When we talk about spreading God’s kingdom, do we mean that every Christian should tell others about Jesus? Or do our different vocations mean we spread the kingdom in other ways?
The Mission of the Church, Part 3.5
For the past three weeks, I have been reflecting on the purpose and mission of the Church (the Body of Christ) and therefore of our churches (congregations). The quick answer is that I divide the Church’s mission into an internal/inner aspect and an external/outward aspect. Within the Church, the mission is faith formation, which you can call building up the Body. Beyond the Church, the mission is to spread the kingdom of God. Last week, I developed further the metaphor of the Church as a body, looking at faith formation as self-care and kingdom-spreading as a vocation. It is important to me to note that these are not two separate missions, but two aspects of the same mission. Each aspect reinforces and supports the other.
Today’s post is inspired by last week’s with a further reflection on vocations and kingdom-spreading. So, you can think about it as an addendum to the Mission of the Church series.
Spreading the Kingdom and Evangelism
While it’s a bit clunky, I use the phrase “spreading the kingdom” purposefully. There is much discussion and disagreement within the broader Christian tradition on what specifically God calls the Church to do, and most importantly, how to do it. We sometimes talk about it as “proclaiming the good news” or “proclaiming the kingdom.” We often summarize this as “evangelism.”
One point of disagreement among Christians is about what exactly the Church is called to spread. Does this mean to make converts, save souls, grow the Church? Or does it mean to bring light to the world, bringing the world closer to the reality of the kingdom where God’s will is done? Or somewhere in between or something different? This is an important topic, but it is also one I’m going to avoid specifically reflecting on. My hope is that my reflections here and elsewhere leave room for people with different understandings to profit from.
In the narrative of the Book of Acts, Jesus commissions the disciples, saying:
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”Acts 1:8
An interesting point is that the Greek word Jesus uses for “witnesses” here is martus. This is where we get the word “martyr” from. This isn’t an unusual Greek word for this. Jesus is not specifically saying that his followers would die for their faith (as the English word martyr has come to mean). Instead, these deaths were seen as testimonies (bearing witness) to the good news.
All of Us?
But back to “you will be my witnesses.” The “you” here is plural, which I prefer to translate as “y’all” (though I’m not from Texas/the South). Jesus is specifically talking to his chosen apostles here. It’s the same with the Great Commission in the Gospel of Matthew. My question is: does y’all mean all?
- Does Jesus’ commission here apply to all Christians or just some of them?
- And what exactly does “witnessing” involve?
A common answer, in my experience, is that Jesus’ commission does apply to all Christians. And “witnessing” is evangelizing, which is telling people the good news about Jesus. There is disagreement (surprise) on what methods of evangelizing apply. Does it need to be in words (spoken or written)? Can it just be in actions?
I wonder these things, not just because they are important questions for faith formation, but out of personal concern. I, like a good portion of people, am not good at speaking to strangers. It terrifies me, to be honest. Other people are very good at that. Now, I happen to be good at writing, but there are many people who aren’t comfortable with speaking or writing. Do they just need to get over it? Do I need to get over my discomfort with speaking to strangers?
This now moves into the teachings about vocation. Literally, vocation relates to the word “calling.” In a faith context, both words are used to describe the types of work that God has designated (and called) us to do. The apostle Paul establishes quite well that God has given different gifts to each person for different callings (1 Corinthians 12:27-30). Does this mean that some are called to evangelize, and some aren’t? At least in terms of the official role of evangelist, Paul’s answer is “yes.”
The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.Ephesians 4:11-12
Paul here is speaking here about church leaders, and he is possibly not even trying to write a complete list. But does the fact that only some are gifted and called to be evangelists mean the rest of us are off the hook for spreading the kingdom? Are those who are gifted and called to be administrators or construction workers or editors just called to do their best in their work (as the possibly falsely-attributed quote from Martin Luther says)? Do they need to tell people that they are doing quality work for Jesus? Are they called only to contribute their gifts to the local church (or service/justice organizations)?
Not an Answer
Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers to these questions. I do feel confident in saying that not everyone is called to go out and talk to all sorts of strangers to tell them about Jesus. That sort of evangelist has a particular calling. But is being a great [fill in your vocation] enough to spread the kingdom without telling people about Jesus or why you’re doing it? That seems sketchy, but then it goes back to the question of whether y’all means all.
I’m somewhat of a bad example here since I’m not exactly your normal layperson. Spirit & Truth Publishing (of which I am the sole owner and only full-time worker) is a type of parachurch ministry, here to support local congregations. Our support is in providing faith formation resources so that leaders in the local congregations don’t have to write their own. So, our focus is on the inward aspect of the Church’s mission: building up the Body. But does this absolve me of a responsibility to witness to those outside of the Church? Does it absolve me of a responsibility to serve others in terms of justice and short-term aid?
Maybe, but probably not. God gives us multiple vocations as we serve multiple roles in our lives. Serving God and others in one vocation doesn’t mean I shouldn’t serve God and others in all my other vocations.
Faith Formation Connection
The main point I want to communicate to faith formation leaders is to communicate to your participants that there is not only one way to witness or spread the kingdom. God has made us each unique with different sets of gifting and vocations. We should be challenged to stretch and grow our comfort zones, but we should not be expected to take on giftings that we are not given.
Blessings to you as you both evaluated and do your ministry,
Gregory Rawn (Publisher)
VBS, Summer, and 2022-2023 Faith Formation Resources
At Spirit & Truth Publishing, we have many resources for your faith formation needs:
- Learning Together: Five-lesson topical units for VBS, Sunday school, children, and intergenerational classes.
- Resources for the Narrative Lectionary (products for all ages)
- Resource for the Revised Common Lectionary (intergenerational classroom)
- Cross+Generational Confirmation
- Worship and Liturgy Education