Showing Off: Proclamation in context

Well, we have finally arrived at the summit of our discussion. This is where we want to be. We’ve stepped in, searched out, showed up and now it is time to show off. The point is not that we now show off our learning or our righteousness. Rather, we get to show off Christ in all his radiant glory as the only hope.

In this book, we have been encouraging each other to see ourselves as missionaries to urban contexts, whether that is as someone crossing cultural and geographical boundaries moving into a different area or those of us who find ourselves called to share the good news in the place we grew up and to people we grew up with. The title “missionary” applies equally to paid pastors, pioneer planters and those who are part of the core membership of a church.

The role of the missionary is first and foremost to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. JH Bavinck held to a high view of this proclamation, or preaching it its widest sense as demonstrated by two tremendous quotes. First of all, he says:

“What is preached, the content of preaching, is not a theory, not a philosophical system, but it is God himself. We are not postmen but ambassadors of Christ”[1]

Then he goes on to add.

“Our preaching is the place where the living Christ encounters a lost and confused mankind.”[2]

This means that the person who shares the Gospel has a high responsibility, privilege and duty. We are representing God himself and our aim is to see people encounter God through the Gospel. This means that whether it is in a sermon to a crowd, Bible study with a small group or in 1-1 conversation, something special is happening when the good news is announced. It can never be a mere intellectual exercise God himself through the Holy Spirit is present, active and at work.

Bavinck suggests that the preacher has four important questions to consider before they begin to speak.

  1. [3]
  2. [4]
  3. [5]
  4. [6]

Once again, we are being encouraged to contextualise.  The Gospel is not communicated in abstract. What this means is that when we seek to share the good news, even at the point of proclamation, it is not about blurting out a message, shouted across the street, or necessarily a stylised evangelistic sermon. At this point, I am reminded of that old hallmark of evangelism, the tract. A tract would often start with a witty story, a piece of fascinating historical information or discussion of a practical problem. Then, suddenly and without warning, the last page would become densely thick with Bible quotes as the Gospel was shoe-horned in.  That is both an ineffective way of doing things and let’s be open about it, pushing the boundaries of integrity.

So, at this stage, it is good, once again to ask those questions “who are we preaching to” and what is the most effective way of preaching? In other words, how will we contextualise our showing off?  This means that the answer we give needs to be consistently in line with our lived lives amongst people and to genuinely answer the questions they have, fulfilling their declared needs.

Practically, this does touch upon how we go about ministry and mission. Here are a few thoughts to consider. First of all, if church planting, or revitalising, then we need to look at the nature of the team that take on the task at the start. It is my opinion that traditional church planting methods where a church sends a large group to an area to start to gather as a church will not work. At worst, the church will become a church for complete outsiders who commute in. At best, you will end up with a group of people who have moved onto the estate and are seen with suspicion.

You need a (probably small) group of people who will commit to live in that community. They need to make their lives among the people. This means that you cannot have a situation where the entire group treat the location as a commuter village, returning home at night from work in the city. That does not mean that everyone gives up their jobs and tries to find local work. There may be other problems with that. It does mean that you need to find ways of becoming part of life on the estate or in the neighbourhood. This may include little things such as thinking about where your children go to school and where you shop.

A further practical point is that we may be rushing towards one goal, the goal of an established public gathering on the estate that causes us to focus in on one area and miss other possibilities. This is why we tend to focus on getting the twenty to thirty people together in order to plant our church with enough people to form a congregation, provide a music group and staff the Sunday School. This assumes of course that the people need to be invited to the Sunday service to hear the proclamation. Yet if the proclamation is growing natural out of our life in an area, if there is a direct link between stepping in and showing off then this may not be so.  Rather, we may wish to focus much more on developing a community of believers in an area.

So, let’s stick with a scenario where there are 30 people ready to move to an area and plant  a church. In classic church thinking terms, we will assume that we are best to focus on getting the one church up and running. Yet this may not be the best way forward. What if instead, we aimed to plant 3-6 churches in a larger geographical area. Instead of 30 people moving to one area, we would have groups of 5-10 moving into several areas. Each would begin to witness in its area as a missional community and each would begin to see fruit from gospel conversations. Each of the groups could gather together with the others in a central place for as long as this was possible and necessary bt the aim would be for each to become a church in its own right. We are not looking for the fullest church in our city but for a city full of churches.

Related to this is the question of tentmaking ministry. This term is based on Acts 18:1-4.

“Then Paul left Athens and went to Corinth.[a] There he became acquainted with a Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently arrived from Italy with his wife, Priscilla. They had left Italy when Claudius Caesar deported all Jews from Rome. Paul lived and worked with them, for they were tentmakers[b] just as he was.”

Now there has been some discussion in recent times about the need for bi-vocational or tent-maker workers.  There is an argument that to really multiply churches, we will need more of this type of worker giving part of their time to Gospel work and part to earning a living.  There is a further argument for this which is that the secular work may create evangelistic opportunities, providing it is in the context of the mission.

However, I’ve heard a number of people argue that this would simply not be possible in working class and estate contexts and especially with indigenous working-class pastors who haven’t got an educational background or the social connections to work a lucrative career. After all, if I can go down from 5 days to 2 or 3 and still earn £30k then that does free up time for mission. However, if I have to travel long distances and work long hours, 5 or even 6 day per week  at a labour-intensive job, assuming that there is suitable work available then that is more likely to have a detrimental effect on ministry.

So, it is important to make two observations here. The first stands out immediately in the text.  Paul was able to do the work because he had friends who go him to join in with them.  It wasn’t that he had to go and find work for himself. Other believers found a way in which he could do the work and because they will have been in control of the business, it meant that there would have been flexibility so that his gospel ministry would never have been put in jeopardy by his secular work.

Secondly, remember that Paul operated as part of an apostolic band. He was part of a team. So aga, what we see here is that there are one or two people within the team who are using their work to support the whole gospel effort. Indeed, it begins to look like the reverse of our modern situation where lots of people support a few financially for the work of the Gospel and more that a few support the many. It is important that we recognise that value. It is also important that when planning to plant, we look not just at personal support but also at how the whole effort will become viable.

The whole effort is about seeing a group of people who love the Lord able to live in a community and work together, coming alongside one another and the people around them so that at the shops, the school gate, the workplace etc people who don’t know Jesus come into contact with people who do and hear the good news about him

[1] Bavnck, The Science of Missions, 81-82.

[2] Bavinck, The Science of Missions, 82.

[3] Bavinck, The Science of Missions, 82.

[4] Bavinck, The Science of Missions,83.

[5] Bavinck, The Science of Missions, 85.

[6] Bavinck, The Science of Missions, 86.

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