GERALD COWAN’S PERSONAL PERIODICALS
Number 623 • March 25, 2021
PROBLEMS THE CHURCH SHOULD TALK ABOUT – 7: THE LOW PRIORITY OF MISSIONS AND EVANGELISM
It used to be a common but erroneous thought among us that fruit-bearing meant soul-winning. In other words, the God-given mission of the church and every Christian was to “go into all the world and preach the gospel.” Exclude nobody. All nations, all people in all the world need to hear the gospel. “Unless they hear they cannot live: the gospel is for all.” We still, occasionally, sing J. M. McCaleb’s song that has those words.
But I can’t remember the last time I heard anyone sing and pray Will Houghton’s “Lead me to some soul today; teach me Lord just what to say.” I recall a time when “I want to be a soul-winner for Jesus every day” was used as a pledge song for personal workers (remember when personal work was automatically understood to be personal evangelism, sharing the gospel?) back in the day (1930’s to 1970’s or thereabout) when we were actually growing as a church, actively seeking to be a restoration movement for God in the world. That song is less popular now than, “I want to be a worker for the Lord.”
Now the church often spends more time trying to comfort the uncomfortable members than it does in pointing the unsaved to the Savior (except for tacking on a five-point “invitation” after every sermon or message on any subject at any time – even funerals).
The lack of interest and involvement in evangelistic outreach, soul-searching and soul-winning ought to be an embarrassment. But even calling attention to causes outrage among the inactive and disinterested who only want a peaceful and stress-free social club where one can praise God on occasion but, more specifically a church that ministers to the desires of its members. For some, “What’s in it for me – what will I get out of it?” is the most important question.
It often seems that we are focused first and foremost upon ourselves, what we in the church want and need: fellowship (spending time together and occasionally helping each other with something) and edification (building each other up in the faith). There’s no disputing the importance of those matters, but they should not overshadow or exclude other matters such as, for example, what we call evangelism, missions, sharing the gospel with those outside the church. Whoever first said the mission of the church is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” posed a paradoxical conundrum that may leave us stymied, stifled, and stultified – and leave the world unsought, unsaved, and unsatisfied.
The first time I heard about the threefold mission of the church I understood it as
- evangelism – preaching and teaching the gospel to the people outside the church in the world,
- edification – preaching teaching in and to the church, and
- benevolence – giving to those in need.
This definition is ambiguous and woefully inadequate – ask me some time about the tenfold mission of the church and the part of the mission most frequently neglected. Evangelism means simply preaching the good news gospel of God and Christ (all of it) to any person or any audience, in the church or out of it. Edification is equipping others for service, primarily teaching that increases knowledge and spiritual strength.
The specific directive of Jesus Christ to any and all his disciples, as recorded by both Matthew and Mark (Matthew 28:19-20, Mark 16:15-16) begins with the word GO. Of course we are to make sure we can be found by those who seek us, that we are open to those who knock and that we answer and give to those who ask (Matthew 7:7-8). It is imperative that we be prepared to answer questions when we are asked about our faith (1 Peter 3:15).
But most of the lost ones in the world will not seek, knock, or ask – they will not come to us even if they read our advertisements and handouts and online posts or hear our media offerings on radio and television. They will seldom wander in to our scheduled meetings in our various buildings. If they come we may attend to them and their questions and their needs – but what about those who do not come? Do you suppose that is why Jesus sends us out, why He says GO? If we try to evangelize the world of outsiders but do not evangelize the church, the church may not be much impressed and may not be inclined to join in the work. If we evangelize and edify the church but do not evangelize and edify the outsiders the world may not be impressed and may give us but little attention or credence. And though we may be ever so generous with our gifts and good will (that’s the meaning of benevolence) but do not evangelize, few if any – maybe none – will be won to the Lord and saved by him. “I want to be a soul winner for Jesus,” as James Ferrill urges us to sing, means teaching and preaching and reaching the lost, not just doing good and being good people.
Conversion to Christ is not by osmosis or association. Seeing our good works will not lead one to give glory to God or to Christ unless one knows that the Lord is the reason for our good works. Nobody is really won to Christ or converted to Christ by the evident way of life of Christians – even those closest to us, like a wife or husband, or our own children, unless they are taught the words of the Lord. Now please do not chastise me and remind me of Matthew 5:14-16, 1 Peter 3:1-2. Jesus does not say, just live a good life that they can see and they will know what to do to please God and satisfy His requirements. He says, go tell them about God and His ways and His will. If they do not hear and do these things they cannot live to please Him – neither they nor you can hope to please Him.
Apostle Paul urges us to seek the good of others, not merely our own (Philippians 2:1-4). But interest in the real needs of others and putting others ahead of, or at least equal to, oneself does not seem to be a natural quality. It must be a learned trait. Concern for others will force us out of our own “comfort zone” into a place we may not wish to occupy. Going to where the lost and needy are is a difficult choice, but evangelizing them when we get there is an even more difficult burden.
Churches are experiencing losses in attendance, in financial support – especially for missions – and a decrease in new members. The church cannot compete with the world in entertainment. The church cannot join the world in culture, political correctness, and social justice – it will depart from God if it takes that road. It will not lead anyone by following that road – and yet that is the road the church and the world are clamoring to be allowed to travel on.
Many of those complaining about the church’s lack of evangelism and missions are not involved in evangelism themselves. Evangelism or missions, sharing the gospel, is not a “church work” but is, can be, should be – as pointed out before – personal, individual work.
A student in a class seeking to organize personal evangelism told the instructor, “I don’t like the way you do it.” The instructor said, “Tell us how to do it better. How do you do it?” “Oh, I’m not doing it,” the protestor said. “Well then, let me say I like the way I’m doing it better than the way you’re not doing it.”
A congregation’s mission program is, of course, a group activity, and there are many ways to be involved other than going as the “missionary.” Members may be justified in their concern that the congregation has no involvement in missions, whether foreign or domestic — concern that the church is not attending to an admitted part of its mission, its great commission from God.
The resolution to the problem begins with talking about it. Do more preaching and teaching about missions and evangelism. Urge the leaders and decision makers in the congregation to include more programs to go and preach to them where they are, with less attention paid to how to get them to come and listen to us where we are. Convert, teach and prepare indigenous preachers to advance and continue the work you start at the mission point. It is a travesty of evangelism to encourage men at the mission point to emigrate to America, Australia, Britain, or Canada to preach where prospects for personal gain are greater and living standards are higher, rather than to stay in their own country and try to save and lift up their own people. I am not whistling in the dark here, not warning of possible pitfalls — I know some preachers who have left their native lands to become “novelties” in American pulpits and leaving their own countrymen to struggle through the darkness without them.
Two persons – I will not name them, but they will recognize themselves in what I write here – that I admire and appreciate greatly have told me on several occasions that they have no desire to emigrate to or even make visits to America because there would be nobody to take their place, to work with and for God and His Christ among their own people in their own country. Why go where you are not needed if it leaves empty the place where you are needed? <><>