Re-Entering Every “Place” for Gospel Advance

Tim Brister
Tim Brister
2014 9 Sep

About four years ago, I wrote about “evangelism in every place.” Specifically, I argued that Christians need to look that the three dominant places where life happens: first place being the home, second place being the workplace or school, and third place being connecting hubs in the community. It is my observation that much of the latter half of the 20th century was a retreat engineered by the fundamentalist impulse of separation from worldliness.

A Little Context to the Problem

Going into the 20th century, Christians in the West were living in the age of the Industrial Revolution, great advance in innovation and transportation, and an overall increasing quality of life. Under such circumstances, postmillennial convictions found a home in a prosperous society. Could it be that the kingdom is being consummated? Well, postmillenialism was largely dashed with two World Wars, financial collapse, and several plagues. Postmillenialism was left only for liberal theologians and the social gospel–those who believed that doing good, feeding the poor, and serving the social structures of the community was “kingdom work.” The posture was one of assimilation and absorption such that there was really little to “counter” in the culture.

The reaction to postmillennialism was the rise of dispensational premillennialism which became the theological foundation for fundamentalism. In one sense, fundamentalism was a good thing–it contended for the faith once for all delivered to the saints and stood for the “fundamentals” of the faith. In another sense, however, it signaled a retreat from cultural engagement and meaningful involvement in the world. The posture became one of confrontation, not conversation or interaction. Conservative Christianity became a subculture or “ghetto” where life happened safely within the confines of sanitized, sanctified environments. There was Christian music, Christian movies, Christian magazines, Christian conferences, Christian camps, Christian radio, Christian you name it. You could live in the Christian village without ever having to fear of going into the dark, wild, and wicked outside world.

For the churches in the 20th century, this manifested in a number of ways, not the least of which was the creation of “family life centers” or “Christian life centers.” These were buildings constructed by churches so that social activity such as sports or banquets or other forms of community interaction can happen in a controlled, safe environment, far removed from the larger culture outside the walls. These buildings enforced the fortress mentality of retreat and isolationism and gave Christians the feeling of being productive by making them busy during the week with activities an programs. Churches became known for doing a lot of programs for themselves and doing little in the world around them.

Over time, God gave the Church men like Carl Henry, Francis Schaeffer, and John Stott to help lead the evangelical west out of the ghetto mentality and subculture it had created. Theologians like Gordon Ladd helped evangelicals have a more theologically consistent and biblically faithful approach to the culture with a kingdom eschatology and valued the already (inaugurated) sense of the kingdom but understood the not-yet sense of it as well. Consequently, the posture toward the culture became more nuanced: rejecting what is evil, receiving what is good, and redeeming what is broken.

We Must Enter Every “Place” for Gospel Advance

In my opinion, fundamentalism has seriously affected the Western Church’s ability to make disciples in the world due to its strong retreat from the world. Jesus says we are to go into all the world. Fundamentalism says retreat from the world. Jesus was known for dwelling with sinners in their homes. Fundamentalism was known for dwelling with Christians in their “family life centers.” If we are going to follow Jesus into the world to make disciples through gospel advance, we need to be empowered by the Spirit to reject “subcultural” norms and re-enter for the purpose of showing and sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.

What About 1st Place?

Several decades ago, it was normal for people to engage one another in the neighborhood. Life happened in the streets and the front porch. Now, if someone knocks on the front door, you are likely to be answered with high levels of suspicion and an armed weapon. Times have changed. The Great Commission, however, has not. We need to learn new ways to engage people where we live. How can we use our homes for gospel advance? How can we be neighbors to those around us? What are ways to build relationships with those across the street and beyond our security system and fenced in back yard?

One of the ways I’ve tried make gospel advance in my “first place” is through Next Door. It is an online social network exclusively for your neighborhood. If you don’t live within the neighborhood parameters, you cannot join in. Nowadays, the front door to people’s lives is the Internet, and this digital front door is opening new, real doors into people’s lives. This may not be an option for you, but not entering in your first place should not be an option either. We must be repentant of our retreat and live intentionally in the first place where God has providentially landed us to represent Him as His good-news people.

What About 2nd Place?

With the increase of innovation and technological revolution, people are increasingly divorced from the value of their work and the impact it has on society. Though work was given to Adam and Eve as a good thing prior to the fall, work has become a necessary burden to grind through or an idol in order to find one’s identity. What we need, first and foremost, is to recover the doctrine of vocation and calling in the workplace for Christians.

Secondly, we need to realize that second places–whether work or school–are the places where we will spend the majority of time in the world outside our homes. If we check out on making disciples of Jesus, then we are marginalizing the mission to a very small window of time in our lives. For a little encouragement on re-entering the workplace for gospel advance, I encourage you to read this series of blogposts on missional work.

What About Third Places?

Every community has places where people like to connect, gather, and hang out. They can be parks, coffee shops, outdoor shopping centers, libraries, pubs, or restaurants. There are also places where everyone goes to do business, whether getting gas, buying groceries, buying clothes, going out to eat, or watching sporting events. Finally, most communities or cities have a community calendar with events and activities that are open to the public, such as parades, shows, concerts, and races. All of these are ways that we not only intersect with those in our community, but that we actually build rhythms where our lives are woven into the world around us for redemptive purposes.

The world is your third place, not your church building or “campus.” If we retreat to only having our kids on Christian sports teams or sync our lives with the busy church program calendar, then we are cutting ourselves off from the mission entrusted to us. Imagine if Jesus treated us this way? Imagine if he never came to our “place” and our world to live his life, give us his love, and die our death on the cross?

Not Additional, But Intentional

The beautiful thing about re-entering every place is that they are already where we live. The goal is not adding a busy agenda to your life; rather, the goal is to simplify and streamline your life with strategic intentionality. Anyone can do this. But practically speaking, this can be harder than others. For example, if you are a stay-at-home mom and home school your kids, it can be more challenging to engage the world for gospel advance. If you live in a multi-ethnic diverse neighborhood, it can be more challenging to connect with those in your first place. But the point is that making disciples happens in every place–first, second, and third. When the church building or campus becomes your primary place for ministry, you are looking in the wrong direction and living in the wrong place. The church is a sent people on mission to share the gospel in the power of the Spirit. We are not a program or a place. We are a people who enter into the world with good news on our lips because the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Photo credit: © Getty Images/Bayram Gürzoğlu

Tim Brister is a pastor and elder at Grace Baptist Church. Find out more on his blog: Provocations and Pantings.