Note: this post is adapted from an excerpt of Jonathan’s new book, The Unbelievable Gospel: Say Something Worth Believing (Zondervan). Available anywhere books are sold. Used here by permission.
None of my evangelism “highlights” could have happened without the vital partnership of my church. In most cases, each person who hears the gospel from me also hears the gospel and sees its power in community. This collective witness is, more often than not, how God discloses his manifold wisdom to the world (Ephesians 4:4–6). The church is God’s evangelistic genius, not isolated people with evangelistic drive. In fact, people rarely come to faith from a single gospel witness. Truth be told, most conversions are the result of a process that occurs over time and involves a variety of different gospel testimonies and experiences.
Communal vs. Personal Evangelism
Evangelism is not just an individual affair. In the West, individualistic thinking has contaminated just about every aspect of Christianity. Unfortunately, we often reduce the mission to “personal evangelism,” effectively cutting people off from God’s work in and through a community. But biblically, evangelism is a community project. We need to think more deeply and practice, more consistently, a communal form of evangelism.
The new community Jesus formed does not exist for itself, but for the world (Mark 16:15; Acts 1:8). And one of the primary goals of the unity that Jesus prayed for among his disciples (and all subsequent Christians) was unity for mission: “That they may be one, even as we are one … As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:11, 18). Jesus saves and then sends us as a community.
It is surprising to notice how few evangelistic commands we actually find in Paul’s letters to the churches. Rarely do we find Paul telling individual Christians to go out and tell others about Jesus. Instead, we find more emphasis on communal life centered around the person of Jesus in the life of the Spirit. This communal life is a corporate witness to the risen Lord and is used by God to attract the attention of those who are not part of his church.
Author and professor John Dickson has argued that Paul expected the churches to support the apostles, prophets, and evangelists in their mission by participating in larger activities of mission. In the Pauline letters, these include prayer, financial aid, mixing in society, gospel-adorning behavior, showing and telling the truth, public worship, as well as the usual ad hoc conversations with outsiders. Dickson draws a distinction between “proclaiming the gospel” (evangelism) and “promoting the gospel” (other activities that draw people to Christ). He believes that the church should be involved in gospel promotion, an equally worthy responsibility of the church in spreading the good news. This concept of promoting the gospel widens our scope of activities that spread the gospel message.
This emphasis on gospel promotion is not intended to minimize the ongoing importance of evangelism — that is, the clear, verbal proclamation of the gospel. In fact, both promotion and proclamation are important for effective witness. However, if persistent gospel promotion occurs without any proclamation, people are left to make up their own versions of the gospel.
These conclusions will inevitably include crediting zealous individuals and noble nonprofits for their ministry instead of crediting God for his mercy. As a result, our endeavors may result in promoting human goodwill or nonprofit causes, not the person of Christ and his world-renewing gospel. I do not say this to suggest that every act of mercy must be accompanied by gospel proclamation. Rather, I am drawing attention to the corporate witness of the church that includes both proclamation and promotion of the gospel. Both must be kept together in the church. There is a Christological reason for this, for Jesus holds human and divine together, affirming both the physical and spiritual body and soul as domains for redemptive activity.
The Missional Family
Perhaps we have made evangelism a personal endeavor because we have falsely made the whole of discipleship an individualistic pursuit. This is a product of the enlightenment, not the Bible. In the Gospels, we observe disciples living in community. They did not individually attend classes in which Jesus was their teacher. Instead, the disciples followed Jesus together. They formed a community around their Messiah. Why? They were connected to one another because they were profoundly connected in Christ. As a result, they shared just about everything: meals, prayers, evangelism, sermons, lessons with the Master, feeding the poor, communion, persecution, and the promises of God. Jesus didn’t just “make disciples”; he made a new family: “And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’” (Mark 3:34). Jesus drew people to himself and to one another. Just as he and the Father are one, he makes us into people who are one, united together (John 17:11).
Church is a necessary aspect of belonging to Christ, of being “in Christ.” The Head has a Body. The Cornerstone is part of a Temple. The Vine has Branches. We are not just converted once, to Christ; we are converted three times—to Christ, to the church, and to mission. To be sure, Christ alone is Lord. Our conversions to the church and to mission flow out of this fundamental union, but if Christ is your Lord, these will necessarily follow. You will belong to his family and join his mission.
New Testament scholar Joseph Hellerman states this truth well: “We do not find an unchurched Christian in the New Testament … a person was not saved for the sole purpose of enjoying a personal relationship with God … a person is saved to community.” If you are not meaningfully connected to other disciples, you haven’t embraced the implications of your union with Christ. You haven’t fully realized the meaning of your adoption. Instead, you’ve bought into the false gospel of individualism.
Perhaps you’ve come to believe that you have been saved into a personal relationship instead of a family of relationships united in Christ. In Christ, God is the Father of a family and we belong to one another. Since we share the same spiritual blood, we should act like a family. A healthy family shares life, possessions, meals, money, failures, successes, and hardships. A spiritual family shares forgiveness, grace, hope, truth, love, and most of all — Jesus. This kind of redemptive family sticks out as a gospel witness in the world
A Chorus of Gospel Voices
Applying the gospel is a communal endeavor. We need one another. Have you ever found it difficult to believe the truth or obey King Jesus in some area? It is possible to know the truth without believing the truth, especially when you are trying to go it alone. We need other people, and specifically those in the church, to help us believe and obey the truth. This is why there are so many exhortations to be a “truth and grace” community in the New Testament. Being a gospel-fluent people is not just a matter of evangelism; it affects our discipleship — our day-to-day life as followers of Jesus.
A chorus of gospel voices is stronger and more compelling than a lone voice in the wind. You need to hear the gospel from multiple voices and you must proclaim it as one voice among many.
Jonathan Dodson (@jonathan_dodson) is the founding pastor of City Life Church in Austin, Texas, which he started with his wife, Robie and a small group of people. They have three children. He is the author of Raised?: Finding Jesus by Doubting the Resurrection and Gospel-Centered Discipleship.