Two Ways News
Two Ways News
The personal word

The personal word

Gospel conversation within the Christian community and beyond

Dear friends,

I’m currently deep in the drafting of my next book, which is all about the ‘one-another word’—what the Bible says about the mutual word ministry of Christians, and how that should play out in practice in our churches.

A question I keep coming back to is how the gospel-based conversation of Christians with each another relates to their conversations with outsiders or unbelievers. The two must surely be connected, but how exactly?

Marty Sweeney and I dig into this topic in today’s episode of Two Ways News.

Your brother


The personal word

Tony Payne: Marty, you've just got back from Denver. Why were you in Denver?

Marty Sweeney: So Denver is the location for our conference in October this year called Evangelize 2024. A conference to which, Lord willing, you will be coming over along with Dave Jensen, and Mack Stiles from the US. We'll be running this for anybody who wants to come and think about the topic of evangelism. So I was out there scouting, meeting the host church and their pastors and some great people there. We really look forward to October, to gather as many people as we can to that.

TP: I'm looking forward to it very much. I'm not super looking forward to the flight over, but I'm just getting old and crabby about long haul flights. But apart from that, I'm really looking forward to seeing you and talking with a bunch of American pastors and leaders about evangelism and thinking about it together. 

Today it would be really interesting for us to address the place of the individual in evangelism and in a church's evangelistic efforts. Where does the individual Christian fit in? And where does personal witness or personal involvement of each person fit in? In Australia there have been waves of different kinds of views about where the individual Christian fits into evangelism. What would you say is the state at the moment in the US church scene on where the individual Christian fits into evangelism? 

MS: We were just having this conversation with Geoff Robson, our publishing director of Matthias Media, about a book that makes the case for every Christian to be involved and active in personal evangelism. Here in the US, we don’t have that debate in as much a formal way as maybe you have in Australia. But of course, by our actions, we have that debate all the time. I don't think anybody would make a strong case within our Reformed evangelical circles that Christians don't need to worry about evangelism. But as I do consultations for training culture ideas and ‘vine grower’ work, every pastor reports the same issue: he is hoping people are doing personal evangelism but not really seeing much happening on that front. And so the state of it is that people want to emphasize the need for it, but they just don't know what to do next, because we've been emphasizing it for decades and there's been little fruit.

TP: Yes, I think that’s very much one of the insights or issues that we’ve been tossing around here in Australia over the last 10-20 years. We went through a stage maybe 20 or 30 years ago where the debate was, ‘Is every Christian an evangelist?’ And are we loading too much on Christians to expect them to be evangelizing? I think it has now kind of settled down into, ‘Well, yes, every Christian should be involved in evangelism—it's just that we're not all the same.’ It doesn't mean that every Christian has the same abilities to preach or explain the gospel as other people do. 

But I think in a sense, that strategy of training Christians as personal witnesses and hoping that they are out there doing stuff, and the view that the church’s evangelistic efforts only consist of “we hope people come and hear the gospel in church”, hasn’t been a terribly successful strategy.

And so the pendulum has swung in our circles in Australia, saying that it’s not really productive or efficient or effective to put all your eggs in the basket of training individual witnesses to go out there and evangelize. You need to have a whole-of-church approach to firing up the whole congregation for mission and having mission as part of everything that's going on. Evangelism is part of the air you breathe as a church; it informs what you do on Sunday and you'd work together as a church, as a team to run something. And it’s usually some kind of regular evangelistic course that people can come to, and have the individual try and get their friends along to these courses. And so there's been very much of an emphasis on constructing a kind of ‘evangelistic engine’, something that involves different pieces all doing their part to see evangelism grow within the whole congregation. 

And part of the consequence of that is that the place of the individual and personal witness has diminished to some significant extent; it's not really a priority that we should teach or train or equip individuals to speak to their friends. The approach is now more on mobilizing and inspiring and encouraging and enthusing individuals to bring their friends along to the thing that the church is doing and be part of the engine. Does that make sense?

MS: Yes, it does, and it sounds like to me in the US, we tried something similar in the ‘seeker sensitive’ movement three decades ago. We wanted to build an inviting culture, which is really good, but what we're inviting people to turned out to be not terribly evangelistic or gospel-centric. It didn’t so much involve calling Jesus Lord and calling people to repent and believe. It was a much softer approach to just become one of us and we'll subsume you into our culture.

TP: So I think where we are currently in Australia is a real step forward—that is, a kind of whole of church approach that really is full of the gospel, not a seeker sensitive in that bland way. I think it’s fantastic and I can't see any reason why you'd want to object to that. And it certainly has been helpful in mobilizing people. But nothing’s perfect, and in the process of doing so, I think we’ve somewhat lost the place of the individual? Should there be any training and equipping of the individual for evangelism? What is the expectation or the norm for the Christian life in terms of personal witness or evangelism? I think that question has dropped off the agenda to some extent and the general feeling in many churches is we don't have time for that because the structural, organizational evangelism has been more fruitful. 

And I have to say, I'm really pleased that this kind of approach to evangelism has been helpful, but I'm also disappointed that we don't seem to have really thought through the role of the individual in that whole process a bit more theologically and in principle, because I think there's a theological and biblical principle at play here that's really important.

MS: I completely agree. But here's the issue, Tony, you're really smart. You are able to communicate to people like me who aren't smart. I'm going to see if I can name the theological principle in a very basic, straightforward verse in Luke 6 - “From the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” And you mentioned something about the idea that this should be the norm; that you're trying to raise up a culture. The normal life of a Christian is to speak from the overflow of the heart. And I know you might call me just the soft American who wants to dwell on religious affections too much. But I do think there's something here about the idea of making too strong a division between evangelism and everyday Christian speech that we're supposed to have with other Christians. So I just wonder if there's something to the idea of the normal Christian life is one of speaking, that is speaking the gospel truth to one another. And that overflows not only from our heart to our church, but from our church to our neighbors, to our friends, to our co-workers.

TP: I've just noticed a hobby horse riding by, Marty. And I'm very tempted to jump on and ride it for the next few minutes, because as you know, I've done a lot of work on this subject, on the nature of the speech of the Christian. In fact, right at this moment, I'm fairly deep in writing the book that comes from the doctoral work I did about the one another word ministry of Christians. And what you say there I think is exactly correct.

One of the things that has really struck me as I've been going back and doing the work again is the example in 1 Corinthians where Paul talks about the one another word ministry of the Corinthians. And it's fascinating how he correlates it with spiritual maturity. The whole problem in Corinth is that the Corinthians are babes in Christ. Paul would love to address them as mature, but he can't, because they're immature and ‘fleshly’ and it comes out in so many ways–in their factionalism, in their arrogance, in their selfishness, in their sexual ethics, in the way they have that appalling bunfight at the Lord's Supper when they get together. 

And as he applies the wisdom of the cross to them right through the letter, how they speak to each other and the word ministry they have to each other emerges as a key indicator of what it means to be a mature Spirit-enabled Christian who has grasped who God wants us to be. 

The first passage is in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16 where he gives this enigmatic description of wisdom being spoken among the mature by people who have the Spirit—that by the Spirit, we understand what God has given us in the gospel. He's just been expanding the gospel in chapter 1—the marvellous, counterintuitive, powerful word of the cross that confounds the world, whose wisdom is grasped by the people that God gives his Spirit to. In chapter 2, they then speak or impart that wisdom to others in the midst of life and make judgments about all things. And really spiritual people are the people who understand and impart that wisdom. 

Now, you’re not sure exactly who Paul's talking about in chapter 2 because he says ‘I can’t address you spiritually because you’re fleshly’, so it’s not the Corinthians in their current state. But what he is setting up there in chapter 2 is the idea that if the Corinthians were to grow up and to actually be spiritual, they would speak wisdom to each other like grown up Christians do. 

But he doesn't go into much detail about it until he comes back to the whole question in chapters 12–14, which are really about the spiritual speech of the Corinthian congregation. Those chapters very well point out that the really excellent way that a mature spiritual person would act is in love—which means to rejoice in the truth and to speak that truth to other people in a way that helps and encourages and builds the other person and acts for their benefit, not for our own selfish purposes. 

That’s the message of chapter 14—if love is the key thing, then the gift you want to pursue is prophecy: this form of intelligible gospel-centred word that you bring to other people for their encouragement and exhortation and hope. And so the whole message of 1 Corinthians is that spiritual maturity is seen as you start to speak the Word of God to other people, not to build yourself up or seek status or something. Maturity is to grow in love and in the wisdom of the gospel by the Spirit, and for that to overflow (as you say) into our speech.

It's very strong in Ephesians as well. The basic idea is that the new life you have in Jesus Christ means a a new way of thinking, a new heart, and a new way of speaking. The heart is not just the place of feeling, but the place of what I deeply know and have grasped intellectually, and what I love and have come to choose and rejoice in. If that's what's going on in the centre of me and in my heart, then it must bubble out into how I speak and what I speak.

Christians live a new life and part of that new life is to speak a new language. 

MS: Back in 1 Corinthians, at the end of chapter 10, Paul makes the big point that I should be willing to do anything–like not eat meat–to save people; to imitate Paul like he's imitating Christ. And if I'm willing to do anything, I certainly should be willing to speak the words of building up, the words of the gospel, the words of the call to repentance to people. 

TP: It’s a curious little thing, but I think there's only one occasion in the New Testament where a non-Christian comes to church and is converted. And that’s in 1 Corinthians 14:25. He's converted by the prophecy of the whole congregation, which is kind of baffling to us, partly because I think we're used to thinking of prophecy as a slightly wacky charismatic thing or something. But it's not. It's just the speaking of the Word of God into a situation, to apply the gospel to the heart and situation of other people. And that being the case, it's interesting that as everybody does that in the congregational context, the non-Christian has the secrets of his heart exposed and falls down in recognition that something's going on here, that God is really here. It's fascinating, isn't it?

MS: For your writing record, just the other day one of the new apprentices at our church asked me ‘What is prophecy?’ So I gave him your chapter from your thesis, and he fell asleep 10 minutes in. So could you make a note to write a short version in your book because it really would be helpful. 

TP: Yes, that’s really what the book is trying to do. It's trying to pull the research into a more digestible and accessible form, but that still spends a fair bit of time sitting in the Bible–because that’s where the answers are. 

In 1 Corinthians, I think prophecy is an application of the gospel word to the life and situation and heart of someone that you're talking to. It's held up as the ideal form of one-another word ministry because it takes the word that you've been taught and come to know, and brings it to the situation of others. It’s why there's a continuity between doing that with one another, and then also seeing that flow out into conversation with outsiders.

You see it in other places too such as Colossians 3, where because we live a whole new life and put on a new set of clothes that is fitting for the gospel life, part of those new clothes is a new language, a new way of speaking that is patient and forbearing with one another and that shares the Word of God richly with one another, teaching and admonishing each other. 

And then just a couple of verses later, he talks about their conversation with outsiders, that it will be different now on as well, gracious and seasoned with salt, saying what is helpful for the outsider, to answer them and draw them into the word of Christ. 

So there’s a new language, a new way of speaking, that comes from a new heart of wanting them to know Jesus. It inevitably overflows to our conversations with others and we’ll speak in a way that advertises Jesus to the world. 

MS: So would you say that when we speak the word to one another as Chrsitians, we are sort of ‘practising’ the kind of conversation we’ll have with outsiders? I don’t know if ‘practise’ is the right word though.

TP: I think that’s true, both theoretically and practically. The theoretical underpinning of it (as we’ve said) is that there's a new way of speaking and a new heart. And that's why the ‘one-another word’, if I can call it that, is a marker of Christian maturity. It's something we should be looking for and teaching and equipping our people to grow in as a normal aspect of the Christian life, just as we'd want them to grow in prayer or generosity or in good works for those around them or in reading their Bibles. And in the same way, theologically that flows over into my concern for the outsider. Having a heart for the lost is just part of growing to be like Jesus.

And just as in our church ministries we would think about how to teach and equip and foster and mobilize and inspire Christian growth in all those various areas (like prayer or generosity), we should also be thinking about the one-another word, and our speech and relationship to outsiders in the same way.

But there's a practical angle to it as well, in the sense that it's easier to progress from an easier thing to a slightly more challenging thing. And speaking the Word to one another in church or in Bible study groups is something that Christians will probably find less challenging or less confronting than this fear-inducing opening of their mouths in the workplace or a more hostile environment or to a non-Christian friend. If we encourage and grow the one-another speech of the congregation as just a normal part of the Christian life, that's a great step towards encouraging people also to open their mouths and speak in other contexts as well, to learn to have the word of the gospel of Jesus on your lips, to be the kind of person who speaks in a new way. That's certainly been my observation and experience—that as we train people in how to speak the word with one another, it's then a simpler next step to say, “Well, why not speak to your friends in the same way? Just open your mouth and be who you are and talk about what it means to be a Christian with your friends and family and neighbors as well.”

MS: We're eagerly awaiting you to finish this new book on one another word ministry. And in a sense, this is something you've been thinking about and writing about for decades. I think about your book, How to walk into a church that has a corresponding little course—which is actually really helpful to get people to think about this more broadly—Six steps to loving your church. We’ve run it many times at our church as a training for new members—to get them from the outset to view church not as a consumer but as an active participant. So we asked them to ask someone to pray for them or to pray with someone after our formal time, or to engage about the sermon. It's the building up of one another, and these things have been close to your mind and thoughts for quite a while, Tony.

TP: They have. A great deal of what you and I have done over the years, Marty, and with Matthias Media, has been working up resources to help churches do exactly this, to equip every Christian to be a disciple-making disciple, to speak the word to others, to love others, to welcome and be involved in other people's lives. 

It also strikes me as I've been talking to a number of people about the practicalities of evangelistic ministry and church ministry. Let’s say you are thinking about how to have a coordinated, organized pathway for people to be evangelized through your church ministry. We invite them to an event, we've thought about what they might do next, we have some good structures, we’re praying, we've prepared, and so on. But within all of that, the individual church member just has an enormously important place, not just in inviting, but in what happens before the invitation. If I've never spoken about the gospel, if I've never mentioned that I'm a Christian, if I've never just had Christian stuff on my lips as part of my normal life, to then suddenly come out of the blue and say, “Hey, would you like to come to this thing at church?” is much, much harder. Whereas if people know that you're a Christian because it just overflows from your heart, it comes out in little ways in everyday conversation and what you do, then the invitation to come along to something that's happening at church is much easier. 

Correspondingly, there’s an equally important role for the individual Christian further down the pathway–of sticking with their friend and answering their questions, of reading the Bible with them personally, to dig into some of the things that they didn't get to, to keep inviting them along, to keep testifying yourself to the power of the gospel in your life. It's not a one-off process that just happens quickly. It usually happens over quite some period of time. And the role of the individual Christian who is motivated and equipped and trained and has a sense of a practice of the Word of God on the lips is enormously important in the non-Christian person's path to faith in Christ.

MS: So if I'm a pastor listening to this (which I am) or if I'm a small group leader, I think, “Okay, what do I do now?” Would you say that instead of running a training course to train people to talk about Jesus with their non-Christian friends, we actually might need to start further back? Back to the foundation of let’s train our people to talk about Jesus with each other, period. To start there as it’s the most comfortable place to start, and as we get through the gospel proclamation to one another, we're training, encouraging, equipping one another to keep at it even when we are outside our Bible studies and church meetings. 

TP: I think it makes a lot of practical sense, Marty. If someone doesn’t have a sufficient grasp and love of the gospel that they would open up and talk with other Christians about it, it would be a big step for them to become a really great personal witness in the workplace.

MS: One person who has done a really nice job of expressing all this in a very succinct little book is Lionel Windsor who wrote a book a couple of years ago called Gospel Speech that is just a hidden gem. Our friend Ian Carmichael pointed out to me that the gospel closes the lips (in Romans 3). We’re all silenced because we're held accountable by God through the law of God. We have nothing to say because we're guilty. And then in Romans 10, the gospel comes through the beautiful feet that hold the person who preaches the gospel, the mouth that opens as we confess and speak that Jesus is Lord. And I love that. I think that's a really helpful thing for us to have a short succinct way to be compelled by that. So if any of our listeners haven't checked out Lionel's book, it’s easy to read. You can read it in about a half hour and it’s really helpful to this end.

TP: Yes, that's a great pick up Marty. Lionel’s book makes the same argument that we’ve been talking about here, but in a different and very helpful way. I echo the recommendation. 

And what you say about the movement from Romans 3 to 10 is also very insightful. We need the work of God’s Spirit in our lives to open our lips so that we will confess the truth that Jesus is Lord—not only to one another in the Christian community but to a world that needs to hear. 

Links and Recommendations

Evangelize 2024


For you and your whole ministry team. An interactive and practical 3-day conference at an accessible destination for everyone

Let's help each other become growing churches which are (under God) more effective in proclaiming the gospel to the friends, family and neighbors around us who so desperately need to hear it.

How to Walk Into Church by Tony Payne

Things are rarely as simple as they seem, and how you walk into church reveals a great deal about what you think church is, what it's for, and what you think you’re doing there.

Tony Payne helps us think biblically about church. Along with giving plenty of other practical advice, he suggests a way to walk into church that beautifully expresses what church is and why you’re there - a way that every Christian can master.

If you go to church, this book is for you.

Six Steps to Loving Your Church by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne

Some of us really love our churches, some of us aren’t so positive, and for many of us that feeling can change from week to week.

This six-session video-based program is about how to love your church whether you’re feeling enthusiastic about it or not. It’s about the part that we all play as God’s people in loving, serving and building each other up, Sunday by Sunday. We all have a ministry—the ministry of the pew.

Gospel Speech by Lionel Windsor

We all have a different relationship with speech. Some of us love it, some of us... not so much. For some it depends a lot on the context: speaking on the phone with a friend is perfectly enjoyable; speaking publicly in front of an audience is our worst nightmare. In many ways, speech really is a reflection of who we are as individuals.

But if our speech really is a reflection of who we are, and if being a Christian is a fundamental and even primary way we describe ourselves, should we expect gospel speech to be on our lips?


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Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.
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