Local Church Evangelism
The title I’ve been given is ‘local church evangelism in Scotland’. My focus therefore is on the mission and outreach of the Christian congregation set in a particular locality. The original title suggested was ‘inner city evangelism in Scotland’, of which I have no knowledge at all, first hand or any hand. However, the locality where I was minister for over 30 years was on the fringes of Scotland’s premier city (premier in size, let me hasten to add) and so what I have to say about local evangelism is set within a largely urban context. I am therefore thinking with you about the mission of the local church of whatever size, even one very small. Let us remember the Lord never promised to be present where two or three thousand were gathered together, but two or three actually, as the gospels record.
David J. Bosch, in his seminal work Transforming Mission, published in 1991, quotes the work of Barrett and Reapsome, who calculated that there have been 788 global plans to evangelise the world since the beginning of the Christian era. Perhaps quite a few more were added to that number in connection with the millennium, 8 years and more ago. Bosch advocates that the church should start in mission by thinking locally, not globally.
He writes: The rediscovery of the local church as the primary agent of mission has led to a fundamentally new impetus for evangelism.
Some Biblical Foundations
Here I am drawing heavily from the work of the Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright and his latest extensive book, The Mission of God. His thesis is that God’s Mission to the world is a central hermeneutical key for understanding the whole Bible.
We may speak, he says, not so much about the biblical basis of mission but rather the missional basis of the Bible. Now this is a bold claim. He concedes, ‘one would not expect to turn the other way round any phrase that began, “the biblical basis of...” There is a biblical basis for work, marriage, etc., but work, marriage, etc., is not what the Bible is all about.’ But, he argues, Mission consistently IS what the Bible is all about.
The Bible’s Map
I like to think of Mission as the Bible’s map. To put it this way is to indicate a rough and ready map. The map of the London Underground is a rough and ready map. The iconic diagram showing the intersection of colored lines which indicate the various underground tubes is not a comprehensive map. It does not detail every twist and turn of the rails. But the map distorts and omits to clarify and simplify the journey through London. To say the map of the Bible is God’s mission to the world is NOT to indicate a comprehensive atlas of the Scriptures. It does not show you every twist, turn and theme in the unfolding story of salvation, but it does clarify and simplify the journey through the Scriptures and remind us what the Bible is about.
Where Does the Church Fit?
So where does the church fit into this map and God’s mission to the world? In another book, his commentary on Ezekiel, Wright says there are two complementary truths in this regard. One, God runs the world for the sake of the Church. Two, God calls the Church for the sake of the world. We need, he says, to fix our mission to both poles of this biblical dynamic. The Church’s role then, to go out to the nations with the message of salvation, has always been God’s intention from the beginning. The Great Commission (Matthew 28) is not a new one. It is as old as the Hebrews’ Bible and the first book of that Bible, where the Lord commissioned Abraham with the words ‘I will bless you, and you will be a blessing and all peoples of the earth (all nations) will be blessed through you.’ (Genesis 12:2-3). And in the fulness of time after the unfolding of centuries, Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Abraham (Matthew 1:1), takes essentially the same commission of Genesis 12, and in Matthew 28 reshapes its focus in Him, and says to the representatives of His Church down the ages, ‘As you go, disciple all nations’; that is to say, go and be a blessing with a capital B to all the peoples of the earth.
Luke likewise at the end of his gospel (his first volume) shows how the Old Testament Scriptures which point inexorably to the Messiah also point to the good news going to the ends of the earth. ‘This is what is written: repentance and forgiveness will be preached in His name to all nations.’ (Luke 24:46-47). The overall structure of the Acts expresses this same viewpoint. Mission begins in Jerusalem and ends in Rome; from the heart of the faith of Israel (the temple) to the heart of the world (of all nations). And the Apostle Paul significantly views this same horizon in his great missionary exposition of the gospel in Romans. He begins and ends this epistle with the summary of his life’s work as being aimed at achieving ‘the obedience of faith among all nations’ (Romans 1:5 and 16:26). And this latter reference and phrase at the very climax of the letter occurs as that which is rooted in the Old Testament Scriptures (‘through the prophetic writings’) and ordered in the mission of God (‘through the command of the eternal God’). The mission of God IS the map of the Bible. It’s what the Bible is all about, from cover to cover and beginning to end.
Among the many, many Old Testament texts to support his thesis, let me direct you to a striking one which Wright describes as ‘possibly the most marvelously universalistic passage of mission in the Old Testament’: 1 Kings 8:41-43, Solomon’s dedication prayer for the temple. In it Solomon prays that the foreigner who does not belong to the people of Israel, but who comes and prays towards the temple, might be heard so that ‘you the Lord would hear and do whatever the foreigner asks of you’. That is to say that Solomon asks God to do for foreigners from another nation what God had not at any time promised to do for His own chosen nation Israel: ‘whatever they might ask’. Hence the newness of the promise Jesus made to His disciples (the new Israel, Mark 11:24). And the consideration with which Solomon seeks to persuade God in 1 Kings 8:43 is equally impressive: ‘so that all the peoples of the earth (all nations) will know your name’. So the biblical foundation for the raison d’être of the local church, namely its evangelism, lies here. I have become convinced that the Bible’s central hermeneutic is arguably God’s mission to all nations.
Jesus’ words in Matthew 28 in the Great Commission do not appear to have been in the forefront of the church’s mind as a rallying cry for worldwide mission for almost eighteen centuries. Until 1792, that is, and William Carey’s famous sermon, published as a tract and entitled ‘An enquiry into the obligations of Christians to use means for the conversion of the heathen’. No short snappy sermon titles in those days! Carey did not use the term Great Commission in his tract, and the title for the last paragraph of Matthew’s gospel, with which we are now so familiar, does not appear to be used by the Christian church until the last 100 years or so. Now this partly explains why, in our understanding, the marks (the note) of the true church in the Reformed tradition omit that of its worldwide mission. So what are we for in the church? It’s a very important question.
A similar one you may recall was once asked of Mark Twain’s Huckelberry Finn, by Joanna. She had heard that in her uncle Hervey’s church in Sheffield there were no less than 17 clergy, although they didn’t appear to do much except ‘loll around, pass the plate, one thing or another, but mostly they do nuthin.’ ‘Well what are they for?’ she asked. Huck replied, ‘why they’re for style, don’t you know nuthin?’
What are we for in the church? What are the marks of the true church? The legacy of the Reformation passed on to us to this very day, as seen in our ordination services, highlights three.
First, the true preaching of the Word. Second, the true administration of the sacraments; and third, the true discipline of the membership. Were the Reformers right with these three marks? Well yes, up to a point, but only up to a point. The late David Wright, evangelical historian, in his last published work, pointed out,
These marks originated in the special context of the sixteenth century and in a quite specific ecclesio-political setting in early modern christendom. Integral to that setting was competition between different claimants for recognition as the true church by the civil authorities and the community at large.
How did the Reformers miss one principal biblical mark of the true church? Three out of the four gospel writers end their gospels with the Risen Lord’s commissioning of His disciples to worldwide mission. Actually, four out of four gospel writers, if you accept the longer ending in Mark. If this is so and if the King and Head of the church defines the church’s role so explicitly and the Holy Spirit records this so comprehensively, then how can we omit this as a true mark of the true church in any age; namely, mission to the ends of the earth and to the end of the age?
The New Testament writers have used an interesting word for the local church, have they not? – namely, ekklesia. There were apparently a large number of words available in the Hellenistic world to describe religious groups of people who were drawn together by a common quest for salvation. The New Testament writers selected ekklesia – the secular word for the assembly to which every citizen is summoned and expected to attend. So the church, the assembly of God, is that to which all who will belong are summoned without exception and summoned not by the town clerk but by the living God. Summoned, that is, to do His bidding. Ekklesia then is really a missionary term and the church must make sure that the summons goes out, is heard, understood, and received by the whole world or that patch of earth in which we find our church located. Martin Luther once said, ‘If you can’t make the whole world holy, do what you can! Do what you can.’
So there are some biblical foundations and theological perspectives, which, I would argue, identify and compel a congregation to evangelise in the local patch of Scotland in which it finds itself.
Mission Principles and Practice
I have three principles and in each case I have used New Testament verses as pegs on which to hang them. In each case the examples of practice are almost exclusively drawn from my own experience in the community of Chryston on the North-Eastern edge of Glasgow.
1. Firstly, Develop Missionary Mentality within the Congregation
Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:19 read literally, ‘Going therefore disciple all nations.’ The principal verb in the Great Commission is ‘disciple’ and the object of the verb ‘all nations’, including presumably the nation of Scotland, the population of Scotland and the particular cultures and subcultures of Scotland in the specific locality of our churches. Three participles in these verses amplify the main instruction ‘disciple’; namely, going, baptising and teaching. It’s the participle ‘going’ I want to emphasise here. The going is not an imperative. It is an assumption. Going is what God’s people do. It’s always been God’s intention for His people – namely that they be outgoing and outward looking. Yet paradoxically, we are so often nowadays inward-looking in the Christian church, and consciously or unconsciously we adopt a siege mentality, probably because of living in a complex secular culture.
So how can we develop a mission mentality in this difficult ‘present age’ as opposed to a maintenance mentality? The difficulty for evangelizing today is connected, it seems to me, with the indifference to and boredom with the Christian message on the part of the masses. They think they know it but they don’t; they think it has been tried but it hasn’t; they think it’s good advice, but it is good news. So there are reasons around for maintenance modes, but not sufficient reasons to disregard the mission mandate and the mission mentality that g(d)oes with it.
A starting point for developing this mentality might involve the explicit and continual underlining of the congregation’s purpose. The leadership might beneficially adopt a congregational mission statement that reflects, in measure, the Bible’s map. Mission statements are not so much in vogue now as a number of years ago. I’m in favour of them as long as they are preached on in a series of sermons to the congregation, as long as they are printed on all church literature and then imprinted on all the thinking of the various church organizations, and as long as the purpose statement is short enough to be transposed onto cards which should be distributed to church members so that they can view it and remember it constantly. A number of years ago we adopted a purpose statement, as we called it, of 13 words: ‘To see unbelieving people become mature followers of Jesus Christ within the church.’ So underline congregational purpose. That’s a start.
More difficult is the next stage in developing the missionary mentality, and that is in mobilising the membership. The minister of Barclay Free Church in Edinburgh in the 1870’s, James Hood Wilson, had to deal with communicants’ classes of 40, 50 and more during the time of revival. He believed that every new convert and member should be given at least one job to do in the church so that he or she could ‘own their part in the congregation and its purpose’. We tried to follow that at Chryston. However, our principal way of mobilising the living membership for mission was to send them out on visitation programmes. For ten years we would visit a fifth of the parish every September following a letter being sent through the post to the homes concerned. Training meetings were held beforehand and visitors were encouraged to talk not about the church but about Jesus, and invitations for special meetings were to be handed out. Each year someone came to profess Christ as a result of the visitation mission. But the great spin-off was in cultivating a missional attitude among the visitors and the congregation as a whole. The year before I left, just under 100 visitors were trained and sent out to visit 2,000 homes with a range of leaflets concerning events to which people of various age ranges could be invited. An understanding of the Great Commission to disciple the nations, it seems to me, will cast us back on the Lord’s own discipling ministry recorded earlier in Matthew’s gospel and in particular the priority He gave to training His inner circle. Mobilise the membership.
We can develop the missionary mentality by attempting to get members to think globally as well as locally. Last month I was invited to the opening and dedication of a new church building in Edinburgh. Research studies indicated to this Christian church that the two most unchurched areas in Edinburgh were Leith and Gorgie. They already had a church building in Leith. This new building dedicated as a church that evening was in Gorgie. At the service, over 600 were present and the average age appeared to be around 35. There were some things to find fault with that Sunday evening, but one could not fault the passion for the lost of Gorgie, nor the global concern for the lost of the world. An Indian Christian spoke movingly and tellingly of the killing of Christians and the burning of churches in the state of Orissa in NE India in the present time. So to act locally and think globally is perhaps a useful slogan and strategy to adopt.
2. Making the Most of All Local Opportunities
In 1 Corinthians 9:22, Paul describes his general evangelistic mindset: ‘by all possible means that I might save some,’ he says. These words have often been misapplied, but they cannot be misunderstood as to the content of the short paragraph in which they occur. Paul there is talking about winning, winning, winning, winning, winning as many as possible – yes, five times he uses the verb, and winning is synonymous with saving; and saving some involves, in the apostle’s mind, trying all possible legitimate means.
Dr Bruce Milne writes of his experience as senior pastor in First Baptist Church, Vancouver, a large congregation in a sprawling downtown area of the city. In his book about the church, Dynamic Diversity (IVP), he says this:
Long gone are the days when evangelism could be reduced to a single method or means, whether the preaching from the pulpit or the outreach of a well developed Sunday school or vibrant youth group. Each of these will continue to be a means of grace to some as they grope their way towards a living faith. But these means will be joined by ministries as diverse as free meals for street folk, classes teaching English as a second language, Christian theatre productions, a Christianity Explored or Alpha course, seven-step groups for the overweight, home movie evenings, Agnostics Anonymous discussion groups, cycling weekends, street ministry for homeless young people, classes on good financial management, or occasions celebrating the contribution of a local hospital emergency department, local school teachers, firemen, police officers or social workers. The list is endless; the doors into the kingdom are as multiple.
‘Our experience in such a congregational context’, he says, ‘was that the more doors into the kingdom we opened, the more people came through them.’
Assessment of our locality’s needs and opportunities in the parish of Chryston and Moodiesburn led to the establishing of the Honeypot Nursery school in Moodiesburn, 14 years ago. There have been around 30 pupils in the school each year. Contacts led to a weekly coffee group, and eventually six of the mothers came to faith. The school has received very encouraging reports from the H.M.I. and has led to a lot of goodwill in the community because of the educational standards and the Christian ethos. Over the years, we have developed the work of the nursery school under the umbrella of a separate registered charity, THE SPARK INITIATIVE, and this now includes a Befrienders scheme in the parish with a number of volunteers, calling on needy, lonely and depressed people in the locality, who are often referred by the local social work department. ‘Jesus went about doing good.’ Do we?
3. Tell Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary People
In John 4:29 we read, ‘Many of the Samaritans believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.’ The woman’s word, actually! Logos in the original term. Logos doesn’t usually mean ‘story’, but it does here, and the woman’s logos was quite a story! ‘He told me everything I ever did.’ Extraordinary! At least to those who heard, it was a story that was outwith their worldview and life experience. It seemed to come from another world and as such it held some attractions for enquiring souls.
Just over a year ago, the church where I was minister produced a glossy booklet entitled Real People Real Stories. The stories of ten ordinary people were selected from those who were converted to Christ over the years through the witness of the local church and recorded in the booklet. The idea was to hand out the booklets where appropriate after conversations with neighbours, friends and colleagues, or to use them in door-to-door visitation in the community in the future. We are fairly convinced today that it’s not just Samaritans who are intrigued by stories of ordinary people involving extraordinary spiritual changes and that for the better. Let me indicate something of three of the stories here.
There is the story of the 50-year-old man who resisted invitations to church for 28 years after his wife was converted. He had a chronic gambling problem, but Christians befriended him over all these years and visited him and accompanied him to social events and even went on holiday with him and his wife. At last, 28 years on, he came to a residential church weekend in the country, experienced the change of heart which Christ brings through the gospel, and committed his trust to Him. He is now in church almost every Sunday in the year and has publicly professed faith and become an active member of the church. He has experienced new self-control in tackling his gambling habits, and most of what he earns now is channelled towards the paying back of old debts. It is an extraordinary story!
Or there is the story of the young mother in her thirties who had never been to church since early childhood. After moving into the community, a Christian neighbour befriended her. A young Christian mother from a local playgroup wrote her a card and offered to pray when her father was seriously ill at hospital. Another Christian neighbour offered to take her and her children to church and Sunday School. This lady gladly released the older child but made the excuse of the infant’s needs for staying at home.
Two to three years passed, and when the younger girl was Sunday School age, she agreed to venture up the road with that Christian neighbour. She dropped both the children off at Sunday School and went halfway back down the road, but on an impulse, turned and went back to the church service. That day, she heard a message that told her everything she ever did, as she said in later years. She found Christ in the months that followed. She is now the church secretary, her husband is an elder, and her older daughter, after studying at missionary college, is now married to a pastor in a church planting context in southern Ireland. How extraordinary – at least it’s a story outwith the ordinary experience of the materialistic worldview around.
And then there’s the story of a woman who found Christ in the church services twenty years ago. She was of a very anxious, shy, retiring disposition. Her husband, a leading light in the local masonic group, made life very difficult for her. But she stuck it out within the Christian fellowship, though he didn’t with the masonic fellowship! After a disagreement, he left and eventually came to church and trusted in Christ at a Good Friday service. Two years later, after suffering from cancer, he died. It was a heavy blow to her, but she kept going. Then her middle son died with no warning. Another devastating event, but she kept going. For twenty years she had been on the Reception desk at the local high school. That is, she had been the first person people met and the first person people spoke to on the telephone at the school. And over these years her gentle, consistent, caring, prayerful Christian testimony won the respect of many in the school. She received awards year after year from pupil votes. She was given a massive retirement dinner in a local hotel by the Head Teacher, and presented some of the prizes at her last school prize giving. And now she heads up the Scripture Union prayer network for the five schools in the locality. EXTRAORDINARY, I would say, but an ordinary person. REAL PEOPLE, REAL STORIES. And ‘many from that town (not only Sychar, but also Chryston and Moodiesburn)’, will believe in Him because of their testimonies. So develop a missionary mentality, make the most of local situations, and finally, tell extraordinary stories of ordinary people.