The aim behind church-planting traditionally has been to bring into existence new worshipping communities of people who believe in Jesus. Many of those people will already identify themselves as Christian; probably a much smaller number, if any, will be new converts; some will be seekers, by-standers, hangers-on. In any case, the assumption will be, generally speaking, that this is a community generated and defined by a gospel of personal salvation. Baptism into this community will be a baptism of personal salvation – a public sign that the person has repented of sin and has faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. I want to suggest that this constitutes a restrictive and in a certain sense ineffectual understanding not only of the gospel but of what it means to be an evangelical community.
Community and gospel in the New Testament
Let’s go back to the beginnings of gospel-formed community. John’s baptism signified incorporation into a movement of national repentance. The Jews who came to him became part of an alternative and prophetic community that in its very existence announced to Israel that a devastating judgment was approaching – that the axe was already laid to the root of the trees.
Baptism into the subsequent Jesus movement took national repentance as its starting point but added to this the transforming experience of the eschatological Spirit. This was a community formed for the sake of the renewal of the people of God following the destruction of rebellious, misguided, stiff-necked national Israel. Jesus’ gospel was precisely the announcement to Israel of this possibility.
For the groups of believing Jews and Gentiles that emerged across the Greek-Roman world, baptism again stood for something far more significant than personal salvation. These hybrid communities were a sign to Israel of judgment and renewal, but they were also a sign to the pagan world that the righteous God of Israel, who made the heavens and the earth, was no longer prepared to overlook its idolatry and the moral disorder that resulted from it and had fixed a day when he would overturn the whole order of things (Acts 17:30-31; Rom. 1:1-32). Paul’s gospel, his proclamation to the pagan oikoumenē, was that God had raised his Son from the dead and given him authority over the nations, had given him the nations as an inheritance – and that it was only a matter of time before this would become apparent to all.
Clearly in these three developing biblical instances baptism into the community entailed personal conversion. Individuals repented, believed, received the Spirit – but in the process, more importantly, they took on the identity and purpose, the symbolic and historical meaning, the mission, of the community. They were baptized into a movement of repentance, a movement of renewal, a movement of political-religious transformation. Their conversion was simply the prerequisite for effective participation in the movement.
Big gospel, small gospel
If we take this corporate-symbolic dimension seriously, what would be the implications for church-planting, indeed, for evangelism? Could we conceive of churches that are generated and defined not primarily by a gospel of personal salvation but by a much bigger statement either to the church or to the world about the reality and presence and character and activity of the creator God?
For example, I have some indirect connections with International Justice Mission and have had a number of conversations about the possibility of creating new worshipping communities of believers specifically and self-consciously around a gospel that proclaims both to the church and to the world, that the creator God does not tolerate injustice.
In fact, there is no reason why this should be restricted to church plants. Over the last two or three years Crossroads International Church in the Hague has worked closely with IJM to set up and support a local resourcing office. The relationship has given the church a very practical way of publicly identifying itself, in the city of international peace and justice, with the God of peace and justice.
The important point to grasp is that these would still be profoundly evangelical communities. A church or movement that deliberately declares by its very existence, through its practical and devotional life, that God is not indifferent to suffering or oppression or to the social, economic and intellectual follies of our age is just as evangelical and just as evangelistic as the community of repentant Israel or the community of Jesus’ disciples or the communities that gave notice to the empire that time was running out for the spiritually and morally bankrupt order of classical paganism.
Moreover, to become part of such a community is to convert. The church is not a social movement with indeterminate, porous boundaries. It remains a people bound by covenant to the creator God, and the same terms and conditions apply. Baptism into such symbolic missional communities entails repentance from sin, from participation in an unjust system, it entails faith in the one who is Lord over all régimes, it entails reception of the dynamic, inventive, prophetic Spirit that always gives shape and character to the people of God, and it entails hope in the final victory of God over the enemies of his creation, including the last enemy death.
The difference is that the community’s life and practices – worship, teaching, prayer, discipleship, activism – are no longer centred around the personal relationship with God. They have been reconfigured around the corporate relationship with a God of justice – and I would suggest that this dynamic gives us the primary sense in which the church is missional.
The small gospel of personal salvation is subordinate to, included in, presupposed by, the big gospel that the creator God is not stuck in the past, that he remains faithful to his people, and that – in Paul’s language – he will be shown to be righteous, he will be justified. The challenge to the post-evangelical church now is to work out how to tell that big good news well.