What's a Christian to Do?
In his book, Blessed are the Misfits, Brant Hansen writes about his life growing up in a church where it was constantly stressed that every Christian’s job was to evangelize – to get out into the world to spread the gospel – and how distressing this assignment was for him as an introvert. In other churches, what is stressed is that every Christian’s job is to engage in political action – to elect the right people to office with the goal of shaping the Supreme Court. In other churches, our main job, we are told, is to transform our communities by engaging in social justice.
While all these endeavors (evangelism, political action, social justice) are indeed worthy pursuits for believers in Christ, it is striking to note how little they are mentioned in the New Testament. Though the gospels tell us that Jesus commissioned his Church to take his message of salvation to the world, the apostolic letters say virtually nothing at all about personal evangelism; churches are never instructed to open soup kitchens for their neighborhoods; and, there is not even a hint of a suggestion that Jesus wants his followers to seek political power.
Hansen writes, "You know what is in those letters? A repeated, almost nonstop emphasis on how Christians should treat each other: reminders and instructions to be patient with each other; to submit to each other; to show hospitality to each other; to be at peace with each other; to forgive each other; to give preference to each other; to serve each other… There simply aren’t many directives on evangelism, but there sure is a lot about unity."
Though the first Christians were not urged to try to change their world, it is astonishing to note how much they did. In the first centuries of the Christian movement, the gospel spread like wild fire, bringing thousands into the faith and transforming the Roman Empire. Historian Alan Kreider sought to uncover the secret to the rapid growth of the early Church and was surprised to find almost no emphasis on evangelism in early Christian writings.
As an example, Kreider cites an instruction manual for new believers written by the African bishop Cyprian in the 3rd Century. Cyprian lists 120 “heavenly precepts” that are to guide us in the Christian life. Not one of these “precepts” told Christians to evangelize. Rather, the bishop told us to: support our fellow Christians; forgive and not judge; refrain from murmuring; live sexually pure lives; fear God and obey his will; practice humility and quietness; love our enemies; shun greed; fulfill our marriage vows; visit the sick; tell the truth; never gossip; prepare for martyrdom; and, “be urgent in prayers.”
How does this explain the growth of the early Church? Hanson writes: "It was very attractive, in a disordered culture of addictions with a widening gap between the rich and poor, to see people who were truly free. [Early Christians] were modeling an alternative society, one that looked like the kingdom of God…. People want to be part of a culture that unites races, the rich and the poor, male and female, slave and free. We’re all yearning for this."
So, what’s a Christian to do? What is our number one job? Our Sunday morning study in 1 John this summer reveals that the main things God wants from us are to obey his commands and to love each other in tangible, practical ways. Let’s pray for strength to do these things well, and grace to do them with joy.
Does this mean that Christians should not strive to spread the gospel? That we shouldn’t work to help the poor and needy in our communities? Certainly not. But it is important to remember that, in the New Testament, evangelism and mercy ministries are linked to spiritual gifts given to individual believers, rather than the general job description for all followers of Christ (Ephesians 4:11; Romans 12:8). What is God’s assignment for all Christians? 1 John 3:23 says, “And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.”