I have spent over 25 years in ‘professional’ ministry with InterVarsity USA and the last 20 of those years as a full-time evangelist. I have invested much of my life in the work of evangelism, so it feels strange to admit that I believe evangelism is frequently not enough to bring about life change in those around us.
Now, to be sure, I don’t believe life change can really occur in any meaningful, eternal sense without the power of the gospel, which is at the heart of evangelism. Jesus takes our witness, our faith story, the message of his work on the cross and the resurrection, and does the unimaginable, really spiritual magic. The magic of the gospel is a supernatural force which emanates from the truth of the message -the historic actions of the death and resurrection of Christ-applied by the presence of the Holy Spirit. This magic, I can attest, literally changes people from the inside out as it has changed me.
Why now, then, do I have to admit that evangelism is often not enough?
Real life change often begins when someone hears the message of the gospel and repents of sin, surrendering to the rule of Christ in their lives. But in order for this life change to take route and flourish, people often need a whole lot more – they need a transformative community and here are four reasons why.
1- Community Creates Healthy Disciples
First, life change is not the same as salvation, though they are very much related. If a person has truly repented of sin, believed in Christ’s death and resurrection, and surrendered to His rule, I believe they’ve begun the process of life change. This life change, however, can become stunted, distorted, and even derailed without a significant key ingredient that should both accompany evangelism and all interaction with new Christians after they’ve ‘prayed the prayer.’ This key ingredient is community. While it is true that there are examples of individuals turning to Christ and seemingly individually growing and embracing a Christian lifestyle, they are few and far between and most often devolve into a distortion of Christian faith and practice. Connection to and involvement with a Spirit-filled, Christ-centred community is arguably the single greatest determining factor for real and lasting life change for new Christians.
2- Evangelism Without Community Creates Bigger Problems
Second, evangelistic practice without significant community is detrimental to both individuals and society. The lack of vibrant and intentional community is unfortunately one of the reasons why the Christian faith is in decline in certain parts of the world. While people long for community and seek it out in all kinds of ways, the version of Christianity they often experience is not set up to orient people’s lives toward a new community, a reinterpretation of the self in relation to others. Evangelistic practice has often done more to harm people’s expectations for community than to set them up for it. Frequently, evangelism focuses on the needs and eternal state of just the individual hearer at the expense of how that hearer fits into the body of Christ and her role in God’s world as a redemptive Kingdom agent.
3- An Alternative Community Is Essential For Those With One Already
Third, the lack of emphasis on and availability of community is a significant obstacle to non-Western religious adherents. I live a short distance from the largest Middle Eastern population outside the Middle East-Dearborn, Michigan. I have been inundated with the teachings of Islam most of my life. In Islam, the global and local expression of community is referred to as Umma, and it is the Umma of Islam that represents the primary way of self-interpretation. For Christians, we primarily define ourselves around doctrinal statements – we believe Christ is divine and that salvation is in Christ alone and so on. The Umma has similar doctrinal ways of defining their religion, but Islam is first a way of life and second a theological scaffolding – the latter supporting the former, not the other way around. Many of my neighbours are Hindu’s – first and second generation Asian people who have migrated to the United States. Many of these Hindus have high-paying jobs in technology, medicine, engineering and law, but they also open wide the front windows of their homes in the summer and sing and dance with other Hindu neighbours and friends, share feasts during their many holidays, and express community symbolically through religious artifacts on their door mantles and throughout their homes. Regardless of their pursuit of American educational and occupational achievements, what is true of both Muslims and Hindus is that they are engaged in all-consuming, community-centric, way of self-interpreting and life practice. An individualistic Christian message devoid of community is sharply seen as inferior, a mere set of beliefs that offer nothing to Muslims and Hindus with such a rich culture and community.
4- Community is God’s Plan to Recapture the Imago Dei
Finally, intentional community as a part of evangelism and the life change process is God’s plan to form us into His image – it is what true Christianity has always been about. In Mark 3:13-19, Jesus calls His disciples to follow Him as a community. When Jesus sends His followers out, He sends them as a community, in relationship, to engage the world (Mark 6:7-13). When Jesus gives His theological discourse and vision for the future Kingdom of God it is thoroughly community-centric (John 14-17). When the first church began to expand throughout the Middle East and beyond, the role of prophets, evangelists, and apostles were always coupled with the role of pastors, teachers, elders and deacons as local churches were established. The vision of God’s future reign also revolves around community as expressed through the in-gathering of the nations and the wedding supper of the Lamb (see Is. 2:2-4; Is. 60:1-14, and; Rev. 21:1-14). Community is a part of the very being of God, an eternal community of interdependent persons. God reveals Himself through the lens of relationality and in this, we see the theocentric lens of the entire Christian faith – our God is one God and in his unity we understand him to be Father, Son and Holy Spirit (see Gen. 1:26). This is the pattern by which we understand what it means to be human individually and what it means to belong to one another. Community is as much a part of life change as it is to understanding God, God’s future vision, and our belonging to God and He to us. Evangelism is not enough – it is the beginning, not the end. What must normatively come alongside evangelistic practice in order for life change to happen is a rich, robust and real community.
- How have I been shaped for better and worse by my Christian community?
- What do I wish had been different in my experience with Christian community?
- How are the non-Christians I’m connected to open and/or closed to Christian community?
Written by R. York Moore. R. York Moore is a speaker, revivalist, abolitionist, and Tiktoker, currently serving as Executive Director/Catalytic Partnerships and National Evangelist for InterVarsity USA. He is the co-founder of the EveryCampus movement, a coalition of organisations and churches seeking God for revival. He is the author several books, including “Seen.Known.Loved.”