What is the church’s greatest need today? I imagine there are all sorts of answers. One of them, surely, is mission-centric: “The church needs the world to be evangelized.” And that’s true.
But so is the reverse: the world needs the church to be evangelized.
First Things First
Some things never change. Perennial indifference to the things of God—even open hostility—was the experience of the prophets (Isa. 52:5) and apostles (Rom. 2:24). It’s also our experience today. But a major cause of the hostility is as unchanging as the hostility itself: “God’s name is blasphemed among the nations because of you.” A primary reason for unbelief among the nations is unbelief among God’s people. Problems with the world are often found first in the church. This is why the Bible insists that judgment begins “at the household of God” (1 Pet. 4:17).
Whenever someone asks, “What must the church do to help our neighbors find faith in Jesus?” my first answer is that we must trust him. This might sound simplistic, but it’s profoundly challenging. Our friends don’t see Jesus as a glorious Savior in part because we don’t—at least not evidently. Our friends don’t revere the name of Christ in part because we don’t—at least not sufficiently. Our friends don’t stand in awe of a world charged with God’s grandeur in part because we show few signs of believing it. Our neighbors aren’t experiencing “the power of God for salvation” (Rom. 1:16) in part because we underestimate the potency of what we possess: the good news of God.
Apologetics (done well) helps our neighbors to doubt their doubts. But undergirding this goal is a deeper truth. It’s not just that skeptics must doubt their doubts—Christians must believe their beliefs. And in the last two decades of ministry, I’ve found this to be the chief obstacle to evangelism: we don’t believe. Specifically, we don’t believe in the goodness or the power of the good news.
Let’s consider each in turn.
1. Goodness of the Good News
“Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks,” observed Jesus (Matt. 12:34). This verse undergirds the ministry of Speak Life, where I work. It centers affections as the driving force in human life and words as the chief evidence of the state of our hearts. We speak of what we love. So if we see a church timid in proclamation, we can diagnose a heart condition.
It’s not just that skeptics must doubt their doubts—Christians must believe their beliefs.
We may ask why words of witness aren’t more forthcoming; the answers might touch on hostility from the world, secularization, fear, outdated cultural analysis, insufficient training, feelings of inadequacy, and so on. Yet underneath all this lies an uncomfortable answer: our love is lacking.
The same Peter who calls the church “a royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9) and urges every member to have an “answer” (3:15, NIV) begins his letter with burning passion for the Lord Jesus: “In all this you greatly rejoice. . . . Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1:6, 8, NIV).
Ardent love for Christ is the heartbeat of mission. If words of witness aren’t overflowing, then most fundamentally we have a heart problem. We need to see, know, and experience Jesus as “precious”—a word found often in Peter’s exhortations to evangelism (1:19; 2:4–7) but rarely in ours. If we think of Jesus as good—thrillingly, heart-captivatingly, mind-bogglingly good—we’ll find our evangelism carried on a spiritual tide that’s difficult to resist.
Confidence in the gospel’s goodness is related to the second aspect lacking in our faith: belief in its power.
2. Power of the Good News
Usually when speaking of the power of the gospel, we speak of its power to convert. And that’s a vital aspect—the good news of God actually saves people. Christians certainly need to be reminded that the Spirit is alive and well, bringing new life through Christ’s Word. We must hear and tell the stories of salvation that are springing up in our midst. This has a tremendous effect on our confidence in the gospel.
But the gospel isn’t merely powerful to save. It’s also the power by which we live. Only Christians whose whole outlook is empowered by the gospel will be ready to share it.
Only Christians whose whole outlook is empowered by the gospel will be ready to share it.
This is true on both a pastoral and a worldview level. On a pastoral level, we need Christians who can complete this sentence: “I couldn’t have gotten through _______ without Jesus.” The tangible and transformative ways Jesus has shepherded us through dark valleys are apt to become our most compelling testimonies to an unbelieving world. On a worldview level, those convinced of the gospel’s explanatory power move into the world unashamed to proclaim an expanded—not contracted—vision for life.
Reach Believers, Reach the World
Evangelizing the world requires re-evangelizing the church and equipping her for works of service (Eph. 4:11–12). At the core of evangelism, then, is reaching believers that they may reach the world.
When we’re captivated by him, the words will overflow.