I was in college when I first learned the difference between centripetal force and centrifugal force. No, it wasn’t in an engineering course. Believe it or not, it was in my campus ministry!
Centripetal force is defined as something that moves an object toward a center; while centrifugal force is something that moves an object away from a center. As a campus ministry we often tried to exercise centrifugal force as we reached out to and evangelized our campus with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet we also found that, for some non-believers, the most effective gospel witness came through an experience of Christian community within the campus ministry (centripetal force). They learned about the love of God and came to saving faith in Jesus Christ by means of their experience of real Christian community within the confines of the campus ministry. In our campus mission, we needed both centripetal gospel force and centrifugal gospel force!
OLD TESTAMENT WITNESS
We observe this same reality in the Scriptures. We see centripetal (attracting) gospel force in passages such as Isaiah 2:2-5 and Isaiah 56:7, where God’s house is described as a gathering place of worship for all nations. And, we see centrifugal (dispersing) gospel force emphasized in God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3. In this text, we notice that God did not intend his blessing to reside only with Abraham and his immediate family. God was blessing Abraham so that through him “all the peoples of the earth will be blessed.”
NEW TESTAMENT WITNESS
The same occurs in the New Testament. In the days following Pentecost, the fellowship of believers had an attracting (centripetal) force upon their surroundings as they experienced rich community, sacrificial giving, and deep love for one another (see Acts 2:42-47). As an effect of this community, the Lord added “to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). We also see an emphasis on centrifugal (outward) gospel force in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) and in Jesus’ statement in Acts 1:8, “…and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
THE CHURCH TODAY
These biblical patterns are true for the Church today, too. Some forms of attractional (centripetal) evangelism will be very fruitful, as non-believers come into contact with believers who take their Christian faith seriously and who practice generosity and grace in their relationships with one another. Other times we will need to cross boundaries that will take us to people who are unreached and need someone to come to them.
May our missionary God guide us as a Church to be both centripetal and centrifugal in our witness—that all the families of the earth might be blessed through him!
Rev. Brad Pribbenow Ph.D. serves the Church of the Lutheran Brethren as Dean and Professor of Old Testament at Lutheran Brethren Seminary in Fergus Falls, Minnesota.