Holistic Ministry for the 21st Century (Part 2): Evangelism, Discipleship, and the Church
A kingdom reframing of Christian mission, as I argued in part 1 of this article, helps settle the evangelism vs. social action debate, once and for all. Let's hope we never have to revisit it.
Evangelism happens when Christians invite non-Christians to respond personally to God's reclaiming and redeeming love in Jesus Christ and to participate in God's redemptive project on the planet. Evangelism is the invitation to respond to God's gracious offer to be transformed and to participate in transformation. The call to discipleship, and the beginnings of "social action," must be built into the evangelistic message.
When we invite people to "accept Christ," we should emphasize from the beginning that the call to faith is not just a call to believe something rather than something else. I tell student audiences that "accepting Christ" actually means a call to:
- Believe—accept the claims of and about Jesus Christ, as recorded in Scripture and attested to by Christian tradition and the church. In some ways, this is the easy part.
- Trust—lean into a personal existential confidence in Jesus Christ as the Savior who loves us even unto death—both his own and ours. Abandon any other grounds for confidence in self or life.
- Obey—study and practice the actual teachings of Jesus and the rest of Scripture as refracted through Jesus. Do God's will, with no bracketed areas, blind spots, or exceptions.
- Die—think of oneself and train oneself toward becoming entirely dead to self-interest, dead to sin, dead to ungodly passions and actions, dead to any purpose other than following Jesus where he leads. This is an ongoing process of death to self in order to live for Christ and his kingdom.
A person who believes, trusts, obeys, and dies for Christ is a disciple. Making disciples is the goal of Christian evangelism. Many go to church. Few become disciples who have believed, trusted, obeyed, died, and are therefore fit vessels for doing God's kingdom work.
A person who believes, trusts, obeys, and dies for Christ is a disciple. Making disciples is the goal of Christian evangelism.
We sometimes say in the South, where I live, that there are more Baptists than people here. Certainly there are more churchgoers than Christians, and more Christians than disciples. As Christian culture-religion fades, there will be fewer churchgoers but, one hopes, more actual Christians.
And one hopes that they will find nurture and a home in the local church.
I am pushing hard at every opportunity these days for a recovery and strengthening of the local church. Christ's bride is afflicted by all kinds of challenges these days, with much evidence that many of our best and brightest young people are so turned off that they will settle into the spiritual but not religious, or Christian but not churchgoing, category. Michael Lindsay showed in his important book Faith in the Halls of Power that many top evangelical leaders in various fields are not regularly going to church. I think that the future of the church in the next generation is really up for grabs. Many seminarians that I teach are not at all sure they want to invest in the local church, at least in its current form.
And so we also need a kingdom reframing of the church, perhaps along these lines:
- The church is the body of Christ—the continuing presence of Jesus in the world, doing his work by his power until he returns. Whatever he did in his earthly ministry, we seek to do collectively even now. He did the works of the kingdom. So must we.
- The church is a pioneering community—blazing a trail of fully human life (redeemed creation, God-honoring, and obedient) for which the rest of the world truly hungers. The church embodies the kingdom, while also looking outside itself for kingdom opportunities. The very existence of a peaceable and just community of love is part of the kingdom and also instrumental for advancing the kingdom.
- The church is a witness people—offering testimony to the goodness and power of Christ, using words when necessary. The church demonstrates the kingdom daily. The best answer Christianity can offer for the problem of evil is the church itself.
The church is a community of love. Jesus said, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." It was love that God demonstrated in sending his one and only Son to this violent, rebellious world, and love that Jesus demonstrated in dying on the cross even for his enemies, and love that we must demonstrate as our cardinal virtue and central obligation—love for God, love for every human being.
David P. Gushee is a distinguished university professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta, Ga.