So far in this series on the Marks and Works of the church, we explored the first pillar of a faithful and true local church—the Marks of Orthodoxy, Order, and Ordinances. To maintain a balanced Orthodoxy, we must focus on the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith in our preaching and teaching, which excludes destructive heresy and allows diversity on non-essentials. To uphold a proper biblical church Order, church leaders (pastor-elders and deacons) must lead with wisdom and humility and the congregation must do the work of the ministry under the shepherding care of the ordained leadership. And to encourage purity and unity of the local body of believers, a church must celebrate the Ordinances of baptism as the rite of initiation into the Christian faith and the Lord’s Supper as the rite of renewal and continued fellowship.
Returning to our diagram, I want to focus on the three elements of the second pillar—the Works of the church. The essential Works of a true local church are those activities in which the church must be engaged for that organized body of believers to carry out its God-given tasks. These Works of the church are Evangelism, Edification, and Exultation. Let’s discuss the first of these three essential Works of the church.
The Greek word euangelizo, from which we get our English word “evangelize,” means to proclaim a good message. Evangelism involves reaching out to unbelievers with the good news (“Gospel”) that Jesus Christ died for their sins and rose from the dead to bring forgiveness and new life. Evangelism is not directed toward the church, but toward the lost world. Thus, the normal venue for evangelism is not in the worship service (though it may occur here, as in 1 Corinthians 14:24-25). Rather, the most effective evangelism takes place as believers go into the world, live their everyday lives, and share the Gospel in word and deed with those God places in their paths.
The essential Work of Evangelism is most clearly articulated in Matthew 28:19. In the Great Commission Jesus ordered His disciples, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Notice what Jesus doesn’t say here. He doesn’t say “Wait for unbelievers to come” or “Pay some seminary graduate a salary to run an outreach program.” He says, “Go!” He doesn’t say, “Go to other churches and steal their sheep” or “Place ads or hang flyers for a low-key, high-budget, non-offensive outreach event” or “Let your next-door neighbors see your bland, upper-middle-class, moralistic lifestyles and hope they somehow become curious enough about how you spend your Sunday mornings that they ask about how they, too, can be upstanding, right-leaning, well-to-do citizens.” No, He tells His disciples to “Go and make disciples of all nations.”
Clearly, Evangelism—with the goal of converting unbelievers to Christ and initiating them into the Christian faith—is an essential Work of the local church. We should never replace it with either ineffective activity or inactivity.
Evangelism and the Marks of the Church
The essential Work of Evangelism is dependent on the biblical Marks of the local church. Evangelism depends on the Mark of Orthodoxy with regard to the content of its message about Christ’s person and work, that is, the Gospel (Romans 1:1–4; 1 Corinthians 15:1–5). If a person engaged in evangelism doesn’t have an orthodox view of the fundamentals of the Gospel, that person may be involved in proselytizing, persuading, or even story-telling, but not evangelism. And a clear understanding of the essential truths of the Christian faith will help clarify our message and keep us from programmed distractions symptomatic of church leaders who don’t have a grasp of the nature and purpose of the church’s basic proclamation.
Second, the Work of Evangelism rests on proper Order in the church. The pastoral elders are to equip the congregation for the work of evangelism. They are to lead by example and to train the members of the church in both orthodox teaching concerning the Gospel and how to share it with others. The teaching elders of the church serve as excellent resources when Christians doing the work of evangelism encounter non-Christian religions, false Christian sects, or difficult questions and challenges from unbelievers. Being able to turn to church leaders who have training and experience in such areas has great value for the church’s work of evangelism. Thus, the leaders of the church play a major role in preparing the church for the work of evangelism (Ephesians 4:11-12).
Finally, the Work of Evangelism is also related to the Mark of Ordinances. Matthew 28:19 says we are to make disciples from among the nations by “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Baptism is the act that signifies the end of the evangelism for the new believer and the beginning of the Work of Edification, or growing as a disciple of Christ. Many churches have too long de-emphasized this profound and powerful moment when a person’s inward conviction of faith is expressed through a public act of confession.
Everyone’s an Evangelist
I sometimes hear members of the church say things like “The church needs to do more outreach” or “The church needs to focus more on evangelism” or “The church doesn’t baptize enough new believers.” But if we’re the church, the problem is with us, not some invisible corporate entity called “the church.” If we wait around for our hyper-busy, over-burdened, time-taxed pastors and staff members to do everything we’re supposed to be doing, our churches will die. We sit back and complain that this or that ministry isn’t drawing people to our churches. Or we worry that visitors won’t come back if we don’t offer them such and such amenity. But more often than not the problem isn’t with the ministry, the music, or the media. The problem is with us—the messengers!
Evangelism is not only the work of the gifted and trained “evangelist” or the elders of the church. Evangelism is the work of every believer. Each of us has a sphere of influence among unsaved family members, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances we meet regularly. In fact, church members have more contact with unsaved people than full time church workers! Remember, the role of the leadership of the church is to do the work of the ministry alone, but to equip the saints for the work of service (Ephesians 4:12). If you’re a saint, you’re an evangelist!
The sad reality of church growth in America in general is that few churches grow through the work of evangelism. Most church growth comes from good old fashioned saint-rustling. We think that if they aren’t branded, they’re free for the taking! And even if they are members of another local church, we usually have no qualms about encouraging them to break their covenant commitment to that other community and to join our own. (When will we learn that if they’ll break their commitment to them for us, one day they’ll break their promise to us for somebody else!) Let me challenge all you churches engaged in programmatic sheep-stealing as a means of church growth: are all those flaky church-hoppers really worth it? Do you really want to build your church with weak and wobbly stones already misshapen and set in their ways? You decide.
Church growth today also focuses on peripherals and showmanship rather than on personal evangelism. Why is it that when numbers decline and people don’t come to our church events, we scratch our heads and try to decide what piece of furniture to plant in the lobby, what gimmick to add to the worship service, or what P.R. stunt to pull in order to get people “out there” to notice us? Or how often have we pointed fingers at this or that pastor, worship leader, or staff member and said, “He’s the reason we’re shrinking! Get HIM!” And we start looking for somebody more attractive or more charismatic to wake us from our self-induced spiritual coma. How pathetic. Let’s set the gimmicks aside, call off the posse, and just go back to the ancient, time-tested, fool-proof method of authentic church growth: Evangelism.
Cosmetic modifications to our buildings (or new multi-million-dollar megaplexes!), radical program overhauls, or ministry staff restructuring just won’t do the trick. Those preference-driven changes will never bring the heart transformation most congregations need in order to renew their passion for evangelism and missions. In fact, those external fixes, which are usually extremely expensive, inordinately time-consuming, and exceptionally controversial, mostly distract us from the internal commitment of the church members to rescue the perishing and initiate them into a living, growing community of faith. Until we redirect our time, efforts, and funds to the essential Work of Evangelism, we’ll continue to have a tough time overcoming the diminishing effectiveness of the preference-driven church.