Let’s play “pick a quote, any quote,” and today’s topic is: “The church.”

  • “Most of us spend the first six days of each week sowing wild oats; then, we go to church on Sunday and pray for a crop failure.” – Fred Allen
  • “I believe in going to church every Sunday . . . unless there’s a game on.” — Steve Martin
  • “I thought lacrosse was what you find in la church.” – Robin Williams
  • “Most people have some sort of religion—at least they know which church they’re staying away from.” — John Erskine
  • “By the time we get to church, I need church cuz I’ve been yelled at by everyone in the family.” – Jeff Foxworthy
  • “Too many church services start at eleven sharp and end at twelve dull.” – Vance Havner

Today, we want to discuss Brad Kallenberg’s book, Live to Tell: Evangelism for a Postmodern Age (2002 Brazos Press, Grand Rapids). Live To Tell is definitely not for everyone. It is a bit dated, unabashedly heavy in philosophy, and at times, a bit academic. However, if you like those sorts of things, you win. And I win because I love all those things! I mean, how often do you pick up a book on evangelism and suddenly find yourself immersed in the philosophical rantings of Wittgenstein, MacIntyre, Kierkegaard and Winnie-the-Pooh? And even if philosophy and academics aren’t your thing, the practical insights in this book are invaluable. Two ideas, in particular, stand out. The first (and the one we will tackle this week) is that “evangelism is a communal practice.” The second will be the topic of next week’s blog and will focus on the power of story to create a paradigm shift (and what that all means).

But let’s talk about the church. Most of us think that evangelism is the job of individuals as they go into their world and “share their faith.” Kallenberg would argue that idea is misguided. He writes: 

“In the main, no sentence can be evaluated as true or false apart from the context that gives the passage its sense. It matters whether it was Billy Graham or Gloria Steinem who said, ‘All men are evil beasts!’ By the same token, the world will not be able to evaluate the claims of the gospel unless they understand clearly what is the nature of the community that speaks these claims. The gospel may remain a mystery to the surrounding culture unless the church lives out the gospel in the form of its life together. It is the pattern of the believing community’s relationship that embodies the story of Jesus in concrete terms that outsiders can comprehend. Only when the gospel is linked to such concrete illustrations can outsiders say, ‘I see what you mean.’”

Now, that is not to say that personal evangelism is ill-advised, but that personal evangelism needs to be wed to communal evangelism so that seekers can see what their lives would look like if they came to Christ. In fact, without seeing the faith lived out in the church, it would be impossible for seekers to really give themselves heart and soul to Jesus. In fact, it is the only way that seekers can understand what it means to follow Jesus. And that is a great opportunity for us, as well as a great problem. 

Think about it. If you were a seeker and were considering being a Christ follower, what would these well-known facts about the church and its leaders say to you:

  • 12% of pastors today have admitted to having an affair with a parishioner (as reported by Diana Garland in Social Work and Christianity, Volume 33).
  • In one denomination, hundreds of pastors, church leaders and volunteers have been criminally charged with sex crimes since 2000 (as investigated by the Houston Chronicle). 
  • Reports of pastoral abuse of power are commonplace.
  • Many churches are known more for their anger and even hatred, rather than their love and grace.
  • Many churches today have become deeply political.
  • There are websites that gladly list legendary pastors who fell from grace (for example, Ranker).

I could go on, but I am already feeling queasy. It is sad to say, but perhaps the greatest obstacle to evangelism today is the church. Answer honestly: if you were a seeker today and someone suggested you look into Christianity, would you think seriously about it? And yet, we hope that people will believe the gospel message despite the mixed signals that the church today is sending. But that seems difficult.

But what if the church was once again a light shining in a dark place? What if, at least, our own church was a place that spoke to seekers in word and in deed about the truth of God’s love and grace? What if we were a place that embodied the story of Jesus in such a way that seekers would be drawn to God? What would that require of us? We would need to be a church . . .

  • Of infinite grace.
  • Of incredible love and acceptance.
  • Of constant encouragement.
  • Of visible demonstrations of humility and kindness.
  • Of a commitment to justice and compassion, both here and around the world. 
  • Of untiring patience and understanding. 
  • Of unity, faith, prayer and joy.
  • Of character and godliness. 

This idea is not something new. This is how the ancient church changed the world. In the second century, Aristides the Philosopher (and a Christ follower) wrote to Caesar Hadrian both to explain to the king what this “new religion” was all about and, quietly and graciously, to invite the king to follow Jesus. It’s a beautiful apologetic for Christianity. What’s more: the whole argument rests on the character of the church. Aristides writes to Caesar:

“But the Christians, O King, show kindness to those near to them. . . . They comfort their oppressors and make them their friends; and they do good to their enemies. . . . Further, if one or other of them have bondmen and bondwomen or children, through love towards them they persuade them to become Christians, and when they have done so, they call them brethren without distinction. They do not worship strange gods, and they go their ways in all modesty and cheerfulness. Falsehood is not found among them; and they love one another, and from widows they do not turn away their esteem; and they deliver the orphan from him who treats him harshly. And he who has, gives to him who has not, without boasting. And when they see a stranger, they take him in to their homes and rejoice over him as a very brother. . . .  And if they hear that one of their number is imprisoned or afflicted on account of the name of their Messiah, all of them anxiously minister to his necessity; and if it is possible to redeem him, they set him free. And if there is among them any that are poor and needy, and if they have no spare food, they fast for two or three days in order to supply to the needy their lack of food. . . .  Such, O King . . . is their manner of life. . . . And they do not proclaim in the ears of the multitude the kind deeds they do, but are careful that no one should notice them; and they conceal their giving just as he who finds a treasure conceals it. And they strive to be righteous as those who expect to behold their Messiah. . . . And verily, this is a new people, and there is something divine in the midst of them.”*

If only half of that could be said of us! If only people looked at the church today and said, “God is really among you” (1 Cor. 14:25), or “God is definitely at work in your midst.” Oh, if only. . . . 

But note what Kallenberg says at the end of this quote: “Apparently Aristides felt that he could not speak of the gospel of Jesus apart from several pages of text describing the manner in which Christians live with each other. For it is only against the backdrop of a concrete community that resembles Christ, albeit imperfectly, can the gospel be heard most clearly.” 

See, it takes a church to do evangelism. You can’t do it alone. You need the testimony of the whole church. And when the church lives out the good news that the evangelist is sharing, the gospel becomes concrete, meaningful and deeply appealing. We’ve known for decades now that it takes a village to raise a child. Now, we know that it takes a whole church to do evangelism. So, go ye into all the world and be the church.  

*You can read the whole apology at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/aristides-kay.html