- Jason Andersen
While these approaches have not been without results, by and large we failed to see that most of the evangelistic ‘success’ was achieved among people who were socialized in the faith already, and that churches grew mostly by drawing dissatisfied Christians from other Churches…In this profoundly secularized environment [in Amsterdam] people do not even bother to be atheists. God is not interesting enough for one to have an opinion about him. Scholars of religion call this attitude ‘apatheism’.
Pilgrims and Priests, Christian Mission in a Post-Christian Society, Stefan Paas
We were talking with our Dutch friend and I asked him about this guy I once read, Stefan Paas. Well, he said he was alright, so I picked up his newer book Pilgrims and Priests. I suspect it will be good. Our friend mentioned that he knew of this author and had maybe read another of his books called Christ of the Low Countries (I guess Netherlands means just that: low countries). Reading the introduction makes me want to help re-paint the picture that we must have for Christian mission in our lifetime. And I want to consider it through two different lenses. The first is revival vs. frontier-ish mission and the second is in considering the concentric circles of influence we might have.
So first, we have got to delineate between revival and frontier work. In many places in America, we have shifted to where there are two distinct works necessary in our evangelism. The first is revival. Yes, we need revival, but perhaps it is not in the way that most people pray. And I think it is good to think clearly about what we’re praying for. I want to suggest that revival specifically relates to people who have been exposed to the gospel and perhaps even been involved in churches but for whatever reason have become disengaged. In my approximation, even if all of these people became revived and fully committed Christians in local congregations, the American evangelical church still wouldn’t break the threshold of being the majority of Americans. And especially since 2016 and that presidential cycle and 2020 with COVID and the riots, many Christians have floated away from meaningful participation in the church or they have floated into churches without clear convictions. I’d suggest you think specifically here- I know that there are many friends from the church I grew up in who no longer live as Christians. I know Ami has mentioned some who went to church with her at Straitgate (or went to Magdelene College) that are in liberal churches or no longer going to church. Still many others with the political and cultural unrest are taking a break from church because of churches being political (not about Christ), and politicians claiming Christ but exuding paganism. Let’s just say we live in a world that is not our home. When we pray for revival, we are praying for these people. And honestly, when Billy Graham preached to crowds, the majority who made a decision were in this category of churched but for some reason disengaged. It is hugely important we realize that there is this huge crowd who needs to repent and rest in Jesus as their only hope in life and in death.
The flip-side of revival is frontier work. Sometimes when we pray for revival in our world, we think it should happen like Billy Graham or George Whitefield or Jonathan Edwards’ time, but in reality, half of America is frontier work- more like Adoniram Judson or William Carey’s ministry in Burma and India where we should expect extremely slow growth over a century. Much of the city of Minneapolis itself and many of its suburbs fit in this category. Frontier work is necessary where gospel awareness in a person’s life is minimal or nil. Calls to revival in people like this are DOA, dead on arrival, since there is no understanding of any of the categories that make the gospel intelligible (creation, sin, true guilt, divine judgment, etc.) So we have an eye (and must always) to building constructively with those who are in the position of sowing gospel seed on new soil. This includes our children (with whom we have 18 years at least of life together and opportunity of gospel investment) and your atheistic or other-religion neighbor.
The second set of lenses that I think we can have is considering a set of concentric circles of people around us, where we might spread the seed of the word. The first circle is your own family and your children. The second is those exposed to the gospel. The third is what you might call the disenfranchised. This group is those who have previously been a part of but have now distanced themselves from convictional Christianity whether by attending a more ‘loving’ but less convictional church or perhaps they claim Christ but do not attend any church since no church is pure enough, charitable enough, not speaking prophetically about the right cause in the right way, or whatever the case may be. And the final group would be those for whom Christianity is not a thing for them at all. Either atheists or those from another religion.
With each category of people, we can pray in a certain way. For our children, we invest and give so much, but we pray that the Lord would be at work through that massive investment. For those who have been exposed to the gospel, maybe those who are Christians, we pray that the gospel would ever grow sweeter in their lives and that their love for the Lord would ever grow deeper. And for those who have been exposed to the gospel, but for whatever reason have not acted on it, we pray that the Spirit would bring conviction of sin and faith in Christ. In the New Testament, many of the converts to Christianity were these people who were Jews and knew the Old Testament, or who were Jews and had followed Jesus in his earthly ministry, or who were somehow connected to the synagogue like Cornelius in Acts 10. They were exposed to the whole life and teaching of the scriptures and were prepared to hear and respond to the gospel. In our day, we should ask where these people are. Some are in our churches as regular attenders, some are in our churches even as members. I honestly doubt there are many left in this category unless you have been sharing the word of Christ with someone. This is because the narrative we hear in the world is one that often is very negative about Christians. The only time a person will have been exposed to the true story of the gospel is through you and me, members of a local church!
The category of the disenfranchised is one that I think is especially important in our context. Many have felt hurt by ‘the institutional church’ and many feel as though it doesn’t answer our problems. Many have drifted away from convictional Christianity because we have failed to speak the truth in love. Instead, we’ve more screamed the truth in competition. Oddly enough Christians have been so concerned about power dynamics in our culture that we have neglected what is needful. So we must pursue these people, but it must be in a Christ-like manner. We must invite into our homes and to our dinner tables those who are different from us and exercise Christ-like patience in our pursuit of them, those who misunderstand the glorious gospel of salvation from sin because they have been hurt by fellow sinners. I’m convinced that many of these disenfranchised people are Christians who need to know what it truly looks like to be a Christian without the political posturing (within and without the church) and with a humble acknowledgement that to be a Christian in a church is to be a sinner who is a member with fellow sinners, all in need of God’s grace and empowerment to grow up (maybe our own humility is the most important things here). And we have got to pray for these people that the Lord would soften their hearts and that the Lord would provide us opportunities.
The final category is really frontier mission work. These are people where our investment will almost necessarily be a multi-year process. In each of the other categories, it is often a multi-year process, but when someone is beginning at little exposure to Christianity and full commitment to another way of life, we can expect that our work will be long and slow. But we work with patience, and I think we should consider that we are setting an example of the gospel through our whole lives. This was the work of the early church after the initial surge of conversions. The church worked to be faithful as an institution both in its confession about Christ but also in its love for one another and its charity to those in the world. They adopted all the exposed infants by the river, they provided for the burial of their elderly, they cared for their own who had no one else to care for them or vouch for them in the difficult world out there. And so I think our consistent example of gospel love for God and others paves the way for opportunities to speak the truth of the gospel in its manifold witness.
I’m quite convinced we’ve got to have a clearer vision about this. Our city and state and country needs more than revival. It also needs conversions. And our world is not going to be saved simply by a new Billy Graham preaching in big football stadiums. God is going to save his own through every church and every Christian. You, in fact, are part of God’s evangelization plan for the world. Don’t neglect your faithfulness, don’t neglect to be patient, don’t give up after ten years. You’ve only just begun.