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Evangelism and the Local Church

John S. Shaw

Orthodox Presbyterian congregations, presbyteries, and assemblies regularly sing a hymn that closes with these words:

We long to see your churches full,
That all the chosen race
May, with one voice and heart and soul,
Sing your redeeming grace.[1]

We love to sing this hymn because the desire reflects the stated plan of God. The Lord seeks true worshippers who “will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23). The Lord pursues true worshippers through the ministry of his Word and Spirit. And the Lord sends the church to gather true worshippers by the means of evangelism.

God gives the ministry of evangelism to the church as a primary responsibility. This article considers that responsibility, especially as it applies to local congregations. We will consider evangelism through the local congregation in three parts: first, the agent of evangelism; second, the theology of evangelism; and third, the practice of evangelism.

The Agent of Evangelism

The Lord gives to the church as a whole the responsibility of evangelism. Jesus Christ proclaimed this responsibility to the apostles, and the Scriptures record the specifics at both the end of Matthew (28:18–20) and the beginning of Acts (1:8). As the Lord providentially scatters his fledgling church, believers carry the Word wherever the Lord sends them (e.g., Acts 8:4). The growing church of the New Testament displays a commitment to the work of evangelism and outreach, and the Lord blesses their labors by gathering many new converts into the worshipping community. As R. B. Kuiper observes, the evangelistic responsibility of the church is clear and undeniable:

Beyond dispute, the Christian church is the God-appointed agent of evangelism.... Both the church as an organization, operating through its special offices, and the church as an organism of believers, each of which holds a general or universal office, are God-ordained agents of evangelism.[2]

While God calls all believers as agents of evangelism, he specifically and uniquely calls ministers to this work. Paul tells Timothy the work of the minister includes the responsibility to preach the Word to a sinful people in a rebellious age (2 Tim. 4:1–3). He brings that particular instruction to a conclusion by writing, “As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (4:5).

Men called to the ministry of the Word must make evangelistic ministry a priority, for they are set apart by the Lord to carry the Word to the lost. Geerhardus Vos emphasized this responsibility in a sermon preached to the students at Princeton: “Pitiable indeed is the plight of the steward of Christ, who cannot say from a conviction as profound as the roots of his spiritual life itself, that he came into the kingdom for the very purpose of seeking and of saving that which was lost.”[3] Pastors must proclaim the promises and demands of the gospel, calling sinners to repent and believe. In his book concerning the pastoral ministry, Martin Bucer summarizes “the first task of the pastoral ministry and care of souls [as] that of seeking Christ’s lost sheep and bringing them into the flock and sheep-pen of Christ.”[4]

Yet the minister along with the elders must also lead the congregation in the work of evangelism. According to our Form of Government (FG), the local session “shall concert the best measures for promoting the spiritual growth and evangelistic witness of the congregation” (13.7).[5] While the FG also gives responsibility to presbyteries and the general assembly for evangelism and witness (14.5 and 15.6), the liberty of the local congregation remains protected. Local congregations play a significant part in the witness of the whole church, therefore sessions must lead and promote the effective witness of the body they serve.

The early history of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church shows a denomination committed to vibrant evangelistic ministry. Many of the first church plants began with a minister moving to a new community and starting the hard work of planting evangelistic seeds by knocking on doors and open-air preaching. Through the labors of these faithful men, the Lord raised up congregations. Yet the ministers didn’t work alone. They prepared and deployed their congregations to assist in these labors.

With a desire for evangelistic ministry to flourish, the General Assembly in 1942 appointed a Committee on Local Evangelism. The committee worked over a period of ten years and produced a document titled Biblical Evangelism Today: A Symposium that remains available on the denomination website.[6] In that document, the committee makes an important statement about personal evangelism and the necessity for the whole church to engage in such work:

Personal work is a very important aspect of evangelism. This method of presenting the gospel was widely used by our Lord. In the apostolic church this work was not only done by the ministers but by the laymen as well. This fact sheds light on its phenomenal growth. If the churches of our denomination are going to do an effective work of local evangelism then the Orthodox Presbyterian Church as a whole must be roused to the need and instructed in this type of work.[7]

Our love for the last stanza of “How Sweet and Awesome Is the Place” grows from a theological commitment to a ministry of evangelism that engages the whole church at some level. Yet that still leaves two questions to answer. First, what theological commitments undergird the work of evangelism through local congregations? Second, how should we practice evangelism in the local church?

The Theology of Evangelism[8]

A quick study of our denomination’s early history reveals a commitment to labor-intensive, local evangelism. Some ministers made door-to-door evangelistic calling a regular part of their weekly (or even daily) ministry schedule. At first glance, one might consider that work to be a result of practical desperation. Many pastors moved into new communities to a church with few if any members. They needed more people in the church, so they had to knock on doors. Yet mere pragmatism never serves as a proper motivation for ministry.

These pastors were motivated by something greater than necessity. Their actions grew from biblical commitments. They recognized that the call to the gospel ministry necessarily involved a call to evangelistic ministry (2 Tim. 4:5). As the Committee on Local Evangelism explained, “The Great Head and King of the Church has solemnly commissioned the Church to proclaim the gospel in all the world, to every creature.”[9] They embraced their evangelistic responsibility with joy and vigor. The Lord is seeking worshippers, and these pastors recognized the church to be a mighty instrument in the hand of God to gather these worshippers. So they labored in evangelism.

With that in mind, we should answer an important question. What in particular about our theology presses the responsibility of evangelism? What do we believe about God and his Word that demands evangelistic ministry? Of course, there are many theological truths that relate to the evangelistic responsibility of the church, but let’s consider four.

First, local congregations engage in evangelism out of obedience to the clear commands of the Lord Jesus Christ. He sends out his church to disciple the nations and to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth (Matt. 28:18–20; Acts 1:8). Jesus promises a rich harvest for the church, and calls us to pray for (Matt. 9:37–38), to send (Rom. 10:14–15), and to support (1 Cor. 9:8–14) laborers to gather the harvest. The Lord calls pastors to a full ministry that includes the work of evangelism (2 Tim. 4:5). Faithful ministers lead their congregations in the work of evangelism and witness because the Lord commands the church to engage in this labor.

Second, local congregations engage in evangelism because our chief end is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”[10] We exist and live for the glory of God. That answer mirrors the words that Jesus speaks in John 4:23. The Lord seeks worshippers—people who are defined and named by their commitment to glorify God. Worshippers are gathered as people hear and believe the Word of God, and people hear the Word as the church sends those who speak the gospel (Rom. 10:14–15). Therefore, ministers lead their congregations in the work of evangelism and witness.

Third, local congregations engage in evangelism because of the love of Christ. Paul tells the church in Corinth, “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor. 5:14–15). The love of the crucified and risen Christ compels us to give our lives wholly to him. We are thereby compelled to share the good news. Machen, preaching on this passage to our Second General Assembly, said:

What a wonderful open door God has placed before the church of today. A pagan world, weary and sick, often distrusting its own modern gods. A saving gospel strangely entrusted to us unworthy messengers. A divine Book with unused resources of glory and power. Ah, what a marvelous opportunity, my brethren![11]

The love of Christ compels, controls, and constrains us to proclaim the saving message of the gospel to a broken world. Once we know the love of Christ, we must not, indeed we cannot, remain silent. Ministers and congregations do the work of evangelism and witness because the love of Christ controls them.

Fourth, local congregations engage in evangelism because of compassion for the lost. God himself models the compassion for the lost that should characterize believers. The Lord reveals his compassion for sinners in the question that closes the book of Jonah.

You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle? (Jonah 4:10–11)

The Lord pitied that great and wicked city both because he created them but also because they were lost—a people who did not know their right hand from their left.

The Son of God, someone greater than Jonah (Matt. 12:41), displayed the same kind of love for the crowds of lost people who followed him through the cities and villages. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). Out of his compassion for the crowds, the Lord drew attention to the harvest and the need for laborers. He calls us to imitate his compassion for those who are lost. Ministers and congregations do the work of evangelism out of compassion for the lost, compassion modeled after the love of the Savior.

The Practice of Evangelism

Having considered already the agent of evangelism and the theology of evangelism, we will now briefly consider the practice of evangelism. What are some practical steps to carry out a ministry of evangelism and witness in local congregations?

First, we need to train our ministers to do the work of an evangelist and to lead their congregation in a ministry of witness. The minister’s call includes the responsibility to do the work of an evangelist and to promote the evangelistic witness of the congregation (2 Tim. 2:5; FG 13.7). Any ministry of evangelism in the local congregation must begin with the pastor. Yet most Orthodox Presbyterian ministers have received limited training for this work. The typical Reformed seminary provides one or two classes on the ministry of witness. (Of course, any good preaching class will teach a man to proclaim the gospel since biblical preaching is evangelistic by nature. More of that in a little bit.) The typical class on evangelism involves hours of classroom instruction on the theology of evangelism with very little time for practical training concerning the “how” of evangelism. The result: many ministers recognize their responsibility for evangelism but feel ill-equipped to fulfill that responsibility.

As a denomination, we need to train and equip our ministers to do the work of an evangelist. Paul writes to Timothy about the necessity for training and modeling within the ministry. “Entrust [what you have heard from me] to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 2:2–3).

R. B. Kuiper drew pointed instruction from these verses:

One implication of that behest [2 Tim. 2:2] is that the church must make provision for the training of evangelists, particularly of such as have in mind the devoting of their entire life to the presentation of the gospel to the lost.... Far more attention should be paid to the specific preparation of evangelists.[12]

Young pastors benefit greatly from learning the ministry through the example of older men who spend time with them. While most of our ministers learn through internships, they would also benefit from coming alongside experienced ministers with evangelistic gifts. Young ministers in previous decades grew in their ministry of witness through visits with John Fikkert, Don Stanton, George Haney, and others. They learned by watching and serving together. We need to provide such opportunities for our pastors.

Second, ministers must grow in their ability to clearly communicate the whole counsel of God through biblical, Christ-centered preaching. The clear preaching of the Word, Sunday after Sunday, through which people hear the voice of Christ, is the primary means by which people believe (Rom. 10:15–16). As ministers, we labor to proclaim the promises and the obligations communicated in our text, and to proclaim those in a manner that is both clear and compelling. We must preach the gospel so that lost sheep hear the voice of the Shepherd; we must preach the gospel so that the sheep under our care know the Shepherd more deeply. This is not an article on preaching, so I will end with this simple instruction: preach Christ from all the Scriptures.

Third, local sessions should take time to develop a thorough Christian education program that teaches a congregation the whole counsel of God. Our Bible teaching should present a full theology of the Scriptures and the gospel, a full theology that includes training in our confessional standards. Our members should understand the claims of the gospel on their lives, and they should learn and rehearse the gospel again and again. The clearer understanding they have of the whole gospel and the whole Scripture, the better prepared they are to witness and give a reason for their hope.[13]

Fourth, we should be deliberate in teaching our children the whole Bible, putting before them the claims of the gospel again and again. At one point in my ministry, the adult son of a Baptist minister was preparing to bring his family into the membership of our congregation and to have his young children baptized. His father asked him, “Are you comfortable joining a church that doesn’t believe in evangelizing their children?” This question could mean many things, and we could offer many answers, but let me simply suggest this response. We should tell our children, again and again, the glorious story of the gospel. We should hold before them the glories of the Savior every day. We should rehearse the gospel message after every sermon preached, after every administration of the sacraments, after every reading of the Scripture. Our children should hear the gospel repeatedly because of, not in spite of, what we believe about the covenant promises. We promise to hold the gospel before them when we take vows at their baptism. Our children have been baptized as disciples, and we should teach them to observe everything that the Lord has commanded (Matt. 28:18–20; Deut. 6:4–9) so that they might believe and obey (Ps. 78:1–8; cf. v. 7). Local congregations, with parents, must teach the gospel to the children God has entrusted to us. This is a vital part of our ministry of evangelism and discipleship.

Fifth, local congregations should reach out to their neighbors with the gospel. This means that individual believers should be zealous to invite friends, neighbors, co-workers, and family members to the regular gatherings of the local church. Our standards teach that there is no ordinary possibility of salvation outside the church.[14] If we believe that, then we should invite others to join us when the church gathers for worship every Sunday. But we should also invite others to join us for Bible study, for fellowship events, or to join us when others from church are also in our homes. We should look for opportunities to connect our church family with our neighbors, family, and friends.[15]

Pastors and sessions should lead in this regard. Here is one practical suggestion on how to evaluate the unique opportunities for witness within your local community. First, make a list of the talents, gifts, passions, interests, and places of influence among the members of your congregation. Second, make a list of the passions, interests, and gathering places within your local community. Then consider where those circles intersect. These points of intersection provide opportunities to build relationships which open doors of opportunity for witness.

Sixth, local congregations should be active in prayer, and the prayer life of a congregation (in public, family, and private worship) should include a specific focus on evangelistic prayer. The Lord tells us to pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into a ripe and ready field (Matt. 9:37–38). That means we can pray with expectation, for we know the Lord of the harvest to be a faithful and powerful Savior. That also means we should pray regularly and persistently regarding the harvest. And we should pray specifically, with the names of particular people on our lips. What a tremendous privilege for a congregation to build a list of people about whom to pray that the Lord might save them. To know that as you share the good news of the gospel with family or friends, a whole congregation stands behind you in prayer.

Our congregation in Saint Paul, Minnesota, built such a list, and we prayed every week (in our homes and from the pulpit) for the salvation of specific persons. We prayed for five years that the Lord might save one particular woman, and people in the congregation who had never met this woman prayed for her. Eventually, by the grace of God, we had the wonderful privilege of celebrating her conversion and baptism (and the baptism of her two children) together as a congregation. The relative of another member was converted and baptized in an Orthodox Presbyterian Church across the country, and we again celebrated together, but this time with another congregation who had also prayed for this woman. Evangelistic prayer as believers and as congregations builds a commitment to a ministry of witness that over time pervades the whole congregation. Evangelistic prayer trains our eye on opportunities for witness.

In conclusion, we possess a rich heritage in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. A heritage expressed in our theological commitment to a pure doctrine of salvation found in the Bible, and a heritage expressed in the practice of a ministry of evangelism and witness throughout the whole church. The Lord has blessed this evangelistic ministry, and he will continue to bless such a ministry as the whole church (including local congregations) faithfully takes the good news to the nations. Resting in the faithfulness of the Lord of the harvest, may we humbly and passionately serve God as his witnesses to a broken world.

Endnotes

[1] Trinity Hymnal (Atlanta: Great Commission Publications, 1990), no. 469, “How Sweet and Awesome Is the Place.”

[2] R. B. Kuiper, God-Centered Evangelism (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2002), 118.

[3] Geerhardus Vos, Grace and Glory (Birmingham: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2007), 65.

[4] Martin Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2009), 90.

[5] Book of Church Order of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Form of Government [FG] 13.7).

[6] John Murray and Calvin K. Cummings, eds., Biblical Evangelism Today: A Symposium (Philadelphia: The Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1954), http://www.opc.org/chm/BEToday.html.

[7] Ibid., under chap. 5, para. 1.

[8] For a more detailed discussion of the theological foundations for a ministry of evangelism and outreach, read the first three chapters of Biblical Evangelism Today.

[9] Murray and Cummings, eds., Biblical Evangelism Today, under Preface, first sentence.

[10] Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question and Answer 1.

[11] Ned Bernard Stonehouse, ed., J. Gresham Machen (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2002), 154.

[12] Kuiper, God-Centered Evangelism, 123.

[13] Murray and Cummings, eds., Biblical Evangelism Today, under “Application to Evangelistic Method” chap. 3, para. 5: “Fourth, the whole Bible must be used in evangelism. The gospel is an absolute and complete answer to every need in the heart of the sinner, but the whole gospel must be employed. A portion of Scripture neglected in the evangelistic message may be the very portion of Scripture which will strike home to certain particular subjects of evangelism.”

[14] Westminster Confession of Faith 25.2.

[15] I considered making a separate point of hospitality, but understand that loving and serving our neighbor includes hospitality, and that hospitality and evangelism often intersect. For a beautiful example, read the story of Rosaria Butterfield, The Secrets Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant, 2012).

John S. Shaw is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as general secretary of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension. Ordained Servant Online, May 2014.

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