In “Get Real,” author John Leonard has an interesting chapter called “Party Evangelism.” There are two sections to the chapter. The first is establishing that the western mindset has distorted the focus of Christianity to overly individualistic at the expense of the community aspect. This distortion has a significant impact on the role of the church in Christianity in the west.
This whole section is worth a read, but for our purposes, we will give you a taste from Leonard:
“When I ask North Americans what means the most to them about their relationship with Christ, the most common responses are forgiveness, joy, peace, eternal life, and that heaven is a free gift. If you were to categorize each of these answers under the headings of personal or communal, you would see that almost everyone is thinking individually. I am thankful that my sins are forgiven. I am grateful for the joy and peace that is in me. I cherish the eternal life that I have. Not only do we think almost exclusively of our salvation as an individual benefit, we think of it as internal and spiritual. That is, our faith is lived out in us, in our private internal world. All of these responses need no tangible manifestation in the physical world.”
“Western individualism has also distorted the gospel. Every gospel presentation that I know of emphasizes one’s personal relationship with Christ, while at the same time saying nothing about the importance of the church. Some presentations will list for believers those things they should do to grow as a Christian. This is the first and only place most gospel presentations mention the church. The church, in these presentations, is not an essential and is at best optional. Therefore, we have many people in the West who think of themselves as Christians because they believe they have a personal relationship with Christ, and yet see no need at all to be part of a local church. The impact of our individual and internal gospel is seen in the devaluation of the church because we don’t need anyone else, and certainly not the church, if the gospel is only about getting into heaven.”
“If I were to say to you that apart from the church there is no salvation, you would probably think that I was Catholic. But this statement is not mine. It was spoken by many church fathers and reformers. Calvin writes in his Institutes of Christian Religion, “Beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for” (IV. 1.4) and “those to whom he is Father, the Church may also be Mother” (IV. 1.1). The Westminster Confession of Faith also states in article 25.2, “out of which (the Church) there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” The church is not an option for Christians. It is an essential, particularly if we understand the communal and external nature of our salvation.”
“Western individualism has turned the church into an event that I may or may not participate in, depending on what I get out of it. This is not what the church is to be. It is a community of people who bring the best of the grace that God has given us and give it to one another. This is what the church is meant to be!”
At this point, there are probably a lot of amens and head nods. The second part of the chapter brings a challenge to all of us who are nodding. Leonard points out how this has affected our evangelism.
“Not only have our individual and internal values impacted the way we understand the gospel and the church, it also impacts the way we do evangelism. We practice “personal evangelism,” “friendship evangelism,” or “one-on-one evangelism.” We indoctrinate our children at an early age to this individual approach. Every child who has ever attended a Vacation Bible School and sung the chorus, “I Will Make You Fishers of Men,” has been taught that evangelism is something we do by ourselves. There is nothing wrong with the words of the chorus; after all, they come straight out of the Bible. It’s the choreography. We teach our children that evangelism is fishing with a pole. We make the gestures of casting a fishing rod while we are singing. However, our Lord was not speaking about fishing with a rod when he called the disciples to follow him. He was talking to fishermen who used nets. When you fish with nets, you must fish together.”
Which leads to this picture of evangelism….
“The evangelism that the church is to practice should resemble the way Polynesians catch fish. We must do it together, and we do it by inviting our nonbelieving friends to the party. We let the grace that we have been lavishing on one another spill out onto the nonbelievers among us. There is nothing wrong with personal evangelism. Philip, in Acts, was a great personal evangelist, but he is the exception and not the norm. What we have done by stressing personal evangelism is discourage more Christians from evangelizing. We have made it the “gift” of a few, rather than the practice of a community. Philip won people to Christ, but not as many as the community of believers who were partying in Jerusalem did. Luke describes their activities: “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2: 46–47).”
“Every Christian knows, or at least should know, that they have been given a gift or gifts from God. When you use your gifts to grace believers, we call that edification, but when you use your gifts to grace nonbelievers—when you pour out God’s grace upon them—we call that evangelism. This is what I call party evangelism. Every one of us, then, has a part in the evangelistic mission of the church. Your job, along with other believers, is to grace the socks off the nonbelievers around you.”
“Party evangelism is not only much better than personal evangelism—it’s much more effective and fun. In personal evangelism, we usually feel like it’s us against the world. We’re dragged into a conversation about the gospel over lunch with friends or coworkers, and they all seem to jump on us. Bruised and battered, we vow to never speak up again. “In party evangelism, however, the results are the complete opposite. We outnumber nonbelievers, and instead of getting bashed they get graced, mercifully, in word and deed.”
Jesus was a great party evangelist. We know this because of what his enemies said about him. They called Jesus a drunkard and glutton (Luke 7: 34). All that means is that Jesus knew how to have fun at a party. Jesus knew how to grace the people at whatever table he found himself. He graced the tables of the religious and nonreligious, the righteous and the unrighteous, one as easily as the other.”
Leonard leaves us with a challenge…
“A partying church, on the other hand, has low walls. A partying church doesn’t talk about how evil everyone else is, but how bad we all are. You don’t hear the partying church talking about other peoples’ sins; instead they talk about their own sin. And you hear the call of the gospel offered to all.”
“A partying church doesn’t try to get all their people into the church all the time, to keep them away from all those “unholy people.” Instead, they have fewer meetings and try to give their people time to get out into the world to be Christian with their family and neighbors. Partying churches don’t hold exercise classes in church to be “attractional”; they go to classes in the community. They don’t have everyone in a church softball league; they send their members out to join community leagues.”
“There is a risk when we send our people out into the world—that we would see the truth about ourselves. We might find out that we’re more worldly than we are holy. This may actually cause us to apply the gospel to our own lives, producing humility and grace in us, making it a lot easier to extend grace to others.”
Questions for Thought or Discussion:
1) What do you think of Leonard’s thesis that we have overemphasized the individual nature of Christianity at the expense of the communal? In what ways or examples do we see that in our experience with church life? Is this just a problem for the “evangelical” churches? Do we see any effects in our Reformed churches—perhaps more subtle?
2) In your personal experiences of evangelism has it been more individual or more “party evangelism?’ How about in your church…..would you describe the evangelism that takes place to be more individual or more party?
3) What steps could be taken to move more in the “party evangelism” direction in your life? And in the life of your church? What challenges are there toward moving in that direction?