Evangelism: Community and Evangelism

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Smith Hopkins | April 29, 2019

In this series we are exploring the intersection of evangelism and the mission of the church. The second step in our mission is to love one another. In the next few posts we will be exploring dimensions of what this entails. First up: community.

WHAT HAS COMMUNITY TO DO WITH EVANGELISM?

What does it mean to be a member of a community? It seems like everybody wants you to be a member of something today. I’m a member in my insurance company, my neighborhood association, even my grocery store! It’s amazing what Kroger will charge a non-member for food, especially when you think about the cost of membership… nothing! This is membership today. It’s about the perks, sometimes with no cost to you. Many times membership is about one individual freely choosing to join with like-minded individuals, usually for a benefit.

But what problems might arise if churches were to adopt this consumer model of membership? I can imagine how it might play out:

  • Membership would be non-committal. If churches adopted a consumer model of membership, there would be lots of migration from church to church. Easy come, easy go. If you stopped being so “like-minded,” you’d freely choose to leave. Or if the perks dropped, you might be able to find a more beneficial arrangement for yourself.

  • Membership would be passive. If churches adopted a consumer model of membership, there would be lots of inactive members who did not contribute. Once you are in the club, you are fully entitled to all the perks. There wouldn’t be additional demands or expectations. Like Kroger, all a member would really need to do is to scan the badge to mark that you’re present to receive the benefits.

  • Membership would be competitive. If churches adopted a consumer model of membership, churches would compete with other churches for consumers like it was a marketplace. They would advertise, recruit, and sell the benefits of joining their church community rather than another down the road.

Does anything sound familiar? Oh right. That’s close to the entire landscape of American church membership. Countless churches today have abandoned a Christian model of membership in a community for a consumer model. When we do this, it distorts the meaning of both membership and community. (Check out Steve Cloer’s insightful article on reframing membership here).

In this post I want to share three reflections about the nature of Christian community and a framework for finding your part in it.

THE CHURCH AS KOINONIA

The church is often described in the NT as a koinonia. The word we used growing up was fellowship, which is a great translation of koinonia. It’s a way to talk about the church as the family of God or the body of Christ. Each of these metaphors points us toward what is meant by koinonia. It calls to mind closeness and connection. The church is, in the truest sense of the word, a community.

Christian community is distinct from ordinary membership in voluntary associations in at least two key ways. First, membership in this community is not a choice. Well, technically it is a choice. But it was His choice, not yours. “You are a chosen race,” Peter says (1 Pet 2:9). It follows that membership in the church is not an individualistic choice based on like-mindedness. Participation in God’s koinonia is a reality created outside yourself. The church is not some optional or extra-credit tag-on to following Jesus. At baptism, you are “added” by God to this community (cf. Acts 2:41)

Second, membership in this community is a calling. According to Peter, we are “called out” for a purpose—to “declare the praises of him who called you” (1 Peter 2:9). Koinonia means that we are in partnership with God in His mission for the world. We are called—compelled, obligated—to follow the way of Jesus Christ. We are to be transformed in his image as part of the life of the church. We are called to share the good news of King Jesus. As we’ve seen in this series, that means we’re called to evangelism.

THE CHRISTIAN AS KOINONOS

If the church is a koinonia, then each Christian is a koinonos. We are participants, partakers, and partners in the partnership with God. Did you notice all the “part” language? Every member of the church is part of the whole. Therefore, if the church is a community called to God’s mission, then each Christian is called to fulfill their part in the whole mission. Every Christian is called to partner with God in his mission.

One of the most beautiful phrases to describe this kind of partnership is the priesthood of all believers. In the Medieval church there was an exclusive divide between the priesthood and the common people. But many of the Reformers, such as Martin Luther, were critical of this separation. Luther argued that in the NT the priesthood was a universal gift in the church. There is only one High Priest—Jesus Christ—and all who are in Christ share in his priesthood. The priesthood, then, is for all believers.

In Churches of Christ, this emphasis runs deep. Alexander Campbell was a vocal advocate for the priesthood of all believers. To Campbell, preaching is no more a “special call of the Holy Spirit” than “to visit the sick, and to feed the hungry, and clothe the naked…in fact it is the same in every respect.” He wrote in his journal, “Now I am led to think, from the apostles' doctrine, that the poor widow, or the waiting maid who labors industriously in her station, and who obeys Christ, is just as good a servant of God and ‘minister of Jesus Christ’ as ever John Calvin was, or any other preacher or teacher is.”

Do you see his point? Campbell believed that every Christian and every ministry was specially called by the Holy Spirit for ministry. The whole church is called to announce the Kingdom of God—to evangelize—and each of us has a part.

Here is where the rubber meets the road for congregational membership. I have said that we are members of God’s community, and if members then partners also in His mission. This koinonia, or partnership, is to be experienced in a local congregation. This calling as koinonos, or partners, is to be carried out in congregational life. Each and every Christian is called to this kind of membership in the community of a local congregation.

PART OF THE WHOLE IN 1 CORINTHIANS 12

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul writes to a church struggling to live out God’s design for community and ministry. In this chapter he lays out a vision for the local church. Let’s look and see how it aligns with ours. Please take a minute to read 1 Corinthians 12. Here are a few points I hope you’ll observe as you read.

First, notice that God is the agent of action in the church. Remember, it is He who calls us into His community. In 1 Corinthians 12, the Spirit equips the church to “say, ‘Jesus is Lord’” (12:3). It is God who “empowers” the variety of gifts (12:4-6; notice the Trinitarian structure—Spirit, Lord, and God). God “gives” (12:7-10). God “empowered” and “apportions as He wills” (12:11). God “arranged the members…as he chose” (12:18). God “composed the body” (12:24). God “appointed in the church” every person, ministry, and gift (12:28).

Second, notice the language of unity and diversity in the church. Remember, we are all koinonos in the koinonia. We are all part of the whole. There are “varieties…but the same” (3x in 12:4-6). Each unique gift but from the “same” or the “one” Spirit (12:8-11). There is “one body” with “many” members or parts (12:12-14). The members are unique yet interdependent (12:15-25). The members are connected together with no divisions (12:25-26). In all of this oneness, there remains individuality (12:27).

For Paul, the church is a community called by God, collectively and individually, to carry out God’s purposes for the world.

The mission of God takes a church. And the church takes each and every member doing their part.

So what’s your part? How can you know?

HOW CAN I KNOW MY PART?

What is your calling? This is the existential of our time. Culture says, “Follow your heart!” But I believe there are four criteria to keep in mind when seeking to discern God’s call for your life. When these four agree, there is a call. 1) Need, 2) Opportunity, 3) Affinity, and 4) Ability.

One, need. Look around you at real people. What do they need? I believe this is the most important and the most overlooked criteria for discerning where God is calling you. The basis of the Christian call is to do for others. Start where you see a need. Even if it’s not what you want. Even if’s not what you’re good at. Do what needs to be done. Many times the true call of God is into the unknown and the vulnerable.

Two, opportunity. Listen to people in your life. Where are you invited? God often works through open doors. Do you see or hear any? Opportunities are often made obvious when they’re confirmed by more than one person.

Three, affinity. Listen to yourself. What do you desire? What fuels you? Where does your heart best align with God’s? Keep in mind that this category is not the most important for discerning a call. Our culture says to start with passion, but as we have all experienced, passion is fickle. Do not be deceived, God calls people to do things they do not want to do. Christ calls us all to self-denial. We are called to serve faithfully, even when we don’t feel like it.

Fourth and finally, ability. Look at yourself. Where are you skilled? Because I believe ability is often the last to develop, I believe it should be the last criteria for discerning your call. More than that, God often calls people to do things precisely in their areas of weakness. Do we get stronger? Of course, but the point is often that God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness.

When I showed up to Freed-Hardeman University for my freshman year, I got a call from one of the only few people I knew living in town. He asked me if I would come preach at the congregation where he attended with 5 other people (yes, 5). I filled in at the little church and preached the only sermon I had written. Afterward, my friend called me back. They had a need; their preacher had not come back for the semester. I had a unique opportunity afforded to me because I grew up in the same small town 600 miles away in Texas. I had affinity for the role too—I knew I wanted to preach eventually, so I agreed to preach every week while I was in undergrad. But ability? That wonderful little church never got to hear a good sermon from me! Since that first Sunday I’ve spent 8 years in higher education and 14 years in ministry. Ability is often the last to arrive, and it may be the least important. God was gracious enough to grow our little church in many ways, despite my preaching.

What’s God calling you to do in His community? What you may not realize is that you are uniquely gifted in a context and a role. You have a unique context to make an impact on people and in places that no one else can. There are family members, friends, and coworkers depending on you to “declare his praises” in those place. You have a unique role to partner in the community of a local church. There is ministry to do done that you are gifted for, called into.

What might be different if you answered the call? Who might be helped? Who might be served? What might change for the better if you did your part in the body? On the other hand, what might be different if you never answered the call? Who might be overlooked? What might be left undone? There are real stakes as to whether or not you will be a true member of God’s community in a local church.

Next time: evangelism and love in 1 Corinthians 13.

God bless,

Smith Hopkins

Smith Hopkins