One hot summer Chicago evening, Chris Stedman was out bar-hopping with his fellow 20-something friends, when they heard some young men yell in their direction, “Fags! Repent!”
As he recalls the encounter:
“…as we approached a queer bar one humid August evening and prepared to pop, lock, and drop it, we were confronted by several men with Bibles in hand who accused us of maintaining an ‘alternative lifestyle’–a phrase that always makes me smirk–and offered our ‘offensive’ appearance as evidence of this.”
Stedman encouraged his friends to go on inside, while he stayed to talk to the group of men. He writes:
“I thanked them for sharing their holy book with me, and asked if they would like to explain why they had chosen to spend their Friday evening on this particular street corner. The missionaries informed me that they had recently given their lives over to Jesus Christ and had been commissioned by their minister to recruit other believers. They had heard that this part of Chicago was ‘heavily populated by homosexuals’ and decided to come here to spread their message of reformation and repentance to a population they believed to be in need of it.”
Stedman then asked the men if he could share a bit of his own story. Receiving their permission, he told them how in middle school he had professed faith in Jesus. He writes:
“I told them of my years as a Christian and how immensely powerful they were for me-the love that I had experienced, the joy I had found in communion with other believers, and the inspiration that the story of Jesus Christ had provided me. But I also illuminated the darker side to those years: my struggles with recognizing my sexual orientation and wrestling to reconcile it with the teachings of the tradition, the shame I felt over who I was, and the weight of what felt like living a double life.”
How did the men respond to this? Stedman continues:
“When I was finished, I noticed that a quiet had overtaken the group. Finally, one member spoke up. With a gruff tone and eyes fixed on the cracked concrete beneath his feet, he thanked me for sharing my story with him and told me that he had never actually known a ‘homosexual.’ He hadn’t thought what it might be like to experience intolerance for being queer and compared it to the xenophobia and racism he had known as a Mexican American immigrant.”
Within the movement of the earliest followers of Jesus there was (to our knowledge) no one more zealous for, and effective at, spreading the Christian faith than Saul, or Paul, of Tarsus.
Though considering himself “the least of the apostles,” he nevertheless says that (by God’s grace) he “worked harder than all of them.” He describes himself as no less than “the apostle to the Gentiles.”
As Acts narrates, we find in Paul the quintessential evangelist.
And yet what is so amazing is that, when one reads his 13 letters (or however many you think he wrote), he never commands–or even encourages–Christians to evangelize.
Nor does Peter. He does say that followers of Jesus should “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” But this is clearly reactive.
Nor does James or the author of Hebrews, or John’s Gospel or his letters or Revelation (or Jude).
What’s going on here? Surely Jesus tells the crowds (at least, those who believe among them) to evangelize the pagan world.
In Matthew 28 Jesus famously tells the eleven apostles to “make disciples of all nations….” And in Acts Jesus appoints these same apostles as “witnesses.”
But every relevant usage of the word ‘witness’ in the rest of the book of Acts refers exclusively and uniquely to those who could offer eye-witness testimony both to the entirety of Jesus’ extraordinary ministry and to his appearances after his resurrection (in Acts 22.20 Stephen is a possible, but improbable exception).
The sole exception to this, the Apostle Paul (who is called a witness in 22.15; and see 23.11), is a very deliberate exception: unlike anyone else in Acts he is identified as Christ’s “chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles…”
This isn’t to suggest that (what is called) the Great Commission was given only to eleven (and, later, twelve) apostles, such that it ended with them. Jesus chose twelve apostles for a reason: he was (re)constituting the people of God around himself, a new Israel (with its twelve tribes).
But just how is the Great Commission to be fulfilled by subsequent generations of the community of Jesus? This question is all the more interesting in light of what we’ve already (perhaps surprisingly) discovered:
nowhere in the New Testament are Christians commanded to share the gospel.
I can remember posing this very question–viz., where in the NT are individual Christians called to share the gospel?–to my pastor in Cambridge, Ian Hamilton. He paused and said in his delightful Scottish brogue, “You know, there’s only one other man who’s ever asked me that question.” Feeling myself turn red, I blurted out, “Who?” He answered, “Sinclair Ferguson.” I pressed, “Really? Do you know why he asked it?” Ian replied (and I’m paraphrasing), “Well, he has come across so many Christians who feel incredibly guilty for not sharing their faith more often.”
Indeed, what’s going on here?
Well, Paul, that evangelist extraordinaire, does in fact have answers for us. While Acts does speak of ‘evangelists,’ it is Paul who explains just how the Church is to evangelize:
It is through those who have the gift of evangelism–in fact, we should probably say, those who have the office of evangelist.
In Ephesians 4 Paul speaks of how the exalted Christ has appointed “some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.”
Clearly, just as everyone is not an apostle or prophet or pastor or teacher, so not everyone is an evangelist. And just as these roles are not merely gifts but roles, it seems that to be an evangelist is what we might call an office.
In other words, even if someone had the gift of evangelism, they also need to be given the authority to evangelize–just like any other “pastor and teacher.”
If this is true, it begs the question: what is the relationship between the role of an evangelist and the role(s) of the “pastor and teacher”?
Setting aside the roles of “the apostles and prophets” (for Paul speaks uniquely of these two roles earlier in Ephesians as “the foundation of God’s household”), we learn, through Paul’s letters to his protégé Timothy, that those who are “pastors and teachers” are themselves to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4.5).
That is, Paul clearly expected Timothy, whom Paul himself had ordained as a pastor / teacher, to be an evangelist.
This brings us to a (third) key characteristic of a faithful pastor: he is an evangelist.
That is, the faithful pastor is one who communicates to the world the Gospel, or good news–namely, that through Jesus Israel’s God is getting his way with his world.
In the Bible, both Old and New Testaments describe the good news as the coming reign of Israel’s God. Whether the Gospels (which use the language of God’s kingdom) or Paul (who uses the language of Christ’s lordship), the Gospel is about the arrival of a new authority–an incomparably selfless, sacrificial authority. (For a summary of that, click here.)
But why doesn’t Paul, the apostle to the gentiles and evangelist par excellence, command (or commend) evangelism to all believers?
The shortcomings of anecdotal evidence notwithstanding, our opening story goes a good ways in explaining why: simply because one has been born again, it doesn’t mean that s/he is qualified to assist in the birth of others!
Being born hardly qualifies one to be an OBGYN (or a midwife). To pretend otherwise is to open the door to disaster (and, wow, was not the opening story a disaster–at a number of levels).
And no wonder so many Christians feel so guilty for not sharing the gospel. Regularly from pulpits a burden is placed upon them that Scripture never calls for and for which they are not qualified.
The result is not only that they feel (unnecessarily) guilty, but that, when they do evangelize, it can often do more harm than good.
Ask yourself: how many Christians do you know who, when they first professed faith, either of their own volition or at the behest of a well-meaning pastor or spiritual mentor, tried to share the gospel with family members or friends–with truly unfortunate consequences that took a long time to repair? As a pastor, I’ve encountered many such Christians who, now looking back, regret how they so rashly tried to “convert” family and friends.
Paul’s conception of evangelism is, as far as I can tell, two-pronged: first, as we’ve just been discussing, he sees pastors as those qualified to “do the work of an evangelist”; second, he sees the body of Christ as creating a community of such extraordinary edification (i.e., there is love that leads to growth) that non-Christians, when exposed to it, will conclude (with no little gusto), “God really is among you!” (see 1 Cor. 14.4, 24-25).
Similarly, Jesus says, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13.35; see 17.20-23).
In sum, Paul’s recipe for evangelism has only two ingredients: qualified evangelists and edifying community. And while each member of the body is responsible for being a source of edification to the rest of the body, church leaders are responsible for cultivating edifying community, a task that begins by calling congregants to commit (with vows) to participating in the life of the church in clearly defined ways–just as Paul does in 1 Cor. 12-14 (or as Jesus does in, e.g., Matthew 18).
So what does it look like for a pastor to be faithful with respect to evangelism? Consider the following questions:
First, does he himself have real relationships with non-believers? Does he believe that he (along with his family) needs–and, therefore, wants–these relationships in his life, as a source of blessing regardless of whether or not non-believers come to profess faith? In an appropriate (i.e., humble and confidential) manner, does he talk about his relationships with non-Christians from the pulpit? When is the last time he shared the gospel?
Or is it that he “can’t find the time” to get to know non-Christians? Or that he only sees them as a project to be worked on or a prize to be won?
Second, does his heart (along with the rest of the church’s leadership) break for the non-Christians within his church’s community?—to such an extent that (i) he (along with other leaders) is conversant with both his community’s unique “image-bearing” and its idolatries, not because he’s read a book or a blog but because he has invested significant amounts of time listening to, learning about (and from), loving and lamenting his community; (ii) he leads the leadership in regularly lifting up the community in prayer; (iii) he has initiated humble, hands-on church-wide ministries of justice and mercy; (iv) from the pulpit he winsomely, wisely, and boldly woos and warns his community?
Or is there mere lip-service to evangelism? Regardless of the church’s actual location in the community, is it essentially isolated from it? Do leadership decisions concerning the community primarily have to do with keeping vandals off church property? Is the church’s primary form of contribution to the community monetary (i.e., giving to the crisis pregnancy center–a worthy cause to be sure, but…)? Is his preaching marked by caricature or even condemnation of non-Christians, without ever connecting with the unbeliever in us all?
Do you want to bring your non-Christian friends to church? Would it be awkward to have your pastor at the same party as your friends?
Third, has he led the church’s leadership in cultivating a church culture that excels in genuine community? Is participation clearly defined, winsomely encouraged, and when it is waning (or just counterfeit), is it courageously called out? Where the church does have community, is it cliquish or elitist, defined not by Christ but some aspect of (what Paul calls) flesh–a common occupation, political orientation, tertiary doctrinal conviction, recreation, life station, or socio-economic condition?
Are small groups kernels of wheat that, at the right time, fall to the ground, to split and create new life by welcoming others in? Or are they longstanding ingrown social clubs, void of true edification and/or life-giving accountability?
Faithful follower of Christ, understand this: your pastor may sincerely express the importance of evangelism; he may feel guilty about, or haunted by his lack of evangelism, but if he (and his fellow leaders) are not at the very least (i) fervently and frequently praying for professions of faith and (ii) designating the time (and, indeed, desiring) to engage in real relationships with non-Christians, and (iii) conversant in the beauty and brokenness of his local community, he is a fraud. Why? He has drifted dangerously far from God’s mission, probably because he’s lost sight of God’s love for him and for His world.
It’s important to address one final concern: if evangelism is ordinarily for pastors (and ordained lay-leaders), does this mean that laypersons are off the hook (apart from their very real responsibility to contribute to the edification of the body)?
Yes and no.
Yes, indeed, they are not called to evangelize. But this doesn’t mean the standard has been lowered. Rather, it’s just the wrong standard.
Jesus, Paul (twice!) and James all command every believer to fulfill Leviticus 19.18: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus calls this the second greatest commandment, while James calls it “the royal law.”
It’s kind of a big deal.
The faithful follower of Christ, therefore, doesn’t just pay lip-service to this commandment but has given serious thought to its meaning and specific application in their own lives. If you don’t have any non-Christians for whom you care deeply (beyond family), how can you say that you are loving your neighbor? (To consider this 2nd weightiest commandment in more detail, click here.)
Further, it is of greatest importance that every follower of Jesus understand that, while they are not be called to evangelize, they are absolutely called to live out–and publically profess–their allegiance to Christ. Jesus doesn’t mince words:
“Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory…” (Luke 9.26)
“Whoever disowns me before men will be disowned [by me] before the angels of God.” (Luke 12.9; see 2 Tim. 2.11-13)
In short, there is no such thing as a closet Christian.
Peter, writing about the persecution his readers are experiencing, states, “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come upon you…, as if something strange were happening to you.” John writes, “Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you.” And Jesus said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.”
In Revelation 21, the list of those thrown into the lake of fire begins not with the murderers or the fornicators. It begins with the cowardly. Therefore, as Jesus said, “do not be afraid of those who can kill the body and after that do no more. But… fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw into hell.” These are deeply sobering words.
When Paul does write to his churches about engagement with non-Christians, he says things like this:
“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life [i.e., a peaceable, amicable and well-ordered life], to focus on your own affairs and to work with your hands, just as we taught you, so that your daily life might win the respect of outsiders…” (1 Thes. 4.12; cf. Col. 4.5).
Finally, as I’ve so often emphasized on this blog–it’s in the blog’s title!), Christianity is about hope. And Peter exhorts every believer concerning that hope:
“…in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord, always being ready with a reasoned response so as to give an account for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience….” (1 Peter 3.15)
Amen and amen!
So in considering what it means to be a faithful pastor, I’ve attempted to outline the essential underlying impulses of that faithfulness: first, a deep and contagious communion with God; second, a ministry of deliberate discipleship, involving both proactive discipline (mentorship) and reactive discipline (often called “church discipline); and, third, a full-bodied evangelistic engagement with non-Christians in the church’s community. Is there more to being a pastor? Of course. Are specific skills and habits needed? Absolutely. But, as I see it, these three impulses are the essential ingredients that inform and invigorate a pastor’s skills and habits.