Before His ascension into heaven, Jesus mandated His church to make disciples of all nations. In order to equip her for that task, He promised the Holy Spirit. “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the church—thus empowering the church to be church, that is, to go forth and fulfill the Great Commission.
Obviously, if the church is to fulfill the Great Commission she must do more than bring the gospel to members of God’s covenant family (believers and their children). She must also bring the gospel to those who are “afar off.”
Reformed churches of every stripe need to be reminded of their own theology that the preaching of the gospel is one of the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&As 83 & 84). In fact, it constitutes God’s current redemptive action in human history. Just before His ascension, Jesus Himself expressed this idea when He established the preaching of the gospel as the third phase (His death and resurrection being phases one and two) in His program of redemption: “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46–47). Since confessionally Reformed churches have such a high theology of preaching, confessing its redemptive significance, they ought to be leading the charge to preach the gospel of peace to those in the family of faith and “to all who are afar off.”
There have been eras in church history where this has been the case. It is not the case today, particularly with respect to the evangelistic efforts of the local church. As noted in last month’s article, some Reformed churches, in their haste to remedy this situation, have adopted methods and measures of the seeker-sensitive movement. Last time we examined the seeker-sensitive theology of evangelism. We offered a brief outline of this approach to evangelism and then focused our attention on five areas of concern or “five theological miscues,” as we called them. The reader is encouraged to (re-)read last month’s issue of The Outlook for the treatment of these matters.
As became evident in the prior article, the critique made of seeker-sensitive (or user-friendly) evangelism involves some fundamental issues-issues regarding the gospel itself. Yet the user-friendly movement does have strengths. While it is necessary to distance ourselves from the aberrant aspects of this movement (and we have), it is also incumbent on us to recognize the commendable features it exhibits which might aid us in our own evangelistic efforts. Consequently, in this article I want to point out three positive aspects of seeker-sensitive evangelism, and then make some observations for doing Reformed evangelism today.
POSITIVE FEATURES OF USER-FRIENDLY EVANGELISM
The first commendable feature of the seeker-sensitive movement is its genuine concern for lost people. Say what we want about its shortcomings, love for the lost drives many seeker-sensitive churches. This defines their mandate and certainly, to a significant degree, drives their efforts. As pointed out in our previous article, the church spearheading the user-friendly movement is Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. Its co-founder and senior pastor, Bill Hybels, has a passion for the lost. He notes that “lost, wayward, irreligious people, in spite of their sin, really matter to God.” Consequently, “that which is missing matters enough to launch an all-out search.” In each case, “retrieval brings rejoicing.”1 It is out of a desire to reach unbelievers that Willow Creek and many other seeker-sensitive churches have geared their ministry the way they have.
I think we need to be aware of our tendency to become self-absorbed as churches. The Great Commission involves not only evangelism but also edification. We are not only to make disciples unto conversion, we are to make disciples by teaching them to observe all that Christ has commanded. We should not be ashamed of our traditional emphasis on catechetical instruction and Bible study. But in all frankness we need to learn from the user-friendly movement what our own theology already teaches us, namely, that we love lost neighbors enough to actually seek them out. Many seeker-sensitive churches do! They let their unbelieving neighbors know that somebody cares.
How Unbelievers Think
Another commendable feature of the seeker-sensitive movement is its effort to understand how unbelievers think. Lee Strobel’s book, Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary, is an example of such an effort. In our labors to seek the lost, we need to know what makes Harry and Mary tick. It is valuable to know how unbelievers perceive the church and think about spiritual things. Strobel, a teaching elder at Willow Creek and a self-described, one time, anti-church Charlie, offers some useful insight on this score. A note of caution is in order, however. What is the goal or purpose of acquiring insight into Harry’s mind? Is it to manipulate or otherwise wheedle them into the kingdom? Is it to convert them to us or is it to convert them to Christ? Let us be clear: Scripture requires that we learn how unchurched Harry and Mary think not so that we can reshape the gospel to make it appealing to them, but so that we can aim the gospel’s darts at the vulnerabilities in their lives! We want to hit the bull’s-eye. We must be schooled in what they think about God and the church, but our message must be shaped by what the gospel thinks about Harry and Mary! With that caution, we can commend many seeker-sensitive churches for their sensitivity to get inside the mind of unbelievers.2
A Clear Strategy
The third commendable trait of the seeker-sensitive movement is that it has a clear strategy for ministry to lost people. That strategy consists of basically four ingredients: (1) Befriend unchurched Harry and Mary, (2) Invite them to a seeker service, that is, a service which is geared entirely for Harry and Mary, (3) Upon commitment to Christ, assimilate Harry and Mary into a small group to help them grow spiritually, and (4) Send now-churched Harry and Mary forth to use their gifts to build the church and to reach out to unchurched Larry.
From my previous article, it is evident that I do not agree with certain aspects of point two in this strategy (at least as it is conceived and practiced by many user-friendly churches). But again, following the example of Willow Creek, at least many seeker-sensitive churches have a strategy for reaching out to lost neighbors. If we dare to admit it, a surprising number of confessionally-Reformed churches have no strategy at all. They simply and honestly don’t! Consequently, outreach to unbelievers simply and honestly does not take place. Seeker-sensitive churches are to be commended for setting goals for outreach, marking out a strategy to fulfill those goals, and then implementing it.
OBSERVATIONS FOR DOING REFORMED EVANGELISM TODAY
In light of our criticism and commendation of user-friendly evangelism, we wish to make some comments for doing Reformed evangelism today. I offer the following observations as a framework from which to pursue the task of evangelism. Obviously, given the limitations of space, I can only sketch out a few observations.
What Evangelism Is and Isn’t
As Reformed believers we first need to be clear about what evangelism is and isn’t. One essential ingredient missing from the User-Friendly movement is a careful definition of evangelism. Biblically defined, evangelism is the preaching of the gospel. The Greek verb from which we derive our English word “to evangelize” (euangelizomai) means to bring or announce (the euangelion), the evangel, the good news or the good message. The regular use of the verb in the New Testament means to make known, verbally, the good message, the Christian gospel; and the spread of that gospel constitutes evangelism.3
In that light we must see what evangelism is not. In his book Christian Mission in the Modern World, John R. W. Stott explains that evangelism is not to be defined in terms of the recipients of the gospel. You do not evangelize people, you evangelize the Word. For example, in Acts 14:7 we read that “there they evangelized,” meaning “there they preached the gospel” (see Rom. 15:20). Similarly, Acts 8:4: they “went about evangelizing the word,” while Philip in Samaria, verse 12, “evangelized concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 8:12). The word “evangelism” can also be connected to places where the gospel was preached. For example, the apostles “evangelized many villages of the Samaritans” and Philip “evangelized all the towns” along the Palestinian coast (Acts 8:25, 40) meaning, the gospel was preached to the inhabitants of those towns and villages. 4
Secondly, we must not define evangelism according to results. As Stott perceptively observes, “There is no mention in these verses whether the word which was “evangelized” was believed, or whether the inhabitants of the towns and villages “evangelized” were converted. To “evangelize” in New Testament usage does not mean to win converts, as it usually does when we use the word. Evangelism is the announcement of the good news, irrespective of the results.”5 The user-friendly movement and most of American evangelicalism need this corrective.
It is common, of course, for evangelicals to think of evangelism as “winning people to Christ” or “converting them to the gospel” or “leading them to the Lord.” And that is certainly the goal of evangelism. But evangelism itself means to preach the gospel. And that is why evangelism should never be defined in terms of success. We are not to think of evangelism as preaching the gospel so as to achieve a desired result. That would be to define evangelism in terms of outcome. It is not our task to make the gospel “successful,” or to manipulate a certain “result.” Indeed, if that were the standard, much of the evangelism recorded in the New Testament would fail the test.
Thirty-six years ago, J.I. Packer wrote that “the way to tell whether in fact you are evangelizing is not to ask whether conversions are known to have resulted from your witness. It is to ask whether you are faithfully making known the gospel message.”6 The essence of evangelism, then, is the faithful proclamation of the gospel.7 Yes, we want to see conversions. No, we are not indifferent to the effect the gospel is having on people. Indeed, we pray for conversion and join the rejoicing in heaven when it happens (see Luke 15:7). But if conversion does not happen, the unresponsive, unrepentant sinner was evangelized nonetheless, that is, he still heard the evangel, the good message.
Thirdly, evangelism comes along one lone avenue—and that is the preaching of the Word. By preaching I do not mean a topical talk, with some Bible verses added on at the end. I mean an exposition, explication, and application of the text. To be sure, the preacher preaching to unbelievers needs to be cognizant of their ignorance. He might even need to explain why he is preaching from the Bible. He certainly needs to be tactful. There is no reason to be abrasive. But we do not have to truncate the gospel or try to knock off its rough edges in order to make it attractive to unchurched Harrys and Marys—and for a very simple reason: the apostles didn’t. Paul, for example, was unashamed to preach the “resurrection of Christ” even though the resurrection was a very rough edge, hard for unchurched Hezekiahs to accept. The resurrection, however, is at the heart of the gospel message. It is of the very essence of the good news, even though it doesn’t have immediate therapeutic value.
Lastly, it is essential that we accent the “evangel” in evangelism. The user-friendly method of evangelism tries to “butter-up” both the gospel and the gospel-recipient. Thus, the accent shifts from the message to the means or method of presenting the message. Form usurps a position of authority over content. And once this happens, we cannot help but wonder whether converts are converts to content or to form only. I, for one, do not doubt that the “evangel” is preached and peeks through at Willow Creek’s seeker-services. But I do wonder in what context it does so, that is, after how much pre-gospel and non-gospel stuff? Are converts, then, converts to the gospel of Jesus Christ, desperately fleeing from their sins, pleading the cross, surrendering to Christ’s lordship? Or are they converts to Willow Creek’s program, to Willow Creek’s amenities, to Willow Creek’s opulence, to Willow Creek’s standing, to Willow Creek’s talented staff? When we give Harry what he wants, might we be converting him merely to those “wants” instead of to Christ?8
Consequently, it is essential that we safeguard the God-centered nature of the “evangel” against its man-centered counterfeits. For example, is our point of contact with non-Christians the message: “God loves you”? Or is our point of contact the message: “God made you”? The issue is one of authority. Is God a friend who will help you? Or is God a king who will save you? To be sure, it is true that God can be both friend and king, just as it is true that God can love us and also be our creator. But the point is whether the gospel we bring to unchurched Harry is going to be the God-centered gospel of the Bible. In other words, does Harry need love, help, and friendship first and foremost, or does he need a new nature—a new mind, heart, and will—what Scripture calls rebirth?
Again, Harry may very well need both human friendship and rebirth. The Bible doesn’t talk about the fellowship of believers for nothing. But which of these, fellowship or rebirth, constitutes the essence of the gospel message? We know it isn’t the former! Therefore, when we make our appeal to Harry, should we appeal to the desires or felt-needs of Harry, or should we drive the truths of the Scripture into Harry’s conscience?9 To ask the question is to answer it.
The “evangel” must be evangelized, that is, the gospel must be “gospelized” (preached). It is what Harry needs. More specifically, he needs to hear three essentials of the gospel if he is to live and die in the joy of belonging to Jesus Christ and experience true conversion. First, Harry must be taught how great his sin and misery are; second, he must be taught how he can be delivered from his sin and misery; and finally, he must be taught how to express thankfulness for such deliverance. Parts one and three are perhaps lacking in much user-friendly fare. Let us be clear about what the gospel is and isn’t so that we may likewise be clear about what evangelism is and isn’t.
Be Passionate for Evangelism
Let us also be passionate about evangelism. Is there any reason confessionally Reformed churches should not be as well-intentioned and committed to evangelism as user-friendly churches? Willow Creek, for example, has a genuine passion to reach lost souls for Christ. Can we always say the same for our churches? As intimated before, integral to the Willow Creek program is the lay-friendship evangelism of its members (what I prefer, for theological reasons, to call “witnessing”). User-friendly advocates are not afraid to befriend profane, self-absorbed pagan, unchurched Harrys in an effort to bring them to church. On this score we must commend Reverend Hybels and Willow Creek. We ought to learn from their example.
Perhaps in our efforts to reach unbelievers and to understand them, to, yes, get inside the mind of unchurched Harrys and Marys, we will have to sort out the cultural baggage our churches might be carrying. We may not needlessly hinder outreach to non-Christians because of an ecclesiastical culture that isn’t mandated by the gospel itself. I’m certain there are a number of little things we could do to make a worship service less threatening and more welcoming to an unchurched Harry, without in any way compromising Reformed principles of worship.
Yes, discretion is in order. In seeking to understand nonbelievers, our goal may not be to cater to the whims and desires of Harry, to sanction his distorted theology, to let him off easy, to let him coast in the luxury of his agnosticism. Rather, our goal must be to wisely challenge him regarding his false theology by showing him the true doctrines of God, of humanity, of Christ, of salvation, and of the final outcomes. We may not beat around the bush with respect to these things. But first we must go! We must care! We must be passionate about evangelism!
The flames of passion can be fueled by God’s promise in Acts 2:39, to which we alluded earlier. “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off for all whom the Lord our God will call.” As Reformed people who cherish the covenant, let us not fall into the ancient Jewish mistake of thinking the promise of the gospel is only for us folks born into the covenant by blood. There are also those who are afar off, whom God will call.
Just as there has been a tendency by some Reformed believers to use the doctrine of election as an occasion for spiritual pride and smugness, so the doctrine of the covenant has been misused by some to foster spiritual elitism, with a consequent neglect of evangelistic outreach. In other words, believers come to imagine that they are believers by birth instead of by rebirth; they think that they have God’s favor by bloodlines instead of by Christ’s blood, or that they are God’s children because of the flesh instead of the Spirit. But we need to see that we Gentiles according to the flesh are those who are afar off. And the compassion and mercy that has come to us, salvation by grace, is for all who are afar off, i.e., “as many as the Lord our God will call.” God has chosen His church as the vessel through which that call comes to sinners. Indeed, how will they hear unless someone preaches to them?
In issuing the call of the gospel, in evangelism, may we keep before us the words of Colossians 4:2–6, for they outline a strategy regarding how we ought to conduct ourselves toward unbelievers. “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. 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.”10 Let us be sinner sensitive churches.
1. Quoted from G.A. Pritchard, Willow Creek Seeker Services, pp. 26–27.
2. See Pritchard’s analysis in Willow Creek Seeker Services, pp. 59–79.
3. John R.W. Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1975), p. 38.
6. J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1961), p.41.
7. Stott, op. cit., p. 40.
8. In that connection, Os Guinness wonders why mega-churches make so much of their front-door statistics (who comes and why) but are rather silent about their back-door statistics (who leaves and why). Could it be that there are a large number of sham conversions? Moreover, as much as 80 percent of the growth in mega-churches is by transfer. It is not as if they are reaching as large a population of unbelievers as is often intimated. They aren’t so much adding new cards to the deck, as reshuffling the original fifty-two. Besides, “most of the newly reached ‘unchurched’ are really spiritual refugees from the collapse of three groups-legalistic fundamentalism, watered down liberalism and over ritualistic traditionalism” (that includes many Roman Catholics). Are already converted people simply switching churches-to one they like?–Os Guinnes, Dining with the Devil: The Mega-church Movement Flirts with Modernity (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1993), p. 82.
9. Will Metzger, To Tell the Truth: The Whole Gospel to the Whole Person by Whole People, 2nd edition (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1984), pp. 32–33.
10. I am indebted to Rev. Carl Heuss, pastor of the Des Moines CRC, for alerting me to this important passage. In fact, Rev. Heuss teaches an evangelism seminar entitled “Outside Opportunities” that is self-consciously Reformed in its approach.
Rev. Beach currently serves as pastor of the First Pella CRC. He has accepted the appointment to teach Practical Theology at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN.