Do “Covenant Theology” and Evangelism Mix?

Ask any true believer in Jesus Christ if they believe evangelism to be an important dimension of the Christian life and of the life of the church and they will say “of course.” However, ask a follow-up question like, “How effective are you in evangelizing unbelieving acquaintances?” or “how effective is your church in reaching out to those who aren’t in Christ?” and you’ll probably be met with a pained expression and some shuffling of feet.

Fact is, most of us don’t do very well in this arena, despite the Lord’s command to “Make disciples of all nations.” And it is usually not for lack of trying. Methods abound, from Evangelism Explosion (the fine and worthwhile training and evangelism strategy developed by D. James Kennedy at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida) to the Master’s Plan for Making Disciples (which grew out of the church growth movement in Southern California), to a new twist I recently heard of, called Health Club Evangelism (in essence, wear a Biblically provocative t-shirt to your workout, and be prepared to answer questions raised by fellow sweaters!).

Over the last couple of years, my own ministry has been blessed by the insights of a colleague with whom I was privileged to work. Pastor Carl Heuss has the “gift of evangelism,” quite frankly, to a degree I have seldom seen. His effectiveness in that ministry sowed some quite remarkable seeds in the congregation I am serving in Dallas, so much so that a significant percentage of this congregation will testify that they came to the Lord through the witness of members of this church family.


My friend and colleague has developed a rather extensive training seminar to challenge God’s people with Biblical evangelism patterns, especially Col. 4:2–6 which is itself simple enough for you to read and understand. It is not my intent in this article to repeat his discoveries in detail. Rather, I hope to make one important point about evangelism and about your role in it as a believer and as a local church leader. It is a point that has both a negative and a positive dimension to it.

Negatively: most Reformed and Presbyterian churches and believers are evangelistically inept because they are (incorrectly) covenantal.

Positively: Reformed and Presbyterian churches and believers can and must become evangelistically effective precisely because they are covenantal.

Of course, such a perplexing pair of statements demands explanation. Over the 20+ years of my own ministry, I have again and again witnessed a simple fact: people whom the Lord brings to the church face several significant obstacles. First of all, they face the theological problem of understanding the mystery of the gospel, which, to unbelief, sounds like foolishness (I Cor. 1). In addition, they face the painful truth of their own sinfulness, difficult enough to swallow for a believer, but doubly so for someone hearing the ugly truth for the first time. Oftentimes, the obstacle the outsider himself most clearly notices is that they simply don’t fit in to the circle of the church. Let’s recognize, as Reformed believers, that we have much theological energy invested in understanding the covenantal dimension of our faith. God has called us to be His covenant people; we are a family of God; there is to be a sense of community (koinonia) among our fellowship. And that intimate circle of covenant is an intimidating reality for anyone who is coming into the church family from the outside! Time and again I’ve heard people say it when I call to thank them for joining us for worship for a Sunday or two or three, and to inquire gently about why they didn’t come back. After all the politeness, when they finally become open and honest, it is usually to say something like “I really didn’t fit in.” And what they mean to say is really: “I didn’t feel very much like I was welcomed. I felt like an outsider, that people thought of me as an outsider, and that I didn’t belong.”

You might respond, of course, that outsiders are outside of the covenant. Of course they are. But when you invite someone into your home, they are outsiders to your family, yet it is not your purpose to make them feel how different they are from your family; Instead, you “kill the fatted calf,” you “bend over backwards to make them feel at home; you roll out the red carpet.” So, too, it must be in the church. We ought to trip over our feet (like the prodigal’s father!) running to welcome visitors. We ought to kill the fatted calf to love them and celebrate their presence. And we ought to do everything in our power to avoid making them feel unwelcome. Specifically, if our worship services are so filled with “insider” language that a visitor cannot possibly understand what we are doing (read I Cor. 14 on this one!), we ought to change. No, don’t cease distinctively Reformed worship; don’t minimize the Word of God; don’t stop singing praise. But DO adapt your language so that those who are there understand what it is you are doing. DO explain your printed liturgical forms so that those who do not understand “blood of the new covenant” can begin to understand the Passover background of “the Lamb of God.” Do not assume everyone knows the books of the Bible, but DO give page numbers to Bible references so that visitors and inquirers can find where you are reading.

And, perhaps even most importantly, both before and after worship services, make sure you surround visitors those whom the Lord brings to your fellowship—with warm, genuine acceptance and love. It is often amazing to me to watch a crowd of church people stand around in their circles of friends, themselves watching (and even talking about!) a visitor who stands there alone wondering what to do next. Unbelievable, and inexcusable, that God’s covenant circle would be so insensitive as not to open the circle for others. And, of course, it goes beyond common courtesy in the church lobby. I would be so bold as to suggest that if you are not willing to open your heart, your time and your schedule to befriend a newcomer (and I do mean befriend, with all the commitments that making a new friend entails), you aren’t really serious about evangelism.



Frankly, I’m weary of conservative Reformed believers and theologians excusing their evangelistic inactivity by waxing eloquent about how shallow the church growth movement is (and it often is), what is theologically insufficient about this or that evangelism method (and there is usually some truth in the critique), and how our sovereign God saves people, we don’t save through evangelism methods (how true it is!). Usually when I hear such run-on critiques, I’m rather suspicious that those making them haven’t invited an unbeliever to their home for dinner recently, haven’t gone out of their way to introduce an unbelieving acquaintance to a network of believing friends, and probably haven’t done much to make their church “user friendly” to those who aren’t familiar with the activities of worship and church life. Fact is, Jesus didn’t say, “They will know you are Christians by your orthodoxy!”


On the positive side of the same issue, however, is the very same covenantal dimension of the Reformed faith. No, not that we may “dose ranks” as the covenantal circle, impenetrable to all outsiders. But yes, because the apostle Paul commands us in Colossians 4:5–6 to “be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” My friend Carl hit me hard with this one. He reminded me that the call to wisdom regarding outsiders isn’t issued so as to keep them outside! The challenge to make the most of every opportunity isn’t issued so as to keep the insider’s circle closed. The challenge to conversation implies actual and intentional contact with those outside the family of God. Indeed, as my friend insists, the instruction to conversation that is “full of grace, seasoned with salt” probably harks back to the Old Testament covenantal practice of sealing each covenant with the exchange of salt, thereby signifying the lasting nature, the preservation of the pledge made. The point is Simply this: evangelism that is effective is evangelism that establishes lasting relationships of influence, of friendship, of grace. Usually, it is not enough to “witness” to someone in a onetime conversation; you must build a relationship with them, a relationship that has intentionality, a relationship that is built on prayer, on the purpose of the gospel, and that will have eternal consequence.

So let me ask you, how effective are you as a evangelistic witness to Christ?

Dr. Sittema, editor of this department, is pastor of Bethel CRC in Dallas, TX.