It was the first call to action, and it was an invitation: come and see. Thus Jesus welcomed Andrew, and thus Philip invited Nathanael (John 1:39, 46). In the Gospel all are now welcomed to come and taste that the Lord Jesus is good and gracious, and to receive rest in their souls in Him (Matthew 11:28-30, 1 Peter 2:3).
Invitation evangelism is really the only form of evangelism if we understand it as the welcome to come and learn of the life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and imminent return of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. No one alive has personal experience with Jesus as He walked the earth as the Apostles did (cf. 1 John 1:1-3); yet even the Apostles themselves invited people to follow Jesus and put their trust in Him as Lord, and did not seek any glory for themselves (1 Corinthians 3:21-4:1, 4:9-13). Only God saves in Jesus; all we can do is plant the seed of the message of what God has done in Jesus and nurture it (1 Corinthians 3:5-7). Evangelism can never be about us, our culture, or anything other than the good news of Jesus the Christ. We must always point back to Jesus and anchor any word we may have to say to our culture in what God has made known in Jesus (2 Timothy 4:1-4). If we have truly come to believe in and accept the Gospel of Jesus, we ought to know that salvation cannot be found in personal insecurities or opinions or socio-cultural norms or attitudes: salvation is only found in the good news of what God has accomplished in Jesus (Romans 1:16).
While all faithful and effective evangelism invites the hearer to come and see what God has accomplished in Jesus, “invitation evangelism” is most often understood as a different practice: an initiative which encourages Christians to invite their family, friends, or associates to come and consider an assembly of the saints. Such “invitation evangelism” may be informal: a Christian may feel as if he or she is not adequately equipped to tell someone about Jesus, or thinks the proclamation of the Gospel is best left to the “professionals,” and thus thinks their role in evangelism is to invite people to their church to hear about Jesus. Yet it may also represent some kind of formal program: perhaps the congregation maintains a “seeker friendly” paradigm, and the entire assembly is oriented around the comfort and basic instructions for the “unchurched”; perhaps the congregation features a “friends and family” assembly, or facilitates a specific assembly which may be more accessible and amenable for the “unchurched”; perhaps the preacher will guilt and shame Christians for their lack of effort in evangelism, and suggest the solution is for them to go out and invite their friends and associates to church.
“Invitation evangelism” as inviting people to assemble with Christians is not wrong; in many respects, it is a culturally appropriate and expected form of outreach. Many have accepted such an invitation, have learned of Jesus in the assemblies of Christians, and have become faithful Christians on account of it, and God be praised for it. Yet there are dangers regarding such “invitation evangelism” which can lead to distortions of understanding regarding evangelism and the nature of the assembly of the saints.
As Christians we do well to maintain a clear distinction between inviting “the unchurched” to visit an assembly, which is a form of outreach, and inviting “the unchurched” to learn about Jesus, which is evangelism, lest we believe that inviting a person to church is the same as learning about Jesus. In this distinction, “outreach” is the means by which we encourage someone to come to learn about Jesus; “evangelism” is when that person learns about Jesus. Let none be deceived: outreach is an indispensable part of the means by which people come to a saving knowledge of the truth in Jesus. Faith comes by hearing the word of God in Christ (Romans 10:17); Christians must find ways to welcome people to hear that word, and the means by which they do so is outreach. Inviting people to attend an assembly of Christians is one such form of outreach, and it can be done well and effectively. But just because someone is invited to church does not mean they have learned a thing about Jesus; many times a person can even visit such an assembly and come away without having learned much about Jesus! Until a person has been confronted with the story of how God worked through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and will in His return, they have not been evangelized. All outreach ought to lead to evangelism; but outreach is itself not evangelism.
Christians also do well to never get distracted from God’s primary purpose for their assemblies: the spiritual edification of one another in the faith (1 Corinthians 14:26). Unbelievers, or the “uninitiated,” were present in Christian assemblies in the first century; they even could be convicted in faith based on what they saw and heard in those assemblies (1 Corinthians 14:22-25). Yet the New Testament betrays no suggestion that Christian assemblies were the primary means of evangelism by early Christians, or that the assemblies were structured around the comfort of unbelievers; thus, a “seeker friendly” posture as has been manifest in much of Evangelicalism in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century is inconsistent with God’s purposes for the assemblies of Christians. At the same time the New Testament does not recommend a “seeker hostile” posture, either; early Christians displayed hospitality in welcoming unbelievers to their assemblies, and Christians should always speak of the truth of God in Christ in love and humility, seasoned as with salt (Colossians 4:6, 1 Peter 3:15). A congregation may find it appropriate to dedicate certain assemblies to feature messages in which the story of what God has accomplished in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and will accomplish in His return, and do so in order to both remind and refresh the saints in these truths as well as to proclaim them to those who may not yet believe. Any unbeliever who assembles with Christians ought to find them to be warm and welcoming; whoever invited him or her should not be given reasons to have to apologize for what they saw or heard afterward, and if such reasons are given, no one should be surprised when the one inviting ceases to invite their friends and associates any longer. Yet the unbeliever should also see how the assembly of the saints is for the saints and their mutual encouragement and edification, and it should encourage them to become a part of the body of Christ and share in such joint participation in Jesus.
All faithful evangelism invites people to learn of their God through what He accomplished in Jesus, and to follow and serve Jesus as Lord in all things. We may have opportunity to invite people of the world to assemble with us as part of our assemblies, and even dedicate certain assemblies for that purpose. And yet we must always remember that inviting someone to an assembly is not the same as telling them about Jesus; unbelievers should find a hearty welcome and a loving environment when assembling with Christians, yet be able to perceive the primary purpose of that assembly as directed toward the edification and encouragement of the saints. May we never confuse outreach with evangelism, emphasize the importance of actually telling people what God has accomplished in Jesus, and invite everyone to share in eternal life in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry