I have been turning a question over and over in my mind this year that was sparked by an elder discussion in February (although the discussion wasn’t quite framed this way). The question was also taken up this summer at our General Assembly:
Should we prepare the flock or promote the Gospel?
Prepare the flock – we must teach what the Bible teaches, clearly and regularly, about the spiritual and moral issues which society is pressuring Christians to abandon, and which society is willing to punish/cancel/censure if we continue to hold to them. Teaching about these issues will ensure that we will not be confused or compromised.
Promote the Gospel – we must be winsome and welcoming to the local community, and seek to be known as a church that is kind and service-oriented. This will ensure that all kinds of different people who don’t yet believe will feel comfortable within our church and will hear the Gospel and believe in Christ.
Which one is the priority?
Prepare the Flock
The question came into sharp focus during some of the talks given at the EPC General Assembly in June. The first speaker was Andrew Brunson, an EPC pastor who suffered tremendously for the Gospel as a missionary to Turkey. He had been serving as a church planter and pastor in the almost exclusively Muslim nation of Turkey for 23 years. One day in 2016, he returned home to find a notice on his door that he must appear at the police station immediately. There, he was accused of being a terrorist (spoiler: he wasn’t). Andrew and his wife Norine were imprisoned together for two weeks. She was released, but he was held for over two years.
During this lonely, terrifying and bewildering time, he did not know if or when he would be freed. Norine courageously remained in Turkey to support Andrew. She lobbied whomever she could in the US government for his freedom. She tirelessly sought prayer support through Christian networks and friendships. She visited him as often as she could. While in prison, Andrew endured a prolonged dark night of the soul. Doubt, depression, isolation and uncertainty filled him. Over and over he cried out to God and heard only silence. Then suddenly on October 12, 2018, he was convicted of the charges against him and sentenced to life in prison, only to be released the same day. Just 25 hours later, he found himself in the White House talking with and praying for the President!
Pastor Brunson’s strong conviction since enduring the terrible trial of imprisonment is that Christians in the West will soon be severely tested in ways that may not rise to the level of a Turkish prison, but will be quite difficult. We will be marginalized, some will lose jobs and status and even the freedom to worship. The need, then, is for church leaders to prepare God’s people to be courageous so that we will stand firm to the end (he developed a video series and study guide which explores this theme called “Prepared to Stand”).
The primary points of pressure for Christians in the West, he believes, are two main wedge issues:
- The exclusivity of Christ for salvation (in a culture that embraces spirituality but despises objective truth claims, and hates proselytizing)
- The Biblical demands of obedience in following Jesus (specifically those demands which relate to identity, sexual morality, marriage and family)
In order to prepare the flock, we must trust God’s Word, teach clearly and unambiguously about the two wedge issues, and develop a love for Jesus greater than our love for comfort or status in society.
Promote the Gospel
Another speaker at the GA was a man named Jimmy Scroggins, who authored the book Turning Everyday Conversations into Gospel Conversations. The church he pastors in Florida has used a tool for presenting the Gospel to neighbors and friends called “the 3 circles.” It has resulted in many people converting to Christ. He was as self-effacing and winsome as it gets, and the 3 circles tool seems very helpful for anyone who wants to be more effective at sharing the Gospel (so effective that we are going to use his book for our fall small group journey).
Ed Stetzer, a well-known church researcher, speaker and academic at Wheaton College, also presented. Among many interesting things he shared (the full presentation is here), his “headwinds and tailwinds” coming out of Covid for churches were particularly interesting:
Headwinds (challenges to the church in the US)
- Shrinking nominalism – strong Christians remain strong, but those with a foot in and a foot out are moving towards both feet out.
- Attitude towards proselytizing – people are ok with you being religious, but not ok with you trying to persuade them about Jesus.
- Accelerating cultural shifts – see pastor Brunson’s point about the Biblical demands of obedience.
- Image of evangelicalism – the word itself has become a political designation, not a group of people who love Jesus and want Him to be known.
Tailwinds (potential blessings to the church in the US)
- Spiritual hunger and the failure of modernity – many people believe the answers the world gives and the alleged progress of our time are not working; people are looking for something eternal.
- Tumult and opportunity – 1968 was one of the most disruptive years of the last century (race riots, protests, the sexual revolution, the Viet Nam war, the assassination of MLK and Robert Kennedy, etc.), and yet out of that time a movement known as the “Jesus people” emerged. This hippie-evangelism movement resulted in many, many conversions and tremendous Gospel influence in American life. Stetzer’s point: “Revival came to America when the world was on fire.”
When someone who has suffered for the Gospel like Andrew Brunson speaks, I listen. His prophetic perspective is that the Christian faith will be assailed in America, and more and more pressure will be applied for the cause of Christian compromise.
On the other hand, Scroggins and Stetzer believe we are in a moment of potential reformation and revival. To seize this opportunity, we must be willing to get out into the world to connect with people, love and serve, and share the Gospel of grace.
Which one is Biblical?
The answer of course is both. Evangelism and preparing are clear themes in the New Testament and are central to the mission of the church. After the Holy Spirit came and filled the believers in Acts 2, evangelism was the immediate result:
36 Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” 37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:36-38).
Even under persecution, the disciples turned apostles preached fearlessly. When worse persecution broke out and they fled, they preached the Gospel as they went:
4 Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. 5 Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. (Acts 8:4-5).
But just as the proclamation of the Gospel was central, so too was preparing believers to be strong when compromise was attractive. This required clear teaching about the cost of following Jesus.
12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you (1 Peter 4:12).
In one of the most heartfelt exhortations of the apostle Paul, he tells his protegè Timothy to do what Andrew Brunson told us:
12 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
4 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Timothy 3:12-4:5).
Preparing and promoting. We must “do the work of an evangelist.” We must also “preach the word . . . for the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching . . .”
I feel tension between the two. You might too. How do you winsomely share the Gospel with your cousin who can’t stand the Christians who think everyone else is going to hell, and you don’t believe that do you? How do you practice kindness and patience in the workplace when the dang place should be called the wokeplace (new word!) judging by the trainings and memos coming out of corporate headquarters?
NAPC is a church that welcomes sinners of any kind and loves them. We are also clearly and unapologetically Biblical regarding the most important and contentious issues of our time. As we have described in the past, we aim to be “high invitation, high challenge,” like Jesus was. Both are crucial, and both are the requisite for faithfulness. May God grant that we prepare the flock and promote the Gospel with love, grace, and courage.