By Matt Dabbs
By James Wood
hen we invite people to church, we’re inviting them to a place for a moment. When we invite people to convert, we’re inviting them to sign up for our way of thinking. When we invite people to obey, we’re inviting them to sign up for our way of acting.
It dawned on me the other day in one of those this-must-have-been-slipped-in-when-I-wasn’t-looking moments: the Bible never tells us to evangelize.
Go ahead and check, I’ll wait.
Are you back? What did you find?
I found many examples of evangelism, but no commands to go and do it. We have examples of evangelists (according to Ephesians 4:11, they are a gift from God to the church), but it’s not ever a command.
Does that mean that evangelism is optional?
No. Rather it should be involuntary.
Evangelism – when translated instead of transliterated from the Greek – is simply “good news.” The “good news” that Jesus and his cousin John proclaimed: the kingdom of God is near.
So, how does that connect with what we now know of as evangelism?
Heaven on Earth
Jesus’ view of the kingdom is, perhaps, the main topic that he talked about in his life on earth, but it can most easily be summed up in the way he taught us to pray – “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The phrase “your kingdom come” is parallel to the phrase “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” For Jesus, the kingdom, and therefore the good news, is that God’s will is done on earth as in heaven. Put another way, Jesus came to usher in heaven-on-earth. That’s good news.
Now it’s not perfect. Theologians talk about the already/not-yet aspect of the kingdom. Jesus is already victorious over sin and death, but we are not yet free from them. God is already among his people, but evil is not yet vanquished from the world. The curse of sin is already lifted, but the consequences are not yet gone.
Our job, as Jesus-followers, is to keep it going. We weren’t commanded to speak the good news – we were commanded to be the good news. Jesus told us to be disciples that make disciples – “teaching them to obey everything [Jesus has] commanded.” We keep creating moments of heaven-on-earth through the way we live. We follow Jesus in doing God’s will on earth as in heaven. We become good news.
We have a system in church that’s about conveying the right information in the right way so that others will agree with us. We have mastered logos, ethos and pathos. We use our rhetorical might to disseminate ideas. And our connection to the good news of the kingdom of God is eroding. Whether it’s a failure of our culture to connect ideas and actions or our own failure to model that connection is moot. The reality is that as we speak ideas, we are not making disciples. We may create assenters or attenders or adherents, but we aren’t making disciples through our teaching.
Jesus taught the crowds. Teaching is a good and necessary thing. Sharing ideas must happen and sharing the ideas that Jesus shared is vital to the life and health of the church. I’m not against teaching (I’m a teacher). But teaching has been moved to the core of our religious experience and it wasn’t that for Jesus.
Jesus lived with 12 men for three years. He had a group of 72 who not only learned from him, but also worked with him, went out on missions for him, and lived closely with him. Jesus’ disciples didn’t just learn from him, they walked with him, imitated him, and replicated him.
Cause and Effect
It’s easy to get causes and effects confused, especially in complex systems like church. But, I fear, we’ve confused the cause and effect of making a church and making disciples. Churches are the effect, not the cause. Jesus didn’t tell us to make churches or evangelize, he left us with the command to make disciples. When we do that, good news will happen. When we make disciples, communities of believers will form.
It’s easy to see large churches, dynamic messages, insightful lessons, and all the other trappings of success and think that we should aim for those. But we’re missing out on the cause on our way to the effects. We’re trying to have heaven-on-earth without the core component – doing God’s will on earth as in heaven.
Put it All on the Table
Jesus lived daily with his disciples and showed them exactly what it looks like to do God’s will on earth. Jesus loved people more than holy days, he demanded that worship of God be a heart-thing, he forgave sin and taught a way out, and in all this, Jesus taught the principle of re-examining God’s word.
At the core of Jesus’ life-message to his disciples is to go back to the word of God and question how it has been interpreted. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is about as clear as you can get on this point with Jesus using the refrain: “You have heard it was said . . . but I say to you.” He came, not to do away with scripture, but to do away with the chaff that was obscuring God’s message to his people.
Here’s my bold statement: Disciples today should continue the practice of Jesus and question every interpretation of scripture.
Now, before you get the rope to string me up, let me explain a bit.
I want to follow Jesus and be his disciple, so I want to try to figure out what he was saying not what others have said about what he said.
If the interpretations we’ve had are correct, then they can bear re-examination. Jesus didn’t have any trouble with the traditional view that the greatest commands were to love God and love your neighbor – he commended the law-teacher for his right interpretation. So the only reason to not re-examine everything is fear that we might be wrong.
I’ll say that again: the fear that we might be wrong is the only reason why we don’t re-examine our long-held conclusions about the bible.
But the fear that we might be wrong is a powerful message of good news to those who are considering following Jesus. Our willingness to look at our conclusions again is life-giving, hope-imparting, good news to those not yet following Jesus (and to many already following him).
When we live with a settled faith that cannot be questioned, re-examined, or re-evaluated, we give the people around us a binary choice. They can continue in their error or wholly accept our rightness. We’re asking them to make a leap from one worldview into another. There is no journey, there is no middle ground. We are trying to make the good news of Jesus into a declaration that they are wrong and we are right.
That doesn’t seem like very good news and it doesn’t invite many conversations.
If we model, praise, teach, and share that we should always be re-examining scripture, we are laying out a natural path for people to become disciples of Jesus. And, we can walk with them in the journey as we re-examine our beliefs too. If we’re right, there’s no harm and if we’re wrong there’s everything to gain. Either way we make the path of discipleship easier for new people to see and join.
When we invite people to church, we’re inviting them to a moment, but when we invite people to be disciples, we’re inviting them to a lifetime of learning what it means to follow Jesus. The learning, re-examining, and searching never stop — and that makes our lives good news.
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