in the form of God’s grace working in and through his people.
This is what I am emphasizing when I speak of community and of the different gifts and their varied expression in service of the gospel. Proclamation is only one of the ways in which we manifest the gospel of the kingdom; I will address that later. For now, it must be understood that there is an essential relationship between the visible community of God’s called people, the church and the proclamation of the gospel.
So I am stressing the recovery of relational unity (community) because it appears that this witness is most absent in the American church.