Missional Monday: Should Evangelism Happen Only in the Church?

As I argued at the WSC faculty conference “Missional and Reformed” the Reformed Churches have a sense of “mission.” We haven’t always been faithful to it and the Reformed understanding of the church’s mission is not that of the “missional” movement, especially as defined by the emerging and emergent churches.

One of the questions submitted for the Q&A at the conference asked,

“Can/should evangelism happen only in our churches from the pulpit (ordained preaching of the gospel)?”

This is a great question. The short answer is that it depends upon how one defines “evangelism.” If we’re defining it narrowly as, “the authoritative announcement of the gospel by Christ’s appointed minister” then, yes, that ordinarily occurs during stated services by ministers. That’s probably the best definition.  May the minister preach only on the Sabbath? Not at all. A minister may and should preach anywhere he has opportunity, where he is free to preach God’s Word without restriction. I’ve preached on the street, in city missions, on door steps, and on the radio.

“But,” you might be saying, “that’s not really what I was asking. What about the laity?” We could also speak about “evangelism” more broadly and include the laity but, in this instance, it’s not necessary. There’s not a lot of evidence in the NT that unordained Christians did much “evangelism.” This is the Achilles’ Heel of modern, populist, democratic, egalitarian evangelicalism. The NT knows little of “every member” ministry. As I’ve pointed out before, most of the passages, read in context, most often cited to justify EMM have precious little to do with EMM. It’s probably better to speak about lay witness to THE faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3) as summarized in the Apostles’ Creed and explained by the Reformed Churches in the confessions. God’s unordained people should also be able to give witness to THEIR (his or her) personal faith.

In contrast to passages most frequently cited by proponents of EMM, 1 Peter 3:15 does speak directly to what laity are to do:

but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you….

The context for Peter’s instruction is the necessity of suffering for the sake of Christ rather than suffering as an evil doer. This is essentially the same teaching as Rom 12. Christians are to live their lives in this life quietly, modestly, ready to testify to the truth. There are other examples where laity are called upon to give testimony. In John 9 the man who was born blind testifies freely of the salvation he had received and even asks his inquistors if they too want to follow Jesus! In contrast, his parents were unwilling even to testify to those things they knew to be true.

Whether in John 9 or in 1 Peter 3 the expectation is that Christians should be able to articulate the faith when asked, when given opportunity. I know there are Christians who are frustrated that the rest of the laity do not share their passion for “evangelism.” I understand but listen to me, your hectoring won’t make your brothers and sisters more anxious to share their faith. They’ll just avoid you. Let’s not make lay witness into yet another “law” that they have to keep in order for you to consider them mature.

Ought Christians be able to testify to their faith? Yes, but there’s no evidence that Christians must be knocking on doors. They ought to pray for their relatives, neighbors, co-workers, and friends. Pray that the Holy Spirit will convict them and teach them the greatness of their sin and misery. Pray for opportunity to testify to THE faith and to YOUR faith, but leave the results to the Spirit.

There are a lot of bad motives for lay witness: to “win” an argument or to “be right” or to “get your way” or to appear spiritual in front of others or out of guilt. I’m guilty of trying to manipulate people into witnessing. We’ve all seen dreadful attempts at evangelism. I’ve done some of them. Asking someone if they  know the way to some attraction and then asking them “but do you know the way to heaven?” witness is no place for duplicity. Indeed, just as in court, we are sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” God help us. True witness  is an act of love. It is an act of faith. It is testifying to the facts of redemption and to the application of Christ’s work to you. That’s it. We’re not trying to “get something” from anyone. We’re just telling the truth and trusting Christ.

Who can do that? Any Christian can and may tell the truth about Christ about one’s personal trust in him.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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3 comments

  1. I think this is a balanced way of looking at witness. I do try to engage people in many different places, but not out of guilt–I have a desire to plant seeds in the lives of lost people–when I’m in a crowd, I’m mindful of the preponderance of lost souls–but I am learning not to force things, knowing that salvation is God’s work. I like to give people a taste of the Gospel.

  2. A Kingdom Of Priests

    “There’s not a lot of evidence in the NT that unordained Christians did much “evangelism.” This is the Achilles’ Heel of modern, populist, democratic, egalitarian evangelicalism”.

    I believe your statement as quoted above is incredible (without merit). Obviously you are speaking as an ordained minister of the gospel under a particularized denomination. It is good to remember that the elect of God are ordained of God and by Christ Himself. On the authority of the Apostle Paul We are too imitate him as he imitates Christ (I Cor. 11:1).

    The scripture plainly and clearly endorses and commands all people everywhere to repent. Ironically, you would have “the laity” evangelize by silent witness following the often misused statement of St Francis: Preach the Gospel always and if necessary use words. Silence never saved anyone.

    “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Rm 10:14-15). I suppose the ungodly will be able to differentiate us from the nice neighbor down the street who practices a pagan religion.

    Example:

    The Diaspora

    Prior to the conversion of Saul, the people of the Way were suffering extreme persecution by Saul as sanctioned by the synagogues of Jerusalem and Damascus. Filled with vengeance and inordinate zeal, Saul, as well as his cohorts sought to rid the land of these heretics by stamping out the recipients of the evangel.

    We are told that the twelve chose seven faithful men of good standing to serve, and through their work, “[T]he number of disciples was multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:1-7).

    It’s fascinating to me that while the Apostles remained in Jerusalem; God drove Christ’s disciples out of Jerusalem and into the outer parts of Judea, Samaria. “… [T]hose who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word” (Acts 8:4).

    I pray that you will encourage your friends and congregation to passionately due the work of the evangelist by embracing the priestly office God has called them too. We are a Kingdom of Priests!

    Ad Fontes

    Michael

  3. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for making my case for me! You’ve just shown that the exegetical evidence for lay evangelism is slim indeed.

    Red those passages carefully, in context, and you’ll see they have nothing to do with lay evangelism.

    Please read my post again. I’m all for lay witness, but Jesus instituted a visible institution, the church to do evangelism. The model to which you’re appealing has much more to do with American egalitarianism than it does with apostolic Christianity.

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