I'm going to let you in on a secret: I'm a Christian missionary and I loathe the term "evangelism."
By that, I mean that the entire concept of "converting someone" or forcing one's own beliefs onto someone else reeks of imperialism and narrow-mindedness — two qualities that have led to both the rise and subsequent fall of the post-Constantinian Christian church.
And, if I'm being really honest, I feel further separated from those who describe themselves as "Evangelicals" than any other type of Christian.
I know I'm not alone. Throughout my adult life, I've met countless folks who are enamored with Jesus but want nothing to do with the church...and it has nothing to do with things like music and the pastor's charisma and everything to do with Christians they've met.* Often, they're been turned off by the types of folks who try to proselytize via comment on a YouTube video or with a megaphone on a street corner.
My friend Hal used to say people like me don't like evangelism because we "have seen evangelism done wrong time and time again." Those words have proven to be pivotal for me. If it's possible for evangelism to be "done wrong," what does it mean to be "done right?"
First Century Church
Although I'm not someone who believes the first-century church was perfect, I do think it's worth paying close attention to how those who knew Jesus personally interpreted his final instruction to "make disciples of all nations."
In Acts 2, there's a picture of the early church that makes my heart swoon:
[...] and all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met. They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw [...]
Acts 2:44-47 (MSG)
A big caveat should be added, though: this group only included Jewish Christians. Obviously, the Jesus movement eventually opened up to outsiders...so where was the transition?
You have to read further, in Acts 10. In this story, the apostle Peter has a vision in which the Holy Spirit tells him (repeatedly) to meet with a Gentile (non-Jew) named Cornelius, to which Peter refuses (repeatedly) since doing so would cause him to break Jewish law — a very big deal.
Eventually, Peter agrees, meets with Cornelius and baptizes him, his relatives, and his close friends. This story is often referred to as "The Conversion of Cornelius," although I like my friend Alfred's anti-imperialistic name for it much better: "The Conversion of Peter."
After speaking with Cornelius and realizing how active God had been in his life, Peter shares his (at the time) earth-shattering revelation:
[...] "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.
"You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ — he is Lord of all. [...] We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people, but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.
"He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead."
Acts 10:34-36, 39-42 (NRSV)
Through this encounter, Peter learned God’s message is intended for all people and not just the Israelites. The implication is massive: communities often create boundaries that God often requires us to remove...because what a community sees as a comfort zone, outsiders experience as a barrier.
Peter, commonly recognized as the first leader of the Christian church, is providing foundational instruction as to what churches are expected to do: go to the people and be witnesses of the gospel message to those who haven’t experienced it.
The Pain of Transformation
So Peter left his comfort area and went to the people. The result was that he and, ultimately, his community, were transformed. In retrospect, we can see this was monumental: the Christian faith opening to non-Jews made it possible for all kinds of folks to know Jesus.
But it was also a painful transformation. Asking the early Christian Jews to practice faith without their purity laws was the same as asking them to abandon their understanding of how God works. It was asking them to give up their national and religious identity, as well as the comfort of clearly knowing what God expected from them.
All this happens when we drop our barriers and let people in. That's why the church doesn't do it. Let’s be honest with ourselves: We are afraid to go to the people because, deep down, we're afraid to be transformed.
Yet isn’t this the essence of what the church is called to do?
- Be Christ's hands and feet — build God’s kingdom.
- Give people a reason to believe — be a reflection of Christ in our own lives and community.
- Go to our neighbors and love them — love as an action and with effort.
- Go to our enemies and love them — with the same fervor as our neighbors.
The Lukewarm Church
This command for the church to take initiative and engage outwardly isn't a one-off. Early in the Revelation story, we see a vision of Christ admonishing several churches.
The church in Laodicea received an especially harsh message:
"I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth."
Revelation 3:15-16 (NRSV)
To understand this, you need to understand the geography where Laodicea was located:
Laodicia was located between the cities of Heiropolis and Colossae, which were both cities known for the pure waters that flowed through them. Heiropolis had a spring flowing with hot, medicinal water (like a hot shower). Nearby Colossae was known for its cold, refreshing mountain springs (like a place to soak aching joints).
In light of this, we can see that both "hot" and "cold" were considered good and useful qualities in the story.
Laodicia, on the other hand, was renowned for its dirty, lukewarm water, which visitors almost immediately spat out after tasting. It was nauseating.
And that was Jesus’ response to the Laodiceans — they sickened him. Instead of being useful in service for God as the hot and cold waters of the area were useful, they were comparable to the virtually useless water of their own city.
In other words, a church that is not engaged doesn’t deserve the title of “church” in God's eyes.
Practical, Urban Application
What does that mean for an urban faith-community located in the heart of post-Christendom to be light to those living in darkness?** It comes back to that dreaded word – evangelism – and understanding what it means for evangelism to be “done right.”
If you're not catching where these ideas intersect, let me be direct: If a neighborhood isn’t radically different and better because a Christian community is in it, then that Christian community is totally lukewarm. It's dead.
Fortunately, the Biblical narrative continually returns to this theme of redemption. Being lukewarm is not an actual death sentence for a community – it’s a characteristic that can be changed.
“Evangelism done right” is less viewing others as people who need to change and more the moment of realizing you have something so fantastic and enriching, you can’t help but offer to share it. All of my experience in post-modern discipleship has taught me this type of sharing only tends to work in the context of relationships.
If Alisha and I go to a restaurant and one of us tastes something exceptional, you can bet it'll be offered to the other with great excitement. "Honey, you've got to try this!" But if I tried to earnestly share my food with a total stranger...I don't have to tell you that would turn out badly.
Yet it seems that is what many Christians expect to happen: total strangers will either show up at the church's doorstep or be super excited to get a taste of the Good News. Excluding the rare exception, non-Christians and those skeptical of the church will almost never choose to join a Christian community on their own accord. Waiting and hoping they come is not an option. As ambassadors of Christ, we must go to the people and meet them where they are.
Historically, that’s been relatively easy for churches to connect with folks as most people simply went to the church located closest to where they lived. But what does that even mean in the face of urbanization? In many urban churches, very few members actually live and spend time in the neighborhood where the community gathers.
The opportunities for connections almost disappear.
If a church community wants to be salt and light and make an impact, then a concerted effort to become a neighborhood church must be made. And that means organization, intentionality and sweating a little bit. Moving beyond the church walls and worship space and actively entering the surrounding neighborhood. Finding tangible, practical ways to build the Kingdom of God.
Alisha and I have been called to help redefine what the institutional church looks like and discover what it means to be a faith community in a postmodern, post-Christendom world.*** No church wants to be left behind…but those that refuse to be faithful like Peter and shed the old model of “church” – which is their comfort zone – will be.
We’re talking about transformation. As I've told our community here, "It's going to be scary and I guarantee it will be painful. But it will also be the most beautiful and rewarding thing you've ever been a part of."
- - - - - - -
* Of course there are other factors, but this is possibly the biggest one.
** We serve in an urban-based Anabaptist community in Barcelona, so please note that’s where this application will focus.
*** Many folks in the United States may not understand why this is a need, but the landscape is different in Europe. Just looking at all the cathedrals turned into museums and declining church attendance is proof enough the old model doesn't work anymore. CLICK HERE or HERE to learn more.