There is a great book out there by a guy named Graham Tomlin called The Provocative Church. My friend Matthew McClure recommended it to me a couple of years back. It is a wonderful book on evangelism and the mission of God. I especially like it because it has this chapter called “evangelism makes me feel guilty”. Sounds risqué, I know. I like the title because I sometimes feel that way about evangelism. In fact, I have come across many young people in the church who feel similarly. Some feel burdened and guilty because they know they (or at least they are told) should be sharing the gospel with their friends (this might be an appropriate time to remind my readers that this blog is not a place where I write about polished arguments or propose ideas that I am fully certain about, so be sure to keep that in mind). I think there is something very wrong with this. I don’t think conviction is wrong about these things is wrong, but guilt is something quite different. It is not a sign of health when churches contain people who feel guilty and burdened by the admonishment that they receive from leaders and peers to share the gospel as the only way to partake in the mission of God.
I think the reason that many of the students that I know are disenchanted and burdened with guilt by evangelism is because it is often framed as the only way to live a missional and intentional life. Therefore, if it is the only way to do be apart of God’s mission and they are not doing it, then it makes sense that guilt would be a proper response. Perhaps you’d disagree, but it makes sense to me. The problem with this though is that God’s mission is broader than just evangelism. Much broader.
There is another book out there called The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission by John Dickson and in it he puts forth the idea that God’s mission is not merely sharing or proclaiming the gospel, but something much more of which proclaiming the gospel is part. He draws from biblical theology and history to describe the different ways in which the church partakes in the mission of God. As a preface to this argument, Dickson says that sharing the gospel is kind of like the “icing on the cake” of God’s mission (which I agree with). He also states that evangelism is indeed for everyone, but at the same time it may not be everyone’s primary activity within the church and the mission of God. Essentially, he proposes that not everyone is primarily an evangelist. My issue (which Dickson addresses aptly) is that living missionally is often assumed to be synonymous with evangelism and sharing the gospel, which can contradict a proper ecclesiology on the body of Christ being made up of many members. This argument is not that complicated. When I look at Ephesians 4:11-13 and 1 Corinthians 12 I see a description of a community that is made up of a diverse group of people in personality, gifting, and strengths/weaknesses. I am not sure that I give students that I meet with a vision for the breadth of God’s mission and the variety of ways that they can partake in it according to their giftings, personality, and whatever else. More often I treat God’s mission like a “one size fits all” pair of pants– unfortunately, there is no such thing! If being an evangelist worked for that person, then it should work for this other person too, right? Sounds silly, but I think God’s mission gets narrowed when we do not aptly cast vision for people to be part of it in ways that makes sense for them. This is not to say that we should not challenge people in our churches to get our of their comfort zone and do what they are not good at when appropriate, but it is to say that we need to cast vision for variety of ways to partake in God’s mission as the body. If we do approach mission with a “one size fits all” mentality then I fear that we will end up with people who are burdened and guilt ridden.
I appreciate what Dickson proposes in his book. Dickson uses the word promote (rather than proclaim or something like that) to describe the different ways in which the church is able to “promote” the gospel or partake in God’s mission. He says that we can promote the gospel with our prayers, our public praise, our beautiful works, our money, our words, and a couple others that I cannot recall right now. In any case, he broadens the practical ways in which people in the church can actually promote the gospel, and I think it is an important thing to think about for the health of our churches.