This is part of an ongoing series of articles that dives into the comparison of the church as a religious machine or a living organism. For part 1 of this article, visit – The Gospel Presentation Vs Presenting the Gospel – Part 1.
The simple message of the Gospel of Jesus is compelling enough for those who are ready to hear it. They need no manipulation, feel no FOMO, and have no challenge of acknowledging Jesus.
When we move towards techniques and best practices for getting the greatest response from a gospel call, we have shifted to manufacturing religious results instead of harvesting spiritual fruit.
Meanwhile, in John 12 Jesus gives an alternative concept for presenting the Gospel effectively. In predicting His impending death on a cross, He says “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). As Jesus describes His upcoming death on the cross, He shares that it will be the very thing that attracts people to Him. Is it possible, even today, that if we would simply elevate Jesus and tell the story of the cross and the resurrection with clarity, that it would be enough to draw people to Jesus? I am convinced that we have drastically over-complicated and programmed the idea of a gospel presentation, thinking that we can manufacture a better response and process than the simplicity of elevating Jesus. We think we can do it better. We are wrong.
Stepping away from serving in vocational ministry has given me the opportunity to visit many other churches and expressions of faith in my community. It’s been really eye-opening to see a larger denominational and cultural perspective of the Church through these experiences. The Body of Christ is larger and more dynamic than we often realize when our context is the same congregational experience each week.
During a visit to a young urban Anglican Church, I was struck once again at the beauty, clarity, and simplicity of the practice of Communion.
Let me backtrack slightly – I was born and raised in a church that practiced communion weekly. It was a common part of the weekly service but not really a central focus. Over time it became a somewhat rote and habitual process that didn’t always get the attention or significance it deserved. Across my ministry career, most of the churches I served within didn’t practice communion on a weekly basis. From a faith perspective, it was intentional to counter the spiritual numbness that can come with the weekly practice. From a purely pragmatic perspective, communion is a time-consuming service element that can be hard to fit into the confines of a 60-70 minute timeframe when you’re trying to shuffle multiple services through on a given Sunday morning. I had become used to the practice of communion every 4-6 weeks in congregational life. I had also become used to the practice of taking communion even less frequently as a staff member as I was often busy with other ministry tasks and distracted from participation. That’s the unfortunate reality of many ministry leaders and church volunteers.
Back to communion at this Anglican Church.
The intentionality and time they gave to it were both refreshing and convicting. I was struck anew with how powerful the elements and practice of communion can be as a recurring reminder of the gospel story. I was brought to tears and filled with conviction. Not of a specific personal sin, but of the realization that, again, I’d been complicit in systems of ministry that had arrogantly assumed we could do things better than God implemented originally. While the practice of communion seemed central to the early church, we had pushed it aside as a largely inconvenient service element only needed occasionally when it lent itself well as a sermon illustration. I was also struck at how clearly Jesus is lifted up and the gospel is presented during communion as the story of his crucifixion is retold.
As the modern church has worked harder and harder to create gospel presentation moments that yield great results, God has naturally built in the presentation of the Gospel into the practices of the church through communion.
As I took communion that day, I was powerfully reminded of the words of Jesus above from John 12 that He would draw people to Himself. Regardless of your interpretation of “breaking bread daily” in Acts as a simple meal or the practice of communion, it’s clear that communion had a central place in the routine practices of the early church gathering. The frequent retelling of Christ’s body and blood, broken and shared for forgiveness and a new covenant, are powerful anchor points of the church. It forces the centrality of the message of Jesus into every gathering and service.
You cannot honor the practice of communion and not communicate the gospel each week. It’s not possible.
As communion is given appropriate significance and focus, Jesus is being elevated. He’s drawing people to Himself. It’s what He does.
You may be reading this wondering if I’m trying to draw a direct correlation between common gospel call presentations and the practice of communion as if they’re polar ends of a spectrum. I’m not. I understand that many churches practice both of these regularly and they don’t necessarily exist at odds with one another. The two concepts, do, however, represent two very different intentional ways to elevate Jesus in a way that people see the gospel clearly. One is a created service element that can quickly feel manufactured and manipulative, while the other is a Jesus ordained practice of the church for the last two thousand years that naturally shares the story of Jesus.
In this common growth pursuit model of American Evangelical churches, it’s frustrating that the story of the early church is cherry-picked and often not interpreted with consistency. Being theologically honest in being true to your prescriptive versus descriptive perspective often gets forgotten when it’s convenient.
We want early church evangelism results without early church practices.
We want the outcomes, but not the process. I’ve known a few evangelism focused pastors who had the goal of having 365 conversions in their given churches in a year. For them, it was a direct parallel in their congregations to Acts 2:47 that the Lord would add to their numbers daily. While in itself it’s an innocuous and ambitious goal (which they surpassed), it does raise some challenges for me.
As the church has adopted a common successful business approach to ministry, we’ve become hyper-focused on outcomes and measurements of success. Like quarterly stock reports and annual revenue charts, we want to quickly see growth numbers that are regularly up and to the right. In doing so, we’ve shifted our focus from the “inputs” – the things we can control, to the “results” – the things that God says he’s responsible to manage. We set specific outcomes and results and strive like crazy to hit them, hoping that God will show up and bless them and then pointing to Him as faithful and good when we do. He is, absolutely. But what about the targets that don’t get hit? The capital campaigns, baptism goals, and outreach events that fall short – did God not show up and bless them? If not, is He not faithful and good to honor our efforts? We set ourselves, and our congregations, up for an unhealthy view of God’s faithfulness and goodness in our congregations when our primary measure becomes simple metrics and lofty goals. Don’t get me wrong – I love an audacious goal. I love stepping out in faith and chasing something radically big. It’s the goals we set that likely needs to change.
Instead of results-driven goals, we need to focus on the inputs – the acts of faithfulness on our part to do the best we can to honor God and point people to see Jesus.
How are we elevating Jesus well?
How are we walking people through a process of understanding their faith?
How are we being good stewards of the lives God has sent to us to pastor?
While these are questions that are harder to measure, they’re much more in line with our responsibility as believers and leaders. It’s a slower process that requires much more effort and attention to individuals than a public gospel call that might yield great numbers but often little life change. It means we don’t batch process people in the conversion process but instead invest in individuals to bring them to maturity in faith with consistency.
The crazy goals shift. They’re less sexy, but more meaningful.
What would it look like for you to have a radically big goal to have everyone in your congregation directly connected to another believer in a spiritual mentoring relationship? What if anyone that made a decision for Jesus got intentional discipleship from a faith leader for the first six months of their spiritual journey? What if your church committed to a wild amount of prayer for your community? What if you challenged your congregation to serve somewhere outside the walls of the church for a few hours each week in the name of Jesus? All of these are Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAG as Jim Collins would call them) that would stretch and grow your community in amazing ways. They’re also all input focused, directing your congregation to obedience, not results.