It was clear to Jesus’ disciples where He meant them to cast their nets. All they had to do was step across the boat to reach the other side. It didn’t make any sense according to earthly reason that casting their nets there should produce a different result, but it was what Jesus told them to do. That was what made all the difference. You may agree that we should listen to what Jesus says now, regardless of earthly reason. But how do we find the other side of the boat? What would Jesus have us do?
Each disciple of Jesus must listen for himself to the words of Jesus, because He says many things. That’s another good reason for us to begin our Christian life anew each day with repentance, prayer, and meditation on His Word. We can’t distill what Jesus says into a 12-step program that will apply to everyone. Each of us finds himself in our own lives, in our own context, with our own challenges. The Word of God does not change, but its application can vary according to need and circumstances.
Still, here are some ideas for Christian individuals and churches. Let’s define three categories of activities in which we may spend our time. We’ll call them evangelism, outreach or advertising, and good works.
The one most talked about in the recent past is “evangelism.” We’ll define that as narrowly as possible: the communication of the Gospel message to another human being. It requires a medium, like the spoken word, the written word, or visual art. It may be possible to help communicate the Gospel using the medium of music or human actions. The Gospel is essentially a fact or proposition, so its full expression requires a medium that permits a high degree of articulation.
As communication, evangelism includes not only the expression of the Gospel, but also the reception of the message. That does not necessarily include a response of faith, but it does include understanding. It is not evangelism to speak the Gospel in English to people who only understand Spanish.
Jesus commanded evangelism to His apostles when He said (Mark 16:15 NKJV), “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.” That command continues today for those whom Jesus has called into the same pastoral office, and its most pointed and literal fulfillment is found all over the world wherever the Church gathers for the divine service. Every Christian participates in this through our connections to the churches where the Gospel is preached and taught. There are other ways the Gospel is figuratively “preached,” but we’ll leave those for another time.
It’s important to realize that evangelism, as we define it here, is how God the Holy Spirit causes the Church to grow and thrive, as Lutherans confess in Article 5 of the Augsburg Confession:
1] That we may obtain this faith, the Ministry of Teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, 2] the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear 3] the Gospel, to wit, that God, not for our own merits, but for Christ’s sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake.
4] They condemn the Anabaptists and others who think that the Holy Ghost comes to men without the external Word, through their own preparations and works. (bookofconcord.org)
The second category has recently been called “outreach,” but we could also just as well call it “advertising.” This activity seeks to establish lines of communication between Christians and non-Christians, or between the Church and the world. It is not a communication of the Gospel, and so it does not have the power to save anyone from sin or death.
Advertising also involves communication, but as we define it narrowly, its purpose is different than evangelism. Advertising conducted by churches is really the same tool as used by businesses in the world. Businesses advertise to entice or attract the attention of others, with the aim of selling a product or service that the customer may not have been considering. By analogy, churches advertise to entice or attract the attention of others, in order to establish a line of communication that can be used for the Gospel.
It may sound inefficient to communicate an advertising message (conduct outreach) in order to later communicate the Gospel (evangelism). Why not just cut straight to evangelism, and bypass outreach? The reason is simple. The unbelieving world doesn’t like the Gospel. It finds the Gospel to be offensive, foolish, and ridiculous. Just read the first chapters of 1 Corinthians; Paul explains it there. Now, if churches want to communicate something to the unbelieving world, we have the same basic task before us as the secular businesses in our community. I’m fairly certain that people in marketing would discourage us from advertising a message aimed at recipients who will find that message to be offensive, foolish, and ridiculous. We could do it anyway, and rely upon the miraculous work of God to produce the results. We would even see some results, eventually. But if we want to open channels to communicate the Gospel, then we should probably distinguish between outreach and evangelism, between simple advertising and preaching the Gospel.
If businesses are trying to sell a product or services that their customers may not have been considering, churches have it even tougher. We are trying to communicate a message (the Gospel) that we know the recipients don’t want to hear! So it’s important that we open the conversation strategically with an outreach message that may gain the ear of the unbelieving world. Even while we communicate the Gospel in whatever ways we can, we should also conduct outreach by advertising.
This translates easily from churches to individual Christians. In fact, the importance of outreach is even clearer in the lives of Christians. We conduct outreach every time we speak to a non-Christian. The way we speak and act can either open or close lines of communication for the Gospel. We are living advertisements for our Lord’s Church. But then, we are also breathing examples of the Gospel.
That leads us to one of the most powerful media for both outreach and evangelism: the good works of Christians. James 2:18 applies (NKJV): “Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” On that topic, I recommend you read this year’s convention essay from the Evangelical Lutheran Synod’s convention. Pastor Obenberger treats it much more completely than I could do here.
These are some general ideas about the other side of the boat. Jesus actually told His apostles to preach the Gospel, and He tells His whole Church to love one another and perform good works. Why not cast our nets there? But as I mentioned in the last blog post, we need to start much closer to home. We need to begin with our own spiritual problems before we can reach out to help our neighbor. Yes, Christians do have spiritual problems. We require daily repentance as we live in our Baptism, in the holy Name of our God and Savior. We to receive His Word and meditate upon it so that it becomes the fabric of our lives. That’s really where we begin to find the other side of the boat, and it prepares us to reach out in godly love, with genuine good works.