As seems to periodically happen with this blog, a section of Christian Twitter and a chunk of people on other social media platforms appeared to take the hump with this article I wrote for Evangelicals Now. Now, that is fine. We aren’t aiming for total agreement (though it does help to keep the notifications at bay). But, as Abraham Lincoln reputedly said, you can’t please all the people all the time.
What was a shame, however, was that a few folk got the impression I was saying that there are people doing ‘too much evangelism.’ Now, you can read the article for yourself and decide if I say or imply that. I did spend the first two paragraphs outlining the vital importance of evangelism and was sure to be clear (or so I thought) that we should all be about that business. As I got to the main point of the article – that we are called to make disciples which means we can’t side line discipleship – I did say that we can’t make disciples without making converts which necessitates evangelism. So, it was interesting that the main point some took away was a view I nowhere stated which directly contradicted some of the specific and actual words that I did use.
To some degree, I could understand our Arminian brethren viewing the article that way. Many are led, by their theology, to essentially view evangelism as the greatest (and, sometimes in practice, the only) priority of the church. It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that they might see the church and various other commands of the Lord as secondary to the call to go into all the world and preach the gospel. There are churches and parachurch organisations with either an overt Arminian theology, or a less overt Arminian culture (which may or may not be coupled to any Reformed doctrine), driving much of what they do. Such places do, in effect, insist the church is nothing more than a vehicle for our evangelistic endeavours. Few would put it in such words, but it is how they appear to operate. This would be an example, I suppose, of what I meant by ‘Evangelism über alles.’
Not that I had any response from such people, but I could also understand our hyper-Calvinistic friends mishearing what I was saying for entirely opposing reasons. Given that they deny the need for evangelism at all, I can well believe that they might hear what I said as an affirmation that there is too much evangelism going on. Not that I said anything of the sort, but it would certainly fit their theology that the Lord will save whomever he wills without our involvement. Any effort to evangelise on our part, they aver, takes away from the sovereign work of God in salvation and to even ask people to believe is to deny God’s saving power. So, I can see that a hyper-Calvinist might have heard me saying we’re doing too much evangelism, because they think any amount of evangelism is too much!
But for those who don’t fit in either camp, I was surprised that the message heard was ‘we’re doing too much evangelism.’ That wasn’t said anywhere in the article; in fact, the importance of evangelism was stressed a number of times. Nor was I suggesting anywhere does ‘too much evangelism.’ Some of the places that insist evangelism is the only priority of the church are not necessarily putting others to shame with their extensive output (some are, but not all). What they tend to do is reckon the only task of the church is to share the gospel and make converts, which means the ongoing discipleship of their people and any converts they make is stunted. What happens at their services is typically geared up for unbelievers, not the believers in membership, and any ‘discipleship’ that does take place centres around what is perceived to be the only task of the church: sharing your faith with others.
The problem with phrases like too much, or not enough, evangelism is that it is totally unmeasurable. What is too much evangelism? What is too little? The Bible doesn’t set any clear parameters on the amount we are to do. It simply tells us to get on and do it. Must we share the gospel with an unbeliever every day or is once per week the allotted amount? The question becomes even harder when we ask it alongside what is too much prayer, Bible reading, church services, etc. When we start talking about ‘amount’ (unless the amount is literally ‘none’), we have rather missed the point. When can anybody ever say they have done enough of these things? That is, at least in part, why I wasn’t talking about amount at all!
So, just to be as clear as I can, I was not suggesting that anywhere is doing ‘too much evangelism.’ I think lots of places could be doing a lot more evangelism than they are; both churches and individuals. But that really wasn’t the point of what I was saying in my previous article.
My point was that for some churches, organisations and individuals, evangelism is seen as the only task of the church. The Great Commission is seen as little more than doing evangelism, without paying any heed to the specific, and much wider command, to make disciples. Those who take this view variously consider the church either as little more than an inconvenience to our real task of sharing the gospel with unbelievers or else the church is seen as valuable but everything within it is setup with the goal of reaching unbelievers.
This does not mean, therefore, that they are necessarily doing more evangelism than anyone else. It simply means that whatever they are doing is filtered exclusively through the prism of reaching unbelievers. Church meetings – whether modern seeker-sensitive ones or old-fashioned gospel services – are built around unbelievers, for the purpose of evangelism, not the upbuilding of believers, because that (they aver) is the main task of the church. When people do become believers, they are not walked alongside and discipled with the scriptures, they are tossed a Bible and effectively told to get on with it because their main duty now is to tell others.
It was interesting that one of the responses I received a few times was, ‘but I’ve not seen any churches like that.’ And if that’s true, praise God! But personal experience doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I am afraid such places are not few and far between. Perhaps we are simply not looking closely enough? I suspect what people meant by they have never seen a church holding to ‘evangelism über alles’, is that they had never seen a church that does ‘too much evangelism.’ Interestingly, I’ve never seen one of those either!
But what certainly do exist are churches, individuals and parachurch organisations that act, behave and so set themselves up – regardless of the specific quantity of evangelism they are engaged in – as though evangelism is the only duty of the church. The church is either an inconvenience to them in pursuit of that task – and so is either neglected altogether or grudgingly born with out of duty or tradition – or else their churches are deemed the vehicle for their evangelism above all position and are setup such that they can, and will, never be a nurturing place for believers seeking to be faithful to Christ, because the church (on their view) doesn’t exist for that.
As I said in my previous article, evangelism is important. It just isn’t everything. And I am staggered that could be a source of controversy.