23 April, 2015 Melvin Tinker
Gospel mission is first and foremost God’s mission. The image which links both OT and NT in this regard is that of God gathering those who are his to form church (gathering): Ex 34:11-12/ Is 40:11. Here the context is that of the return from exile. The scattering is an act of judgement, the gathering is an act of salvation. In the NT this is given a distinctive Christological component in line with the prophecy of Ezekiel 34: 23-24. God will gather/ David will gather and both are conjoined in the person of Jesus- John 10:14-16. God’s mission is Christ’s mission and with the Ezekiel imagery as a backdrop in Matthew 9: 36 Jesus is said to have had compassion on the crowds for he saw them as ‘sheep without a shepherd.’ Turning to the disciples he said: “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”’ Mission, then, is God directed, the disciples are to pray to him to send out labourers. But it is what happens next that is most intriguing for in Matt 10:1 he called his twelve disciples to him (i.e. he gathered them) and then in v5 he sends them out to preach the gospel message. Jesus does the very thing he has told his disciples to ask God to do-send out labourers into his harvest field- and that is a significant Christological message being conveyed- God sends, Jesus sends- the equation is meant to be obvious.
The one who sent his one and only Son into the world, through his Son sends others so that they would be gathered to him: John 20:21. This also reminds us that God’s mission is Trinitarian. Just as at the beginning of Jesus ministry at his baptism the Father affirms the Son quoting Psalm 2 and Isaiah 42 and sent the Spirit upon him, so here the Son who was sent by the Father sends the Holy Spirit and the disciples to proclaim the gospel of forgiveness. Those who are gathered have, as it were, an outward face towards the world.
Church and mission.
How does this translate itself into the local church situation?
Some have drawn attention to the fact that the NT lacks explicit instruction to churches on the subject of evangelism. But it has been suggested by P.T.O’Brien that this is simply because of Paul’s preferred way of speaking about Gospel work which emphasises God’s work in and through the gospel rather than our proclamation of it- e.g. Phil 1:12 ‘ the advance of the Gospel’ or 2 Thess 3:1 asking his readers to pray that ‘the word of the Lord may speed on in triumph.’ That emphasis should not lead us to draw a false conclusion which ends up denying the evangelistic activity of the congregations to which Paul writes. The term ‘koinonia’- fellowship- which is key term in Philippians, is primarily to be understood in terms of active Gospel partnership ( this is a business word used for example in Luke 5:10 to describe the fishing business partnership of James, John and Simon). While involving prayer and financial support for Paul and his companions it also embraces what the church itself was meant to be doing : Phil 1:27-28a.
It is questionable whether such a sharp distinction can be made between ‘edification’- building up by the Gospel and ‘evangelism’- reaching out with the Gospel.
From Eph 4:7-13 we are taught that Christ is ‘building’- v12 his church through the people he provides- apostles, evangelists, pastor-teachers. Priority is given to word ministries as the means by which this is achieved. This at least implies that the building up takes place quantitatively, adding people to the church especially by the work of apostles and evangelists, as well as building up qualitatively which is suggested by the imagery of the body of Christ, growing into maturity-vv 12- 13, with each part working together. The mention of God’s people being prepared for works of ‘service’, may not only be construed in terms of serving each other, i.e. having an internal focus of Christians ministering to one another, but may also have an external focus as this is the word translated as ‘mission’ in Acts 12: 25 . ‘When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission ( diakonia), they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark.’.
So far it could still be said that ‘mission’ -service- is the function of individuals rather than congregations. This could also be said about lots of other things too, such as teaching the Bible, prayer or singing. The point is these take place within a congregational context. But what about evangelism? This is where we must be careful not to make a hard and fast distinction between evangelism and edification. For there is at least one passage which does envisage unbelievers being in the congregation with the possibility of conversion in view with the result that the church is edified both at the level of an increase in numbers and an increase is spiritual depth and encouragement as (a) Christians hear the gospel message again and (b) They see others saved by it- 1 Corinthians 14.
While Paul’s main point is to encourage the Corinthians to minister effectively to one another as the body of Christ, his concern is that even strangers-outsiders (idiotes) should be able to understand what is said , be convinced by it and converted (vv 22-25). Presumably Christians were to feel free to invite their unconverted friends and family members to their meetings. So while a congregation is edified intensively ,being consolidated, strengthened and preserved as God’s people through the ministry of the Gospel, it may also be edified extensively by the conversion of those visiting or invited by friends.
Today we hear a lot about having ‘seeker friendly services’ and, as with most things there is good wisdom and intention here but also some possible dangers. On the positive side it is really an extension and application of 1 Corinthians 14. Positively what we do and how we do it must be intelligible and commend the Gospel, and negatively we must avoid putting unnecessary stumbling blocks in people’s way. But we must be careful that we don’t go to the other extreme of so shaping our gatherings that it is reduced to a mere presentation of the Gospel in terms of Bible reading and talk and perhaps some drama and testimony. There may be occasions when this is appropriate, for example a lunchtime meeting at a college or in the office. This is because taking what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14 and what he says elsewhere of what Christians are to do when they meet together, for example - Colossians 3:15- 17. God can and does use the variety of Gospel activities that occur when God’s people meet together to commend the Gospel to unbelievers.
1 Peter 2 where he develops the OT imagery of the temple of God suggests what could be called, doxological evangelism. Here unbelievers are confronted with the reality of God in a variety of ways- preaching, testifying, singing, praying, caring for one another and so on. In other words, they are exposed to the body of Christ in action. On a Sunday by Sunday basis evangelism should be taking place.
We have to think more broadly than the simple ABC -John 3:16 gospel presentation. The Gospel is to shape everything we do, how we sing and what we sing, how we pray and what we pray. Whatever passage is preached is set within the framework of God’s saving purposes in Christ- i.e. the Gospel.
While we should have a place say, for special guest services which has a particular focus on the outsider in the way things are presented, I would argue that we should not be minimalist- there us something to be said for people to be given a ‘taste’ of a Christian community, that we view things differently and so behave differently with God at the centre of our horizons. Confession is not out of place for it at least shows we take sin seriously and that we see ourselves as sinners needing grace-not just the outside pagan-and that in itself is a much needed corrective to the way many people see Christians as ‘holier than thou’. On every occasion, but especially at a guest service, we should work hard at our explanations- what we are about to do and why-without going into overkill and being patronising and boring people silly. This will also develop within our own members and churches more of a ‘gospel culture’ -that is an awareness of the priority of evangelism and that this is not something separate from ‘worship’ but is part of worship as the priestly language of 1 Peter 2 and Romans 15 make plain.
Let us hear a balancing word of caution bearing in mind 1 Corinthians 14. What we do must promote the Gospel and not obscure it- so while singing has a rightful place in doxological evangelism, endless singing does not for this not only makes the outsider bored and alienated, it also sends the message that Christians are simply self-indulgent. And may I add this principle does not only apply to those of a more charismatic persuasion, a 20 minute prayer by our more Reformed ministers does not do wonders for helping the outsider have a positive experience of the Gospel community!
The relationship between believers proclaiming the Gospel and modelling its effects is laid out for us in 1 Thess 1:7: ‘You became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia--your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead--Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.’