It seems to me that evangelism is often confused with a self-aggrandizing desire to fill churches, or, to use the common phrase, to ‘put bums on pews’.
I think this is sad, and also more than a little curious.
The great commission in Matthew 28:16-20 was clearly to make disciples, to baptize them, and to teach them to obey everything Jesus had commanded his first followers. In other words, it was first of all a call to enter into a process of transformation within Jesus’ wider vision of the Kingdom of God. The agenda for this transformation is clearly set out in Matthew’s gospel in the Sermon on the Mount, and in several other collections of the teaching of Jesus in the gospels.
Now don’t get me wrong; common worship is clearly a part of it. We know that the very earliest Christians devoted themselves ‘to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers’ (Acts 2:42 NRSV). But the meetings for worship were only one part of the life of discipleship. Transformation, mission and evangelism were just as important, if not more so.
When Jesus first called people to follow him, he said, not ‘Come, follow me, and I will teach you to come to church every Sunday’, but ‘Come, follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people’ (Mark 1:17 NIV 2011). This invitation was not ‘Would you like to come to church with me?’ but ‘Would you like to come on an evangelistic trip with me?’ Sharing the good news with other people, and inviting them to become followers of Jesus, were central to the process from day one.
I know we have to start somewhere, but I often wonder whether inviting people to church is the best place to start. It easily gives them the impression that checking the Sunday attendance card is the most important non-negotiable of the Christian life. Maybe we’d be better to engage our friends in conversation about who Jesus is for us, and what it means to us to follow him. Maybe we should have discussions about Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God, and how it advances as lives are transformed. Maybe we should spell out what Jesus’ vision for those transformed lives involves: seeking first the Kingdom, living with few possessions, loving our neighbours and even our enemies, learning the joy of generosity to those in need, forgiving those who sin against us, learning to pray honestly and humbly, and so on. Common worship can be discussed too, of course, but only as part of this broad life of discipleship, not as the main event.
Of course, during the long centuries of Christendom it was assumed (erroneously, I believe) that living and participating in a ‘Christian’ empire was adequate training in the life of discipleship. It was assumed that being baptized as a baby and living in a Christian country made you a Christian; going to church was a sign of your loyalty to this. Lapsed churchgoers were assumed to be backsliding Christians who needed to be invited back to church to renew their commitment; what was never considered was the possibility that they might never have been truly converted to Christ in the first place.
Christendom is now dead, but church members (and especially church leaders) still seem to think that the surrounding community is full of lapsed Christians who only need an invitation to church to make them full disciples again. It rarely seems to enter people’s heads that maybe we need to start further back than that. Sunday services are gatherings for worship and learning for disciples; might it not be better for people who have not yet decided to become disciples to spend time first considering the totality of what it means to follow Jesus, before they are asked to participate in acts of worship that assume Christian belief and commitment throughout? Maybe a few months of coffee and conversation with a friend, including participation in acts of service in a downtown mission, a Habitat for Humanity build, or some other mission opportunity, might be a good place to start?
What do you think? Do you think an invitation to church is the best way to help a person move toward becoming a follower of Jesus, or are we better to start with some other aspect of the life of discipleship? If you care to comment on this issue, don’t forget to explain why you take the view you do.