Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Why I am not in favor of evangelism...

I hope the title got your attention.  It was meant to be provocative.  In part because the whole nature of the Church's mission has been co-opted by those who believe that we are here to bring non-believers into a relationship with Jesus Christ.  This is the kind of the stuff I hear all the time (even from within my own church body).  I will say it bluntly.  That is not the job of the Church.  We exist to draw others into the community of faith through the means of grace by which faith is born, people die and rise with Christ in baptism, sins are forgiven, hearts and minds are nurtured for the kingdom of God, and they are fed and nourished upon the bread which is Christ's body and the cup which is His blood. 

I cannot trace when it happened but at some point in time evangelism became an abstraction.  It became a program or a direction seemingly unrelated to the Church as the community of faith and the Body of Christ.  Somehow Christians began to get the idea that a relationship with God was possible apart from and outside the realm of the Church, the assembly of God's people around the Word and Sacraments through which God has promised to work His saving work for us and for all who will be saved.  The point is not to figure out where this mistaken idea came from but to confess that it has predominated our thinking as Lutheran Christians for some time.

We felt the need to set up evangelism committees and board structures to handle this work of evangelism.  In some cases, we identified specific individuals with the gift of being an evangelist and removed from the faithful the task of witness and left them with worship, prayer, mercy, and service.  (Recall of the Abdon plan and constitution?)  They were not angry by the removal of this part of their baptismal calling -- even somewhat relieved since they saw evangelism through the eyes of the fundamentalists and evangelicals who knocked on doors and wondered what would happen to those folks if they died tonight -- a distinctly unLutheran question.

Lutherans about this time began to see Sunday morning in a different light and wanted the worship service to be accessible to and warm and friendly for all who showed up -- no matter how far they were from the kingdom of God.  Lutherans began to watch how Billy Graham packed them down through the altar call and heard some of those who prayed so sincerely the sinner's prayer and were almost ashamed and embarrassed at their own liturgy, hymnody, and focus on the means of grace.

Collver also spoke about the witness of the Church, her mission, not as abstract love for and seeking after the salvation of souls but the specific and concrete mission which brings the sinner into the domain of our Lord's saving mercy through the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments, the means of grace that alone deliver Christ's gifts to the sinner.  In other words the mission of the Church is to bring people not into some abstract relationship with Jesus but into the concrete relationship founded not on feeling or choice but upon a specific font, pulpit, and table. 

All of the people of God are called to witness -- not just those who show the aptitude for it.  None of us can escape the call and responsibility to give account of the hope that is within us and to locate the source of that hope in the Gospel the flows from the means of grace -- Word, water, and table -- of a specific place.  It is not that evangelism is wrong but the idea of an evangelism that is concerned about the souls of people without being concerned with their life in the community of God's people gathered around His Word and table.

The people of the world wonder about a Christian who wants to share a product but without sharing where the product is to be found.  If I tell someone about a great frozen pizza I found and leave them to feed on this pizza in their heart without sharing where this pizza can be found and what is its name, I have given them nothing at all.  As Lutheran Christians we believe, and we believe that this is the true apostolic and catholic faith, that God works through His means of grace, He does what He has promised to do where He has placed His promise.  So it can never be our goal to tell them about Jesus unless we bring them to the Church where Jesus is present in His Word and Sacraments, doing what He has pledged and promised to do.  We cannot allow evangelism to be disjointed from the task of bringing people into the Church where the Word is rightly proclaimed (the Law/Gospel dialectic is most helpful here) and where the Sacraments are administered according to Christ's command and institution.

We do this not out of guilt or duty but because it is our joyful and grateful response to what God has done for us in Christ, because of our confidence in God's efficacious Word and Sacraments, because we know where Christ has located Himself in these means of grace, and because the Church is not some affinity group but the called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified people of God in Christ -- who is not content with the 99 who are present but continually seeks after the lost one that he or she may be found.  Far from being a burden, this is the natural outgrowth of our life together around these means of grace -- to tell everyone what He has done, to proclaim the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and to make sure every brother and sister knows, "we have found the Messiah (Christ)."

The truth is I do not have the foggiest idea how to have a relationship with Jesus Christ apart from the Word and Sacraments in which Christ has hidden Himself and revealed Himself.  Unless I am completely mistaken, the only way to know Christ is to know Him where and as He has chosen to make Himself known.  It is for this reason we keep saying "means of grace" -- not because it is some confessional mantra.  The only grace we know is the grace made known to us in the Word of the Cross, the water of life, the voice of absolution, and the bread and wine of His table.  It is not here or somewhere else.  It is here or nowhere else.


"The Right Rev" said...

"Unless I am completely mistaken, the only way to know Christ is to know Him where and as He has chosen to make Himself known."

That line is pure gold.

Anonymous said...

In 1974 Oscar Feucht of CPH wrote a
book: EVERYONE A MINISTER. His point
is that all laity are to give witness
to Jesus Christ in their jobs,
neighborhoods, communities as well as
in their parishes. Witnessing is not
the exclusive domain of parish pastors or foreign missionaries but
includes all the members of every
parish. Obviously, as we witness we
will invite those who have no faith
in Christ to learn of Him in the
Holy Scriptures and to attemd
Adult Instruction Classes so that
that the Holy Spirit can work faith in their hearts. Holy Baptism will be the means of God's
grace to make them members of
God family, the Holy Christian
Church and Holy Communion will
fortify their faith as they continue their lifelong journey
from earth to heaven.

ErnestO said...

Quote from this posting: The only grace we know is the grace made known to us in the Word of the Cross, the water of life, the voice of absolution, and the bread and wine of His table.

I find it inspirational to read such a clean statement as that above by Pastor Peters.

I found this thought of Spurgeon clarifying "Grace is the mother and the nurse of holiness, not the apologist for sin."

Anonymous said...

Wonderful. Just wonderful. I think I understand now for the very first time what Lutherans really believe about evangelism. As a former Baptist, I've been wondering about this for years but just could not nail it down until today. Thank you for the post. Things are finally falling into place for me after 7 years as a Lutheran.

Anonymous said...

Dear Rev. Peters: Thank you for a timely and necessary posting.

It is a mystery due, no doubt, to the perverse nature of even regenerate man, that we consistently pervert the clear teaching of our Lord, and come up with things like bringing “non-believers into a relationship with Jesus Christ.” I don’t know whether the programs you mention have caused this, or if it is due to some fundamental drive in people to aspire to something they perceive to be a better Gospel. Puritanism and Schwärmerei immediately come to mind.

Our Lord clearly said, “If two or three are gathered together …”; nothing about “He walks with me and He talks with me,” or “I walk in the garden with Jesus.” I suspect that the Corinthians who thought that speaking in tongues was so important, really believed that they had a closer relationship to our Lord than “ordinary” people. They did not “discern the Body”; that is, the Church, the Kingdom of God, the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ (all synonyms). Could it be that our interpretation of that particular verse in I Corinthians has contributed to our loosing sight of the importance of the Church over against individual piety?

I suspect also that because of our origins in a conflict with the Roman church, we find it difficult to accept the old axiom that “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus.” The problem here is that many people still think of the Church as a human institution. It is not! It is that Kingdom, which to proclaim, our Lord insisted was “the reason He was sent.” It is that Kingdom into which we are baptized and in which all of His children will be on the day He judges the Nations. Not a single one outside of this Kingdom will be saved, because to be saved is the same as to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God.

Finally, about why we do what we do. Although God’s people always, and in all places, give thanks to Him and try to do His will with gratitude, our people should know that there is something more to our motivation than gratitude. The citizens of God’s Kingdom are organically different from those who are outside of the Kingdom, just as sheep are different from goats. The Book of Concord puts it this way: The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord
VI. The Third Use of the Law, “17] But when man is born anew by the Spirit of God, and liberated from the Law, that is, freed from this driver, and is led by the Spirit of Christ, he lives according to the immutable will of God comprised in the Law, and so far as he is born anew, does everything from a free, cheerful spirit; and these are called not properly works of the Law, but works and fruits of the Spirit, or as St. Paul names it, the law of the mind and the Law of Christ.”

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Anonymous said...

Not bad. But please don't use the word "share" as it is unfit for the activity of communicating the gospel. Here are my theses on the subject:

1. We should understand the church’s mission of baptizing, teaching, absolving and feeding to mean the establishing of Christian congregations in which these works are accomplished.

Rev. Dean Kavouras

Mission work is not normally conducted on an itinerant basis but rather in and through the Christian congregation. Saints Paul, Barnabas, Silas, Peter, Mark and John were not the itinerants imagined by the George Whitefields, the Wesley brothers and those LCMS members who follow in their train.
Yes there were situations such as Athens where Paul disputes in the public square, and that of Phillip and the Ethiopian, but these are the exceptions. Normally the apostles founded Christian congregations via existing synagogues, to which the Lord added souls day by day (Acts 2:47) as the forgiveness of sins in Christ was exclaimed, and the Sacraments administered.

3. We should understand "evangelism" as the un-adulterated preaching of the Gospel and faithful dispensing of the Sacraments within said Christian congregations, specifically as this is carried out within the context of the Mass. This is the church’s highest work done at the behest of her Lord. As Christ doesn’t come to us “naked” but in the Word and Sacraments, so the Sacraments and Word don’t come to us naked, but in the historical context of the Mass.

4. The laity are not missionaries, nor are the words of Matthew 28:19 or 1 Peter 3:15 directives to the Christian laity to be missionaries. Instead theirs is a supporting role in this work. What is that role? Faithful attendance at Mass. The support of the church in word and deed. Their willingness to contend for the faith which includes not only true doctrine but faithful practice as well. The laity, if well catechized, can speak of their faith within their own homes, and in the world as people express a desire to know more about our religion. But this latter is done on a limited basis since laymen are neither trained, called or qualified to care for souls. If thoroughly conversant in the catechism they can serve as lights in the world, and even perform spiritual first aid. But sin-sick souls must be brought into the clinic of the church. The primary mission work of the laity is best summarized in 1 Peter 2:12 “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”

5. Weekend evangelism training seminars and similar sessions and manuals are inherently faulty in their theology (which can only be Arminian); their pre-suppositions (that evangelism is the job of the laity); and in their burdening the consciences of the laity by charging them to be missionaries when this is not their calling.

6. Thorough immersion in the Small Catechism (and later the Large Catechism and other Confessions) will equip the laity to a.) judge doctrine and practice within the church, b.) instruct their own households, c.) provide spiritual first aid to those who seek it and d.) give a true witness in the public square when appropriate. But this cannot and must not be attempted with “outlines” and “plans of salvation” learned at week-end seminars.

7. Is there a place for planned, large scale mission work? Yes. Whenever God provides the inspiration, the opportunity, the trained clergy to conduct it, and the many other people needed and resources needed.

Paul said...

But "have you prayed to ask Jesus into your heart?" We must recover an evangelical-catholic model of mission and church planting, evangelism, etc.

Zach said...


Anonymous said...

What do you think but "go into all the world" and 'my witness in Judea, samaria and to the ends of the earth" I am glad Wilhlem lohe saw evangelism as an important thing. when you get a call just tell the church you don't do evangelism ok. Rev. Scott Schaller

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

May {the church} be a comforting beacon, proclaiming to all that at least in one place in this world of hate and revenge there is love, because, beyond all comprehension, the Son of God died for this world. And if it must preach judgment, if it must call down woe upon the people and interpret the fearful signs of the times, then may it never do so pharisaically, as one who had no share in the great guilt. But rather may it do so as a mother, whose own soul is pierced through by a sword; may it do so as did Jesus Christ himself, who uttered the cry of judgment over Jerusalem in a voice that was choked with tears.
Helmut Thielicke, Our Heavenly Father: Sermons on The Lord’s Prayer. p. 145.

Evangelism and witness without the church is like conception and birth without a mother or a father.

Mike Baker said...

I think it is helpful to think about exactly what a "witness" is. A witness tells what happened in detail. A witness presents the truth and deals primarily in facts. A witness answers the questions he is asked and clarifies the record for all who will listen. As in "in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you..." [1 Pet 3:15]

That is a different approach than a "salesman", "advertiser", "huckster", "attorney", "judge", "CEO", "vision caster", "dreamer", "community organizer", "magician", or "recruiter"... all of which are much better terms to describe modern evangelism approaches and strategies. I do not see evidence for these kinds of ministry approaches in Scripture. Would someone kindly point them out to me?

I'm not even so sure that the universal call to witness is the exact same thing as the Great Comission and the preaching of the Word (which is really part of the pastoral office.) Are all Christians witnesses? Yes. Are all Christians members of a royal priesthood? Yes. Are all sons and heirs of the kingdom? Yes. Are all given various and wide-ranging kinds of gifts from the spirit for the common good of the church and the building up of the Body of Christ? Yes.

But are all Christians appointed to be teachers, preachers, and evangelists? Eph 4 and 1 Cor 12 would suggest that the answer is "No" and many passages in both the Old and New Testaments warn that not everyone who runs out speaking on behalf of God was even sent.

I think that we do a great wrong to our brothers and sisters in the faith when we hold them accountable for spiritual gifts that they may not have been given, expect them to carry out roles that they are not suited for, and degrade "lesser" gifts and services as being unneccesary or even a distraction to some made-up universal call for evangelists. Every evangelism approach faces the temptation of legalism and I think the American church has really fallen for it.

It's as if we want the Body of Christ to be all mouth because we have no need for eyes, feet, hands, etc.

What ultimately gets lost is that, in our desperation to live as Scripture instructs, we throw individual vocations out the window and disregard the fact that the growing of the church is not really our work to do at all... but is the work of God through the means of grace. [1 Cor 3:6]

RevSeth@Grace said...

The font, the pulpit and the table. Now this is the evangelism I love.