AN ACTIVELY WITNESSING ASSEMBLY
Establishing the principles
The word-pictures of the New Testament illustrate some principles that should govern a collective testimony. The local church in Revelation chapter 1 is viewed typically as a lampstand that illuminates the glories of the risen Christ. Peter presents it as a temple with a royal priesthood which should ‘show forth the praises of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvellous light’, 1 Pet. 2. 9.
There is much specific teaching on the subject given to local churches. In Philippians chapter 1 Paul expresses his appreciation to the Philippians, who, although they were separated by distance, had stayed involved in the fellowship of the gospel through financial contributions. He went on to tell them to engage in some collective activities like ‘striving together for the faith of the gospel’, shining ‘as lights in the world’ and ‘holding forth the word of life’, Phil. 1. 27; 2. 15-16. In his First Epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul described their testimony as an example to other believers. Specifically, he states that from them the word of the Lord has sounded forth, 1 Thess. 1. 8. New Testament church principles are of vital importance. A company of believers is only a New Testament church to the extent that they adhere to its teaching and uphold its principles.
Problems – becoming ‘modern’
There are numerous problems that can hinder collective and concerted outreach. One is a negative reaction to so-called ‘modern’ methods and movements. There are some trends in the area of evangelism that undermine and distort the gospel. Some have moved to what could be termed ‘seeker-friendly meetings’ and avoid giving offense in the gospel by not preaching about sin. This seems to promote church growth, but also results in a shallow form of Christianity. Another disturbing trend is the lack of emphasis on preaching the gospel from the word of God. This can produce what could be termed a ‘synthetic’ gospel. People are appealed to on the basis of how Christ can ‘satisfy’, with little attention given to repentance. Some local churches have reacted against these trends by becoming critically negative and at the same time refusing to do anything positive in terms of outreach.
Problems – the ‘tried’ methods
Traditionalism can also be a hindrance to a local church becoming active in constructive outreach efforts. Some may believe the methods of the past century are the ‘only’ means that have divine sanction. In some areas and cultures, the tent meeting and the open-air meeting still work well and are profitable and also, in places where cults have not produced a backlash, door-to-door evangelism is very worthwhile. If the unsaved are indeed coming into the assembly’s building or temporary structure, then having a gospel meeting, or a series of evangelistic meetings, is a valid exercise. Many local churches; however, continue to engage in these activities without evaluating their effectiveness. There are fellowships that may have seen no souls saved for decades. A feeling develops that being true to traditional methods is somehow ‘more spiritual’ and the lack of results is seen as the ‘cost’ of holding fast. Being small and dying is seemingly to be preferred to taking risks associated with being innovative in outreach.
Problems – a lack of passion
The biggest problem by far is a lack of passion for evangelism. In many assemblies there is no meaningful connection with unbelievers so that the gospel can be shared. In churches where there is passion, it will be obvious from the content of the prayers at the prayer meeting. When believers are actively witnessing, there will be family members, workmates and neighbours mentioned for prayer by name. If this is not happening then it is a clear indicator of a lack of passion for the spread of the gospel. If the leadership is not engaged with the lost, there is no example for the flock. When brought into a fellowship that is actively reaching out through personal contact, new believers will regard evangelism as natural and often engage in the same activities and likely to the same extent. Evangelism must be ‘a way of life’ to be effective and, indeed, a driving force for the Christian. Along with this there is also the danger of complacency. Believers can get so comfortable in their local church. Some actually get upset when the unsaved come into their meeting place. ‘Sinners’ with their problems, views and casual dress are an embarrassment, and as a result, growth becomes restricted to the children of those already in fellowship.
Problems – a distorted viewpoint
Another problem is a view held by some, that the local church has no role in evangelism. These individuals see the church’s purpose as being only teaching and equipping the saved. It is then totally up to individuals to go outside the church with the gospel. Of course teaching and equipping are valid activities of the local church and within its mandate. Limiting or denying corporate involvement in evangelism, however, ignores the scriptural and historical pattern of our New Testament. This practice may be an excuse to ease the conscience for the lack of outreach or it possibly comes from a distorted view of the doctrine of salvation.
Problems – isolationism, formalism and fear
The local church can become isolationist. The doctrine of separation sometimes supercedes other teaching and governs all conduct. It can be applied to the point that believers must not have any social contact with unbelievers. Modern monasticism is the result as believers retreat into their sanctified places of worship.
The view of the gospel meeting or outreach series can be a problem if the gospel meeting is seen as only a means to the end. A common thought is that a prolonged series will make up for the lack of involvement in the spread of the gospel. They keep the conscience untroubled by the lack of endeavour. But we all know that gospel meetings only work well when they are part of a process that brings in the unsaved such as when believers have friends to whom they have been witnessing. These people are more likely to come to a gospel meeting because of a personal invitation. They are also more likely to respond to the gospel if there has been significant contact and preparation.
Fear may be an issue in many places. There is fear of the unsaved, fear of being contaminated by the world or fear of ridicule. Just as great a source of uneasiness may be the fear of doing something different and the fear of what other local churches may say because you have exercised your liberty and autonomy as an assembly. This can become a form of bondage that ties a group exclusively to traditional and perhaps ineffectual methods. The concept develops over time that the local church is accountable exclusively to other fellowships instead of to the Lord alone.
Problems – discouragement
Finally, Satan may have won the victory in some places. People may be discouraged because the methods tried are not working. No one has been saved in years so they conclude that there is no interest in spiritual matters among the unsaved around them. The opinion develops that the hearts of the unsaved are harder in their community than in other places.
Getting down to the heart of the matter – practical examples
There are some very practical things any assembly can do to both engage in and enhance evangelism. One is to respond to visitors with courtesy and interest. Christians need to ask themselves, ‘If I were an unsaved person who came to a meeting at my home assembly, would I feel welcome and be likely to return?’ Another question would be, ‘Is there any evidence of concern and passion for the lost?’ True passion for Christ allows one to see not just a soul that needs salvation, but a person with whom to interact. Visitors need to see ‘God’s love in action’ through the warm concern and care of the believers for them as people.
The assembly can become involved in the process by making ‘individual’ contacts a matter of ‘corporate’ prayer. There is nothing that will stir passion like hearing that believers are witnessing and in response to prayer, seeing the Lord at work in the lives of the unsaved. The result will be a tangible joy in the assembly as well as that in heaven. In so many places prayer with regard to evangelism is limited and vaguely general. This results in a deathly lethargy for souls. We should not be reticent to name names and pray repeatedly for the unsaved friends, neighbours and co-workers as well as family members.
Believers need to be encouraged in evangelism so that they don’t think just in terms of numbers for a gospel meeting. They need to think of real people, the people they rub shoulders with every day, and see them as those for whom Christ died. Some suggest a ‘doctrine of separation’ that often results in the elimination of interaction with the unsaved and contact with them is neither encouraged nor modelled by leadership. In many places the ‘drawbridge’ needs to be let down and the Christians released in order to go forth to meet the folks around them in need of the Saviour.
This necessitates meeting people where they are and demonstrating Christian love to them. The unsaved are seldom found inside a Gospel Tent or assembly building. Reaching out with methods that do not compromise the message is vital but to facilitate activities that allow an assembly to be involved in evangelism and pursue gospel testimony in the world is essential.
From precept to practice
The assembly in Timmins, Ontario, has seen dozens and dozens of people saved, baptized and brought into fellowship over the past twenty years. This has happened while still holding to New Testament distinctives and principles without apology. Timmins is a city of 45,000 people in Northern Ontario, Canada. It is a mining and lumber community with a large percentage of French-speaking Canadians, most of whom are Roman Catholics by religion. There are fewer than twenty adults in the meeting that were raised in an evangelical Christian home. The majority of the one hundred or so in fellowship are first-generation believers. In the past 15 years between 30 and 40 families have moved on to local churches in other communities, mainly for economic or retirement reasons.
There are no special classes or sessions on the principles of outreach for new believers, but they are continually and routinely taught that they are ‘witnesses’. Evangelism is presented as a lifestyle, not a special activity done once a week at a certain time. The rationale is that, in this area of the Christian life, the truth is more readily ‘caught’ than ‘taught’. Many of these new converts come to think of witnessing as a normal part of the Christian life. These believers are equipped for service by teaching from the word and by the example of other Christians.
Here in Timmins, the Lord’s Supper takes place at 9.15 a.m. on Sunday morning and is followed by a preaching meeting at 11.00 a.m. When unsaved come to hear the gospel, it is most likely at 11.00 a.m. Week after week, there are always some unsaved at that meeting. The view of the leadership with respect to those who preach at that meeting is that only gifted and exercized brothers should preach the gospel. If the brother is gifted in teaching and that is his exercise, then he is encouraged to teach, for even when teaching or exhorting the gospel is given in the course of the message. There have been times when a brother has been asked to give his testimony at this meeting as a means of sharing the gospel. There is no one-man ministry, but neither is there an ‘any-man’ ministry. Those who are gifted and can communicate clearly are used on Sunday mornings. Public speaking ability and gift are developed at the mid-week meeting.
At the end of the Lord’s Supper, Christians are often reminded to be aware of visitors coming to the 11.00 a.m. meeting. They are encouraged to greet them warmly and make them feel welcome. Visitors from other local churches and the unsaved often comment on the friendliness of the Christians and how truly welcome they feel.
Most of the new believers who have been saved are from a Roman Catholic background. They have been reached through family or a friend who are already saved. These new converts generally share their faith because that is the example they have seen in action. Names of those to whom individual believers have had the opportunity to witness and for whom they are concerned are often brought up at the mid-week prayer meeting.
Corporate outreach is viewed as a means to allow unsaved friends to be exposed to real Christians and to hear the gospel. There is the understanding that the seed of the word is being sown and that it may be months or years before it takes root. This allows the word to be presented gently and with sensitivity; thus people are not held captive and beaten into submission with long discourses. With this in mind, a variety of activities are used to expose the unsaved to the gospel.
There are traditional methods such as visitation in hospitals, prison ministry and gospel meetings. Occasionally there is a short gospel series from a Sunday to a Wednesday. There is a full range of weekly children’s meetings that cover all age groups. These work well. Other unique activities are done as the opportunity arises. There are a number of home Bible studies, some held during the day and some in the evenings in addition to the regular midweek meeting. These are studies for men, for women and for couples where believers can bring unsaved friends.
There is a ‘men’s breakfast’ once a month followed by a message from the word. Men can bring friends for food, exposure to Christians and the gospel. Periodically there are ladies’ outreaches where a topic of interest to women is presented. This is then followed with a relevant gospel message. There is a weekly sports activity where unsaved men join believers in a sporting activity. The non-believers see believers enjoying themselves and living out their faith in a different setting. The sports activity is followed by a word of testimony or a short gospel message.
There has been for twenty-five years an annual sports banquet where a well-known believer from the professional sporting world will share their testimony. This has proven very effective in that many have been able to invite their unsaved friends to this event. Over the years, the attendance has averaged close to four hundred with over half being unsaved. The local newspaper usually prints part of the testimony the following day and in this way the gospel is presented to the whole community.
Other less frequent events have included a public presentation on the proofs of creation; marriage seminars on a Saturday that are open to the public, and adult social activities where the believers can bring unsaved friends. There are meetings for children and special events to which the parents are invited. Easter and Christmas are used in turn for special outreaches to which people can invite their friends. There is a modest food bank and a benevolent fund maintained to help believers in need. These are also available for the unsaved if someone in the meeting knows of a pressing need.
The believers in Timmins have been taught that the local church is a company of people and the building is only a convenience. Thus the building can be used for outreach activities with no thought of it being ‘holy ground’. This liberates us to a degree to use the facility for outreach other than a gospel meeting and for the unsaved to come to what they see as a ‘church building’ for a special activity or outreach.
This list of practical examples is not meant to be all inclusive or even prescriptive. In fact what is effective here may not work anywhere else and some of what is done works because of culture and climate. The hope is that these examples will serve as a stimulus to thought and conversation. Perhaps others will be encouraged to think of what can be done to reach their neighbourhoods. In every culture and climate, believers need to bridge the gap to reach unbelievers with the love of Christ and local churches are essential in this work. One cannot afford to just sit back and wait for the unsaved to wander into a gospel meeting. ‘Salvation is of the Lord’, but He very graciously condescends to use us as part of the process.
1.Believers need an example. Are there some among you doing the work of an evangelist in everyday life by just living out the gospel and allowing the Lord to use you as a witness to the lost?
2. Outreach is only effective when accompanied by prayer. There should be corporate involvement through prayer with those who are actively witnessing. Prayer for boldness, for opportunities and for specific people is needed.
3. Develop a visitor-friendly attitude and atmosphere. Determine to respond to all that come without partiality and make strangers feel welcome.
4.Consider new methods that can be used in your community and culture to bridge the gap with the unsaved. Ask how the local church can facilitate and participate in the outreach being done by individuals.
5. In every assembly there are practical expressions of Christian love and concern that can be developed. Programmes to respond to tragedy or other need in the community can be put in place. Look for opportunities to minister to those in need.
6. Can your building be used to facilitate outreach? Think of activities that might interest the unsaved and then encourage the Christians to invite friends or relatives to those corporate activities.
7. Is your local church discouraged? Has Satan won the victory? Remember the Lord still saves souls and He uses people like us in the process. Look for someone you can love for the sake of the Lord Jesus while praying for opportunities and boldness. As you personally witness, encourage the local church to become involved.
Remember the exhortation,’that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel’, Phil. 1. 27.