I admit that this subject has affected me much in recent years. In thinking through evangelism and the local church, I come to a subject that has not only provoked me to grow but also to move away from a previously held position.
My introduction to vocational ministry was evangelism through a parachurch ministry. All throughout my 20s, I believed that I was the tip of the evangelistic spear and that the local church was the cumbersome-but-necessary shaft which played the menial role of tossing me into the target. In my pointed conversations and through my honed preaching, I believed parachurch evangelism to be the best way to engage the world with the gospel of Christ. Today, I am ashamed of my posture and perspective during those days. Oh, how foolish and wrong I was to assume such a low view of the local church.
Today, I understand the local church to be the apple of God’s eye and the lifeblood of God’s evangelistic activity in the world. The local church is the people by whom the gospel is upheld (1 Tim. 3:15), the people among whom the gospel is made visible (Col. 3:11), and the people through whom Christ is present in the world (Matt. 18:20).
When the local church is healthy and vibrant, it is a testimony of God’s grace, a picture of Christ’s transformative work, and a mechanism by which sinners may encounter the real power of God’s Spirit.
The evangelistic role of the church is crucial in the world because any evangelistic efforts detached from the local church will only provide an incomplete gospel at best. Furthermore, it seems to me that many Christians have resorted to just such an incomplete gospel.
American Evangelicalism is abundant with hoards of privatized Christians who think, speak, and act much like the world. These Evangelicals are secure in their eternal destination because they prayed a prayer at some point in their lives, or simply because they have a “personal relationship with Jesus” based on some subjective feeling. But this is not biblical evangelism or historically grounded Christianity.
If Christians are calling sinners into something (namely God’s family, along with all accompanying blessings) and not merely out of something (such as God’s judgment), then only those Christians who point to a healthy local church have any way of making such an appeal. If lone-ranger Christians merely talk of God’s love without demonstrating any affectionate love for fellow Christians, then they have failed to meet the Bible’s simple test of genuine spiritual life (1 Jn. 3:14). Thus, lone-ranger Christians bear false testimony of God, of Christ, and of the Spirit-filled Church.
Christians must embrace the messy-yet-beautiful relationships that can only be experienced in the covenantal, loving, sin-fighting, encouraging, spirit-maturing, humbling, and sanctifying atmosphere of biblical local church membership. And Christians must invite sinners to join them in this nourishing garden by entering through the narrow gate of Christ’s person and work.
May God revitalize churches around the world to give testimony to the gracious and glorious character of God, the joyfully obedient sonship of Christ, and the supernaturally transformative work of God’s Holy Spirit.