If we are committed to evangelism fuelled by the doctrine of God’s election, then the best place for this to take place has to be the local church.
As Christians go into the world with the message of the gospel we are called to baptise people into the church. It is within that local body that each member finds their function within the kingdom of God for the benefit of one another. Evangelism exists to enlarge the kingdom of God and grow the church both globally and locally.
In the New Testament we see all the preaching coming from the Church as expressed in the local churches, whether at Antioch, Corinth, Ephesus or elsewhere. All converts were added to the churches. All preachers were subject to the discipline of the churches and, if travelling abroad, were sent out by one church or another. Even the great apostle Paul did not go unsent or independently. He and Barnabas, after prayer and fasting, were sent out by the church at Antioch and to that church they returned and reported after their journeys.
Often our evangelism can be reduced to a ‘course’ or an ‘event’ that we invite our friends and neighbours along to. Where I’m based, in Niddrie, much of what passed for evangelism when I first came was the usual: tracts, maybe some door knocking, the odd ‘special guest speaker event’ and an invite to a Sunday service. None of these things were and are necessarily wrong but they were just not working in our context. Christians were doing what Christians do and that was to import these so-called tried and tested means of evangelism and apply them to an area, which they did not understand culturally. Because people didn’t respond it was therefore disregarded as ‘the day of small things’ and believers went about their business happy in the knowledge that they were doing their part and the worldly were just being hard-hearted, rebellious and, well, worldly.
The battle, in the early days, was to get people to see that evangelism as a natural way of life and daily conversation, and it was not easy. When we stopped handing out tracts, knocking on doors and singing carols in the street, I was accused (by a vocal few) of killing ‘evangelism and the gospel’.
Yet, when I encouraged these same believers to engage with locals, find out what questions they were asking (and still are), get involved in their lives and share their faith with them naturally, I was treated like some sort of modern day liberal, emergent, tree hugging leper.
Any old mumbo jumbo
The point is that when I first came to the scheme I was told by many believers (inside and outside of Niddrie) there that it was a ‘hard’ place spiritually, ‘a spiritual graveyard’. Why? Generally because local people weren’t responding to the church’s ‘evangelism’. Yet the reality was that people were spiritually hungry and were, in fact, chasing after any old mumbo jumbo in an effort to assuage their culturally supernaturalistic bent (ignored as worldliness by those who even bothered to discover this bit of information).
The trouble with courses
Sometimes we forget that evangelism is just as much about listening and observing as it is about declaration (Acts 17). The problem is that evangelism and discipleship require huge amounts of time and effort that many believers are just not prepared to give. Many courses on the market can be done in a matter of weeks but the average time we have needed to spend with our recently converted has been about 12–18 months going over the basics again and again. That’s just the start of our spiritual journey in Christ together!
We ensure that the community we have is as strong or stronger than the community outside. We are asking people to turn back from long held ties so we’d better have something more than meetings for them to attend. Love people and listen to them. It is better than any course or strategy I know.
All from within a gospel-centred church community.
Mez McConnell is senior pastor of Niddrie Community Church, Edinburgh.