The Outward Bound
by Vernard Eller

4. How to Be Inviting Through Body Language

Perhaps my questioning of whether church success is a Christian value has led a number of readers to assume that my view of the church is basically opposed to (or at least cool toward) any great emphasis upon evangelism. This chapter is intended to correct that misimpression.

I am opposed to "evangelism at all costs," that is, the cost of distorting the gospel in the effort to make it more attractive to the public. This means that I am obligated to come up with an alternative style of evangelism that is appropriate to the caravan church and true to the measure of the New Testament. My proposal is different from what is normally understood to be good evangelistic style. I call it "evangelism through body language."

Body language is one of the psychological discoveries (or fads) of our day. (Like others of its kind, my guess is that it is about ten percent discovery and ninety percent fad.) Proponents of body language claim that, subconsciously, in our conversation with other people, our physical postures are more expressive of our true feelings and communicate on a much deeper level than the words we speak. For example, if, when speaking to someone, I stand with my arms folded, I am actually indicating that I want to hold myself in. I am saying that I basically do not trust the other person enough to open out to him.

Body language analysts claim to be able to read a whole glossary of such signals, and thus to be able to tell a great deal about what really is going on between people in conversation. Although we may have here a grain of truth swimming in a bucket of hogwash, body language can provide a means for getting at something very important regarding evangelism.

The body whose language is evangelism is, of course, the one Paul calls "the body of Christ." And this immediately points us toward a root distinction to which we will return a bit later, namely, that rather than being a delegated responsibility, evangelism is a function of the church itself, of the faith community as community, of the body as body. Paul best speaks to this point:

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, than gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.... Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy. For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church.... If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if all prophesy, an unbeliever or outsider who enters is reproved by all and called to account by all. After the secrets of the unbeliever's heart are disclosed, that person will bow down before God and worship him, declaring, "God is really among you." (1 Cor. 12:27-28; 1 Cor. 14:1-4, 1 Cor. 23-25)

The path of Paul's thought (and the outline for our discussion of it) is as follows: The calling of the church is to function as the body of Christ. Within the body, the members are to operate, not for their own enjoyment or enhancement, but to the end that the body as a whole is built up. When operating in this way, body language is such that an observer can read it and be moved to fall down and worship God, crying, "God is really among you." This is evangelism.

It is body language that best wins men to Christ. We need to make a primary point in that regard. Paul never calls the church "the torso of Christ," with the head as something different and presumably separable from the torso. No, the body is an inclusive term designating the totality of torso and all the members, including the head. Along with Paul, we should never refer to the church as something apart from Christ; the church is his body only when he is present and included.

And it is this body that is to be the evangelist. This idea runs contrary to the accepted pattern of evangelism which, more often than not, sees evangelization as taking place apart from the life of the church; it is only after the prospect has been evangelized that he is handed over to the care of a congregation, I am not saying that true evangelism cannot take place this way, but this is not the New Testament's normal, preferred mode.

So the evangelist is not a traveling celebrity preacher. The evangelist is not the pastor in the pulpit. The evangelist is not the congregation's evangelism committee. The evangelist is not the laity making house calls. All these may be, can be, and should be members of that body which is doing evangelism, but it is the body itself (including the head) that is the evangelist. The Christian community is the body whose language is evangelism.

The purpose and goal of evangelism, after all, is to help people see Jesus, meet Jesus, and know Jesus. And if he is "the head," where else can or should he be seen other than in his body?

The truest and best evangelistic approach is to invite the prospect to come to church. I know this is contrary to the usual evangelistic counsel. Indeed, many instructors would insist that unless you push the prospect to make a personal decision for Christ, you are not evangelizing.

It is widely known how, almost instinctively, lay visitors resist the idea of asking a stranger flat out to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. And the more I think about it, the more I think that this instinct is correct. This, in effect, is to ask the customer to buy a product sight unseen. Or, to put it more accurately, it is to ask him to marry a head before he even has seen the body of which it is a part. It is asking him to become a "member"--a hand, an ear, or an eye--of a body he has never met.

But simply talking about Jesus (even if the talk is good and true) cannot qualify as "body language." It is too superficial in the same sense that some psychologists claim that simply hearing what is said in a conversation is superficial in comparison to the truth revealed by body language. For one thing, these evangelistic words about Jesus tend to be confined to great promises of what Christ will do for you if you only accept him. Body language, conversely, allows you to see what Christ has done and is doing for the members of his body. Furthermore, it also lets you see how members perform and what is expected of them under the headship of Christ (which should include the cost factors of grace).

Of course, if the prospect already knows the Christian who approaches him, he already has observed some body language in seeing who that person is and how he conducts himself. Nevertheless, the prospect will have a better chance of seeing Christ in his body if he can witness the members together, involved in the full-fledged motions of their body language. In any case, the best evangelism is still the invitation to "Come with me to church!"

Yet there is a difficulty with this approach. Body language will not achieve its purpose if the church to which the prospect is invited is not truly functioning as the body of Christ. If the body is not acting under the direction of its head, the visitor is going to have a hard time guessing that a head is even present.

Here we must pick up a caution from our previous chapter. The fact that body language is working and bringing in people is not necessarily an indication that everything is as it should be. Body language is a medium; authentic evangelism has to do with a particular message, namely, the Christian gospel. It is quite possible that the body language of a particular church can effectively project an image of success (cheap grace) that attracts people and leads them to join. (We even have opined that success and class more effectively attract the public than the costly-grace gospel.) The soul-winning language of such a church, then, is actually the language of the world and not of the body of Christ.

Thus, the authenticity of a congregation's evangelism is not provided one way or another by its growth rate. Authentic evangelism consists in just two factors:

  1. the church projecting its true existence and performance as the body of Christ; and
  2. the church actively inviting and welcoming people to come, see (both the congregation and Christ in the congregation), and join.

But how many people accept the invitation is a matter entirely out of the church's control or responsibility. God no more promises evangelistic "success" than any other kind. It is quite possible that a congregation that is not growing at all may be doing a better and a more faithful job of evangelizing than the congregation that is growing at a great pace. The very word "evangelism" connotes a spread of the gospel rather than the growth of the institutional church, and these two are not necessarily the same thing.

Let us suggest, then, some of the common postures or gestures that do not qualify as true evangelistic body language. First, we do not invite a prospect to church merely so the preacher can be the evangelist. (Paul specifically says that "if all are uttering prophecies," the visitor will hear something "from everyone" that will touch his life.) To center simply on the preacher is only to substitute pulpit words for visit words, and this is not "body" language. In this regard, both clergy and laity together need to take care not to behave in a way that suggests that the minister is the head of this body. Being won to an attractive pastor or attractive sermons is not the same thing as being won to Christ. If our body language says, "Look at our fine pastor," it cannot be helping people to see Jesus.

Second, if the church's body language says, "See what a fine program we have, how attractive our facilities are, how beautiful our music is, or how many activities you can enjoy," the visitor will not be able to see Jesus.

Finally, we do not invite people to church merely in the hope that they will enjoy the fellowship as a social occasion. This one, we will see, does get closer to true body language, but unless the socializing points beyond itself, it doesn't make Jesus visible. After all, even the world is pretty good at providing opportunities to socialize; the church's fellowship must be sociability with a difference.

None of these postures, then, qualifies as evangelistic body language even if they do win people who want to join. No, as Paul suggested, the body of Christ must consist in that sort of activity, which, when observed by a visitor, might convince him that he is in the presence of God. Words alone seldom do that--only true body language will communicate at that level and with that power. But what, specifically, should our visitor see? What are the sights that might bring him to Christian faith?

First, I would suggest, the visitor should see the same thing that impressed observers of the early church, and led them to exclaim, "See how these Christians love one another."' Now this "loving one another" cannot be the simple enjoyment of one another's company; it must be Jesus' "as I have loved you" love. It must be something great enough that the visitor will sense the difference and get curious: "Where are they getting that? That isn't what I saw at Kiwanis last week or in the tavern last night."

This love must go beyond our feelings about one another and demonstrate how we care about one another, how we share with one another, what we are willing to do for one another. It should he the case, also, that the visitor will see that the "one another" we love is not confined to our own circle of friends but includes all our Christian brothers and sisters, and indeed, all those in need, all those we can serve. Recall the lame beggar (who presumably was not a Christian) in Acts 3 and 4--it was only when Peter and John practiced that loving, caring, serving and healing body language that the people, knowing Peter and John were uneducated and untrained, began to recognize that they had been with Jesus.

Seeing this love for one another, the visitor would next notice, I hope, that the body got that way because of its biblical orientation. Now the body language at this point does not lie simply in noting how many people carry Bibles or how often Scripture is quoted. The visitor must see that the love of these Christians comes from the fact that they have studied the Bible and have let it mold them. A biblical church is not so much one that uses the Bible as it is one that lets the Bible use it. It is a body that studies, loves, and lives the Bible.

Finally, through all of this body language, the visitor ought to realize that the entirety of the congregation's life-together is following the Lord and giving him praise. It must consciously and deliberately be made evident that this body includes a head, and that he is the sole source and center of the congregation's being and activity, of all its body language. This language exists to say but one thing, namely, that it is not our body but his, the very body of Christ. Thus, the visitor is led to see him and that is evangelism. Now it is not our desire to deny that the other (forms and methods more customarily called evangelism have their place. However, that place, we insist, is within the context of a congregation doing its body language; those methods are true only insofar as they subserve this one. A major aspect of Christianity's good news is that Jesus Christ has (or is) a body of which the individual can be a part, a habitation he can call home. It makes sense, therefore, that no full-fledged evangelism can take place in disregard of that body.

In this matter, then, as with the rest, you are left to analyze your own congregation, and to examine the state of its evangelism. What does your congregation communicate through body language? How inviting is it, and how well does it extend invitations?

Copyright (c) 1980