Deliciously Distinctive Living
As Christians spend their time scattered in their communities, distinctive living is key to evangelism.
Is your preaching and teaching ministry doing enough to prepare your church for the task of evangelism? In this series, Andy Paterson offers biblical encouragement that every Christian has a role to play, free from false guilt.
This is part 11 in the series.
Although Christians occasionally get together (usually on a Sunday) in a home, hall, or some building they might own, the vast majority of the time the church is scattered throughout a community – living in apartments and flats, houses, caravans, bungalows, or mansions.
The biblical expectation now, as it was in Paul’s day, is that there should be an evangelistic lifestyle.
Distinctive living in a hostile society
Here’s Paul writing to the Christians in Thessalonica:
“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: you should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.” (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12)
Now remember this was a church that had a tough start: “severe suffering” (1:6); “you suffered from your own people” (2:14); “unsettled by these trials” (3:3). But Paul expects that they won’t retaliate against the way they were treated by unbelieving neighbours but would work for peace instead.
What’s more, he expects that a lifestyle that is peaceful, non-interfering, and self-sufficient will be attractive to the wider society, where such characteristics are rarely seen though often desired.
That’s probably what Paul was getting at when writing to the Philippians “Let your gentleness be evident to all” (Philippians 4:5). Although the English translation seems somewhat bland, the force of the Greek suggests that the believers were to express ‘graciousness’ toward an unbelieving, undeserving, and at times hostile society.
And as such a lifestyle is seen, it would complement the gospel message being shared by the evangelists in that area.
Distinctive living to grasp opportunities
In a previous article, I suggested that one of the key passages we need to get our heads (and hearts) around is Colossians 4:2-6. This is a key section that brings together many of the themes we’re considering in this series of articles. And I mentioned that we’d need to return to what it says about wise and distinctive living:
“Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”
Notice the connection between Paul’s gospel proclamation and the life of the believers. Having requested prayer for his own ministry he immediately goes on to tell the Colossian Christians that their conduct should be “wise” before an unbelieving world. In the context, this seems to imply that the instructions for godly living outlined in Colossians 3:1-4:1 are to be worked through in such a way that a pagan audience will take note; that the proclaimed gospel will find an open door and that questions will be provoked enabling believers to point to Christ.
And there should be a positive grasping of every opportunity. The Greek text speaks of ‘buying up’ or ‘redeeming’ opportunities. John Dickson says this of the section: “the whole phrase points to a deliberate and enthusiastic seizing of opportunities to do good deeds toward non-Christians. Seen in this light, the apostle’s injunction is quite forceful in its missionary orientation: Christians are to be vigorous in their ethical apologetic.”1
Distinctive living to attract
The evangelistic nature of doing good is seen even more clearly when Paul writes to Titus, advising him what to do on the island of Crete where ungodly behaviour was even more pronounced (Titus 1:12-14) and where false teachers were touting for adherents (Titus 1:10-11).
He addresses older and younger men and women, encouraging them to integrity in all their actions “so that no one will malign the word of God” (Titus 2:5). Even slaves are brought into this same high ethical requirement: “Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, and not to steal from them but to show that they can be fully trusted.” The reason for this is made transparently clear: “so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive.”
In fact, the word translated here about making the gospel “attractive” is the one from which we get the word cosmetics. So, Paul is saying that the believers should live lives that will beautifully decorate and commend the good news about Jesus Christ. Against a backdrop of immoral lifestyles and heretical teaching, Paul insists that godly behaviour will beautify and commend the true gospel message.
Little wonder that Paul begins to conclude his letter by emphasising gospel truths and commanding Titus: “I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.”
In the context, it may well be argued that “everyone” refers to believers and unbelievers alike. As the Christians live out pure, kind, and self-controlled lives (Titus 2:5-8), not only will they themselves be blessed but the watching community will be pointed to Christ, the one who makes such redemption and transformation possible.
Distinctive living to shine a light
I will conclude this article by stating as clearly as I can that Christ honouring behaviour will have a definite evangelistic impact upon a fractured world.
This behaviour was not just the absence of evil but was the very deliberate working out of good and helpful behaviour. We might suggest that just as supernatural gifts authenticated the authority of the apostolic band, so godly living authenticated the message they preached.
We need to view the New Testament letters through a missiological lens. All too often the ethical implications are relegated to a lifestyle code for believers whereas they were written to be a signpost for unbelievers. Indeed, a myopia has often come across the church, blinding it to the frequent commands to do good and be a blessing to their communities.
Adolf von Harnack, the historian of church mission, concluded his famous study with the following words:
“Nevertheless, it was not merely the confessors and martyrs who were missionaries. It was characteristic of this religion that everyone who seriously confessed the faith proved of service to its propaganda. Christians were to ‘let their light shine, that pagans may see their good works and glorify the Father in heaven.’ If this dominated all their life, and if they lived according to the precepts of their religion, they could not be hidden at all; by their very mode of living, they could not fail to preach their faith plainly and audibly.” 2
So, if we are seriously trying to work out what ‘non-evangelists’ do to evangelise, we have to place Jesus-shaped living towards the top of our list.
That may well be why so many of us see so few opportunities to share Christ with others: our lives aren’t different. We’ve so blended into the background by our contaminated and compromised living that we in no way commend glorious, radical gospel truth.
Little wonder we go looking for quick-fix evangelistic strategies; little wonder there’s such a market for the latest self-help guide to witnessing. And, may I add, little wonder that so many churches are so ineffective and see such little ‘conversion’ growth. Their focus is on the well-being and enjoyment of their members, rather than in discerning how they might bless and practically do good to the communities where they meet.
1 Dickson, John P (2003). Mission-Commitment in Ancient Judaism and in the Pauline Communities. (Pg.277). Mohr Siebeck.
2 A Harnack, Mission and Expansion, (Pg 367-68)
Next time: tasty words.