In their book Total Church, Tim Chester & Steve Timmis discusse evangelism in a way a bit different than how we typically discuss it. Their overall point in the book is that the Gospel creates a type of “life together” (to use Bonhoeffer’s phrase). The community created by the Gospel is the basic orientation of each member of the church (he contrasts this with a church as a “preaching center” where people appear once a week to get their “spiritual groceries” and then go back to their real lives).
This works out in evangelism as the entire congregation is participant in evangelism. Rather than evangelism being a only proclamation, “Jesus died for you” (they by no means discount the actual proclamation), the proclamation is embodied in the congregation (all of them) (John 13:35).
The gospel word and the gospel community are closely connected. The word creates and nourishes the community, while the community proclaims and embodies the word. The church is the mother of all believers, Calvin asserted, in that she “brings them to new birth by the Word of God, educates and nourishes them all their life, strengthens them and finally leads them to complete perfection.” Martin Luther believed that “The church . . . is constituted by the Word.” He also likened the church to a mother “who gives birth to you and bears you through the Word.”
The evangelism he envisions is actually more demanding, not less demanding that what we typically think of as evangelism:
Matt rang to ask what he should do. His friend George had asked him to go street preaching. Matt wasn’t interested but didn’t know how to respond. So the three of us got together. As the conversation began, it was clear that George thought we were selling out in some way. But as we talked about sharing our lives with unbelievers, about evangelism that was 24/ 7, about opening our homes, George’s tone changed. At the end of our conversation he admitted, “I’m not sure if I’m up for that kind of commitment.”
Ideally evangelism is not something to be undertaken in isolation. Of course, if opportunity presents itself, the gospel word should be spoken clearly and sensitively in conscious dependence upon the Holy Spirit— whenever, wherever, and to whomever. But evangelism is best done out of the context of a gospel community whose corporate life demonstrates the reality of the word that gave her life. Christian community is a vital part of Christian mission. Mission takes place as people see our love for one another. We all know that the gospel is communicated both through the words we say and the lives we live. What Jesus says is that it is the life we live together that counts.
We must rethink our community as a basis for evangelism:
In our experience people are often attracted to the Christian community before they are attracted to the Christian message. If a believing community is a persuasive apologetic for the gospel, then people need to be included to see that apologetic at work.
People often tell me how they have tried telling their unbelieving friends about Jesus, but they do not seem interested. So they want to know what to do next. My answer is to find ways of introducing them to the Christian community. The life of the Christian community provokes a response.
He proposes a three-strand form of evangelism: relationship, proclamation & Christian community. This results in a difficult look to what the North American (and British) church has called “evangelism”:
So often the call to evangelism produces guilt and despondency. This is due in part to ungodly attitudes such as pride and the fear of man. Paul is clear in 1 Corinthians that we have a “foolish” message to proclaim in a foolish manner (1: 18– 2: 5). So evangelism often makes us look foolish, and few people relish that prospect. However, not all of us are eloquent or engaging. Not everyone can think on their feet. Some people are simply not good at speaking to strangers and forming new friendships. One of the practical benefits of the three-strand model of evangelism is that it gives a role to all of God’s people. By making evangelism a community project, it also takes seriously the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in distributing a variety of gifts among his people.
Everyone has a part to play— the new Christian, the introvert, the extrovert, the eloquent, the stuttering, the intelligent, the awkward. I may be the one who has begun to build a relationship with my neighbor, but in introducing him to community, it is someone else who shares the gospel with him. That is not only legitimate— it is positively thrilling! Pete may never share the gospel verbally with Duncan, but his welcome and love are an integral part of the evangelistic process and should be honored as such. Meanwhile Susan can make friends and introduce them to the community, confident that others will present them— at an appropriate point in an appropriate way— with the challenges of the gospel. It is lovely to think of us making up for one another’s deficiencies with our collective community strengths.
If evangelism is a community project, our different gifts and personalities can complement one another. Some people are good at building relationships with new people. Some are socialites—the ones who will organize a trip or an activity. Some people are great at hospitality. Some are good at initiating gospel conversations. Some are good at confronting heart issues. In each case I can think of individuals in our small congregation who fit the bill. I am not good at any of these things. I was the one who did evangelistic Bible studies with Al. At the end I said, “You ought to be baptized ,” and he said, “Okay.” Simple as that! But I would never have got that far if I had not been part of a team.
The entire book works through the implications of Gospel community in a way that many contemporary Christians may find uncomfortable — yet, it is a necessary implication of the Gospel, as Chester & Timmis show. Read the book if only if you are willing to be disturbed in your current Christian world.