By Lyle Pointer
This material is a chapter from the book - "Missio Dei: A Wesleyan Understanding," published by Nazarene Publishing House
Ethiopians sat on the church lawn between worship and Sunday school, smoking cigarettes and eating while they told stories and laughed. First-time visitors to that congregation drove by the building and saw the "unofficial" greeters. They drove on.
This prospective family phoned the church office later that week. "We drove by the church on Sunday morning and were surprised to see black people outside the entrance."
"We are a multicultural congregation," the pastor responded, "with services conducted in four languages. Even our English-speaking congregation has Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, African-Americans, and even Texans!" He chuckled at his attempt to use a joke to soften the conversation.
The caller ignored the humor. "Oh. We're looking for something else."
When the pastor recounted the story for the church board, the board members promptly confirmed that they wanted to be the kind of congregation where anyone felt accepted.
Jesus lived out the mission of God in that way. In Jesus' time, for example, women were pushed to the margins of society. One day in Samaria Jesus met a woman who had come to draw water from the town well. He engaged the woman in conversation by asking her if she would supply him with a drink. She appeared shocked that a man--a Jewish man at that--would even speak to her. Intrigued by his willingness to reach across the social divide and tantalized with the idea that this stranger would ask her for a favor, the woman began to debate with Jesus. Before long Jesus offered the woman water that would fully satisfy. The more she listened to Jesus the more evidence she saw that he was the Messiah. She could not contain the good news and ran into town to announce the arrival of Jesus, the one anointed by God. Many people believed in the Savior because of her testimony.
In Jesus' teaching, stories, and actions we clearly see God's desire that all persons would choose holiness over a life of sin. In John 3:16 Jesus declared God's purpose of saving perishing people because of God's love for the world. When a religious group scoffed at Jesus for spending time with sinners, Jesus launched into a story about a lost sheep. The shepherd left the 99 to search for the one lost sheep. The corner of heaven was pulled back to show the great rejoicing for the lost that was found. At a time when Jesus' popularity could have drawn him like a magnet to those already excited by his presence, Jesus said "Let us go somewhere else, to the nearby villages, so I can preach there also. That is why I have come" (Mark1:38, TNIV). Jesus' behavior embodied his teaching that God reached out to draw all persons into the community of faith.
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, they learned that God desires for a complete transformation of the earth and all that is in it. The Lord's Prayer places God's ideal before us too: "Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Heaven's standards are overlaid on human activity. God gave us the ambassadorial ministry of reconciliation. We are to witness to the world that God's rule has begun.
The good news is that God has already initiated the process. Wesleyan theologians understand this as prevenient grace, or the love of God that precedes salvation. God is already at work even before any individual or organization gets involved. God graciously draws all persons into relationship.
When the Church participates in what God has already started, the Church becomes a means of God's grace. The Church by its very existence is witness to the redeeming love of God. That witness involves an incarnational presence, redemptive conversations, compassionate care, and an inclusive community.
The Witness of Incarnational Presence
God has called the Church to embody the Gospel, that is, to witness to God's reign through an incarnational presence. That's what we find in the Church immediately after Pentecost. Luke described an energetic, joyful community of Jesus followers in Acts 2:42-47. People took notice when they saw how the Christians fellowshipped with each other, and they liked what they saw. Dining was frequent and pleasant. Prayer, teaching, and worship established a daily rhythm. The church shared what they had with others who needed assistance. The witness of this grace-infused church attracted new people to their fellowship.
The witness of the early Church was a 24/7 lifestyle, not an event or program, just as it was for Jesus. Jesus never practiced photocopy evangelism. To only one person he said "you must be born again." To some Jesus said, "follow me and I will make you fishers of men" while to others he said "repent and believe the good news." The first Easter on the road to Emmaus, Jesus talked with two distraught followers whose spiritual conclusions were tentative and whose fears were great. With Thomas, a week later, Jesus offered his hands to wipe away the doubt. The examples Jesus provided shows that witness to God's mission comes in the ongoing cadence of life, not in an occasional event, and that the witness assumes a form appropriate to the situation.
Bonnie lived that way, too. She attended college and worked two jobs, a schedule that often left her weary. When she came to church she rarely came alone. Sometimes a student she worked with as a part of her practicum would come with her. The next week she might bring her mother, sister, nephew, or aunt. Bonnie witnessed to the Gospel in the everyday business of life. She constantly sought to care for people and she linked her concern with her faith in Jesus as Savior.
Art needed some assistance so he came to the church hoping we could help him. He quickly declared himself an agnostic. After we provided some assistance and food, Art started hanging around a bit. He attended the morning worship service on occasion and even tried an adult Bible study fellowship. "Art," I asked, "why do you attend our church when you doubt there is a God?"
His answer encouraged me: "In the hope there is one." A debate might never convince someone like Art, but he paid attention to the witness of a congregation that embodied the Gospel.
The Great Commission (Matt 28:19) literally reads, "in your going--during the daily things you do--make disciples." Christian witness occurs day by day. Sometimes that witness is serendipitous as God brings surprises into the day. Effective witnesses, however, also move intentionally into situations where people need God's grace. One woman volunteers at a hospice. A congregation adopted an elementary school in the neighborhood. Regular mall walkers get to know each other. The attentive witness will regularly look for opportunities to be a means of grace.
In your going, remember that God is already there. You don't have to initiate God's gracious invitation, just allow your very presence to witness to the beauty of living under the reign of God.
The Witness of Redemptive Congregations
The Christian witness, in addition to being present, engages in redemptive conversations. Contrary to the stereotype of a personal evangelist bursting in with all the right words, the effective witness begins a redemptive conversation by listening with interest, discernment, and sensitivity. Christian witnesses know that prevenient grace is already at work, so they seek first to recognize God's nudges in another person's life.
The first thing some people must do to listen well is to, well, stop talking. Sounds simple enough, but for some people it takes discipline. Don't worry about filling the silent spots that may be interspersed in a conversation. Listen with your ears, yes, but also with your eyes and heart. What is the person saying in gestures and body language? What emotions saturate the words? Ask a question or two, not to probe but to clarify, then reflect back to your friend what you heard said.
A missional congregation listens well in the community in which they live. Initiate conversations with the mayor and city leaders, public safety personnel like police officers and fire responders, educators, social workers, and medical personnel. Read the newspaper with an eye toward discerning the people and places where God's grace is needed. Pay attention to the conversations you hear in coffee shops and health clubs.
In listening to others, look for evidence of broken trust. Rick Richardson wrote, "In spiritual friendships with people who don't know Jesus, assume mistrust (italics in the original), just as Jesus did. If we assume mistrust and seek to identify with broken trust and defuse it, we will discover unending opportunities for meaningful spiritual conversation."1
Betty, a woman in her 60s with leathery skin and a ready grin, visited our church. I asked if I could call on her and her husband. They agreed. Betty and Frenchy, her husband, greeted me warmly when I entered their home. Before long Frenchy started telling me of the mistreatment he suffered through the years at the hands of professed Christians. He cited a handful of incidences where Christians had lied to him, taken advantage of him in business dealings, or were sexually immoral. He gathered his anger into a sharpened statement: "The church is full of hypocrites!"
Prompted by the Spirit, I asked, "Have you ever known anyone who lived the Christian life?"
Frenchy had a ready answer. "My dad really lived the godly life!" he said emphatically. "My dad was a Methodist minister, but the congregation he pastored was full of hypocrites. They mistreated him."
With that the tears began to flow down Frenchy's cheeks. He waved me away with the back of his hand. I stood to my feet, thanked them for letting me visit, and started for the door. Betty put her arm in my arm and walked me to my car. She apologized for her husband's anger. I assured her it was a privilege to share his pain.
A couple of months later Frenchy showed up at church. His spiritual journey toward Jesus started because I listened to his story.
As you listen to the broken trust stories of others, and to the Holy Spirit for discernment, you'll find a place where you can begin telling stories of God's transformative work in your life. Richardson wrote, "Then, as you have found common struggles and sufferings, needs and longings, you can speak of how your spiritual experiences and connection to God have helped you in the midst of your struggles. Don't look for ways that you are stronger, better or more successful than your friend. Look for the similar struggles and hurts. And then talk from your heart about the difference closeness to God has made."2
The Witness of Compassionate Care
The effective Christian witness is present, listens well, and compassionately cares for the friend.
George Hunter met with more than 80 groups over six years as part of a research project. He invited people who believed that evangelism was important, but who were not personally doing the work of an evangelist, to talk with him. Hunter says that in those conversations he discovered what he classified as "the greatest barrier to evangelism in our churches." Here's what he found.
When Hunter asked these people why they were not doing evangelism, they usually responded with "I am not that sort of person." So he probed to discover the kind of person who does evangelism and in their responses they tended to use adjectives such as "dogmatic, holier-than-thou, narrow-minded, self-righteous, pushy, aggressive, overbearing, judgmental, hypocritical, insensitive and fanatical." That's an unfortunate list, but helps to explain why people didn't want to be associated with evangelism.
In contrast, when Hunter asked those who recently believed on Jesus as their Savior to describe the persons who influenced them to come to Christ, they used adjectives like "loving, caring, informed, understanding, accepting, affirming, interested, concerned, encouraging, supporting, kind, and credible." When Hunter pointed out the disparity between the two lists, one Christian observed, "We have been duped into assuming that you cannot be like Jesus if you want to reach people for Jesus!"3
The compassionate manner in which Jesus ministered to people must be the manner in which Jesus followers witness to God's grace. James, in the discussion about the integral linkage between faith and deeds, said, "I will show you my faith by what I do" (James 2:18b, TNIV). Compassionate care which demonstrates the Gospel is a powerful witness. Todd Hunter suggested that "a community of faith living in creative goodness on the behalf of others may be the most powerful demonstration of the gospel, the most effective form of evangelism in contemporary society."4
I received an email from a gay couple who wanted to worship with our congregation. The subject line read "Questions" and the message got right to the point.
Hello. I just have a couple of questions. I believe what the Bible says in regards to homosexuality, yet, I have lived with my partner for almost 8 years and we desperately want to find a Church home. I'd like to know how comfortable we would be attending your Church. Do you have other gay people or gay couples in your congregation? Please respond when you can. One of us is ill and we both need to find peace.
I replied to the email with this message:
I regret you are ill. I am glad you desire peace. I do not know how comfortable you will be at our church, but I can assure you that you will be accepted. People will offer friendship and treat you with kindness. I do not know of other gay people. We care for all who want to fellowship with us. I look forward to meeting you.
Shannon attended a worship service shortly after the email exchange and a few Sundays after that he brought his partner to church. That began a journey toward God that led Shannon to rededicate himself to Christ. The compassionate care the congregation showed Shannon made it easier for him to hear the Holy Spirit call him to repentance. What started as a fear of rejection came to the place where Shannon declared "I have found my 'church home.'"
A consistency between words and deeds intensifies the witness of the church as each reinforces the other. The message of God's love is to be seen in our love for people. Without the supporting relationships of good will and caring, the message of love becomes an unreal and lofty ideal. Because of God's love for us, we weave together words and actions as a beautiful witness of God's grace and mercy.
The Witness of Inclusive Community
The effective witness of the Church, as it seeks to participate in what God has already begun, involves being available through an incarnational presence, listening well as the first step in redemptive conversations, and matching words with deeds of compassionate care. All of this emerges from a church community which eagerly receives any seeker of God.
Christian witness is the responsibility of the church, the community of faith, and not solely individual Christians. Paul told the Ephesians in his letter that God's "intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord" (3:10-11, TNIV). We recognize that individuals must do their part for the church to fulfill God's intent, but the responsibility lies squarely on the congregation's shoulders to witness to God's grace.
In his book The Celtic Way of Evangelism, George Hunter contrasted the Roman model (which is also followed by most evangelicals) for reaching people for Christ and the Celtic model. In the Roman model the evangelist presents the Christian message, invites the person to make a decision to believe in Jesus as Savior, and, to the person who responds positively, to invite the person into the fellowship of the church. In contrast, the Celtic model starts with bringing the person into fellowship with the community of faith. As part of the community, then, the person participates in the regular rhythm of the congregation. In time the person comes to believe and makes a commitment to serve Christ through the Church. Hunter's own research confirmed the effectiveness of the Celtic model in today's world. "Many new believers report that the experience of the fellowship enabled (italics in the original) them to believe and to commit."5
Welcoming pre-Christians into the life of a congregation could happen beyond the church facility. Unchurched people are also moved by human need, so a congregation could invite unbelievers to join them in extending the grace of God in the community. Habitat for Humanity, for example, clearly identifies itself as a Christian housing ministry, but their volunteers include people without a faith tradition as well as those from Christian congregations. Christians motivated by the love of God become witnesses for Christ for those who work alongside of them for the good of the broader community.
Many hospitals were started by church groups or Christians. The Children's Center, a pediatric hospital in Bethany, Oklahoma, is an example. It was founded in 1898 when Mattie Mallory felt God's call to help orphans. Just as Mattie welcomed abandoned children, so the Church is to be known by its welcoming hospitality. The words hospital and hospitality have a common root with a basic meaning of "to make room for" those persons on the outside.
The Apostle Paul had a high view of hospitality. Among a Christian's lofty pursuits such as righteousness (Rom 9:30) and love (1 Cor 14:1), Paul included the pursuit of hospitality (Rom 12:13b). Paul urges Christians to be active in "making room" for others, to intentionally seek opportunities to invite people into the fellowship of the saints. The witness of the Church is effective as people beyond the Church find a warm welcome among the followers of Jesus.
In recent years the process of evangelism has typically approached an unsaved person on the basis of preparation for life after physical death, for getting ready for heaven. Obviously the Gospel endorses such a message, but the goal of evangelism cannot be reduced to that one thing. When we pray the Lord's Prayer we invite God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. A tension exists between these viewpoints: the one point preaches "Get ready to die" while the other proclaims "Hurry, start a love relationship with God and really live now."
While our tendency might be to select one over the other, as Christians with a high view of Scripture we embrace both. God is the God of eternal life. Eternal life is not relegated to the future, but can be known in abundance right now. Such an understanding motivates the follower of Jesus to live in both faithfulness and fruitfulness. We do not sit passively waiting for the future life to arrive, but join in the divine effort to bring God's kingdom into this present world. We want others to experience the fullness of God's life here and now.
Jesus is Lord. We don't have to usher in the reign of God or keep the King on the throne. Our role is to witness to the goodness and holiness of God as we embody the Gospel in a life that participates in God's transforming work among us. The Church is witness to and participant in God's redemptive mission.
1 Rick Richardson, Reimagining Evangelism: Inviting Friends on a Spiritual Journey
(Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2006), 76.
2 Richardson, 97.
3 George G. Hunter III. The Apostolic Congregation: Church Growth Reconceived for a New Generation
( Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 82.
4 Todd Hunter. Christianity Beyond Belief: Following Jesus for the Sake of Others
(Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2009), 102.
5 George G. Hunter III. The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West ? Again
(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 54.