Note: the following is adapted from the chapter “Converging on Evangelism,” in The Convergent Church: Missional Worshipers in an Emerging Culture (Kregel). Order the book at amazon.com.
The rising tide of commitment to a renewed Southern Baptist Convention looks to the phrase “Great Commission Resurgence” as the captivating theme. While that expresses the vision in a nutshell, I want to explore specifically how we can carry out such a vision in local churches across the U.S. The following articles (a two-part series) will examine practically some of the changes that must happen if a GCR moves from vision to reality in the most vital place, the local church.
Though written for the wider Evangelical Church, in The Convergent Church Mark Liederbach and I deal with some of the critical issues facing the SBC today. We argue that there is much good to be affirmed in conventional churches, such as the great, evangelistic SBC churches of our time: strong on the Word, strong on emphasizing evangelism, strong on big ethical issues, and others. But these churches are also weak on engaging the unchurched culture, and sometimes guilty of confusing preference/tradition with biblical truth, not to mention more than a little institutionalism. On the other hand, the emerging church movement (in particular the more evangelically focused such as Mark Driscoll, not so much the more liberal emergents such as Brian McLaren or Doug Pagitt), have been more effective in reaching pagans with the gospel, while also affirming core values we share such as inerrancy, complementarianism, church planting, etc. But as the movement is still “emerging,” and more voices than less have swung the pendulum too far in their reaction to the modern church, there are aspects in the larger emerging church movement we would see as an overreaction. We instead argue for a “convergence,” a bringing together of the best of the more evangelistic conventional churches and the more evangelical emerging churches. Honestly, our agenda really is to help the church today get back to looking more like the church in Acts. The following two-part article looks particularly at critical issues facing the church in terms of how we can best evangelize an increasingly unchurched West. The first three points are considered here, followed by the final five in Part Two.
1. Convergent evangelism will embrace the concept of missional living.
What is “missional?” Evangelism refers to sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, the gospel, with unbelievers. “Missions” refers to the practice of understanding a people and a culture to become more effective in sharing that good news. MISSIONAL means we in the U.S. recognize that we now live in a mission field, and must shift our posture in evangelism from inside a church building to the lost world. Missional simply put means to live as a missionary, whether you are a pastor, a bricklayer, a school teacher, etc.
There must be a fundamental shift in how we perceive and practice evangelism. We have been effective at attractional evangelism, getting people to events at church facilities to hear the gospel. But as teeming masses of unchurched live all around us, we must shift the focus of our evangelism from our church to the culture.
We must go where people live in order to love and speak and listen. Jack Partridge, who earns his D.Min with me this spring, is planting a church near St. Louis. He has been frequenting a coffee house, meeting people and talking about Christ. The owner began attending a Bible study there (a very unchurched man). One day a young lady he knows walked into the Bible study. “What the _______ are you doing here?” He asked. “I am coming to the _____ ______ Bible study!” She replied. But these self-professed pagans reveal a great hunger for God and Scripture.
Now imagine sitting in a typical SBC church Sunday school class. Imagine those two walking into class, and greeting each other with the same profanities. How would people react? Maybe we need to spend a little more time outside our church buildings and with people who desperately need Jesus. Perhaps we have confused religious practice with gospel living for too long.
When a nurse goes overseas to the mission field we call her a medical missionary. When a believing nurse works at the local hospital, we call her a nurse who is a Christian. Perhaps we would see a change in our effectiveness if we helped nurses and lawyers, barbers and homemakers, even the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker as missionaries where they live and work. So, the change we need starts not with a program but with a posture.
2. Convergent evangelism will be scripturally and doctrinally sound.
We may need to work on our skills and methods, but when our discipleship and growth grows from seeing all we have come to be in Christ, we will want to share this good news. By nature we are worshipers, by conversion we have become rightly ordered missional worshipers. Therefore, the result ought to be that each one of us becomes a more proficient and intentional, missional witness.
Tradition serves as a source of authority and a vehicle to tie us to our heritage of faith, but tradition should never be the chief driving force behind our methodology. We must do all we do from a biblical, theological center, with the gospel as the hub.
While particulars of style may be contextually driven, convergent
Christians understand that we must never change or compromise the content and message of the gospel. There is a growing recovery of the great idea of the gospel as the defining feature of all of life for the believer. The gospel will be central, not only in our evangelism but also in every aspect of our lives and churches. Compartmentalization of evangelism, discipleship, etc., must be replaced by gospel-centered lives, ministries, families, and churches. By gospel we certainly mean the death and resurrection, but we mean much more: the amazing narrative of salvation, from creation and fall to redemption and restoration. We must communicate not an emaciated, brittle boned faith, but a robust, eternal salvation seen in the creation, fall, redemption and consummation. Further, while we seek to relate well to unchurched people, in efforts to be missional let us remember that at the center of our faith there is a bloody cross!
3. Convergent evangelism will demonstrate our conviction in what we say and do.
We are of the opinion that the first and most important thing that a church leadership team must do when determining an evangelism strategy is to begin with self-evaluation at this point. Does what we sing about in church flow into the schools, neighborhoods, and work places of our church members? Do we focus more on getting people to a building on Sundays than to Jesus?
The following questions may be helpful in that process: How are the people in our local body living out their faith? If their neighbors heard them
speak of Christ, would they immediately think “What is this hypocrite try-
ing to say?” or “This person lives what he or she believes”? When right doctrine is wedded to right living, it usually wins a more significant hearing.
We do not believe one should stop giving a verbal witness until his or her life and practice is perfect. No, as our own broken lives attest, God can use anyone at anytime. But we must converge on this simple truth: When a verbal presentation of the gospel is linked with a nonverbal presentation of the gospel (by the way we live and serve), the potency of the message for the hearer is greatly increased. Therefore, any evangelism strategy and methodology also must begin with a heart and life check of the individuals and body that seek to be faithful witnesses.
In I Thessalonians 1:5 Paul summarizes how the gospel came to the Thessalonians in the first century. We argue that it must come to an increasingly unchurched culture in the 21st century the same way. How did the gospel come? NOT in word only (although they did speak the word consistently), but also in POWER, and in the HOLY SPIRIT, and with CONVICTION, and by MISSIONAL LIFESTYLES – “you saw how we lived among you.”
More unchurched people are amazed at our silence than offended by our message. When Southern Baptists and other Christians begin to give more attention to how we live and speak the gospel in our daily lives than how we dress and act in a church building, when we start our evangelism discussions from the posture of missionaries in a pagan culture than as believers sitting in our institutions, when we focus less on those already reached and live with a broken heart for those all around us wandering like sheep with no shepherd, and when we see the gospel as guiding all life, not only our conversion, we will begin to realize a Great Commission Resurgence in our time.
More to come in Part Two…