Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Evangelism in a natural fashion

The series at the RBS blog on lay evangelism and ministry has really got me thinking about evangelism in general. I found a quote on Bob Gonzalez’s post that was very interesting. The quote comes from Kenneth Scott Latourette, a historian at Yale in his book A History of the Expansion of Christianity.

The chief agents in the expansion of Christianity appear not to have been those who made it a profession or a major part of their occupation, but men and women who earned their livelihood in some purely secular manner and spoke of their faith to those whom they met in this natural fashion.

That is a very interesting idea. I love that phrase, speaking about the Gospel in a natural fashion. The Gospel is life changing not just Sunday morning changing. The chief agents of Gospel propagation are not the names we know in history, it is the unknown and unheralded Christian witness. For every Spurgeon, Whitefield and Edwards there are thousands of regular Christians living their lives and sharing the Gospel. We might pay lip service to the “little guy” but the reality is that we engage in hero worship in the church that is little different than what the world does. Football has Tom Brady, basketball has LeBron James, baseball has Albert Pujols. The church has John MacArthur, Max Lucado and John Piper. Many of these leaders do great work for the Gospel but where the rubber hits the road is locally by people you will likely never meet this side of eternity. The history of the Church and the Scriptures themselves bear out this truth.

After the martyring of Stephen in the book of Acts we see something interesting take place that supports this idea. In Acts 8:4 we read “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” Who was it that was out preaching the Gospel? The apostles or professional evangelists? Just the opposite. In Acts 8:1 we see who these people were “…And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” (emphasis added). So the church except the apostles was scattered and those Christians were all over the place preaching the Word. Do you suppose they waited until a duly authorized apostle showed up? There is no indication that a special class of men preached the Gospel. It seems like a more reasonable and natural interpretation that the scattered Christians settled into their new homes, found employment and where God placed them they preached to the lost. I can’t see where one would assume that only “ordained” or “authorized” men did this work unless you approach the text with the professional clergy firmly in mind and then read that back into the text (see also Acts 11:19-21). So rather than the apostles driving evangelism throughout the civilized world, we see the work being carried out by regular Christian men. Again, for every Paul and Stephen and Peter there are hundreds of unnamed believers throughout the region, scattered by persecution but used by God as regular people where they were to preach Christ. Thank God that these men didn’t wait until they had a seminary sheepskin, or were properly ordained or received an appointment from a missionary board to declare the Good News of Jesus Christ to a lost world!

How is the Gospel normally presented in the church in evangelism? In many places it is a formula, in others it is a very formal declaration. What could be more unnatural than hearing something presented to a group by a guy in a suit standing on a podium? Which is more meaningful, that formal presentation we see in church buildings as part of a sermon or someone sitting over coffee with a friend or co-worker and talking about Christ?

More importantly though, how is the Gospel presented in the New Testament? Do we see sermons being used as an evangelism tool? Well sure, you can point to the day of Pentecost but I think that almost everyone would agree that Pentecost was atypical. More typical was evangelism that was personal and relational in nature or preaching that was spontaneous in public places. I don’t think we see a place where the local church gathered and the Gospel was declared to lost people in the audience. Paul taught in the synagogues and in the school of Tyrannus, not as a preacher but as a visitor I would assume. I would go so far as to question whether we see anything that resembles the monologue, me-speak, you-listen style sermon in the NT. Paul reasoned with people in the synagogues and the hall of Tyrannus, which would imply interaction and still it was evangelistic in nature. What about Acts 20 where Paul spoke all night (leading to the funny story of Eutychus nodding off and falling out of a window)? Isn’t that an example of a single man preaching a sermon? I am not an expert at Greek, but when I look at the way the words are translated into English I have my doubts that this was a monologue sermon. We read that Paul “Paul talked with them” (Acts 20: 7) and that he “he conversed with them a long while” (Acts 20: 11, emphasis added). Just because Paul was long winded doesn’t mean it was a monologue, in fact given that they were in the “upper room” would indicate that they were in a home and that along with eating they were talking and conversing into the wee hours. Certainly Paul would be leading the discussion but it would seem to me to be more of a discussion rather than a sermon. Christians in those days would have questions about doctrine, about the Christian life, about the church which would perhaps be addressed. Oddly, Christians today have those same questions! Even the apostles seemed more likely to be preaching the Gospel in smaller, informal settings. We read that “And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.” (Acts 5: 42) Certainly Peter and James were not called on as “pulpit supply” in the Jewish temple telling people that Jesus Christ was the true temple!

This raises another question, namely what (if any) is the difference between “preaching” and “teaching”? Is it safe to generalize that “preaching” is declaring Christ to the lost and “teaching” is instruction among believers? If we accept that, then that raises another question: Which is normative for the local assembly? In other words should we be “preaching” the Gospel to believers? Or should we be “teaching” believers? Also, where do the responsibilities lie? Is preaching reserved for ordained ministers? Is preaching open to all Christians but teaching is reserved for clergy? Are preaching and teaching something to be done by all Christians regardless of education and ordination? Is what we think of as "preaching" in the modern context at all what we see as preaching in the Bible? See, when you start asking questions and getting past the traditional mindset and terminology, it just leads to all sorts of other questions!

The quandary of modern church services is that the sermon is designed to do two things simultaneously, preaching and teaching. The audience is assumed to be a mixed bag of believers and unbelievers, so the goal of a sermon is to call the lost to repent and to instruct the believer in the things of the Lord. Speaking from experience, that is a tall order and I think it often fails for precisely that reason.

In my mind, we preach the Gospel to unbelievers. We teach one another. Neither activity is reserved to a small group of Christians, although certainly some Christians have a special talent for one or the other, or both (think men like John Piper). Events like Together for the Gospel are not designed for evangelism, they are Christians sitting at the feet of other Christians to learn from them. No one expects a mass conversion to take place at T4G although there are certainly unsaved people in an audience that large. Together for the Gospel is also not a local church assembly so the style that works there rarely works in local church gatherings, nor should it. I am not dogmatically saying that we cannot or should not preach to the believer and unbeliever alike. What I am asking is if we have misinterpreted the role of teaching in the local assembly and turned it into an evangelism tool where we have no mandate from the Word to do so. Have we blurred the distinction between preaching and teaching, or is there not a distinction in the first place?

The Gospel is not something that is reserved for Sunday morning. We all would agree with that in theory but in practice we treat it like it should be. How can we who are born again, new creatures with new lives, compartmentalize the Gospel by which we were saved to a few hours on Sunday morning led by “professionals”?

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