One-another evangelism?

  
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In this week’s edition, I want to answer an insightful question that Dave Pitt posed after reading my piece about small groups and one-another edifying speech

Hi Tony,

Thanks for this great article. It provides some really helpful language around the difference between the preached word and the one-anothering the NT speaks of. You’re focussing on the way the word grows Christians.

I’m wondering if the same idea applies to the way the word saves people—i.e. the difference between the proclamation of the gospel at an event vs. inviting an unbeliever to read the Bible with you.

I guess the question is: Is there an equivalent language to the one-anothering for what the Christian does with an unbeliever, in the NT?

Well spotted, Dave. 

And in our current strange circumstances, this is perhaps an even more pressing question. In a context where many of our normal, event-based opportunities for gospel proclamation are denied to us, what is the role of smaller-scale, one-another-style gospel interactions? 

My PhD research focused on one-another speech within the Christian community, but there are good reasons to think that this way of thinking about different kinds of speech could provide some fresh thoughts about Christian speech outside the Christian community as well. (Who knows, we might even be able to cut through some of those old arguments we’ve had about evangelism and the everyday Christian.)

While there are lots of passages in the New Testament that speak about one-another speech within the Christian community (25 of them by my count), we have fewer passages that touch on the spiritually significant speech of everyday Christians to outsiders. There’s Acts 4:31, 1 Cor 14:24-25, Phil 1:14 (I think), Col 4:5-6, 1 Pet 2:9-10 (perhaps), and 1 Pet 3:15-16. 

Let’s look really quickly at three of them that touch on the issue that Dave raises. In Acts 4:31, the apostles Peter and John had been boldly proclaiming the gospel, and facing opposition in doing so. And as the whole company of believers prays for ‘your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness’, God answers their prayer in a surprising way. The whole place is shaken, and “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness”.

This is like Pentecost all over again. The Spirit is poured out, and the believers pour out speech. All the same, did the believers in Acts 4 go out and do exactly what Peter and John had been doing in bold public proclamation? Possibly, but very possibly not. Was the context in which all the believers ‘spoke the word of God with boldness’ as varied as their different circumstances and opportunities allowed—such as in their households, or in their regular interactions with outsiders? I suspect so, but we don’t know. However, whatever the context, what the speech of Peter, John and all the believers had in common was its enabling power (the Holy Spirit), its essential content (the apostolic word of God) and its motive and character (boldness in the face of threats). 

We see a similar commonality in Col 4:2-6, where Paul asks for prayer for his speaking of the word (the logos, in v. 3), and then urges the Colossians themselves to let their word with outsiders (their logos, v. 6) be always gracious and seasoned with salt. The essential content is shared (the speaking of the logos), but the context or mode of the speech seems to be different. Paul is an itinerant proclaimer, now imprisoned for his preaching; the Colossians are having regular daily interactions with outsiders, and making the most of opportunities to converse graciously and ‘saltily’ in those contexts. 

Likewise (and very briefly), we observe a similar pattern in 1 Peter. Peter’s readers have received and set their minds on a ‘living hope’ of salvation, through the evangelistic preaching of the living and abiding word of God (1 Pet 1:3, 10-13, 23-25). This is the hope that they are to explain and defend in their gentle, respectful conversations with outsiders (in 1 Pet 3:15-16). Same content; different mode of interaction.

What we see in each of these examples is the preached (or ‘evangelised’) word of the gospel having its counterpart in the speech of believers more generally with outsiders—in a way that is obviously closely related, but also different. 

But different how? 

Here’s where the parallel work I’ve been doing on ‘one-another edifying speech’ (OES) within the Christian community might be useful. 

As I looked at all the passages regarding OES, what became apparent was that the best and clearest way to differentiate OES from the ‘preaching-teaching speech’ of pastor-teachers was not in their essential content (both were centred on the apostolic gospel), nor in their motivation (both were driven by love for others in light of God’s purposes), nor in their overall purpose (both sought to see others grow to maturity in Christ), nor in their sense of obligation or commission (both sorts of speakers are urged or commanded to engage in such speech). 

The significant difference lay in the function that different forms of speech have in bringing understanding and change. Proclamatory ‘teaching-preaching’ speech teaches, guards and applies the whole framework of gospel truth to its hearers. ‘One-another edifying speech’ takes aspects of that same word and brings it to bear on the particular contextual challenges and circumstances of particular people—reminding, clarifying, encouraging, correcting and exhorting the hearer to respond.

It wouldn’t be surprising if gospel speech to outsiders had a similar shape, and the relatively few NT references we have (like those above) suggest that it does. In other words, there is outsider-directed gospel speech that teaches, proclaims and explains the truth of Christ in all its facets, and there is outsider-directed gospel speech that brings the word of Christ to bear on the particular questions and life-circumstances of individual people. Both are part of the overall evangelistic effort, and both are vital.

Consider this scenario:

  • Through the teaching, example and training he has received, Fred is motivated to see his friend Bill come to know Christ, and feels confident to broach the subject with him; he doesn’t just wait for Bill to raise it or ask questions — he spends time with Bill, and actively prays for and looks for opportunities to talk about Jesus in some way.

  • They have various conversations over time, in which Fred touches on different aspects of the gospel (because he knows the gospel well, and has had some training in how to articulate it). Fred tries to answer some of Bill’s specific questions, and prays for his responsiveness.

  • Fred then invites Bill to a Christianity Explored course as a next step; Fred’s pastor explains the gospel clearly week by week, and in the table-discussion after each talk, Fred has the chance to discuss specific questions and issues with Bill.

  • After the course, Bill is interested but still not sure; Fred offers to meet up one-to-one and work through You, Me and the Bible with him—a resource that features some gospel explanation (on video) as well as the opportunity to talk through the implications. Fred has the opportunity to talk honestly with Bill about the importance of responding to the claims of Christ.

  • When Bill decides to become a Christian, Fred is right there with him, ready to guide him in how to do that, and in what the next steps might be. 

Throughout this process, the two kinds of speech overlap and intermingle, and each performs a vital function in bringing Bill to the point of clear understanding and repentance. My contention is that there are two overlapping, complementary zones of outsider-focused gospel speech, just as there are within the Christian community. 

This week’s Payneful Truth is already painfully long, and so I will conclude with two brief practical implications. 

First, if I am right, we should view group-based, event-evangelism and individual one-to-one gospel conversation not as alternatives but as complementary partners. They perform different, vital roles in bringing the word of Christ to outsiders. Why make them competitors?

Second, both kinds of speech require intentional focus, teaching, preparation and training. High quality gospel events (like courses) don’t happen without good planning and preparation. Likewise, individual Christians won’t take up the important complementary task of applying the gospel to the particular circumstances of their friends unless they are taught, encouraged and equipped to do so. 

My observation is that, in the circles I move in, we have largely given up this latter task—that is, teaching, encouraging and equipping individual Christians for one-another gospel interaction with outsiders. As in all circumstances when our vision of church or ministry fails to reflect the thinking and emphasis of the NT, we are and will be the poorer for it. 


PS. If you haven’t yet subscribed, take a moment to do so. It’s the best way to get both the text and audio versions delivered to you each week—and usually on a Monday. (The coronavirus craziness has made me run a little late this week!) 

PPS. As I half suspected, even as I hit ‘send this email to everyone’ last Monday, the further tightening of restrictions over the past week has put paid for the time being to my suggestion about physically gathering in groups of three (at least in my part of the world). The principle, however, remains very important. We’re going to have to lean more on our smaller ‘trellises’ over the next few months—on small, regular groups of 3-6 people, even if they are online. One prominent church I know of has already divided their small groups in half (from 10-12 down to 5-6), in the recognition that running an online meeting of 10-12 is impractical—not just in the dynamics of the meeting, but in what it demands of leaders. 

PPPS. This week’s very tenuously connected image is the album artwork from Firewind, a Christian ‘contemporary dramatic musical’ from the era when such things were popular (i.e. the 70s), and which our youth group staged at St Andrew’s, Lismore in 1979.