As I consider the relationship between church renewal and evangelism, the words of the apostle Paul in Ephesians come to mind: “[Christ Jesus] proclaimed peace to those who were far off and peace to those who were near.”1
In the Ephesian context, those who were “far off” were the Gentiles; the “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”2 The world today is full of “Gentile” people who are estranged from God, God’s story, and God’s people.
For Paul, those who were “near” were the Jews; the chosen, covenanted children of Abraham. Many of the Jews did not listen to the testimony of Paul concerning the saving work of God in Christ Jesus, but some, along with many Gentiles, heard this testimony and believed. The communities they formed became the foundation for the vast, diverse network of communities and institutions known today as the church.
By the Spirit’s power, Christ Jesus still comes today and announces peace to all people in all times and in all places. This universal work of peace provides a framework for understanding the relation between church renewal and evangelism: church renewal is what happens when the peace of Christ comes by the Spirit to those who are “near” and evangelism is what happens when this same peace comes by this same Spirit to those who are far off. In either case, the purpose and goal is for all people to be “built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” in order to “gather up all things in [Christ].”3
While Paul’s words in Ephesians highlight the unity between church renewal and evangelism, they should not be used to obscure the differences between these two works of God’s saving grace. “Church” renewal implies the existence of a church: a community which has responded to God’s call to be God’s people on God’s mission for God’s world. This group of people is constituted by their corporate and individual response – a conversion – to God’s gracious presence. However, this response is not a singular event. It is an ongoing journey through history which God’s people must walk together with “fear and trembling” as God gives them power to do so.4 This power is none other than the presence of the Spirit who continually evangelizes the church as it struggles to live out its identity as God’s people for God’s world. The church is renewed by its continual conversion to the peacemaking, reconciling ways of Christ who confronts all of its idolatrous tendencies to seek its own good and ignore others.
This process of renewal is one by which God invites God’s own wayward people back into God’s mission in order to bring greater healing and wholeness to them and to the world. It must be noted that church renewal, while originating in God and coming only as a gift of God’s grace, is a set of practices which continually prepare the church to receive its renewal and enter more deeply into the reign of God. Through practices such as hospitality, Sabbath, thanksgiving, forgiveness, Eucharist, spiritual discernment, public worship, prayer, and evangelism the church makes space for the Spirit to come and bring new life.
Evangelism, on the other hand, is a practice of the church whereby God’s people help others say yes to God’s invitation and become active participants with God’s people on God’s mission for God’s world. Through evangelism, the church announces the good news of God’s reign to all people: the peace and love for which the world groans has come to life in Jesus Christ and is real today through the abiding presence of the Spirit who calls and empowers all people to restore and renew all creation.
This announcement is both verbal and embodied; the church’s life is shaped by the story it tells. In fact, the church should be a living demonstration of that story. While this announcement is universal, it must also be particular. The church does not exist in abstract but in specific times and places formed by unique histories and guided by differing values. In order to proclaim peace, the church must know its place and how that place uniquely suffers from a lack of peace. This dynamic process of becoming “all things to all people” is essential to the church’s work of evangelism.5 It is one way – a vital way – that the church fulfills its identity as God’s people who participate in God’s mission for God’s world. Without evangelism, there would be no church to renew.
1 Eph. 2:17, NRSV.
2 Eph. 2:12.
3 Eph. 2:22, 1:10.
4 Phil. 2:12-13.
5 1 Cor. 9:22.