A common mid-twentieth century Sunday pattern for many churches was a Worship Service in the morning and a Gospel Service at night. Towards the end of the century, following Bill Hybels of Willow Creek, this pattern was modified to hold a Seeker Service in the morning when non-Christians were more likely to attend and a mid-week ministry to Christians.
Leaving aside the vexed question of the relationship of church and worship, what is the relationship of church and evangelism? Is church aimed at non-Christians or Christians or both? Do we hold church to evangelize? Should we adapt church to be welcoming and accessible to non-Christians? Should we adapt church to the non-Christian culture around us? Are ‘church growth’ and ‘church planting’ evangelistic strategies?
Part of the general question of the relationship of church and evangelism are issues such as whether we should have churches targeting a particular demographic group and so becoming homogenous. Should there be ‘ethnic’ churches? Is the minister the pastor of the congregation or the evangelist of the parish? Do we run Sunday school for the children of the congregation or the children of the community? Does belonging precede believing? Does membership of the faith community matter more than personal understanding? Does the church give us the word of God or does the word of God give us the church?
In working out the relationship between church and evangelism, we are not helped by the word “church”. It is so loaded with the baggage of two thousand years of history; there is little agreement about its meaning. Defining the church is almost a matter of politics – it’s more about claiming the title deeds of the word than clarifying the meaning. Definitions of the church often do little more than indicate the orthodoxy of the definer’s peculiarity.
In the Bible the church is the gathering of the saved around Christ to obediently hear his word and respond in loving service of one another. Here are 10 propositions about the relationship of church and evangelism.
1. Church is built upon the Lord Jesus Christ and the apostolic ministry of the word of God. It is the gathering of those who are saved by the word of God. So it is neither a gathering of unbelievers nor a gathering for them.
2. Unbelievers may be present because the church is not conducted as a closed, private or exclusive gathering (1 Corinthians 14:23).
3. The activities of church life should always be edifying (1 Corinthians 14:26). Edification is building both the individual Christian as well as the whole congregation into Christ (Ephesians 4:11f).
4. The Gospel word that converts unbelievers is the same word, which builds the church and edifies believers. Christianity has not got two messages: one for unbelievers and another, or additional one, for believers. Unbelievers who attend a Biblical church will hear the saving news of Jesus.
5. Church membership is the result of evangelism. Therefore churches should always be open and welcoming to new Christians. This will mean that a mature congregation will be flexible and welcoming to those who are new and still weak in their faith (Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8).
6. An edified Church will be holy, sanctified and different to the world, having members who are Christlike in character and life. Such members will all be committed to the salvation of mankind, for this was the very mission of the Christ (1 Timothy 1:15). A holy huddle of people, uncommitted to world evangelism, is not holy for its members are not like Christ.
7. In the New Testament, the focus and the dynamic growth is not the church but the gospel word. It is as the word is taught and explained that people are saved and the church grows both spiritually and numerically.
8. Evangelism does not always have to be personal, private and individual. There is nothing inherently wrong for Christians to organize corporate evangelism. A group of Christians can run evangelistic events and there’s certainly nothing unbiblical in preaching to a crowd. While evangelistic gatherings centre on proclaiming God’s word of salvation, they are not the gathering of Christ’s people but of unbelievers. So they do not fit the above definition of church. Sadly, however, some evangelistic gatherings are more a church than the so-called churches where the gospel word is not preached.
9. Planting and growing more gospel preaching churches is a fundamental strategy of world evangelization. It is as the gospel is preached that churches come into existence. It is as the churches grow in Christ-likeness that the members will be outward looking to the salvation of others, open to new Christians joining and welcoming to non-Christians who come amongst them.
10. Church growth and church planting can be a distraction from gospel growth and evangelism. Often church growth means little more than ‘my church growing’ – just as church planting can be simply an egoist starting his own church. Such growth and planting can come at the expense of other churches without any evangelism taking place or new people being saved. It is more important to reach a growing number of people in the community with the saving news of Jesus than simply growing or planting churches.
Evangelism leads to church growth and planting which in turn, if the church is edified by the gospel, will lead to more evangelism. But the initiative is evangelism, and it is the edified church members who will undertake it in the community.