Rethinking Evangelism through the Doctrine of the Church

by Jonathan Dodson

(Editor’s note: This is the 7th in a 10-part series on how our theology informs our evangelism.)

<erging the mind & the heart, Jonathan Dodson, two tasks of the christian, evangelism in communityNone of the baptisms I’ve performed would have happened without the gospel witness of my church. In most cases, each person who heard the gospel from me also heard the gospel and saw its power in community.

In fact, people rarely come to faith from a single gospel witness. Statistics show that most conversions are the result of a process that occurs over time, involving a variety of different gospel testimonies and ‘evangelistic’ experiences. Is it possible we have reversed the biblical emphasis, making evangelism more ‘personal’ than communal?

Personal or Individual Evangelism?

If you read through Paul’s letters looking for commands to do personal evangelism, it is surprising how few evangelistic commands you actually find. Rarely do we find Paul telling individual Christians to go out and tell others about Jesus. Instead, we find gifted evangelists, apostles, and prophets doing a lot of the evangelistic preaching. In the epistles there is a greater emphasis on communal life centered around the person of Jesus in the life of the Spirit. This communal life is a corporate witness to the risen Lord and is used by God to attract the attention of those who are not part of His Church.

Personal evangelism puts the weight of conversion on a single individual. As a result, most people feel inadequate for evangelism. But what if God’s design is to work through a collection of gifts and a corporate witness? What if evangelism is actually a community endeavor, not an individual project?

To be sure, the new community Jesus formed does not exist for itself but for the world (Mark 16:15; Acts 1:8). And one of the primary goals of the unity that Jesus prayed for among his disciples (and all subsequent Christians) was unity for mission: “That they may be one, even as we are one … As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:11, 18). Jesus saves and Jesus sends us as a community.

Collective witness is, more often than not, how God discloses His manifold wisdom to the world (Eph. 4:4–6). The Church is God’s evangelistic genius, not isolated people with evangelistic drive.

Church as a Missionary Family

Perhaps we have made evangelism a personal endeavor because we have falsely made the whole of discipleship an individualistic pursuit. This is a product of Enlightenment thinking—“I think therefore I am”—instead of a biblical conception of identity—“we are because we were made from and for community.” We are created from Triune community and converted into Christ’s collective body.

The symptoms of individualistic faith are everywhere. We face a rising epidemic of dechurched and unchurched Christians. As Joseph Hellerman points out, the New Testament can’t even conceive of such a thing: “We do not find an unchurched Christian in the New Testament … a person was not saved for the sole purpose of enjoying a personal relationship with God … a person is saved to community.”[i] If you are not meaningfully connected to other disciples, you haven’t embraced the implications of your union with Christ and you haven’t fully realized the meaning of your adoption. Instead, you’ve bought into the false gospel of individualism.

Perhaps you’ve come to believe that you have been saved into a personal relationship instead of a family of relationships united in Christ. In Christ, God is the Father of a family and we belong to one another. Since we share the same spiritual blood, we should act like a family. A healthy family shares life, possessions, meals, money, failures, successes, decisions, and hardships. A spiritual family shares forgiveness, grace, hope, truth, love, and most of all Jesus. This kind of redemptive family sticks out as a gospel witness in the world.

If we are called to collectively witness to the risen Christ, this will mean a radical rethinking of our individualist decision-making, theology, and discipleship. It will surely change evangelism. After all, a chorus of gospel voices is stronger and more compelling than one lone voice in the wind.

[i] Joseph H. Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing JesusVision for Authentic Christian Community (Nashville: Broad- man & Holman, 2011), 123 – 24.

Jonathan-Dodson-2Jonathan Dodson (@Jonathan_Dodson) founded City Life Church in Austin, Texas, with his wife, Robie, and a small group of people. They have three children. He is author of several books including The Unbelievable Gospel: Say Something Worth Believing and Raised? Finding Jesus by Doubting the Resurrection. He is also the founder of GospelCenteredDiscipleship.com. More info atjonathandodson.org.