John S. Shaw
People expect certain things from a church. It’s the place they go to worship. It’s the place for the whole family to learn about the Bible. It’s the place to build relationships with like-minded people.
Our expectations for the church should not end there, though. What about bringing others into the community of faith? What about educating people who do not yet know the Bible, so they can worship God? What about evangelism? Christ gave this responsibility especially to the church.
This article has a very specific aim: to describe the primary role of the local church in the ministry of evangelism.
Perhaps the connection seems obvious, but we need to remember the unique, powerful role of the church as God’s primary agent of evangelism. A high view of the local church and a commitment to biblical evangelism go hand in hand. In the words of Mack Stiles, the Lord “has a wonderful plan for evangelism: his church” (Evangelism, p. 19).
Before considering the hows and the whats of evangelism, it is important to consider the unique role of the church in evangelism. Paul writes instructions to Timothy concerning his ministry, and in those instructions he describes the church: “I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:14–15).
Notice in particular the last image that Paul utilizes: a pillar and buttress of the truth. We all know the purpose of pillars: to hold up the weight of a building. While buttresses may be less familiar, they serve a similar purpose. In Gothic cathedrals, flying buttresses held up the horizontal weight of the walls, making it possible to design buildings with higher ceilings and larger stained glass windows. Those buttresses may look like decorative stonework, but they bear a tremendous amount of weight and pressure to protect against collapse. The result is a larger space, greater light, and glorious beauty.
What does it mean that the church is the pillar and buttress of the truth? The church as an institution is uniquely given the responsibility to hold up the glory, weight, and beauty of the truth of the gospel for the world to see. The apostle even describes the truth that the church is to proclaim, which is Jesus Christ—the crucified, risen, and ascended Savior—through whom all who believe are saved (v. 16). God appointed the church as his agent for evangelism (see R. B. Kuiper, God-Centered Evangelism, p. 118).
The New Testament tells the story of the expansion of the kingdom, beginning at Pentecost, as many converts are gathered through the proclamation of the gospel. The church in its local expression stands at the center of this expanding ministry. People are gathered, through the ministry of local churches, into those local churches. The epistles are written to various local congregations that are engaged in that evangelistic mission.
There is a temptation to see local congregations as incidental or even detrimental to the work of evangelism. The argument goes something like this: Churches have their own language and culture, which are completely foreign to the unbelieving world. Churches use outdated methods like public preaching and formal worship. Churches have their place in the lives of those who already believe, but they can never reach the lost effectively.
This argument, however, stands in conflict with the testimony of the Bible. As Paul reminds the Corinthians, “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21; cf. 1:18–2:4). The apostle goes so far as to suggest that we cannot expect sinners to be saved unless the church sends preachers, because faith comes from hearing the word of Christ preached (Rom. 10:14–17). Paul argues that God appoints preachers and preaching as the primary channel for the world to know Christ.
The Lord Jesus has promised his church that through her regular life and ministry, many will be saved. The local church is neither incidental nor detrimental to the work of evangelism, but rather a necessary agent in the spread of the good news.
But how does the local church exercise her role in evangelism? She does so, quite simply, by being the church that Jesus designed her to be. The Lord gave specific responsibilities to the church: to maintain the apostolic teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer (Acts 2:42). That sounds very much like the regular ministry of Word, sacrament, and prayer. The Lord also called his church to live together in a particular way, characterized by love, fellowship, worship, and care for others (2:44–46). As they did this, the Lord added to their number each day those who were being saved (2:47).
We need local churches that function as the Lord directed, because Jesus designed the church with the gospel in mind (see Stiles, Evangelism, p. 64). He uses such congregations to spread the gospel and gather the lost.
We also need local congregations that have a zeal for evangelism and a love for the lost. We need local congregations filled with people who love the gospel and love the lost in such a way that they will invite them to church and warmly welcome visitors.
Do we believe that the church uniquely carries the message of salvation that people need to hear? Then we should invite and welcome people into our local congregations, trusting that God will work through the church he designed and called. We need congregations filled with people who understand that the local church “is the chosen and best method of evangelism” (Stiles, Evangelism, p. 60).
So far, we have considered the central role of the local church in evangelism. When local congregations fulfill the responsibilities given by the Lord, they have the opportunity to participate in the spread of the gospel. Now we can consider the hows and whats of evangelism. What tasks has the Lord given to local congregations for the spread of the gospel? Let’s consider those tasks in two parts: the character of church life and the character of pastoral ministry.
The pastor, along with the elders and deacons, has a particular responsibility for evangelism. His role is unique in the life of the church, and that distinction is essential. Members are not called to preach or even to do the work of an evangelist, yet they are still called to participate in the evangelistic endeavors of the church. When the people of a local congregation faithfully participate in the life of the church, and when the church lives as Christ commanded, the expectation is that typically the Lord will grow and build his church in that location.
So what does that mean? Let’s consider the basic, God-ordained activities of the local church and how those activities serve the ministry of evangelism.
The life of the church begins with a commitment to worship.
In one sense, the Christian life calls us to worship and glorify God in everything we do (1 Cor. 6:20; 10:31; Rev. 4:11). Yet formal worship that includes, at a minimum, the reading of the Word and prayer, plays a significant part in the Christian life.
The Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that there is something distinct about formalized worship, done both in private and in families. (It is amazing how family worship opens opportunities to speak the gospel—to dinner guests, to neighbors, to friends of your children.) Most significant, though, is the regular public worship of the local church gathered together. Christians must not neglect regular corporate worship on the first day of the week, because God commands it (WCF, 21.6).
Worship is the first priority for the believer, and public, corporate worship is the first priority for the local church. The priority of corporate worship provides the primary motivation for evangelism. The Lord seeks worshippers, and worshippers are gathered through the ministry of evangelism. Paul suggests as much by writing, “For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:15).
Worship provides motivation for evangelism, but it is also wonderful to know that public and corporate worship fuels evangelism. People believe as they hear the gospel from preachers who are sent (Rom. 10:14–17), and that preaching takes place primarily in corporate worship services. This means that believers should invite others (friends, neighbors, coworkers, acquaintances) to public worship.
Worship provides both motivation and fuel for evangelism. That is the ongoing pattern of the book of Acts. Preachers proclaim the good news, and then people are saved and added to the number of the church. As more people are added, the church expands and the gospel witness expands. Worship and evangelism are directly connected.
The life of the church includes a commitment to the ordinary ministry of Word and sacrament.
We call these “the means of grace.” Why? Ephesians 2:8–9 describes the power of God’s grace: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” God communicates that grace through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. When the Spirit works through these tools, the saving power of God is at work.
If this is true, then we should be committed as local congregations to participate regularly and faithfully in the use of these means. We should expect God to work powerfully through them. Therefore, we should sit under the ministry of these means as individuals and families, expecting God to do a great work in us and in our families.
Also, we should invite others (friends, neighbors, coworkers, acquaintances) to sit under the ministry of these means. One of the primary opportunities to participate in the ministry of evangelism is simply to invite others into the life of your local congregation. As they participate in the worship, fellowship, and life of the church, they see God at work in the world. They are introduced to the whole counsel of God in the ministry of word and deed.
The life of the church includes a commitment to the ordinary ministry of prayer.
Our heavenly Father gives tremendous promises concerning the power of prayer and his willingness to answer the prayers of his children (Matt. 7:7–11; James 5:16). He also gives wonderful examples of the effectiveness of prayer for the preaching and evangelistic ministry of the church (e.g., Acts 4:23–31).
The Lord gives us great reasons for confidence in the task of evangelism. The Lord God, who created all things and sustains them, is the Lord of the harvest. He promised, through his Son, a fruitful and plentiful harvest. And he promises to bless our participation in that endeavor. Therefore, we should pray for a great harvest in our communities, for that is a request that echoes the Scriptures.
Many Christians think that they lack the gifts for active involvement in evangelism. Let me suggest that one important opportunity for active involvement in evangelistic ministry is simply to pray to the Lord of the harvest to grant a bountiful harvest—for a great harvest in general, but also for specific people by name. That is a task simple enough for any believer, and yet a task with great promise of results.
The life of the church includes a commitment to fellowship, hospitality, and mercy.
The church in Jerusalem, immediately following Pentecost, is described at the end of Acts 2. Their church life included a commitment to Word, sacrament, prayer, and fellowship. Luke chooses to focus most specifically in these verses on the love and hospitality within the community of new believers. But he also gives a hint of their love and respect for those outside the church: “praising God and having favor with all the people” (v. 47).
The church should be characterized by love for one another, but also by love for neighbors. Outsiders should be overwhelmed by the kindness and compassion that exists within the church, but they should also be shocked by the kindness and compassion extended from believers to those outside the church. Christians should be the best neighbors, the best coworkers, the best relatives—those who go out of their way to elevate the interest of others above their own interests.
Sacrificial kindness looks strange in the eyes of the world. For that very reason, it opens doors to share the gospel, and it opens doors to invite others into the life of your family and your church.
The life of the church includes a commitment to testimony.
The Lord calls certain men as pastors, with a special responsibility to preach and teach. Yet we should be careful to recognize the responsibility of every believer to know and even to articulate the gospel.
Believers who live in obedience to God’s law stand out. Sometimes our obedience frustrates unbelievers, but often our obedience leads to questions (1 Peter 3:15). Ultimately, the answer to those questions has roots in the gospel—an answer that we must be ready to give.
So what does Peter teach us in 1 Peter 3:8–17?
First, we should strive to live in always increasing obedience to God, no matter the circumstance. Second, we should expect our obedience to generate a response from unbelieving friends. Third, we should study and grow in our understanding of the gospel. (To facilitate this, pastors and elders should train their congregations in the gospel, so that they learn the gospel and learn how to articulate it on some level.) Fourth, we should ask ourselves lots of questions about what the truth of the gospel and the person and work of Christ have to do with our life. The answers to those questions should help us be ready to answer others.
Let me share one short example. I worked with a new believer, “John,” who was raised without a Christian background. Before his conversion, John was communicating with “Dan” on the Internet. When the conversation turned to movies, it became clear that Dan had standards that kept him from watching certain movies. Out of curiosity, John asked, “What is your standard?” Dan explained that because he served God, the Bible helped him determine which movies were acceptable. John ended that conversation out of frustration. Later, though, he began to ask more questions. Those questions eventually led to Bible studies, prayer, a study of the Westminster Confession of Faith, and eventually, by the grace of God, conversion, baptism, and church membership. John asked a simple question. Dan gave an answer and a reason. And the Lord used that interaction as one step toward John’s conversion.
The ordained minister, along with the elders of the church, has a particular responsibility for the work of evangelism. When Paul describes the spread of the message of salvation to the nations, he writes about the need for preachers to be sent (Rom. 10:14-17). Read within the context of the rest of the New Testament, the apostle refers to ministers ordained and sent by the church. He also instructs Timothy to be prepared to preach the word and do the work of an evangelist (2 Tim. 4:1–5). This is the particular responsibility of those men ordained to the gospel ministry.
Doing the work of an evangelist—preaching the gospel, teaching the gospel, and seeking the lost—is the first task of pastoral ministry (see Martin Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls, p. 90). As the apostle Paul proclaims, “Necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16).
What should characterize this gospel ministry?
This ministry requires confidence in the promises of God.
Jesus described an evangelistic harvest that is plentiful and ready to be gathered (Matt. 9:37–38; John 4:34–38). What is the greatest need? The Lord needs laborers to gather the harvest. The Lord needs faithful ministers and evangelists. He sends out those laborers with commands and attached promises:
The ministry of the Word, which includes the ministry of evangelism, requires a man of faith. He knows God to be faithful. He recognizes the Lord to be someone who not only speaks, but always does what he says he will do. Therefore, in obedience to God, the minister of the Word obeys the Lord’s commands (to go, speak, teach, preach, and pray) with full expectation of the Lord’s blessing (a plentiful harvest, times of joyful reaping).
This ministry requires courage in the face of opposition and difficulty.
The minister possesses courage because the Lord makes promises. He is the Lord of the harvest. He guarantees a plentiful harvest. He chooses people before the foundation of the world. He saves all those he chooses and calls. And the Lord always delivers on those promises.
Although the minister knows that the church faces opposition in this world, he understands that the opposition of the world has limits because of God’s care (2 Cor. 4:7–12). In particular, he knows that the eternal weight of glory far outweighs any suffering in this life (2 Cor. 4:16–18).
Because of the promises and providences of the Lord, the minister of the gospel must boldly proclaim the truth of the gospel. And when such courage is lacking, the minister may follow the example of the apostles, praying for courage (Acts 4:29–31) and asking the church to join in those prayers (Eph. 6:18–20).
This ministry requires conviction of the glory of God and the truth of the gospel.
A minister who believes these things will preach differently. Rather than looking for clever ideas or worldly wisdom, he will simply preach Jesus Christ and his salvation. And he will expect amazing results (conversions and transformations) because this is the power of God unto salvation, a demonstration of the Spirit and of power (1 Cor. 1:18–25; 2:1–4).
A minister of conviction will be different in his message, but also in his demeanor. He will teach and preach with passion, because he is personally convicted of the truth of the gospel and the glory of his God.
If the gospel has truly gripped your soul, shouldn’t that be obvious in how you proclaim it? Can you imagine the apostle Paul preaching in Athens—“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness” (Acts 17:30–31)—without evident passion and personal pleading? Passion that flows from conviction of gospel truth should characterize the preaching and teaching of ministers of the gospel. We have a glorious message to proclaim. Let us do so with all the conviction and passion that the message demands.
This ministry requires clear communication.
In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul describes his ministry in this way: “But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2). He asks the Colossians to pray for him, “that I may make it [the word, the mystery of Christ] clear, which is how I ought to speak” (Col. 4:4).
Ministers of the gospel have received a message to preach—the truth of the gospel—and they must stick to that message. That is the point of 1 Corinthians 1 and 2. But because the message is the truth, and because the message carries the only promise of salvation for a dying world, ministers have a responsibility to speak the truth of that gospel plainly and openly. Simply put, ministers must speak clearly.
This has several implications. First of all, it is quite natural that communication is easiest with people who are like us. Based on race, culture, and education, we adopt our own language and vocabulary. We typically communicate within the confines of that cultural vocabulary. But the gospel is a message for everyone, both those who are like us and those who are very much unlike us. This means that ministers must work diligently to communicate with people who are unlike them.
Second, the study of theology has produced its own language and vocabulary. The temptation for every preacher is to use that language, and therefore to communicate only with those who have learned theological speech. But again, the gospel is a message for everyone, even those who haven’t learned theological speech. This means that ministers must labor diligently to communicate with people who are unlike them. (For more on this, see the articles by Jeremiah Montgomery in New Horizons, March and April, 2015.)
The kind of clarity that the ministry demands—the open statement of the truth in order to make the gospel clear—requires hard work to achieve. This is a struggle for us, and an ongoing struggle for the church. We must renew our efforts to speak the gospel clearly, even to those who have no background in biblical language or knowledge. They need what we have—the gospel. It would be ministerial malpractice to speak in a way that they cannot possibly understand.
This ministry requires compassion for the lost and dying.
Matthew 9:37–38 is one of the most familiar passages concerning the evangelistic ministry of the church. The Lord promises a plentiful harvest and expresses the need for many harvesters.
It is also important, though, to notice the posture of the Lord Jesus that provides the context for these words. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (v. 36).
We know the compassion of the Lord because we have experienced it. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
Ministers of the gospel should display a similar compassion for the lost, who are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. The gospel witness of the church in our age needs such compassion. Let’s be honest: the behavior of many Christians on social media does not typically portray compassion for the lost, but rather frustration and anger.
Ministers of the gospel must lead the way in modeling compassion for the lost: in our speech, in our behavior, in the way we welcome newcomers, and in the way we love our neighbors. This involves not only our formal communication in public teaching and preaching ministry, but even how we communicate on venues like Facebook or Twitter.
My wife and I train our children to ask the following question about what they say: is it true, necessary, and kind? Ministers should hold themselves to the same standard, whether in the pulpit, around a table, or on social media.
We must never compromise the truth of the gospel, and yet we should give clear evidence of compassion in our communication and our face-to-face ministry. In fact, we must display a clear commitment to the house-to-house ministry that Paul describes in his instruction to the Ephesian elders. It included shedding tears and enduring trials for the sake of others (Acts 20:18–21). We suffer with others in their pain—even in their self-inflicted pain as the result of sin—for the sake of the gospel.
God sends his people into the evangelistic endeavor with clear responsibilities and great promises. The Lord promises a great harvest, and we can believe that promise because he is the faithful Lord of the harvest. He sends local churches into that harvest with all the tools necessary for the task. What does he ask of his church? Faithfulness. Faithful congregations are committed to corporate worship, Word and sacrament ministry, prayer, fellowship, hospitality, mercy, and testimony. Faithful ministers are emboldened by faith to speak the gospel with courage, conviction, clarity, and compassion.
May the Lord raise up such churches in the OPC. And may we marvel as the Lord exceeds our expectations by granting us a wonderful portion of that great harvest.
The author is the general secretary for the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension. To obtain this article in booklet form, email CCEsec@opc.org, call 215-935-1023, or order online at store.opc.org. New Horizons, July 2016.