Personal evangelism, oratory, and the fine art of cross-shaped persuasion

Like it or not, a recent article in the Briefing has fired up an old argument on personal evangelism that Gen Ys like me, think of in some way analogous to the worship wars… it happened in the past, and we’re slightly too post-modern to think there’s only one right answer to the question.

In a nutshell, John Dickson’s excellent book Promoting the Gospel (and other work) suggested that “evangelists” are a special category of person, much like preachers and teachers – and while all Christians are called to be part of the body of Christ, which is called to participate, together, in the Great Commission, and perhaps, the “Mission of God,” we’re not all called to play the specific role of heralds of King Jesus, proclaiming, via words, directly, and persuasively, the case for Jesus. Now, he says we should take whatever opportunities we have to give the reason for the hope that we have – but he wants the emphasis to be more on what we can achieve together, and what we can achieve in the way that we live our lives, and love the people around us, pointing people to Jesus. You can read my review of the book here.

Some people didn’t like that idea. They had an argument. Now, Tony Payne, at the Briefing, has (not intentionally), restarted the argument with his piece on Personal Evangelism.

Like a few others, I can’t really tell the difference between what he say the individual’s role is, and what John Dickson says the individual’s role is, which seems to boil down to using the skills God gives you as gifts for God’s kingdom and for those outside it.

It seems most people accept these two truths, but reach different conclusions:

1. We’re each called to serve God with the different gifts he has given us, as we worship him and take part in his mission (or worship him by taking part in his mission).

2. Some people are better at evangelism, and even human relationships, than others.

It’s this last bit of the logical chain that seems to divide people.

3. If people are better at evangelism than others, we should assume that they are gifted in that area and see part of our role, in the body, as freeing, supporting, and equipping those people to serve with those gifts. So that we’re on mission together.

Other people seem to say this is an area where gifting doesn’t come into play – because we all have to evangelise. But we’re all evangelising in that point 3.

I wonder if it’s easier to make a judgment, like Dickson’s, that not all people are evangelists if you are one, and if part of your job is helping clean up the mess that well-intentioned people make – perhaps, for example, those who stand on street corners and yell at people about sin and judgment (this isn’t really a post about the relative merits of street preaching).


I think Paul was an evangelist. That “evangelist” was a role that distinguished him from other figures in the early church. That he wasn’t the only “evangelist” – and that he wanted people to imitate him, in their lives as they were able, even if they weren’t especially gifted as evangelists – because promoting the gospel is about more than words – by sacrificially offering their gifts to the work of the Gospel. And we’re one body. Working for one mission. Together.

“Personal evangelism” is a bizarre outcome of western individualism being applied to the work of the church. We might live in an age of individualism – but part of the message of the gospel might have to be a counter-cultural indictment of that idea.

But each of us is called to take part in mission and evangelism, with the people we know. I’m going to suggest, in the next 3,000 words, that when it comes to evangelism as persuasion, all Christians are called to evangelise by ethos – being Christ like, and to be prepared to do logos (logic and knowledge about God and the Gospel), and I wonder if “pathos” and a strong mix of logos and ethos is what marks an “evangelist.”

So. Here are some thoughts I have, after thinking about how Paul frames his evangelism and approach to communication, that I think are somewhat relevant to the debate. This will be part of my Masters project next year, so shh… don’t tell anybody…

Oratory, Cicero, Paul, and Evangelism

Aristotle literally wrote the book On Rhetoric. He said there were three elements of successful persuasion:

1. Ethos: Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible.

2. Pathos: Persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions.

3. Logos: Persuasion is effected through the speech itself when we have proved a truth or an apparent truth by means of the persuasive arguments suitable to the case in question.

After Aristotle, these elements were bounced around in different shaped triangles depending on which element you thought was more important. There were literal schools of thought, like the Attic School, who thought flashy eloquence, which played with the emotion, were easier and more convincing than dry, boring speeches that were full of logic. And there were other more classical types, like Cicero, who wanted to try to balance out the triangle into something more equilateral.

I’m fairly convinced that Paul, who was a Roman citizen from Tarsus, was educated in rhetoric in Tarsus, which had famous rhetorical schools (see Strabo, the historian, on Tarsus). Cicero was the governor of Tarsus just after he wrote De Oratore – this is a guess, but I reckon there would have been a bit of Cicero on the curriculum of rhetorical training in Tarsus.

Cicero didn’t like the flashy, insubstantial, approach to Rhetoric championed by the Attic school of rhetoric, and he criticised it extensively.

Paul, in his letters to the Corinthians, is engaging with the rhetorical grandchildren of the Attic movement – the Second Sophistic – and he deploys pretty much the same argument against them that Cicero did, championing the triumph of substance, both in content – or logos – and character – or ethos, over style – the ability to speek eloquently (pathos).

Paul speaks against the Corinthian desire to have the flashiest communicators lead their churches –

Here’s an interesting comparison between something Cicero says about approaching a speech with trembling, and what Paul says about his approach in Corinth…


For the better the orator, the more profoundly is he frightened of the difficulty of speaking, and of the doubtful fate of a speech, and of the anticipations of an audience… While as for him who is un-ashamed — as I see is the case with most speakers, — I hold him deserving not merely of reprimand, but of punishment as well. Assuredly, just as I generally perceive it to happen to yourselves, so I very often prove it in my own experience, that I turn pale at the outset of a speech, and quake in every limb and in all my soul

And Paul:

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power,so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

Paul is subverting the rhetorical expectations of his audience – but I’d say he’s doing it by harking back to an older rhetorical convention. He condemns the Corinthian addiction to eloquent oratory, and its encroachment on the church. But this isn’t to say that Paul wasn’t capable of presenting well when the need arose – Acts portrays him as a pretty accomplished orator, as comfortable preaching to a group of religious philosophers in Athens, quoting their ancient poets back at them during his Areopagus address (Acts 17:28), in court rooms (Acts 24), and before councils (Acts 23:1-9), governors (Acts 24, 25:1-12), and kings (Acts 25:13-26:32) – all places that orators would commonly perform their tasks as entertainers, philosophers, or advocates.

Imitation isn’t just about flattery

Here’s another cool thing before I get to the point (hint – I think a special role of evangelist might potentially be related to the the orator – whose job it is to persuade).

Here’s what Cicero says about choosing who you copy.

“For nothing is easier than to imitate a man*s style of dress, pose or gait. Moreover, if there is a fault, it is not much trouble to appropriate that and to copy it ostentatiously… he did not know how to choose the model whom he would most willingly resemble, and it was positively the faults in his chosen pattern that he elected to copy. But he who is to proceed aright must first be watchful in making his choice, and afterwards extremely careful in striving to attain the most excellent qualities of the model he has approved… “

This is pretty much what the Corinthians were doing in Corinth and in the Second Sophistic movement – 100 years after Cicero wrote this. So he didn’t convince everybody. Here’s how Paul addresses this practice…

31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 33 just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.

11 Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

This comes a bit after Paul says he is prepared to become all things to all men to win some, in 1 Cor 9, which Dickson really nicely sums up in his book:

“Following the example of Paul and Jesus does not necessarily mean that we do what they did. It means that we live by the same flexible ethos, seeking the good of many so that they may be saved.”

I would suggest that one area where Paul may mean we can do what he did – if our gifts and skill sets allow – is imitating him by being a faithful persuader, or evangelist, for the cause of the gospel. I think Dickson is right to warn that we won’t all have Paul’s training, abilities, or specific calling – so won’t all feel comfortable doing what he does, but, within limits, we can imitate him by using what we have to serve the kingdom of God (cf Romans 12).

The foundational importance of Ethos

Here’s what I’m thinking. It’s not rocket science. But it has the benefit of this oratory stuff backing it up. We’re all called to persuade people of the truth of the gospel, with whatever we have at our disposal – but the most powerfully underrated element of persuasion is not words and knowledge (logos), or fine sounding words that appeal to the emotions (eloquence and pathos), but personal character and living out what you believe (ethos).

I’d say we’re all called to live like Jesus, as an act of evangelism (though also because that’s the goal of the Spirit’s work in us – see Romans 8:29) – but we’re not all called to persuade with pathos (or even logos – beyond knowing the essentials – Christ, and him crucified).

Here’s what Cicero says about the importance of believing your own press (or the press that you’re producing).

“I give you my word that I never tried, by means of a speech, to arouse either indignation or compassion, either ill-will or hatred, in the minds of a tribunal, without being really stirred myself, as I worked upon their minds, by the very feelings to which I was seeking to prompt them.”

But showing your character (and having character to show) is an essential part of Cicero’s approach to persuasion. Though he was prepared to fudge character where necessary.

“Now feelings are won over by a man’s merit, achievements or reputable life, qualifications easier to embellish, if only they are real, than to fabricate where non-existent… Moreover so much is done by good taste and style in speaking, that the speech seems to depict the speaker’s character. For by means of particular types of thought and diction, and the employment besides of a delivery that is unruffled and eloquent of good-nature, the speakers are made to appear upright, well-bred and virtuous men.”

But virtue is important, because bad people can use oratory to bad ends.

“For if we put the full resources of speech at the disposal of those who lack these virtues, we will certainly not make orators of them, but will put weapons into the hands of madmen”

Here’s how Paul shows that he really lives, and believes, his message, when he again defends his lack of eloquence in 2 Corinthians 10-13.

He defends his ministry as a triumph of ethos over the eloquence of the “super apostles” – even though he can out apostle the super apostles. He makes it clear that imitating Christ means being prepared to imitate Christ for others, here are a couple of what I think are the important bits that make this case… in Paul’s reluctant string of boasting in 2 Cor 11:

23 Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles,danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers;27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?

30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.

And 2 Cor 12:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

11 I have been a fool! You forced me to it, for I ought to have been commended by you. For I was not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing.

What Ethos based gospel persuasion looks like

Paul lives his message. I’d argue this is what he calls all Christians to imitate – demonstrating the strength of the gospel in our weakness. Imitating the crucified Jesus.

But he also knows and speaks his message appropriately to his circumstances. I’m not sure this skill is transferrable to all people everywhere, this certainly isn’t the case from experience. This is where I think the evangelist role might kick in – people who are skilled in speaking and persuading people regardless of their background.

For the Corinthians, whose ethos was broken by their pursuit of status-boosting eloquence, he resolved to know nothing but Christ, and present him plainly.

At the Areopagus (Acts 17), he quoted poets, turned his audience against each other by pointing out the philosophical differences between Stoics and Epicureans, and appeared to stick to the conventions of presenting a new God to the Areopagus for their consideration.

When he was in front of a Jewish council, he turned Pharisee and Sadducee against each other because he knew his audience, and knew how to communicate with them.

When he’s talking to Agrippa in Acts 26, he appears to obey the legal rhetorical conventions while also trying to convert the king (Festus, who’s hanging out, listening – says Paul has “great learning”):

24 At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.”

25 “I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable. 26 The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner.27 King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.”

28 Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”

29 Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”

Paul uses legal and religious trials, philosophical speeches, and political engagement to present the gospel of Jesus to his audience.

This is evangelism par excellence. I don’t think Christians fail to be Christians when they don’t speak about Jesus at their school council meetings. But I think an evangelist is failing to use their gifts if they can, but don’t.

It’s interesting that this was also the way the early church saw apologetics – both Tertullian and Justin Martyr wrote to the Roman Empire, basically asking for a fairer go for Christians, and each of them (partly to make the case that Christianity wasn’t dangerous), spelled out the gospel for their readers.

There’s an interesting objection to this view of what’s going on for Paul – the idea that he’s a specially gifted orator, based on Paul’s own words in 2 Corinthians 11:6:

Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not so in knowledge; indeed, in every way we have made this plain to you in all things.”

There are a few cool, and convincing responses to this.

First – the “even if” isn’t really a concession, he’s simply dealing with the criticism that has been made about him – that he writes like a rhetorician, but speaks weakly.

Second  – when he says “unskilled in speaking,” the Greek underlying this is transliterally, “idiot” – and it conventionally referred to people who were trained in rhetoric but weren’t professional orators.

Third, and perhaps more important, Paul is placing a high price on knowledge, and plain speaking –  Cicero did too. He suggested you couldn’t be a good orator without either.

On plain speaking:

“…let us select as our models those who enjoy unimpaired health, (which is peculiar to the Attic orators,) rather than those whose abundance is vicious, of whom Asia has produced numbers. And in doing this (if at least we can manage even this, for it is a mighty undertaking) let us imitate, if we can, Lysias, and especially his simplicity of style: for in many places he rises to grandeur. But because he wrote speeches for many private causes, and those too for others, and on very trifling subjects, he appears to be somewhat simple, because he has designedly filed himself down to the standard of the inconsiderable causes which he was pleading.”

On knowledge:

“Yet I maintain that such eloquence as Crassus and Antonius attained could never have been realized without a knowledge of every matter.”

Ethos-based persuasion and evangelism

Interestingly, Dickson picks up on this when it comes to how he defines an evangelist.

First, a bit of a word study to show that evangelism and oratory basically went hand in hand (as, did apologetics).

In the ancient world the noun “gospel” (euangelion) and its verb “telling the gospel” (euangelizomai) were media terms. They always referred to the announcement of happy or important events. News of military victories, national achievements, weddings, births and, in one ancient text, the bargain price of anchovies at the marketplace were all called “gospels”. The modern media term “newsflash” probably comes closest in meaning to the ancient word gospel…

The most well-known “gospels” proclaimed in the ancient world were those announcing the emperors’ achievements. The caesars’ ascensions, conquests and political deeds were all the subject of the gospels of the empire. “Gospel” was very much an imperial term in the period of the New Testament.

His definition of “evangelist” follows this definition of the good news…

“The word literally means gospeller, that is, one who announces the gospel. The term seems to have been coined by the first Christians (it appears nowhere else in Greek literature before the New Testament) as a shorthand way of referring to those in the church who took on the task of proclaiming the life, death and resurrection of God’s Messiah (the gospel) to those for whom this message was still news”

And he doesn’t rule out the option of having gospel conversations with the people you’re in relationships with (so I can’t see how it’s possible he rules out personal evangelism).

In reality, most of our opportunities to speak about Christianity will occur in passing, in the to-and-fro of daily conversation. It should not surprise us, then, that the two clearest passages in the Bible calling on all believers to speak up for the Lord urge them simply to “answer” for the faith—to respond to people’s comments, questions or criticisms with a gentle and gracious reply (Colossians 4:5—6 and 1 Peter 3:15). Most Christians are not “evangelists” (in the technical, New Testament sense of the word) and should not be made to feel the pressure to be something they are not. The Scriptures certainly urge us all to be open about our faith whenever opportunity allows, but doing “the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5) is something God’s Word asks only of some of us.

But here’s the fourth characteristic he identifies for an evangelist (after desire to proclaim Jesus, ability to relate well to people, and Christian maturity).

“An evangelist will be clear with the gospel. I do not just mean clear about what the gospel is-hopefully, that will be all of us. I am talking about clarity in outlining the gospel. This point arises directly from the word “evangelist” itself. A “gospeller” must be particularly able to explain the message plainly. I am not talking about having a gift of the gab or even being an extrovert-clarity does not always go with these. I am talking specifically about an ability to take the truths of the gospel and make them plain to others (key here will be an ability to talk about Christ without jargon, in the everyday language of those who don’t believe).”

I think there’s a good case to be made that there is a specific role within the body of Christ for people who are skilled as modern day orators and keen to use those skills sacrificially, as a gift for others and in an act of worship to God. And I don’t see why you wouldn’t call that role “evangelist.”

I wonder if the pay off, for those championing every member evangelism, is that orators were built for imitation – both Paul and Cicero say it’s important to pick who you imitate. And imitation, of good models, will boost the quality of gospel engagement with the world across the board. Our corporate ability to know and tell the gospel – our logos and pathos – will improve if we recognise, equip, and imitate the right people, and work at knowing complex truths and speaking them plainly.

But the pressure is off, a little bit, at least for evangelism, for those who are worried about not having the right skills for doing the logos and pathos stuff well. Because without a Christ shaped ethos – and a good corporate ethos within the Church – our words are powerless. Our rhetorical triangle is flat, or a point with no foundation.

If we focus on doing the much harder work on getting our character, or ethos, to imitate Paul, but more importantly – to imitate Jesus, that’s going to communicate the gospel clearer than any words we speak – and the words we speak will be much more powerful if we, and others in the body of Christ, are consistent with the way we live, both individually and corporately.

Book Review: The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission, John Dickson

I’ve found John Dickson tremendously helpful at just about every stage of my Christian life – even when he edited a magazine called Zed magazine that I remember reading as a kid. His books are helpful. His take on public Christianity is pretty paradigmatic for me, and his apparent commitment to excellence – particularly as manifested in his approach to scholarship, and the resources he produces – is something I aspire to.

This comes as a sort of disclaimer to be read to account for my bias in this treatment of his exceptionally useful book – The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission: Promoting the Gospel with More Than Our Lips.

This isn’t a new book, it has been around for a while, but we’re doing a series at church this term on connecting with people, where the book is suggested as a good way for understanding what evangelism looks like as a church family – it takes the pressure off a little bit, by lowering the bar – and treating evangelism not just as God’s work – which is a robustly reformed understanding of the task, but as the church’s work. A team effort.

My experience while reading this book was quite bizarre – almost an out of body experience. It was like I was reading my own thoughts written to me. This was scary, and somewhat reassuring. Though I hadn’t read the book until a month ago, this is largely the framework I use when I’m thinking about church, mission, and our role as individuals within those contexts.

My take on his foundational premise – that our lives, our whole lives, essentially function as a declaration of who we are, so we should think about that and live intentionally in a way that our lives are consistent with the gospel, in a way that promotes it – means I think it’s an incredibly useful resource, especially as it applies this concept to real life, it’s not abstract, and its incredibly well argued, with occasional references to the author’s PhD thesis, which I read a lot of for an essay once, and found equally helpful.

Here’s a lynchpin sort of paragraph…

“But perhaps the best kept secret of Christian mission is that the Bible lists a whole range of activities that promote Christ to the world and draw others toward him. These include prayer, godly behaviour, financial assistance, the public praise of God (in church) and, as already mentioned, answering people’s questions. All of these are explicitly connected in the Bible with advancing the gospel and winning people to Christ. They are all “mission” activities, and only a couple of them involve the lips at all.”

But wait. You say, observant reader that you are – this sounds exactly like that Sir Francis of Assisi misquote (h/t Gary Ware) that you don’t like: “always preach the gospel, when necessary use words” – you’ve said before that words are necessary. Thankfully, I’ve also said that I think a whole bunch of other stuff that communicates the truth of the gospel, deliberately, and alongside the use of words, also counts as word ministry (how we live/act, how we sing, multimedia, though I remain unconvinced about gospel mime).

I think words are necessary for word ministry, and for mission, but they aren’t the only part of our testimony. I think this book seeks to avoid people saying “words alone” – because our testimony will be much richer if we’re living them out, together, and letting people who are gifted in particular areas carry the load in those areas.

I like this quote from Augustine on the place of good works.

“Now of all who can with us enjoy God, we love partly those to whom we render services, partly those who render services to us, partly those who both help us in our need and in turn are helped by us, partly those upon whom we confer no advantage and from whom we look for none. We ought to desire, however, that they should all join with us in loving God, and all the assistance that we either, give them or accept from them should tend to that one end.”

Dickson is not denying that the gospel is words – he simply says we promote the gospel with more than words. Importantly he says this:

“Does this mean that people can start believing in Christ without hearing the gospel at all? No. As the apostle Paul makes clear, “faith comes from hearing the message” (Romans 10:17). First Peter 3:1 shows us that the gospel’s role in conversion is more complex than we sometimes realise. It is not enough simply to affirm that people are won to faith only through the hearing of the gospel. Let me explain. Leaving aside the important theological observation that all conversion is ultimately the enlightening work of the Holy Spirit, let me try and account for conversion from the human side of the equation, which is what Paul and Peter are talking about in the above texts. Humanly speaking, hearing the gospel is the necessary and sufficient cause of faith in Christ. It is necessary inasmuch as people cannot put their faith in Jesus without first learning the gospel about him. It is sufficient in that the gospel can bring people to faith all on its own—it needs no other factor (other than the work of the Holy Spirit). However, none of this means that hearing the gospel is the only cause of faith, or even that it is always the primary cause of faith. Other factors (on the human side of the equation) will frequently play a minor or major role in winning people over to the One revealed in the gospel.”

I could wax lyrical about this book and its benefits for a couple of thousand words – or you could just buy it and read it.

I’ll start with what I thought was a question I would have liked a bit more time spent on, or where I think something could be added – the first is his definition of the gospel…

“The gospel is the announcement that God has revealed his kingdom and opened it up to sinners through the birth, teaching, miracles, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, who will one day return to overthrow evil and consummate the kingdom for eternity… Any account of the Christian gospel that does not narrate the basic content of the books we rightly call the Gospels does not deserve to be called a “gospel outline”. It might be a true and accurate statement of biblical truths—and, for that reason, valuable and useful for our hearers—but it is not the gospel that Jesus said must be preached to all nations (Mark 13:10).”

I largely agree. I think the best three word reduction of the gospel is “Jesus is Lord” – if it was six words it would be “the resurrection shows Jesus is Lord” – but reductions suffer because they are simplifications… I’d want to suggest that while this is an incredibly useful description of the Gospel, it kind of cuts loose the Old Testament, especially creation and fall – which, though I have hesitations about the predominant usage of 2 Ways to Live (seriously, how many other conversations do people walk up to somebody, and unless they’re a professional cartoonist, or playing pictionary, say “can I draw you a picture”), though I have hesitations about this use – starting the gospel account from creation and fall is, I think, an essential part of the gospel narrative, I think John’s gospel, in the prologue, agrees with me, as does Matthew with his fronting of the genealogy – so this insight isn’t precluded by the summary above. I just think making it explicit is useful.

God’s role in creation, as the sole author of creation, is the foundation of his commitment to the act of promoting the gospel, so it’s not absent from his thinking. He says:

“There may be different ways of expressing it but I think I would have to answer this question with the simple statement: there is one God. From Genesis to Revelation the Bible makes the resounding, unapologetic declaration that there is just one Creator and Lord of the world. It begins in the Bible’s opening line: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). To ancient readers, this was not simply a sensible way to start a holy book. It was a huge swipe at the entire religious outlook of the time. The opening lines of the Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish, to give just one example from the period, list no fewer than nine separate gods, each with its own part to play in the events leading up to creation. Saying that “God created the heavens and the earth” was tantamount to saying that no other deity was involved in the universe… If there is just one God in the universe, everyone everywhere has a duty to worship that Lord.”

Tying the motivation for preaching to the Lordship of Jesus, rather than to fear of judgment or as some sort of good work, is incredibly freeing – from guilt, and from any sense of obligation, outside of the joyful gratitude that being one of the people of the true Lord of the universe brings. This is very helpful. He says:

“We promote God’s glory to the ends of the earth not principally because of any human need but fundamentally because of God’s/Christ’s unique worthiness as the Lord of heaven and earth. Promoting the gospel to the world is more than a rescue mission (though it is certainly that as well); it is a reality mission. It is our plea to all to acknowledge that they belong to one Lord.”

To which I say: “Amen”…

I think this paradigm really helpfully anchors the good that we do – promoting the Lordship of Jesus should be behind our care for the environment, and our love of other people – we do these things because both creation and people are good objects to love, but we ultimately do them because we live for the Lord Jesus, not ourselves – and the act declares something about that Lordship. It’s a complex relationship. I think “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

“Good deeds must never be thought of as a missionary tactic, a means of getting people onside before hitting them with the gospel (“throwing cakes to children”, as Emperor Julian would say). They are the essential fruit of the gospel. Good works must be done for their own sake, in obedience to the Lord. God’s grace proclaimed in the gospel finds its essential outcome in the godly life of those who believe the gospel. Nevertheless, it is precisely because good deeds are an essential fruit of the gospel that they so powerfully promote the gospel. Although we must not find ourselves “doing good” simply as a gospel ploy, there can be no question that Jesus expected unbelievers to observe our acts of love (for the world and for one another29) and through them to be convinced to worship the source of all love: “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).”

He also says:

“Following the example of Paul and Jesus does not necessarily mean that we do what they did. It means that we live by the same flexible ethos, seeking the good of many so that they may be saved. Every aspect of our lives—including our social lives—can and should be directed toward the glory of God and the salvation of our neighbours.”

Being already convinced of the place of mission in the Old Testament – or the place it should have occupied in Israel’s approach to the nations – I found his stuff on Israel’s role as proclaimers of this truth convincing and helpful. Sadly, there was nothing that specifically supports my theory that the wisdom literature was a model of evangelism through participation in an international wisdom dialogue, as far as I know I’m still essentially alone there… but his understanding of how Israel was to promote the good news of God in their words, their life, their worship, and their distinctiveness from the nations is useful, and surely forms some of the working in developing a Biblical Theology of mission.

The sections relating to what it meant for Israel to evangelise by being Israel is, alone, worth the price of the book. This is one of the money paragraphs:

“Worship by the Book, Tim Keller of New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church writes: Israel was called to make God known to unbelieving nations (Ps 105:1) by singing his praises (Ps 105:2). The temple was to be the center of a “world-winning worship.” The people of God not only worship before the Lord but also before the nations (cf. Isa 2:1-4; 56:6-8; Ps 47:1; 100:1-5; 102:18; 117). God is to be praised before all nations, and as he is praised by his people, the nations are summoned and called to join in song. This pattern does not essentially change in the New Testament, where Peter tells a Gentile church to “declare the praises” of him who called us out of darkness. The term cannot merely refer to preaching but must also refer to gathered worship…

Passages like these illustrate just how natural it was for biblical writers to see corporate praise as public proclamation, as a type of evangelism. This doesn’t mean that all gospel proclamation is “praise” but it does mean that all true praise has the potential to be gospel proclamation, for in it we recount the wonders of Jesus’ life, teachings, miracles, death, resurrection and return.”

I love it. If you read this post – that won’t come as a surprise.

This leads to a particular approach to how church is conducted – it’s not about being seeker sensitive, but about being clear about who we are praising, about why, and concerned about how we conduct our gatherings – concerned for their quality.

“There are all sorts of reasons some of our churches have visitors – location, architecture, demographics and so on-but, in my experience, the most significant factor is the quality of the church service. By “quality” I do not mean the professionalism of the leader or the standard of technology and music. I mean the degree to which the congregation revels in its experience of praising God and encouraging one another…

I want to stress in the strongest terms that visitor-focused services are not an evangelistic necessity. Normal church meetings conducted exceptionally well will not only inspire the regulars; they will draw in visitors and, through the powerful vehicle of our corporate praise, promote the gospel to them.”

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of this book, in terms of its reception, and the bit that I took the most convincing on, is the question of the semantic range of the word “evangelist,” and specifically whether or not everybody has a responsibility to speak the gospel, not just promote it. Dickson’s take is interesting. I feel like he’s onto something. Especially because I’m pretty committed to the idea that the body is made up of different people with different gifts – but I feel like in the absence of other people gifted in evangelism, or in smaller manifestations of the body – people have to be evangelists, I don’t think this is something that Dickson would deny… but I can’t put words into his mouth, here’s what he says:

“We are involved in God’s mission, and so we must allow his Word to shape our part in it. The slogan “Every Christian an evangelist” has a noble purpose, but it is not a biblical way of speaking. For Christians in general—as opposed to evangelists in particular—telling the gospel to others (evangelism) could be described as the icing on the cake of mission.”

His argument essentially seems to be some people are icing specialists (evangelists), some people are cake makers (promoters of the gospel), and that it’s fine to just make cake because that’s where the substance is, and its the harder bit. I guess I’d want to say that everybody should be able to make the icing, and evangelists have to be pretty good at making cake too. Again. I don’t think he disagrees. His tips for picking those people who are especially called, or gifted, as evangelists are valuable – but I do think that each one of the characteristics (keenness to share the gospel, relate well to non-believers, Christian maturity, and clarity on what the gospel is – including speaking intelligibly) is something that all Christians should aspire to.

One other very minor criticism is only really relevant if you’re convinced that Bruce Winter is right about what Paul is doing at the Areopagus, in Acts 17, if his exercise is an exercise in wisely assessing the situation, and meeting a social convention for his audience, which expected to be introduced to “foreign gods,” while presenting the gospel, then I’d say Paul’s speech there isn’t an anomaly, but rather, an essential demonstration of his approach to gospel preaching. I’d argue that rather than simply being an apologetic to their concerns, it is a presentation of the gospel that adheres to how they expect to hear about new gods. But that’s not a point that in any sense undermines this fantastic book.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for me – personally – coming from a guy whose excellence I admire, as someone who is too often tempted to think that my own pursuit of excellence in evangelism will be what produces fruit, came in this paragraph…

“A few years after these strange days, I asked Glenda [the lady who led him, and many of his friends from school, to Jesus] what she put her “success” down to. Without blinking she answered, “Prayer. We prayed earnestly, regularly and specifically for your school, and the Lord in his grace answered us.” As an evangelist who is sometimes tempted to think too highly of skill, style and creativity in evangelism, her words were (and are) a salient reminder that the “harvest” is the Lord’s, not mine. The most basic gospel-promoting task, therefore, is not evangelism; it is prayer to the Lord of the harvest.”

This is really powerful stuff for anybody who thinks too highly of their own God given skills, and ability to think. I thoroughly recommend this book that you’ve hopefully all read already.

10 propositions on the relationship between church, mission, and worship

This semester at college, in the wisdom of our curriculum setters, I’m doing some nicely overlapping thinking across three of my subjects – Church Ministry and Sacraments, Christian Worship, and The Modern Evangelical Movement . This is my attempt to integrate some of that thinking and give you some of the fruit of the grunt work I’ve put in on a couple of essays. I’ll post those essays at Venn Theology at the end of semester if you’d like to read more…

1. It starts with God – God is a relational God – both internally, within the Trinity, and externally – on his own mission – the Missio Dei (Mission of God in Latin). This mission is to gather a people to himself, who will glorify him for eternity – and he conducts this mission by sending Jesus and the Holy Spirit into the world.

2. The Church is on a mission from God – The church is the gathered people of God. We are instruments of God’s mission. United with Christ, equipped by the Spirit to take part in the gathering of God’s people. The church is a divine pyramid scheme – it exists to grow itself. Our union with Christ has an “incarnational” pay off, where when we act together as the Body of Christ we are being like Christ to the world around us. Mission is one of our primary tasks as a church, some have suggested mission is our human focused task, while worship is our god focused task,

3. This mission involves the proclamation of the Gospel in word, deed, and “being” by a priesthood of all believers– perhaps, after reading John Dickson’s Promoting the Gospel this week, “the promotion of the Gospel” is a better category. But we’re all on mission together. This mission will necessarily involve words, but it will also involve demonstrations of the truth of the gospel through how we relate to one another and the world around us as the people of God.

The church’s participation in mission to the world began in earnest with the calling of Paul (Acts 9:15), who defines his mission, which he invites his churches to partake in, as preaching Christ to those who have not heard (Romans 10:14-16, 15:17-21), as Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20, Colossians 4:2-6), to bring them to faith (Romans 10:17, 16:25-26, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23), and present them mature in Christ (Colossians 1:25-29).

The church is called to be different (Col 3:1-17, Romans 12:2, 2 Corinthians 3:18), and its conduct and ‘being’ is a fundamental part of its mission (John 13:35, 17:14-18, 20-23, 1 Peter 2:12, Matthew 5:14-16, Romans 12).

Some see social transformation as the content of evangelism, emphasising the incarnation and conflating “setting the oppressed free” with “proclaiming good news” (cf Luke 4:18-19) – but the preaching of the good news is what truly frees the oppressed.

4. While how we do and think of church (ecclesiology) and how we do and think of mission (missiology) are very closely related – they must be distinct – we can’t collapse them into each other. Many modern “missiologists” see the church exclusively as a tool for mission, so the social context of the church shapes church. If the church is incarnational, and is an entity equipped by God to do certain things (teach the gospel, administer the sacraments, “worship”) – then there are certain things that are non-negotiable even if they’re culturally weird. This is particularly true because part of how we define the church is by looking to the New Creation – where there is no mission to expand the church because the people are already gathered.

5. The Reformers worked with a “mother” analogy for the church. This is helpful. Though mission wasn’t a big deal during Christendom, and was more the role of governments who were understood as God’s tool for expanding the Christian state, the idea that the church is simultaneously responsible for “begetting” the faith of believers and nurturing believers is helpful – especially in the light of discussions and debates about who Sunday gatherings are for – where a dichotomy between serving believers and serving seekers has been unhelpfully pushed in recent times.

6. Mission is worship. If worship is magnifying the work of God as we praise, glorify and serve him, and involves the sacrificial giving of ourselves and our gifts for others (which I think is the definition of worship) – then mission is a form of that. Perhaps the ultimate form of that in our time and space – though this changes in the New Creation.  Participation in the mission of the church, as a subset of the mission of God, can be understood as an extension of the God glorifying purpose of each individual believer for which he has given us gifts that we are to use to build the body.

7. Worship is God focused, but involves being “poured out” in the service of others – Paul frames glorifying God, worship, and service, as using one’s gifts to serve others (Romans 12:1-12, 15:14-17, 2 Thessalonians 3:1-5), and sees preaching the gospel as his service and priestly duty (Acts 20:19-27, Romans 1:1, 15:16, Ephesians 3:17, 1 Corinthians 9:15-18, Colossians 1:23-29, Titus 1:1).

God gathers his people to pour them out as gifts for others (Romans 12:1, Ephesians 4:1-16 (Especially if, following Carson, the church is understood as the “host of captives” cf the Levites (Numbers 8, 18)), Philippians 2:17, 2 Timothy 4:6).

Spiritual gifts are used in the service of others, to produce maturity (Ephesians 4:8-16, Colossians 3:12-17, Romans 12:1-16, 1 Corinthians 12, 14), and to proclaim the excellence of God amongst the pagans (1 Peter 2:9-12).

The language used of the church in these passages is the language used to define worship.

8. Worship is mission. This does not necessarily follow point 6, but when point 7 is introduced the argument becomes a little easier to make – the way the church worships God functions as a testimony to others, and thus, alongside point 3, leads to the conclusion that our explicitly God focused worship of God is part of our mission. Because it is part of who we are as God’s people, and who we are as God’s people is part of our mission. This is not its only function – because it is part of what it means to truly be human (if the chief end of man is to Glorify God and enjoy him forever), and we will continue worshipping after every knee has bowed to Jesus, and in the throne room of God after judgment – where there are no non-Christians to gather. But in the here and now – our decision to not worship ourselves, or our idols, is part of our testimony to who God is – and is the only right response to the gospel of Jesus’ Lordship.

9. So, Corporate Worship – the stuff we do when we gather – is also mission.  The tasks of the church – preaching, the sacraments, and ‘worship’ (in the what we do at church sense of the word) – involves making a clear and appealing presentation of the gospel of Jesus. Clarity requires some form of contextualisation. Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 14 seems to base the unbeliever’s response to the gathering in their ability to perceive the truth of the gospel in the clarity of the gathering – corporate worship, the sacraments, and identity shaping orientation in the form of the Sunday service achieve this goal, and simultaneously the goal of worship and mission – when they involve the gathered people of God sacrificially serving one another with their gifts in a manner that clearly demonstrates and declares the truth of the gospel of the crucified saviour. Both aspects of the “mother” role of the church are accomplished in this manner.

10. Clarity on what the gospel is, what mission is, and what worship is, should nurture Christians and encourage them to worship with all of their lives, by being on mission with all of their lives. The Sunday gathering of the church should do this, thinking of the church as the permanent community of God’s people, on a permanent mission, rather than just God’s people when they gather, and missionaries when they’re outside the walls of the gathering is also helpful.

None of this seems all that controversial unless you spend a bunch of time reading stuff by people who disagree with points 3, 4, 9, and 10. Most Christians agree with 1 and 2, while 5, 6, 7 and 8 are matters that are settled by how one understands what the church is, what the gospel is, and what worship is… the methodology I used in coming to these conclusions was largely to start with a look at how the Bible develops the concept of what it means to be the people of God, and how this people is called to interact with God, with each other, and with the world around them.

I think this is a pretty useful way of thinking about life, and church – and even stuff like music – does anybody have any qualms with the logic?