The last century witnessed the emergence in the evangelical world of a bizarre distinction between knowing Jesus as one’s saviour, and knowing him as one’s Lord. As saviour, Jesus doesn’t expect much of you, but as your Lord he expects your unqualified commitment. Thank God that the Jesus of Scripture was not actually afflicted with such religious schizophrenia. It’s a rather lazy distinction that enables armchair disciples to reassure themselves that ‘faith without deeds’ still has a faint pulse.
If Christian faith is alive, if it is placed in a God who is reconciling the world to himself, if faith is related to a life-changing Gospel, this has enormous implications for evangelism. Evangelism is not simply about conducting spiritual transactions that will save individuals from the pits of hell and fast-track them on a highway to heaven. Evangelism is first and foremost, the invitation to the world to join the church in worship.
Naturally, in an age that is preoccupied with church decline, mission (rather than worship) seems to many to lie at the root of the Church’s identity. I wonder whether this is why so much of what we hear and read about evangelism amounts to little more than project management and market strategies, underpinned with biblical proof-texts. The moment mission is placed at the root of the church’s identity, the content of the Gospel loses all substance. To be sure, mission is a necessary fruit of the Church’s life, but to be good fruit that will last, it will need to be thoroughly rooted in worship.
Worship is where transformation, in all its personal, social, political, ecological fullness, takes place. Evangelism is simply the church’s invitation to the world to worship this God who brings transformation. Without embodying a communal life in which this life-changing Gospel is blatantly active, any evangelism we might offer turns into a pack of lies, regardless of how doctrinally sound we might believe it to be. Too many modern evangelists seem to regard the world’s problem as a lack of correct information about the Gospel that can be remedied by talk. For such folk, hearing the Gospel means listening to someone explain some facts about God. It is much easier to reduce the Gospel to a set of correct truths, than it is to become a living, breathing embodiment of the transforming Gospel we proclaim. The world’s problem is not theoretical mis-information, but actual human sin.
The ministry and mission of the church is the restoration of the created order, at the heart of which lies the restoration of real people, healed, loved, forgiven by God. But this personal experience is not an end in itself, nor a necessary stage of evangelistic pyramid selling, so that others can experience that same individual forgiveness, so that eventually the whole world may have the spiritual slice of its life evangelised.
Evangelism is an invitation to be a channel of God’s life-changing activity in the world. Relational, social, political justice are not simply later stages of the Christian life for those so-inclined. They lie at the heart of the Gospel, so when they are omitted from the evangelistic message that message is both falsified and rendered repulsive to growing numbers of young people in our world.
The church’s message is rightly rejected when it fails to embrace the economic, ecological, social realities that shape our identity. But if we worship the God of creation, if our proper human context is taken seriously, it becomes immensely attractive to those who share our concern about the state of the world. Mission is the invitation to join the church in worshipping (and therefore working with) a God who in Christ is lovingly, graciously, forgivingly, powerfully, reconciling the whole world to Himself.
This is why mission is rooted, and can only be rooted in worship. Worship is where the transformation of character takes place – both ours as heralds, and of those we seek to reach. Easier by far, to fall back on introducing people to Christ as their saviour, and leaving all the uncomfortable lordship stuff for another day.
(Published in the Baptist Times, Jul 27, 2006)