In the book of Acts, we see evangelism pursued in the context of community. Consider Acts 2:46-47. Luke writes,
“And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
There seems to be a connection between the people of God meeting in authentic community and fruitful evangelism. This connection has been affirmed by Christian thinkers since the days of the early church. Michael Green writes in his book, Evangelism in the Early Church,
“The home provided the most natural context for gossiping the gospel. That was
clearly the case in Acts, and it remains prominent in second century literature. Many
of the patrician Roman houses were large, with several adjoining rooms and a central
courtyard. This was ideal for the mixture of worship, food, companionship, and
learning which marked Christian worship. In the urban insulae where people lived in
close proximity to one another in small apartments, it was easy for the gospel to
spread up and down the block, much as it does in the tower blocks of Singapore today.
In most parts of the world where there is an explosion of Christianity these days, home
meetings are critical to growth.” (24)
In the early twentieth century, G. Campbell Morgan also affirmed the connection between evangelism and the church community. Morgan writes in his book, Evangelism,
“Evangelism apart from the Church is impossible. Christ was, and is the one
Evangelist. He now fulfills His great work of proclaiming the good tidings through His
Body, which is the Church. . . . Evangelism apart from the Church is apart from Christ,
and is therefore no evangelism.” (25-26)
And in our own day, Brad House draws the connection between community and evangelism in his book, Community,
“This is the purpose of community. We have been saved so that we would express the
gospel of Jesus Christ. Living together in community, reconciled and united by the
cross, is a physical demonstration of the grace of God.
Community is for us a declaration of the overwhelming love of God, a tangible
proclamation of the reconciling work of the cross.” (34)
I have reflected on these quotes often in recent days, especially since giving my life to the work of evangelism, and have noticed a particularly difficult barrier in our culture: individualism. Now, this barrier is nothing new–it has been with us ever since Adam and Eve decided to act in defiant individualism against God. However, the unique challenge of our individualism is that it not only affects those outside the church, but it is a constant source of repentance inside as well. Forget about asking Christians to get up the nerve to initiate a conversation with someone about their faith, simply inviting someone over to the house for a meal can be overwhelming considering the amount of comfort, time, money, and convenience we have to give up. Added to these obstacles are the noncommittal responses we often receive from friendly neighbors and coworkers who are balancing the benefits and drawbacks of giving up a night of TV or recreation to spend time with someone they are just getting to know. I realize this is not always the case, but both community and evangelism take a lot of time, effort, and initiation, as well as perseverance in the face of rejection.
Unfortunately, lukewarm Christianity cannot get past these barriers. Neither can the kind of spectator Christianity that is rampant in our churches. You will never give up your comfort, time, money, convenience, safety, or effort to invest in others if we follow the kind of Christianity that makes us feel good about ourselves and the world. This kind of Christianity doesn’t teach you how to brush the dirt off after being rejected, instead it teaches you how to avoid getting dirty in the first place so that everyone can admire you for how clean you are.
To get past the barrier, many churches set up some kind of evangelistic program or ministry to address the issue. Other churches cleverly attempt to avoid this kind of programmatic approach by installing missional communities or intentional hospitality efforts. Unfortunately, these efforts slowly disintegrate into the kind of programmatic approach avoided in the first place because any attempt to organize authenticity by unintentionally being intentional cannot escape the underlying forgery this strategy makes out of authentic community and evangelism. This is not to say that being intentional is the problem. Community groups, missional communities, outreach events, and other ministries can be helpful and productive, especially when centered on the gospel. The issue is that these examples happen to be the wrong kind of intentional.
Christians getting together for community to serve others or invite others in to see the distinction of Christian life, belief, and worship can be transformative-but only so far. At some point, someone has to get around to sharing the gospel and calling for a response from those we invite in. Aiming for missional community or intentional hospitality is not enough. What good is it if a group of Christians intentionally serve their neighbors but do not have the resources or even the courage to initiate a conversation about Christ with these very neighbors? How will they be equipped to connect community with evangelism by sharing a word about Jesus with others while serving them bread? Who will train and encourage and hold us accountable for making these connections between community and evangelism? Who will equip the church for this work? Perhaps being missional or communal or evangelical is not the kind of intentional that is enough. Perhaps there is a missing ingredient in this new movement to reach our individualized, postmodern culture that will equip and encourage us towards evangelistic faithfulness in the midst of our communal gatherings. What is this missing ingredient that I am arguing for?