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"?
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.