I grew up in a Christian culture in which very little evangelism took place. How little? Well, the first adult I ever witnessed getting baptized was my wife (she was my girlfriend at the time) and that was when we were nineteen or so. I believe it was also the first time our church had ever baptized an adult. And what’s more, it was the first time most of the people who attended that church had ever seen an adult get baptized. While it is not necessarily so, it seems that there is bound to be something amiss with the evangelistic focus of churches that never, ever see any outside converts through their ministry.
A few years after my wife’s baptism we moved away from the town we had grown up in so we could be closer to my place of business. After several months of visiting different churches around the area, we found ourselves a home at the church we attend now. It is a church that, while it is not seeker-friendly, is very outward focused. We have seen many, many people come to faith, including several who are now our closest friends. We have seen lives be altered dramatically and have seen more baptisms than we can count - baptisms in rivers, pools, hot tubs and a really big, ugly aluminum tank. Of course I will have to grant that this is a Baptist church and they insist on baptizing people who were baptized as children or, as in my wife’s case, were not immersed but sprinkled when baptized as adults. So some of the baptisms we have witnessed would be considered “re-baptisms” in a standard Reformed or Presbyterian setting. But the fact is that we have seen a vast number of people get saved in one of the most unchurched parts of North American through this church’s ministry.
Over the years I began to reflect (and I’ve been using that word quite a bit lately, I believe) on what made the churches I attended as a child and teenager so ineffective at evangelism. I have to be careful here because I know several people from the churches of my youth who read this site and I want to be careful that I accurately characterize these churches. While there are several reasons I could provide, and they are of varying importance, there is one that I believe stands at the foundation of the rest: These churches regarded the unbeliever as the enemy. Of course the church would never have articulated that belief, but it seemed to be deeply rooted.
This attitude manifested itself in many ways. One of the clearest ways was among the children of church members. They would rarely, if ever, be allowed or encouraged to play with the unsaved children in the neighbourhood. I knew a man who was an “urban missionary” whose children were confined to their backyard and were never, ever allowed to play with the other children in the area. My father used to joke that a man could become rich by selling fencing supplies to people in these churches. The churched children were not allowed to play with other children lest they become corrupted by their worldliness.
My observation was that this approach failed badly. First, the church was not faithful to its calling to take the gospel throughout the world (and the world begins just outside the front door). Second, the children developed a fascination with worldliness simply because any access to the world had been denied to them and they had never seen the pain and heartbreak that are the inevitable result of forsaking God. The world looks awfully attractive until a person sees the results of giving himself over to it. Third, the parents ignored worldliness in their own children. I know that I saw more drugs, more drinking, more disrespect and more awful behavior in the Christian schools I attended than I did in the public schools. This isolation simply did not work.
The attitude that was modeled to me was far different. My family took the opposite approach and we were always encouraged to make friends with the children in the neighbourhoods we lived in. My parents saw this as a stepping-stone to meeting the parents and having opportunity to share the gospel with them. And we saw many children and parents come to faith in this way. Many others may not have become believers, but they received a clear presentation of the gospel so that they are now without excuse. Mom and dad did not do this because they regarded the folks in the neighbourhood as a project, but out of a genuine love, concern and appreciation for these people. The person next door was not an enemy, but a person who was as unsaved as they were not too many years before, and was thus someone in desperate need of a Savior. And they intended to give everyone the opportunity to meet the Savior through them.
Sometimes worlds clashed. There were a couple of times when my sisters brought friends to church, friends who were unsaved but were showing interest in the gospel, only to have them mocked or scorned. One little girl was scolded and had her ear “flicked” by the woman in the pew behind her because she was not able to sit still throughout the service. A friend my sister brought to church was openly mocked by the children in the church (children who later had a surprise “encounter” with myself behind the church, but I digress) because he had dyed-blond hair and an earing. He never returned, and as far as I know, never expressed any openness to the gospel after that time.
I truly believe, after many years of reflection, that the real problem in these churches was in their attitude towards the unbeliever. The person next door was the enemy, a person to be feared for what he might do to the family, and the children in particular, and thus someone to be regarded with distrust and suspicion rather than with love.
Sometimes I think it is little wonder that the Emerging Church crowd rebels against evangelism metaphors that make the unbeliever sound like an enemy. Perhaps these metaphors do cause us to regard unbelievers as a rebel army that we need to fear. It occurs to me that when we sing “Onward Christian Soliders” we are not singing a battlecry that will lead us out to battle against the unbeliever next door. No, we are not waging war “against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
The real enemy is not next door. He is not human flesh and blood. The real enemy has been given temporary rule over this world and seeks to destroy us by leading us to rebel against the Creator. And he extends his rule when he convinces us that rather than battling against him, we battle against the enemy next door.