The Continuing Conversion of the Church
Guder contrasts organizations that understand evangelism to be one particular program among many, with organizations that understand evangelism as "being, doing, and saying the witness to the Gospel" (page vii) in everything they do. Based on the writings of Karl Barth, Guder claims that sharing the Gospel with the world is the very mission of God, and an aspect of God's character. God is essentially one who sends: sending Jesus into the world, and sending the church into the world. The church's witness to the world is not only its primary activity, but an attribute of God (The Missio Dei). Because the church is the creation of God, its very nature is missionary (being sent into the world).
The church is to join the world in being transformed ("converted" in Guder's language). In being transformed, it makes a witness to the world of what God is doing. So "Evangelism" is not cornering people, and convincing them to embrace faith in Jesus Christ so they become saved. Evangelism is the witness the church makes, when it is focused on God, open to God's transforming power, and true to what God is accomplishing in the life of the church and in the lives of individual believers.
Unfortunately, the church has reduced the mission of God to something much less than what God intended. The focus has been narrowed from a entire transformation of the church's life, to the individual believer's salvation (as if this were a commodity the church was created to distribute).
A telling quote from Guder:
There is probably no better example of the reductionist view of the gospel and the church's mission than the organizational chart of many American congregations, where evangelism is a program assigned to one of several committees. (page 135)
[Many congregations] have "evangelism committees." What they mean by "evangelism" is, in most cases, "new member recruitment." There is virtually no sense of the calling of the entire community to be an evangelizing community in every dimension of its life. (page 149)
Towards the end of his book, Guder makes the case that in order to be a transformed witness to the world of the grace of God, the church needs to be a gathering of people, not assembled to meet their own perceived needs, but to demonstrate the love of God in all that they do (and how they do it). This calls for a people of God committed to rigorous Biblical learning, and uncompromising in their efforts to live the faith. He suggest this will be born out as the faith community (1) deals directly with disagreements and remains united in Christ, and (2) and expects that members will "go beyond the normal level of commitment of the nominal church member." (page 171) As he puts it:
The concept of membership as a status, an accomplished level of spiritual attainment, must be replaced with a lifelong process of calling and response that could be called "vocation to mission."
Questions for Saint Peter Lutheran Church:
- We are a church that has an Evangelism Team. Should we abandon that effort, perhaps replace it with a Welcoming Team (so we continue to connect with newcomers) and a Public Relations Team (so community members can learn they are welcome at Saint Peter), and then do our best to focus on how God is trying to transform us, living that out in a way that others might notice?
- Given the church's (used here in every sense of the word: local, regional, national, international) tendency to fight and split, how can we, at the congregational level, witness to the reconciling grace of Christ in the way that we disagree and set direction for our congregation? If forgiveness and restoration are at the heart of the Gospel, shouldn't they also be at the heart of the congregation's life?
- Guder suggests that we raise the bar for what it takes to join a church, and what it takes to remain a member. What might we do at Saint Peter, to invite members and guests into a deeper experience of what it means to be church as witness to the world of a different way to live?