Presbyterian Evangelism, Missions, and Church Planting
A Covenantal, Church-Centric View of Witnessing to the Nations
Note: These are the lecture notes for the eighth class of an 8-week series that I am teaching at Harvest Community Church, called “What Does it Mean to be Presbyterian?” Links to the other class lecture notes may be found at the end of this post.
At the heart of a Presbyterian view of evangelism, missions, and church planting is a deep value on the centrality of the church in fulfilling the Great Commission. American evangelicalism has obscured this vision over the last hundred years or so. During this time, the predominant efforts toward evangelism have been directed toward the individual in an isolated way, while evangelicalism has simultaneously downplayed the importance of the church within evangelistic efforts.
So, when evangelicals think of evangelism, they often think of large rallies conducted by parachurch organizations and evangelists, such as Billy Graham. Or, churches have trained their members to engage in individual evangelistic efforts to lead other people to Christ, but often in a way where the church plays only a secondary (and, thus, largely optional) role.
Against this, Presbyterians insist upon the importance of the church in evangelistic efforts. Stuart Robinson put this so well in his classic work, The Church of God as an Essential Element of the Gospel:
For the fundamental idea of the Church as a separate and distinct portion of the human race is found in the peculiar mode of that purpose itself. It is set forth as a distinguishing feature of the purpose of redemption, that it is to save not merely myriads of men as individual men, but myriads of sinners, as composing a Meditorial body, of which the Mediator shall be the head [Col. 1:18–20]; a Mediatorial Kingdom, whose government shall be upon His shoulder [Isa. 9:6, 7] forever; a Church, the Lamb’s Bride, of which He shall be the Husband [Eph. 5:20]; a bride whose beautiful portrait was graven upon the palms of his hands, and whose walls were continually before him [Isa. 49:16], when in the counsels of eternity he undertook her redemption.1
Christ came into the world to save a people—a church. Thus, there is no evangelism without the church. Indeed, there is no Christianity without the church. This was affirmed from the earliest days of Christianity in the words of Cyprian of Carthage, who wrote, “You cannot have God for your Father if you have not the church for your Mother.”2
In the ears of Protestants today, this sounds a little imbalance, as though it were a distortion of the Roman Catholic Church’s over-emphasis on the institutional church. In the Reformation, however, Cyprian’s sentiment was warmly echoed and affirmed by John Calvin himself:
I shall start, then, with the church, into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his sons, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith. “For what God has joined together, it is not lawful to put asunder” [Mark 10:9p.], so that, for those to whom he is Father the church may also be Mother. And this was so not only under the law but also after Christ’s coming, as Paul testifies when he teaches that we are the children of the new and heavenly Jerusalem [Gal. 4:26].3
Even the Westminster Confession of Faith states the importance of the church unequivocally:
The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. (WCF 25.2)
In this class, we will briefly sketch out the biblical basis for this conviction, and then establish principles for how Presbyterians seek to carry out this biblical, church-centric vision for evangelism and missions.
A Biblical Theology of the Church: Covenant Theology
Central to the Presbyterian conviction of the central role of the church in evangelism and missions is a biblical theology that the Reformed often refer to as “covenant theology.” Covenant theology is the view that does not try to understand the New Testament church as a fundamentally new entity, but as the continuation of God’s covenant people. Contrary, then, to many who would sharply divide Israel and the church, Reformed covenant theology sees a continuity through the whole Bible, according to a single covenant of grace that God made with all his people.
Initially, God made a covenant with Adam (Hos. 6:7) that the Westminster Standards call either a covenant of works (WCF 7.2; 19:1, 6; WLC 30) or a covenant of life (WLC 20; WSC 12). Adam was initially created righteous, so he was capable of keeping the terms of this covenant: “upon condition of personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience” (WLC 20). Nevertheless, he was also capable of transgressing that covenant, and that is what Adam did. Subsequently, everyone born in the line of Adam inherited his sin, and the death that entered the world through sin, a detail that Genesis makes painfully clear in Adam’s genealogy by the repetition of “...and he died” (Gen. 5:5, 11, 14, 17, 20, 27; cf. Gen. 5:24; Rom. 5:12–21).
At the Fall, however, God also made a promise. Speaking to the serpent, God said, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15). This is the institution of a new covenant—a covenant that would not be based on works, but on grace. By this covenant of grace, God promised to bring redemption into the world through his Son Jesus Christ, who came to destroy the works of the devil—that is, to crush the head of the serpent (1 John 3:8; Rom. 16:20). This is a promise for all God’s people, and not only for those born after the time of the New Testament.
So, the Westminster Confession of Faith helpfully explains the biblical unity of the single covenant of grace, as well as the distinctive administration of this covenant in the Old and New Testaments:
7.5. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel: under the law, it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the old testament.
7.6. Under the gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the new testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.
This understanding draws attention to the way that the Old Testament shapes our understanding of evangelism and missions as bringing outsiders into the household of Abraham. We see this emphasis in a number of biblical texts:
Genesis 12:1–3  Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (ESV)
Genesis 17:9–14  And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations.  This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.  You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.  He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring,  both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.  Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” (ESV)
Psalm 67:4  Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth. Selah (ESV)
Psalm 87:4–6  Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon; behold, Philistia and Tyre, with Cush— “This one was born there,” they say.  And of Zion it shall be said, “This one and that one were born in her”; for the Most High himself will establish her.  The LORD records as he registers the peoples, “This one was born there.” Selah (ESV)
Isaiah 2:2–3  It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it,  and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. (ESV)
Isaiah 49:6  he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (ESV)
Micah 4:2  and many nations shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. (ESV)
Matthew 28:18–20  And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (ESV)
Galatians 3:7–9  Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.  And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”  So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (ESV)
Ephesians 2:11–13  Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.  But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (ESV)
Revelation 21:22–26  And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.  And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.  By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it,  and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.  They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. (ESV)
Thus, the ultimate goal of evangelism and missions is not the salvation of individuals as individuals, but a calling out of individuals from the nations in order to incorporate them into the church of God.
Principles for a Presbyterian, Church-Centric View of Mission
If, then, a Presbyterian vision for fulfilling the Great Commission is church-centric, how should that shape our approach to evangelism and missions? Here are a few principles that guide us:
First, evangelism and missions must focus on church-planting. Tim Keller makes this point well in his helpful article, “Why Plant Churches?” He writes:
Virtually all of the great evangelistic challenges of the New Testament are basically calls to plant churches, not simply to share the faith. The Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20) is a call not just to “make disciples” but to baptize. In Acts and elsewhere, it is clear that baptism means incorporation into a worshiping community with accountability and boundaries (cf. Acts 2:41–47). The only way to be truly sure you are increasing the number of Christians in a town is to increase the number of churches.4
Paul did not simply make converts to Christianity; he planted Christ-proclaiming churches. Once again, we see how New Testament practices follow what happened in the Old Testament, since Abraham would build altars wherever he went both to proclaim the name of the Lord, and to leave lasting witnesses to the living God in the midst of a pagan world (e.g., Gen. 12:7, 8; 13:4, 18). In the same way, churches were to be living sacrifices, proclaiming the gospel of Jesus to their surrounding pagan neighbors (Rom. 12:1–2).
Second, evangelism and missions must focus on leadership development. Again, Paul’s practices are instructive. We have talked in the past about how the evangelists in the early church were not Billy Graham-type figures who made individual converts at big rallies, but rather those who followed behind Paul’s apostolic ministry to establish and strengthen the fledgling churches that Paul left behind, before moving on to preach the gospel in new areas (Rom. 15:22ff).
So, the work of Timothy and Titus as evangelists was to help establish the ongoing legacy of leadership in the churches. Accordingly, Paul commanded Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5), which involved, in part, the work of making sure that others could faithfully carry on the teaching of the word:
2 Timothy 2:1–2  You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus,  and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also. (ESV)
In the same way, Paul reminded Titus of the vital role in appointing elders at the churches in Crete, to make sure that those churches remained faithful:
Titus 1:5  This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— (ESV)
At the heart of evangelism and missions, then, is this imperative to train leaders who can train others.
Third, if evangelism and missions requires training leaders who will train others, then, leadership development must prioritize biblical and theological training, rather than mere techniques. Indeed, Paul states that doctrinal training is the chief purpose for which Christ gave officers to his church:
Ephesians 4:11–16  And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers,  to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,  until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,  so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.  Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,  from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (ESV)
For this reason, Presbyterians have historically focused heavily on the theological education of leaders. Techniques can only carry church leaders so far—and, if the doctrine of those leaders is faulty, then techniques will only increase those leaders’ effectiveness in leading others astray (“human cunning…craftiness in deceitful schemes”). Leadership development, then, must prioritize biblical and theological education.
Fourth, if the church is the body of Christ, then evangelism and missions is the work of the whole body. Paul urges us to take seriously the gifts that God has given us in how he has assigned us as the various members of the body of Christ:
Romans 12:3–8  For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.  For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function,  so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.  Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith;  if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching;  the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (ESV)
This means that evangelism and missions is not only the work of training leaders, but also the work of generosity, hospitality, and mercy. To be clear, we do not mean by this that evangelism is done without words, but only that ministries of deed are necessary to come alongside the ministry of the word in our overall witness to Jesus Christ in the world.
After the apostles appointed deacons to help serve the tables in the daily distribution of food for both the Greek and Hebrew widows (Acts 6:1–6), the result was an explosion of evangelism:
Acts 6:7  And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. (ESV)
Thus, the whole church has a role to play in the way that we reach people for Christ, and the way that we draw them into the life of the church through faith in him.
Stuart Robinson, The Church of God as an Essential Element of the Gospel: And the Idea, Structure, and Functions Thereof. A Discourse in Four Parts (Philadelphia: Joseph M. Wilson, 1858), 38–39.
Cyprian of Carthage, The Lapsed; The Unity of the Catholic Church, trans. Maurice Bévenot, in Ancient Christian Writers, no. 25 (New York: Newman Press, 1956), 48–49.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John Thomas MacNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1960), 1012; §4.1.1.
Timothy Keller, “Why Plant Churches?”, 1. <https://download.redeemer.com/pdf/learn/resources/Why_Plant_Churches-Keller.pdf> Accessed March 9, 2022.