Dr. Walter Künneth’s stimulating and thought-provoking paper raises at the outset the problem of defining our terms, and this becomes supremely important when we speak of the Church. The biblical concept of the Church has been, and is, constantly confused with a given denomination, a group of denominations, or even with the total mass of nominal Christians in a given country.
Dr. Künneth recognizes that our use of the word here in the conference is general, and not limited to the biblical context of the Church: the body of Christ, the company of true believers. Once we accept a more general definition, we face immediately the basic obstacle of “nominalism which weakens both the life and evangelistic outreach of the Church in every continent of the world.
The subject of this panel, however - defined in different documents as parochialism, self—containment and isolation - suggests that we are to limit our examination to the aspects of Church life covered by these headings and which hinder the evangelistic program of the Church. We will direct this enquiry into three main areas: first, preoccupation with other interests; secondly, failure to communicate with the outside world; and. thirdly, dependence upon the professional ministry.
1. Preoccupation with other interests
Perhaps the greatest hindrance to evangelism within the life of a particular parish is its preoccupation with other interests. While these interests may be good, and even essential, their sum total in terms of time, energy and finance can result in a minimal concern for evangelism.
I would be the first to recognize and applaud a comprehensive program of teaching and instruction in the life of the local church. Similarly, the cultivation of spiritual maturity and cultivation of personal holiness are essential, but if such efforts fail to lead to a concern for and outreach among those who are lost, both at home and abroad, they are dangerous, and probably unbalanced.
A second area of probable hindrance to evangelism in the life of the parish lies in the multiplicity of its own organizations, each organization having its own highly developed program. Such a complexity of meetings inevitably makes the church centripetal rather than centrifugal in its emphasis. Members tend then to come to the church and its buildings to receive, rather than to go out and meet the world in order to give their witness.
A third area of preoccupation with other interests concerns the mundane problem of buildings - their erection, maintenance and financing. How much time in the regular meetings of the parish council or committee is spent in considering buildings, property, budgets, and how much on the church’s evangelistic responsibility and program?
2. Failure to communicate
The second major area of hindrance in the church’s evangelistic outreach is its failure to communicate the Gospel to the outside world.
Self—complacency is perhaps one of the most common reasons for this failure. It is tragically possible for even a mature congregation to settle down into the comfortable rut and routine of parochial life and perhaps unconsciously become satisfied and complacent. This settling down process inevitably brings spiritual paralysis.
In such churches aggressive programs of evangelism would be considered unwise and likely to cause misunderstanding. There is an unwillingness to accept the basic fact that the Gospel must divide, and that the proclamation of the Gospel will always arouse hostility among those who reject it.
A further reason for failure in communication is the mistaken belief that evangelism must take place in the church, or on church property. Such a mentality insists that people must be brought to the church, instead of allowing the congregation to take the Gospel to the people, to their homes or wherever they can be reached.
Yet a further cause for the failure to communicate is the sheer inability of many sincere Christians to establish rapport with those whom they wish to win. Far too many Christians have isolated themselves from the world of today; they do not understand the language and find it impossible to “sit where they sit.” Their clichés and religious terminology constitute a foreign language to people outside the church.
A final possible cause in the breakdown of communications is the lack of personal holiness. It is still true that “the heathen shall know that I am the Lord when I am sanctified in you before their eyes.” The quality of personal holiness is still the most potent form of evangelistic witness, but the present pattern of much parochial life is hardly conducive to its development.
3. Dependence upon the professional ministry
Mention has already been made of certain factors which tend toward an “inward” rather than an “outward” looking church. An even more powerful deterrent to any major emphasis upon evangelism, however, lies in the unscriptural dependence by the congregation upon the ordained minister or ministers. In far too many churches the laity are unwilling to take an active part in many areas of church life and particularly in evangelism. Church members in general inevitably think of evangelism as a specialized function to be undertaken exclusively by ministers, or perhaps by a few laymen ho have a special gift for it.
The problem of such “clericalism” is much more acute where the pattern of ministry within a large congregation is the “one man” ministry. If all ministry is centered in one man, and he is clearly a teacher and not an evangelist, the imbalance of that church’s total witness is obvious.
The rapid spread of the early Church was undoubtedly the result of spontaneous lay witness; the areas of most rapid growth in the life of the Church are those where lay witness has been most effectively organized. Bishop Azariah’s work in the Dornakal diocese of South India, and more recent Evangelism—in—Depth campaigns are but two telling examples of this truth.
If there is one single solution to the problem of parochialism, self—containment and isolation, it is mobilization of the total membership of our churches for and in a program of dynamic evangelism. It will, first of all, however, require a new breath of the Spirit of God upon the dry bones of the churches, so that motivated by a passion for Christ, and by compassion for the lost, men and women will cry with the Apostle, “Woe is me, if I preach not the Gospel.”