by Bill Mowry (www.alongsiders.com)
“My business is circumference” wrote the poet Emily Dickinson. Dickinson’s poetry flowed from her private world, the circumference of her life. Like the poet, advancing the gospel is about the business of circumference. Alongsiders live on mission in the circumference of relationships.
All of us have a life circumference, a circle loosely drawn around a diversity of relationships. Family and friends, coworkers and contractors, barbers and beauticians all live in our circumference. We are insiders, planted in this circle of relationships to naturally advance the gospel.
The early church understood the power of circumference. We mistakenly think that the apostolic preaching style of Acts led to the conversion of the Roman Empire. Reality was something different.
The Christian faith was illegal until the fourth century. Churches neither owned property nor advertised their meetings. Christ-followers were branded as atheists because they refused to worship at the shrine of the Caesars or the ancient gods. Large crowds bothered the “law and order” mentality of the Romans. The cramped cities were tinder boxes ready to ignite a riot (Acts 14:19; 16:19-22). They would never authorize an outdoor rally for an illegal religion. This was a riot waiting to happen.
Historian Robin Fox writes, “We have no historical text which refers to formal, open-air sermons outside a church” after the mid first century. If public evangelism was illegal and inappropriate, how was the gospel advanced? It was done by insiders living in the circumference of people’s lives, the natural networks in which believers lived. Church historian Michael Green writes:
. . . the great mission of Christianity was in reality accomplished by means of informal missionaries . . . this was not formal preaching, but the informal chattering to friends and chance acquaintances, in homes, and wine shops, on walks and around market stalls. They went everywhere gossiping the gospel . . .
The power of circumference is found in our evangelism opportunities (EO). Here’s how you can calculate your church’s EO. You multiply the church attendance (CA) by the number in people’s relational networks (RN). If everyone in a church of four hundred has at least three unbelievers in their relational networks, the EO is now 1,200 people. When we think CA X RN = EO, our worlds automatically expand!
Take time to establish your personal EO. Brainstorm on all the people in your circumference of relationships, people with whom you have regular contact. This can include family, work friends, neighbors, PTA members, etc. Turn this list into a prayer page, asking God to provide opportunities to begin faith conversations with each person. Carry this assignment over to your small group, adult Sunday School class, or congregation to establish your EO.
We can wisely turn the insight of a poet into an evangelism strategy. God wants us to live on mission, advancing the gospel in the circumference of our lives. The adventure of the alongsider begins when we pray for a 1 Thessalonian 1:8 experience in our lives, in our small groups, and in our churches.