An unsung hero is one who does great deeds, but receives little or no recognition for them. They fly under the radar making great contributions, but rarely find their way onto news reports or into the history books. There are and have been countless unsung heroes around the globe.
Take ‘Gunner’, for example: this stray male kelpie helped save perhaps hundreds of Australian lives during the Second World War. The dog, first found injured and whimpering under a destroyed hut at the Darwin Air Force base in 1942, was discovered to have particularly acute hearing: he could detect the approach of Japanese planes 20 minutes before the arrived—and before they showed up on the radar! But have you ever heard of him?
There is an unsung hero when it comes to evangelism. Well, an almost unsung hero. It greatly assists the sharing of the gospel, but is not often found in talks, texts or training courses on the topic. What is this unsung hero? It is Christian community.
By Christian community, I mean a positively functioning Christian community—one that seeks to love God and love others both inside and outside the church. I mean a community that is ultimately Christ-focused, but also strongly people-focused. Such a community does not merely assist evangelism by encouraging people to share the gospel or by providing prayer and financial support for local and overseas mission; it also assists because its appealing qualities attract non-believers to the gospel.
The Book of Acts describes the early church as displaying many qualities that would have appealed to non-believers at the time. For example, they were welcoming (e.g. Acts 15:4; 21:17), internally supportive (e.g. Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-37), inclusive of women (e.g. Acts 1:14; 16:13-15), and they engaged in appealing practices such as prayer (e.g. Acts 1:14; 4:24-30). The narrative of Acts strongly implies that the church’s qualities actually assisted in evangelistic endeavour (e.g. Acts 2:42-47; 5:12-14; 13:46-48; 16:4-5). For example, Acts 2:42-46 portrays the church as being devoted to such things as the apostolic teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer. They financially supported each other and ate together. The book then presents them as “having favour with all the people” and informs us that “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).1
The evangelistic impact of Christian community is specifically taught in the New Testament. Peter, for example, addressing his readers corporately in 1 Peter 2:12, urges, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (cf. Phil 2:14-16).
Sadly, the unsung hero of Christian community is sometimes an absent hero. A friend of mine once lived in a city in a very secular area of Europe. He attended a small Protestant church of about 80 people. If there is one thing that that city needed, it was the gospel. And if there was one thing that that small church needed to be within that context as it held out the word of life, it was to be mutually supportive of its members and appealing to outsiders. Yet this small church was horribly divided, riven by four factions. I asked my friend whether this hindered the witness of the church. “Utterly,” he answered.
By contrast, I once ran a Christianity Explained course at which both church members and invitees were in attendance. On the final night, one lady who practised an Eastern religion wrote on her feedback form, “There was a real sense of community and support, which was lovely to feel.” She did not become a follower of Jesus at the time, but what she had experienced had made a very positive impression.
Thankfully, the unsung hero is not entirely unsung. Some have recognized the persuasive impact of Christian community. Tim Chester and Steve Timmis in their influential book Total Church note, for example, that “In our experience, people are often attracted to the Christian community before they are attracted to the Christian message”.2
So if your church has some welcoming, mutually supportive and appealing qualities, try to have non-believers encounter it! This can be done in two ways:
With a bit of thought, prayer and planning, the almost unsung hero can become a prominent and powerful part of a church’s mission.
1 If anyone would like to look into this further, a consideration of the persuasive impact of Christian community formed part of my PhD on evangelistic persuasion in Acts—an amended version of which has recently been published: Stephen Liggins, Many Convincing Proofs: Persuasive phenomena associated with gospel proclamation in Acts, Beilhefte zur Zeitschrisft für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft (BZNW) 126, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin, 2016.
2 Tim Chester and Steve Timmis, Total Church, IVP, Nottingham/Illinois, 2007, p. 56.