“Shalom ‘doing’ flows from shalom ‘being.’”
Challenge Six: The Team Neglects Evangelism and Cultivating Natural Awakening Spaces
Let me start this post by revealing that I’m not a natural or gifted evangelist. O, like you I do heartily invest in long term connections with non-Christians in my relational networks. And like you, I am a discerner and starter who is not afraid to step into risk. But I have to admit that I’m consistently feeble when it comes to sharing Christ with friends and neighbors. Some of that hesitancy is fueled by the consumption culture in which we swim, where someone at every turn is always trying to sell us something. Even the subtlest evangelistic appeal can feel pushy in this environment. So, l would much rather join other Christians in “adorning the gospel” (cf. Titus 2:10) by living in estimable ways than actually explaining the good news by story or by some logical or word-based presentation. The character and outworking of our faith within the arena of everyday life, after all, speaks louder than words…so I tell myself.
Missiologist Lesslie Newbigin often asserted that the best translator of the gospel is actually a community that lives it. Demonstrating what we mean is of critical importance, or as Newbigin put it,
“The congregation must be so deeply and intimately involved in the secular concerns of the neighborhood that it becomes clear to everyone that no one or nothing is outside the range of God’s love in Jesus….It must be clear that the local congregation cares for the well-being of the whole community and not just for itself” (1).
Such a no-strings-attached serving posture allows us to collectively mimic the sacrificial, pursuant love God has for all people and all of creation. But, right on the heels of this statement, Newbigin adds another exhortation relevant to every church planting team:
“This involvement must not become something that muffles the distinctive note of the gospel. The church ought not to fit so comfortably into the situation that it is simply welcomed as one of the well-meaning agencies of philanthropy” (2).
As we attempt to demonstrate the gospel within our setting, most of us regularly perform beautiful Jesus-like acts, and many of those we do in the neediest of places. And we likely engage in these acts of kindness alongside other community development efforts sourced within the fabric of our non-Christian ethos. This way of operating is vitally important to our discipleship and to our credibility as a local expression of the body of Christ. But to Newbigin’s point, in our efforts to make a visible difference in righting societal wrongs and responding compassionately to people in need, we must not shy away from speaking of the now and future hope we have in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ongoing interceding, and renewing of all things. Jesus is good news, not only what we do in Jesus’ name!
So, how are you and your team doing at accenting the unique note of the gospel within your setting? That’s an important question to continually ponder! And further, we have to ask ourselves how much time and energy are we actually committing to reaching disgruntled or de-churched Christians under the guise of evangelism? Is our evangelistic ministry mostly about recruiting floating Christians, or is it truly about befriending and “good-newsing” non-Christians? Making new disciples must factor in prominently somewhere within our missional approach, or chances are we will grow like so many church plants do - primarily by transfers from other churches.
In whatever ways we conduct our evangelistic ministry, I think we have to also attend to the critical pre-evangelistic work of cultivating awakening spaces. Most of us would agree that it’s often a process of micro-awakenings over time that prompt a person to explore and eventually make a commitment to follow Christ. These awakenings more often than not happen within places where people have experienced a sense of belonging and/or a sense that what the group is doing is enriching to them or others in need. The laughter, relational connectedness, and good feelings that arise from experiencing beauty, service and fun together often create “thin places,” experiential moments that the ancient Celtic Christians described as a co-mingling of heaven and earth. When they arise, we’re often cast us into spiritual conversations where our “being ready in season and out to give an account for the hope that is within us” (I Peter 3:15) is put to the test.
Yes, our team and core group can create spaces for our non-Christian friends to belong and spaces for them to co-participate with us in meaningful spiritual practices and service. Some of these can dovetail well with our gathered worship and with special groups and events oriented to non-Christians. But I usually recommend that teams put a premium on finding causes and special interest groups to join that culture is already running. This helps our interface with non-Christian culture to be not only more sustainable, but it also benefits our personal discipleship as we have to venture out and discern where God/shalom is already at work.
Living out our faith by word and deed as we regularly interface with people outside of faith admittedly requires quite a lot of us as church startup teams. For one, we must immerse ourselves regularly in the gospel Story, both as a way to keep us motivated to overcome timidity and share our faith, and also as a way to help us remain so conversant with the good news that it flows easily and naturally from our lips. We must also work to cultivate discerning, prayerful hearts so that we can recognize where the Spirit may be awakening a person to move toward God’s love. And finally, in shining forth the good news we must pursue sane rhythms of life together that develop and feed us as a communal people. This includes approaching life as a journey involving ebb and flow, or times of engagement and times of disengagement. In short, our demonstration and proclaiming of the good news must be counterbalanced by lived-out spiritual practices that bring shalom to the souls of our core team. Shalom doing flows from shalom being. If we fail to seek that balance, we end up projecting the journey with Christ as a performance treadmill that wears people out. That’s hardly good news for anyone looking in!
Of course, so much more could be said on this subject! But I leave you with a few thoughts and questions that you and your team might find helpful to process:
In your own cultivating of belonging and participative spaces where your team can deeply interface with non-Christians, consider our culture’s narrative of “not-enough-ness” as a rich onramp for the gospel (i.e. not the sin story). Brene Brown and others have hit a cultural artery by addressing the shame narrative so pervasive in our everyday lives - the narrative that we have to do more, be more, have more, serve more, etc. in order to be okay or acceptable. If most of us feel we don’t measure up to cultural ideals or even our personal ideals, how might you cultivate a culture of vulnerability that allows the gospel’s clear grace and acceptance note to ring out?
Who within your team and forming core seems to be evangelistically gifted? How are you a) positioning them within your relational networks and wider community to exercise that gift; and b) employing them to train the body in seeding the ground and sharing the hope we have in Christ?
Review Paul’s letter to Titus and write out the different relational spheres Paul instructs Christians to operate tactfully within so as to “adorn the gospel” and protect it from being “maligned.” Talk about specific implications this could have for the way your core group operates in your cultural setting, and then develop your own plan to cultivate and co-inhabit belonging and participating spaces with your non-Christian neighbors.
Lesslie Newbigin Missionary Theologian: A Reader (Cambridge, SPCK, 2006), 145.
written by Dan Steigerwald