Why is it that some Christian communities are growing spontaneously, while others are slowly devolving into some kind of evangelistic atrophy? Why, if a ‘believer’ is a person in whom Jesus dwells by his own Spirit, and if Jesus is one who came to “seek and to save the lost” … how can every believer not be a person who moves spontaneously toward those ‘spiritually confused god-seekers’ who are the objects of that very passion of Jesus? How can that be?

Let me revisit an episode out of my own career. Several years back I was the visiting professor of evangelism, for one semester, at a very fine theological seminary. Not being a career theological professor, and substituting for a wonderful friend who was on leave that semester, I faced this new class on the first day and told them that their regular professor was one with whom I could not even be compared since he was so gifted. I told them that what they had in me was forty years in the pastoral trenches, and that I wanted them to pick my brain relentlessly during our weeks together. I even gave them the questions I would be asking them on their final examination, so to listen for the answers, and to ask all the questions they wanted.

But, … what became more and more apparent was that there were two absolutely different sets of young adults in that class. One of the sets was made up of those who had grown up inside the church and had never known anything else than Christian faith in the household of faith. The other set were those who had been converted, or had come to faith, as mature young adults. There was before me in that class a ‘night and day’ difference in the capacity to those two groups to comprehend what I was saying. Those who had come to faith as mature young adults were fascinated, and hungry to hear, and asked great questions and were, in short, really ‘into’ Christ’s love for those still outside the faith. They had been there. They remembered what it was like to live life confused about life’s meaning, and life without hope, and life frittered away with the idols of the day. That group all aced the final exam.

Those who had been baptized in infancy and had grown up comfortably inside their substantial and traditional church communities … just “didn’t get it.” They seemed to have no comprehension of the passion of Jesus to bring his good news of sins forgiven, and of new life to the most confused and broken and cynical and hostile folk who inhabited the world around them. It was almost as if they have been immunized against evangelistic obedience.

After the final exam, the first group asked if they could take me out to supper, and so we adjourned to a favorite bistro of theirs. After we had ordered they seemed eager to affirm me and to say that this had been the most helpful course they had taken in the seminary. I have pondered that episode in the years since. It raises all kinds of questions about the inner life of the church and about what constitutes healthy leadership. How was it, that Paul spent only a matter of months with the new believers in Ephesus, and yet in a very brief period these new believers had carried the message of Jesus Christ to all of Asia Minor?Can we immunize church folk against that passion of Christ so that they are indifferent to those Jesus came seeking? How do we equip believers for the spontaneous expansion of the church? Maybe a question raised by (someone I read recently): “Who evangelizes the clergy/bishops?” How do we call forth that passion of Christ, which is also an evidence of the Spirit of Christ within us, to love those whom he came to rescue? Is it only the new converts who still have close friends yet in the darkness who have such a desire to compassionately reach out? Why do the four gifts given to the church (Ephesians 4) for the equipping of the people of God include the gift of evangelist? Yes, who teaches or equips those inside the community of faith to have Christ compassion for those outside, and to spontaneously engage in warm, loving, conversation with them that will begin to introduce Christ to those he came seeking?

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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