“How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross? I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live it.”
—Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p 227
In one of my favorite books, Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community—a book which has been very influential in how I try to do ministry—the authors contrast two approaches to sharing the gospel. Illustrating the way we typically think of evangelism, they ask us to imagine a scenario:
John was playing squash with an unbelieving colleague from work who had recently joined the company. They had had a couple of brief chats over a coffee in the canteen, but Simon was new to the area and so welcomed the chance to do something social with someone and John seemed to be an ‘okay sort of bloke’. During the game, Simon was hit by a ball and began jumping around the court in pain. Over a drink in the lounge after the game, John and
his workmate are talking about their match. The incident with the ball is mentioned, and John responds: ‘It’s a hard ball when it comes at that speed. It’s happened to me loads. I once knew someone who got it straight in the eye. But have you ever noticed how God seems to play hardball with us in life? It’s often far more painful than a squash ball hitting you: redundancy; bereavement; rejection! The list is endless, but how do you respond, Simon, when those life balls feel like they are hitting you like a rabbit punch to the kidneys?’
The authors rightly suggest, “Perhaps you are particularly sensitive to cringe and John’s lead-in line registers high on the scale. Perhaps you find yourself reluctantly admiring his courage and commitment. It is almost impossible to talk about evangelism without people inwardly groaning!”
“Legitimate questions remain, however, about John’s approach. He hardly knew his colleague. His entry point was strained and tenuous. He had no idea who his acquaintance was. He made no attempt at building a relationship with him. No questions had been asked of John and no invitation given to him to discuss the big questions of life. John had not earned the right to speak the gospel word to his potential friend.“
Of course the situations only get worse when we start to imagine door-to-door or open air.
a better way
Illustrating an alternative approach—evangelism in community—they write:
What if the scenario had gone something like this? After the game John and Simon sat in the bar. The conversation was initially a little awkward, but John took a real interest in his colleague: where he had come from and what family he had. It emerged that they had a few things in common including a shared interest in fast cars. As they were walking out, Simon said: ‘Fancy coming around for a BBQ tomorrow night after work?’
And explain (bold mine):
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.
People need to encounter the church as a network of relationships rather than a meeting you attend or a place you enter. Mission must involve not only contact between unbelievers and individual Christians, but between unbelievers and the Christian community. We want to build relationships with unbelievers. But we also need to introduce people to the network of relationships that make up that believing community so that they see Christian community in action.
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 friend about Jesus, but they do not seem interested. 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.
I find myself totally on board with this 2nd approach, and this is the approach my own small group/missional community tries to live out. Rather than trying to make every Christian an extrovert, this method makes rooms for the various gifts within the body of Christ. This means, as the authors note, “our different gifts and personalities can complement one another. Some people are good at building relationships with new people. Some people are socialites – they are the ones who will organise a trip to the cinema. Some people are great at hospitality. Some people are good at initiating gospel conversations.”
The whole chapter is available online here.
The only cautions I would add are (1) I worry that too much focus on method has the potential to move us away from an emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s role in conversion; and (2) I also worry that too much emphasis on the benefit of evangelism in community (and I think it is a great benefit) might make us reluctant to share the gospel one-on-one when the opportunity arises. That would be a shame.
In Acts, the Apostles are in a pluralistic environment not altogether different from our own, yet consider this scenario from Acts 16:
“On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshipper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptised, she invited us to her home.”(13-15a, NIVUK)
Although we can sense some strategy (going to a place of prayer), Paul seems overall to have an incredible lack of tact in his approach. Yet we are told the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to respond. That, I think, is what we must remember above all no matter what methods we use.
In another place, Paul said that there were some who “preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely”, but adds, “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.” (Philippians 1:17-18, NIVUK). It seems that to Paul, neither method nor motive was of very much importance. What mattered above all was that the message got out.
I remember discussing different methods with a group of church planters once, and our team asked an experienced planter in the group whether he thought certain methods we were considering would be effective. His answer was, “Try everything! And if that doesn’t work, try something else“.
I highly recommend getting ahold of the whole book: Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community is available on Amazon, Amazon Canada, or Book Depository. This is one of the few books that I have bought multiple copies of to give away to friends.
Here is a short video where Dr Tim Chester, one of the authors of Total Church, explains Newbigin’s description of the church as the “hermeneutic of the gospel” (a quote which makes a few appearances in the book):
- “If Christ died for all,” Paul says, “then ALL DIED!”: Dr Greg Boyd on evangelism
- What is the Gospel? A look through the book of Acts
- Book discussion: Lesslie Newbigin, Sign of the Kingdom (1981): Part 1