Friday, January 28, 2011

What do you mean by "evangelism"?

We commend to our readers the following (intentionally) provocative article written by LCMS Pastor Larry Peters on the subject of evangelism. Although he writes about a shift in emphasis he has perceived in his own synod, his observations are just as appropriate for us in the WELS. I have highlighted in blue a few especially well-worded sections. The highlighting is not found in the original.

If anyone reads this and comes away thinking, "Those Intrepid Lutherans are against evangelism!", he will have missed the point entirely. We (and Pr. Peters) are very much in favor of evangelism. The question is, what do you mean by "evangelism"?


Why I am not in favor of evangelism...

I hope the title got your attention. It was meant to be provocative. In part because the whole nature of the Church's mission has been co-opted by those who believe that we are here to bring non-believers into a relationship with Jesus Christ. This is the kind of the stuff I hear all the time (even from within my own church body). I will say it bluntly. That is not the job of the Church. We exist to draw others into the community of faith through the means of grace by which faith is born, people die and rise with Christ in baptism, sins are forgiven, hearts and minds are nurtured for the kingdom of God, and they are fed and nourished upon the bread which is Christ's body and the cup which is His blood.

I cannot trace when it happened but at some point in time evangelism became an abstraction. It became a program or a direction seemingly unrelated to the Church as the community of faith and the Body of Christ. Somehow Christians began to get the idea that a relationship with God was possible apart from and outside the realm of the Church, the assembly of God's people around the Word and Sacraments through which God has promised to work His saving work for us and for all who will be saved. The point is not to figure out where this mistaken idea came from but to confess that it has predominated our thinking as Lutheran Christians for some time.

We felt the need to set up evangelism committees and board structures to handle this work of evangelism. In some cases, we identified specific individuals with the gift of being an evangelist and removed from the faithful the task of witness and left them with worship, prayer, mercy, and service. (Recall of the Abdon plan and constitution?) They were not angry by the removal of this part of their baptismal calling -- even somewhat relieved since they saw evangelism through the eyes of the fundamentalists and evangelicals who knocked on doors and wondered what would happen to those folks if they died tonight -- a distinctly unLutheran question.

Lutherans about this time began to see Sunday morning in a different light and wanted the worship service to be accessible to and warm and friendly for all who showed up -- no matter how far they were from the kingdom of God. Lutherans began to watch how Billy Graham packed them down through the altar call and heard some of those who prayed so sincerely the sinner's prayer and were almost ashamed and embarrassed at their own liturgy, hymnody, and focus on the means of grace.

Collver also spoke about the witness of the Church, her mission, not as abstract love for and seeking after the salvation of souls but the specific and concrete mission which brings the sinner into the domain of our Lord's saving mercy through the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments, the means of grace that alone deliver Christ's gifts to the sinner. In other words the mission of the Church is to bring people not into some abstract relationship with Jesus but into the concrete relationship founded not on feeling or choice but upon a specific font, pulpit, and table.

All of the people of God are called to witness -- not just those who show the aptitude for it. None of us can escape the call and responsibility to give account of the hope that is within us and to locate the source of that hope in the Gospel the flows from the means of grace -- Word, water, and table -- of a specific place. It is not that evangelism is wrong but the idea of an evangelism that is concerned about the souls of people without being concerned with their life in the community of God's people gathered around His Word and table.

The people of the world wonder about a Christian who wants to share a product but without sharing where the product is to be found. If I tell someone about a great frozen pizza I found and leave them to feed on this pizza in their heart without sharing where this pizza can be found and what is its name, I have given them nothing at all. As Lutheran Christians we believe, and we believe that this is the true apostolic and catholic faith, that God works through His means of grace, He does what He has promised to do where He has placed His promise. So it can never be our goal to tell them about Jesus unless we bring them to the Church where Jesus is present in His Word and Sacraments, doing what He has pledged and promised to do. We cannot allow evangelism to be disjointed from the task of bringing people into the Church where the Word is rightly proclaimed (the Law/Gospel dialectic is most helpful here) and where the Sacraments are administered according to Christ's command and institution.

We do this not out of guilt or duty but because it is our joyful and grateful response to what God has done for us in Christ, because of our confidence in God's efficacious Word and Sacraments, because we know where Christ has located Himself in these means of grace, and because the Church is not some affinity group but the called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified people of God in Christ -- who is not content with the 99 who are present but continually seeks after the lost one that he or she may be found. Far from being a burden, this is the natural outgrowth of our life together around these means of grace -- to tell everyone what He has done, to proclaim the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and to make sure every brother and sister knows, "we have found the Messiah (Christ)."

The truth is I do not have the foggiest idea how to have a relationship with Jesus Christ apart from the Word and Sacraments in which Christ has hidden Himself and revealed Himself. Unless I am completely mistaken, the only way to know Christ is to know Him where and as He has chosen to make Himself known. It is for this reason we keep saying "means of grace" -- not because it is some confessional mantra. The only grace we know is the grace made known to us in the Word of the Cross, the water of life, the voice of absolution, and the bread and wine of His table. It is not here or somewhere else. It is here or nowhere else.


Anonymous said...


A long time ago I pointed out a recent paper by a WELS pastor who lives near me, Pastor Jonathan Schroeder's "Worship and Outreach: a Lutheran Paradigm." The paper can be found here:

I believe one of the IL pastors said it was hoped that those papers (from the Symposium on Worship and Outreach) would be read and discussed on IL. I would encourage that. I think Pastor Schroeder's paper addresses much of what is discussed here. He talks about the "nexus" between worship and outreach, i.e., between evangelism and Law/Gospel proclamation.

I hear the paper was received very enthusiastically. I also hear about a quarter of the WELS ministerium was in attendance! Thus, I would be very interested in your take on it. Personally, I find it to be rock solid. It demonstrates an extremely high amount of respect not just for Scripture but for the Confessions. Yet it also displays great common sense in applying those things to our present day circumstances.

Yours in Christ,
Daniel Kastens

Rev. Paul A. Rydecki said...


Yes, you're right, we said we'd talk about the symposium essays. Thanks for the reminder. I can't promise we'll get to all three of them, but we'll certainly discuss Pastor Jon Schroeder's paper, hopefully in the near future.

Vernon Knepprath said...

Good article. Glad you posted it.

This "abstract relationship with Jesus" theology is rampant in the Northwest. Our young people (including those in the WELS) are particularly susceptible. The world and much of the visible church have conditioned people to consider any religious group with "doctrine" as a bad thing. As a result, many of the non-denominational community churches are viewed favorably, because they are not bogged down by this "doctrine" thing. What is left is the "abstract relationship with Jesus", that has no ties to anything the Bible teaches. Perhaps our biggest challenge (our biggest failing?) is faithfully teaching the means of grace.

Anonymous said...

I suggest going ot the original source of this article for some incredibly good comments written to Pr. Peters. I found many of those comments echoing and expanding upon thoughts I have been having from my own observations over the last 20 years in WELS.

Jim Huwe

Frank Sonnek said...

There are two things underlying this false view of evangelism that we miss from the confessions.

1) ART iv(ii) JUSTIFICATION talks about a division of the decalog between first table and second table. This wooden reading has led some to think that the doctrine of the two kingdoms then is also about 1st table and second table. this means that first table = the heavenly kingdom = the churchly estate where god rules by grace, vs the second table = civil estate where god rules by civil laws.

This is wrong. an even slightly careful contextual reading shows that the confessors are really setting the keeping of the first commandment (which can only be kept by invisible faith in christ) against any external work of the law . This external work is anything we can see and do in our bodies.

We are called by the FC art I to think that anything at all we can see and do in our bodies = Old Adam. This fully includes administration of word and sacrament! Then where is the heavenly churchly kingdom that "comes in a way that cannot be seen" (Jesus in Luke)?

It is "in, with and under" the earthly kingdom that is everything we can see and do in our bodies, which things we confess are 100% old adam.

This means that the line between church and unchurch or new man and old adam passed right through the middle of each of us!

So this also means that we christians need to hear exactly the same gospel, and also that same condemning , punishing , killing law that pagans need to hear.

Often it is taught that the law for christians is a little love tap, or "chastisement" that is love from God to us. No. It is killing of the old adam. Our new man does not need law or chastisement. "the law ALWAYS accuses." 1st second or third use. same law. The same law has the same effect to the same end for christian and pagan alike. It kills us. it terrifies us. and it alone applies to the old adam in each of us who cannot be reformed. he can only die.

and so there is not one set of evangelistic, apologetics law and gospel for pagans and then a different stuff for us christians.

The SAME law and gospel are to be delivered to both pagan and christian.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this article. Having served on an evangelism committee, I know the traps we fall into trying to "get them through the doors."
But along with convicting churches that wrongly approach evangelism, I think more WELS pastors need to chastise their own members for not evangelizing in their everyday life at all.
I think it would help if more of our churches took the subject into bible studies on occasion.
Judith Munson

Rev. Paul A. Rydecki said...


I appreciate your encouragements. I'll add a few thoughts.

A read through the New Testament reveals a fact about the early church that seems foreign to our way of thinking: Not once is anyone ever chastised for failing to evangelize.

When the Christians in the Book of Acts, for example, spread the report about Christ, it wasn't (from any evidence we have) in obedience to a command. In fact, it's striking how few times the Epistles direct Christians to evangelize. I can't think of more than two or three, and even those aren't direct commands.

And yet it was done - quite naturally, as Christians continually heard the preaching of the law and the gospel from their ministers. "We believe; therefore we speak," as Paul said. Much unnecessary guilt has been placed on Christians who are led to believe that every moment they weren't presenting God's Great Exchange was an opportunity missed to save a soul.

Instead of turning evangelism into something we really ought to be doing more of, we should instead focus on serious law and gospel preaching in which our self-centered sinfulness is put to death and the self-less love and sacrifice of Christ is preached for the forgiveness of sins.

And then we must teach our people how the Great Commission is less a command and more an authorization. "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore..." Not "therefore, I (Christ) have authority over you Christians to issue commands to you," but rather "therefore, I (Christ) have authority over all the nations on earth to whom I am sending you. I have authority to have my gospel preached, whether people like it or not. I have authority to give eternal life through the Means of Grace. And I have authority to protect and to accompany you, my Church, wherever you go, as you preach the gospel in my name to the end of the age."

Isn't that better than a chastisement? :)

Anonymous said...

I really struggle with this. I mean, I don't think we should feel guilty for every missed opportunity to witness, and I completely agree about the WELS needing to focus on serious law and gospel preaching.
But what it really boils down to for me -- isn't the Great Commission a command? Can't we as a church body do more to help its members reach out to others? I myself struggle with witnessing. Like this article hits home, it's not up to a committee, but each of us. But some guidance would help.
Right, chastising is not what the bible requires of its church leaders -- but, perhaps, some more frequent encouragement (to members to share the Good News)?

Anonymous said...

Judith, I wonder what you mean by "more frequent encouragement". Encouragement does not come from the law, but from the gospel. The law always convicts; it never empowers or encourages.

Thus, when pastors end almost every single sermon with the cliche application, "Now go and tell other people" (whether that application fits the text or not) they are not encouraging people, they are (unintentionally) convicting people and using guilt to motivate people to evangelize.

As Pastor Rydecki pointed out, that model is completely foreign to the New Testament Church. The Apostles simply proclaimed the gospel, which naturally empowered people to witness to others. The Apostles didn't end every sermon with a command to evangelize; they didn't guilt people into knocking on doors in Jerusalem. The Church grew naturally and organically through he gospel, not mechanically through the law.

Mr. Adam Peeler

Rev. Paul A. Rydecki said...


It's been awhile. Good to see your comments here again!

I wouldn't go quite as far as saying a sermon shouldn't end with an encouragement to this or that. There's nothing wrong with a "Go and do likewise" at the end of a sermon, if the text calls for it. Of course, not all texts call for it. And very few (perhaps none) call for entire sermons on "how to" do evangelism better.

Judith, the command in Matthew 28 is a command for the Church giving her the perpetual task of preaching the gospel. It's not a personal mandate for every believer to teach all nations. Such a thing is impossible, and is not how the early church understood the Great Commission.

As we look at the Book of Acts, we see the apostles preaching, and the believers gathering together around the apostles' teaching (and the "breaking of bread" and the prayers). It's absolutely stunning how God caused the Church to keep growing through this simple dynamic, without even a mention of any believer knocking on doors in the city of Jerusalem.

The believers stayed in Jerusalem not (as some assert) because that was their "comfort zone," but because that was their vocation. When they were forced to flee from persecution, the Word of God went with them. The Church also sent out missionaries (like Paul and Barnabas), but never in a forced sort of way.

The gathered Church (on Sunday morning, for example), is fed by Word and Sacrament. Then the Church scatters out into the community, not according to an evangelism diagram, but in our various vocations. As we offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God in those vocations and love our neighbor in those settings, God will provide the opportunities he wants for us to draw others into the Church.

I think a few passages of Scripture give solid guidance to individual Christians regarding their part in the Great Commission:

Matt. 5:13-16 “You are the salt of the earth...You are the light of the world...In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven."

1 Cor. 7:17 Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.

1 Pet. 3:15-16 Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

In addition, of course there are the encouragements for all Christians to pray for the ministers of the Word and for all people, and to support gospel ministers financially.

All of this carries out the Great Commission.

Intrepid Lutherans said...

Judith and all,

Perhaps it will help to understand that in the Greek the word "go" is not in the imperative, but rather a participle modifying the main verb "disciple." So, simply put, while going, we are to disciple. The plain fact of the matter is that, as a matter of course, believers have gone and do go out into the world. As we do that, God uses us to disciple others.

In addition, it should be remembered that to disciple someone in Jesus' day usually meant to bring them into a student-type or learner-type relationship. Thus, God does not give us a command here to "make people believers." That is impossible for us to do. No, rather, we are to do what we can when and where we can to bring people into contact with the Means of Grace. Jesus makes it very clear what it is that is going to convert people, “. . .baptizing and teaching them all things . . .”

Finally, while inviting someone to church is wonderful, praying for your Pastor and your church’s ministry, supporting your church with your offerings, just being seen going to church on Sundays, wearing a cross or crucifix, saying grace at meals, being seen reading the Bible at work or in school, and simply being a good and productive citizen are all ways of witnessing. None is “better” or more holy than another.

Some of the most comforting words in our faith in this regard are those of Dr. Luther, “The kingdom of God comes indeed without our prayer, of itself; but we pray in this petition that it may come unto us also.” The Holy Spirit works faith when and where He will through the Means of Grace. We thank God that He has made us believers and thus heirs of everlasting life. And so, as we live our lives in thanks to Him for His great grace, we are tools in the hands of the Holy Spirit to bring saving faith to others.

I am convinced that we touch many more lives with our faith than we ever know while we are alive on this earth, and that in heaven we will meet many who are there because of something we did or said, even though at the time we had no idea God was working through us.

And so, let us be Biblical, historic, confessional, orthodox, Lutheran Christians in every way in our lives and let God take care of His kingdom and grow it when and where He will. He will use us in this work as He sees fit.

Pastor Spencer

Anonymous said...

I wasn't intending to say we should be motivated by the law, but understand what Adam's saying about the unintentional result of these cliche "encouragements." I am often in contact with folks from other church bodies who are heavy into personal witnessing, so this discussion has been very helpful.
Thank you,

Anonymous said...

Judith and Pastor Rydecki,

I certainly wasn't intending to say that a sermon should never end with an encouragement to do something. I was simply trying to say that when a sermon ends with an encouragement to do something, the motivation and power to do that thing doesn't come from the encouragement itself, it comes from the gospel which (hopefully) preceded it.

I've heard far too many sermons in the WELS that are almost completely devoid of gospel proclamation, but very heavy on "encouragement" to go and evangelize (even when the sermon text has nothing at all to do with evangelism). Such law-based encouragements separated from the gospel don't motivate, they accuse and demoralize.

This is especially true for people whom God has blessed with introverted personalities. They may serve God faithfully and well in their vocations, letting their light shine to the world, but are made to feel guilty because they didn't go knock on doors last weekend.

Mr. Adam Peeler

Anonymous said...

Perhaps this passsage will address the issue also as so many have written well regarding Judith's thoughts. To the text listed below, it seems as though Christians simply do what is required and important out of faith in and love for Christ. The unrighteous do not. Perhaps they will be the ones who were looking for a law command to do such things.

Matthew 25:31-46 (New International Version, ©2010)

The Sheep and the Goats
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

No law was required nor any demand made. They just did it.

Jim Huwe

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