Evangelism: Love and Evangelism

Slide1.JPG

Smith Hopkins | May 14, 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 this post we look at the intersection of a loving church and evangelism.

What has love to do with evangelism? In this post I want to share two foundational points, and then to test them in a Corinthian case study.

1. LOVE PROVES THE GOSPEL.

Here’s a quick Bible quiz.

(Hint: Jesus said this in the Gospel of John.)

How will all people know that we are disciples? Do you know it? When the followers of Jesus love one another (John 13:34-35).

How may the world believe that Jesus is from God? When the followers are Jesus are one as God is one (John 17:20-21).

Do you see the connection Jesus himself makes between love and unity on the one hand, and evangelism and mission on the other? Love proves the gospel. Mack Stiles makes the point in his little book, Evangelism, “Jesus says the love we have for one another in the church is a statement that we are truly converted. And when we are unified in the church, we show to the world that Jesus is the Son of God. Love confirms our discipleship. Unity confirms Christ’s deity. What a powerful witness!”

But how? How does love prove the gospel?

Join me in a very strange rabbit trail…

If a stranger walked up to you and told you they had a strange experience last evening. According to the stranger, an alien visitor from another planet arrived in his backyard, and shared with him a powerful secret to the cosmos. Would you believe him? No, that’s unbelievable! (This is the internet, so some of you surely would. But for most of us, we’d hightail it out of that conversation as quick as we could.)

But would you believe a stranger who walked up to you and told you they had a strange experience of the living God, who sent His Son to earth from heaven, and who shared his Spirit with the world? Well, yes, of course! I’ve given my life to this reality.

What is incredible to one is incredible to another. What’s plausible to one is implausible to another. What’s the difference?

To use the technical word, the difference is in our plausibility structures.  They are the structures in our lives that make something believable or unbelievable. There are three main plausibility structures. Or to say it another way, believability boils down to three things: 1) community, 2) experience, and evidence.

Beliefs are based on all three in varying order of importance. I believe the most important believability factor in our secular culture is community. That’s because community unlocks new experiences and evidences. If a stranger shared a strange story, I’d dismiss them. But if my wife or best friend shared a strange story, I’d consider it. Love is a powerful thing. We are much more likely to believe what the people and culture around us believe.

In our classes at OC I asked which of the three plausibility structures you thought were most important. Far and away, I heard evidence. But here’s the irony: we say evidence is most important (partly) because we live in western, rationalistic, individualistic communities!

Does that make our beliefs untrue? No, not at all. But it might make them unbelievable to people who live in non-Christian communities.

Why does all this matter? It matters because, just as Jesus said, love proves the gospel. A church who loves well can create and invite people into a community where the gospel becomes more believable. In this loving community, the hope is that we together will share an experience of the living God. And, actually, the loving community can also be evidence of the transforming power of God and the truth of the gospel.

Jesus said that love proves the gospel, and we’ve seen that community has a major impact on all beliefs more generally. But in our cultural moment, I believe this is especially relevant.

Where is the love?

Have you noticed that the enjoyment of a loving community is declining? Consider today’s experience of community compared generations past. I suspect that the average American experiences more fractures in their family, less of a connection with their neighborhoods, and more polarization in our country. Thank God the church is a perfect beacon of community in our culture. Right? Not so much.

The world thirsting for exactly what the church is called to be, but the church often fails to be an oasis of love in a desert of anxiety and isolation. It’s often division, not unity. Arguments, not accord. Selfishness, not love. Individualism, not community.

If the unified, loving church proves the gospel, then what does the divided, unloving church prove?

Our love has the power to prove and to disprove our witness. There is much at stake for God’s mission in how we love one another.

2. LOVE PICTURES THE GOSPEL.

The manifold wisdom of God

Here’s another quick Bible quiz: How will the wisdom of God be made known to the world? Paul says it will be displayed through the church (Ephesians 3:10). The church is called to picture the character of God and the story of the gospel. We do this through love.

When Jesus called his disciples to love one another that all people may know that we’re his disciples (John 13:34-35), he did so with a concrete example of the kind of love he envisioned. He and his disciples gathered for one, last supper before he died. As everyone rose for supper, it was Jesus who set aside his clothes and took on a towel around his waist. Then he washed his disciples’ feet (John 13:1-5). When he finished, he said, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15).

Jesus calls us to love one another with a love that puts others ahead of ourselves. This symbolic act of service pointed to the great act of sacrifice to come the next day. He laid down his life in love. His love pictured the gospel moment.

The apostle Paul wrote a letter to a young church struggling with love and unity, which resonates deeply with the kind of gospel-shaped love Jesus left as an example (Phil 2:3-8):

3 Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

A portrait of the gospel

When our loves pictures the gospel in word and deed, then it is most persuasive. Love was the growth mechanism in the early church and into the first several centuries. As Michael Green writes in his book Evangelism in the Early Church, “the extent and power of the Christian outreach depended on the unity and fellowship of the brotherhood.” Love pictured the gospel by practicing three components: 1) equality, 2) generosity, and 3) hospitality.

Equality. In the Roman world, there were guilds and fellowships for all kinds of interests. But it was the church of Christ Jesus which swept across an empire in a new kind of fellowship, growing despite major oppositions from the culture. But how? What distinguished the fellowship of Christians from all the other fellowships? In this koinonia, or fellowship, are were equal in Christ. Whether slave or free, rich or poor, male or female, Jew or Gentile. In the fellowships of their culture people were united by their “mutual hatred,” but in the Christian fellowship they were united by their mutual love.

Generosity. The church took up voluntary offerings to share them with the family of God in need. As Tertullian wrote in the early church, they were used “to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls who are destitute of means and parents, and of old people now confined to the house, and such as have suffered shipwreck... or any who happen to be in the mines or banished to the islands or shut up in prison for their fidelity to God's Church.”

Hospitality. In his survey of early Christian practices, Michael Green called the use of the home and hospitality, “one of the most important methods of spreading the gospel in antiquity.” Weary travelers were invited to enjoy rest and nourishment. Dinners and banquets in Christian homes would lead to gospel presentations. The sharing of home and table was “particularly successful” in the spread of Christianity in the ancient world.

Isn’t this the portrait of the gospel-shaped community in Acts 2:44-47? Here is equality, generosity, and hospitality:

44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

3. A CORINTHIAN CASE STUDY

What did love look like in Corinth?

In this series we close each post with a reflection on how this topic takes shape in one of the earliest Christian churches and how it should take shape in our churches today. Take a moment to read two sections from 1 Corinthians. Chapter 11:17-34 and 16:1-4. As you read, consider the two intersecting themes of love and evangelism.

Paul argues that the practices of Christian community are to picture the gospel (11:17-34). The Lord’s Supper should reveal the unified, loving body of Christ. And when it doesn’t—when there is division instead of equality, selfishness instead of generosity, and humiliation instead of hospitality—then there is judgment from God. The picture of the gospel presented by a church can draw people in but it can also cast people out.

In 16:1-4, Paul argues that the saints all over the world should be loved, even across national, ethnic, and language lines. There’s a global unity to the love and the mission of God’s people.

Love in action

I think our picture of gospel-shaped love—equality, generosity, and hospitality—holds up quite well in this letter. How should it be lived today? The answer is the same as it was in the first century: love! But a particular kind of love that practices equality, generosity, and hospitality.

Here’s one way to practice this post: merge our universes. Sam Chan points out in Evangelism in a Skeptical World that many times when we get fired up to do evangelism, “we go out solo.” This creates a problem I’ve pointed at over and over—evangelism takes a church! If we join a group alone to share the gospel, then we may be the only ones in the group who believe the gospel. He asks, “What if we merged our universes of friends? What if we were able to get our Christian friends to become friends with our non-Christian friends?” I think this is a key to reaching the lost today. With a community of people who believe the gospel, the plausibility of the gospel itself goes up dramatically.

Here’s a second way to put love into action: the transforming GRACES. We have six habits at OC that try to practice in solitude, in community, and with the world called the Transforming GRACES. I think they work quite well at putting love into action. Here they are:

  • Give thanks.

  • Reflect on the Word.

  • Ask deeper questions.

  • Commune with God.

  • Eat together.

  • Serve your neighbor.

What might be different if you pictured the gospel in the life of your church?

Next time: evangelism and gospel in 1 Corinthians 15.

God bless,

Smith Hopkins

Smith Hopkins