A Biblical Approach to Incarnational Evangelism, Part 2

This series is based on excerpts from the Hirsch/Frost groundbreaking collaborative, The Shaping of Things to Come. You can find part one here.

This is the third primary commitment of a missional-incarnational church’s infiltration of society. If the church is living an intriguing new lifestyle that is so marked by goodness that it makes the gospel attractive, then to truly be effective it follows that this lifestyle must be lived in close proximity to not-yet-Christians. Paul took this seriously in his mediation of the Corinthian factions that had split over the issue of eating food offered to idols (1 Cor. 10:27–11:1). On the one hand the debate about “clean” and “unclean” food was a philosophical-theological issue. It concerned the inherent godliness (or lack thereof) of the material world. But on the other hand, it was a social-missional issue. It concerned the question, “At whose table can I eat?” Paul attempted to address the issue at the theological level (1 Cor. 10:25–26), but his chief concern seemed to be the missional perspective. He was primarily concerned that the Corinthian church not cut itself off from not-yet-Christians by refusing their hospitality if their food had been offered to idols. He wrote, “If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience” (1 Cor. 10:27). Paul was defending his theological position regarding the liberty of the Christian, but he was also writing like a missionary. Paul was obviously eager to encourage Christians to engage fully in close interactions with those not yet part of the faith community. In 1 Corinthians 5:9–10, speaking this time of sexual immorality, he drew the distinction between disciplining a destructively immoral Christian and the church’s attitude toward not-yet-believers. “I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world.” Alan’s ministry at South Melbourne Restoration Community featured significant contact with the gay community of Melbourne. Following the advice of Paul, the church maintained as good and open a relationship with that community as they could. But there were times when someone claiming to be a Christian began meeting with the church and was openly sexually provocative with those new believers who had left a gay lifestyle to follow Christ. Under those circumstances, the leadership of the church felt it was right and proper to deal with the “immoral brother” (as Paul calls him) while remaining in relationship with many other gay not-yet-Christians.

Robert Banks, in his two volumes on the early church, Going to Church in the First Century and Paul’s Idea of Community, helped to relocate the early church back in the home and around the table, recovering the central place of the love feast. The shared table is a powerful symbol of intimacy, generosity, and acceptance. And yet many churches do not welcome unbelievers to their table and thus perpetuate the us-and-them mentality. Michael knows of a church in a new housing area of Sydney that was trying to hold two Sunday services each week and getting very little interest in the evening service. The morning worship meeting drew a good number, but at night they usually had 6 to 10 people turning up. Sensing that it was silly to spend their limited reserves this way, they decided to close the evening service. This isn’t an unusual story. Many small or new congregations have only a Sunday morning service. But the manner in which they closed the service was unique. They invited the dozen or so people who were attending the service to covenant to use the time they would normally be in church to do something missional instead. Some people committed themselves to serving in the local soup kitchen, others volunteered to take calls at a child sponsorship program. One couple decided to spend the hour they normally sat in church on Sunday evening pushing their newborn child in a baby carriage around the streets of their neighborhood. Of course everyone stops young parents in the street to coo at a new baby. As they watered their lawns or washed their cars, people started up conversations with the Christian couple. The couple told Michael they have made more friendships, shared Jesus more often, and generally been more effective as salt and light in their community since they stopped going to church and started pushing a baby carriage. Many churches close services and their members are free to take a Sunday evening stroll, but by inviting people to see their substitute activity as mission, this church saw a whole raft of new possibilities emerging. Our point is that socializing must be intentional, missional, grace-filled, and generous. It must be seen as part of a broader pattern of infiltrating a community.

From the three broad commitments we’ve discussed so far, we can see a pattern emerging: The missional-incarnational church should be living, eating, and working closely with its surrounding community, developing strong links between Christians and not-yet-Christians. It would be best to do this in the homes of not-yet-Christians and in their preferred public spaces (the skydiving hangar, the favorite coffee shop, etc.) but also in the homes of Christians. By creating a net of deep, loving friendship, more and more people will be swept into the community, though some will be more closely connected than others (this is the socializing commitment). While these relationships are being built, Christian believers should be demonstrating a holy lifestyle through acts of generosity and kindness, by a preference for the poor and suffering, and by a love for the scorned (this is the holiness commitment). As this complex, even messy set of relationships is being sustained, the incarnated Christian community must be constantly in prayer, praying for the salvation of their friends and that God would raise up and bless more evangelists (this is the prayer commitment).

It would follow that as these nets of friendship and service are strengthening, the ministry of the gifted evangelist comes into play. He or she shouldn’t have to be a visiting preacher at a church service, but one of the links in the net. As I am building ever closer bonds between my Christian and not-yet-Christian friends, I should assume that God has gifted our church with an evangelist, one who can naturally and effectively proclaim Jesus in a contextualized and attractive manner. As the net is being repaired and tightened, my not-yet-Christians are bound to come into contact with my evangelist friend. We believe that if our not-yet-Christian friends were swept into a series of friendships with a number of incarnational Christians, at least one of whom is an evangelist, God will do his work of bringing people into a relationship with him. This leads us to the fourth element of this biblical pattern.

Catch the final part in this series next week.