January 10, 2010

"evangelism" under a perfect sun

My new friend, Mike sent me these ancient covers (how old are you, Mike!?) from The Wittenburg Door. It pokes fun of the term "evangelism" especially as it pertains to Southern California culture. And what this points out is how shallow and self-serving people can appear as they conduct so-called evangelism.
So, what is evangelism?
One definition says, "the preaching or promulgation of the gospel; the work of an evangelist." ... You may read that and ask, "What's promulgation?" Promulgation means, "to make known by open declaration; publish; proclaim formally or put into operation."
For many Christians, we feel quite comfortable with the St. Francis of Assissi quote: "Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary." We like this, because we like the idea of our deeds mattering as much if not more than our words. And quite often, for good reason. Christians have said terrible things under the guise of evangelism. But when I read the definition above and I can't get away from the clear "use of words" in doing evangelism.
Quite frankly, I think we should take the term back from those that have tarnished it.
This isn't to dissuade us from taking up Francis' approach. Evangelism might not have such a bad rep' if more people actually backed up their words with a lifestyle that reflected Jesus' message. But at the heart of it, I think most of us are afraid. We're afraid of talking about God in the public square. We'll talk in our church buildings and in our homes, but we have no idea how to talk about Jesus in any other environment.
But maybe the public square misses the point too. In his great book, The Great Giveaway, David Fitch believes that the home, sacred space and other "third spaces" are the appropriate places of evangelism.
"They speak to an evangelism that invites one in to see the message before one hears the message in words. They speak to an evangelism that is willing to save via subtle osmosis versus immediate rational persuasion. It is an evangelism that meets [those] who do not trust individual argument, slick presentation, or scientific proofs. They want to come, see, and be confronted by the reality of Jesus Christ. The practices of postmodern evangelism therefore must converge in the living breathing spaces of the local body of Christ."

Fitch is working on a couple assumptions (in my opinion):
  • That we are in Christian community and willing to invite others into that community
  • That we are willing to live a life directed by Scripture
  • That we are willing to be patient and engage in the conversation (and relationship) long-term
But I also think we have to 'fess up to something many feel: being a Christian feels awkward.
I once shared a meal with a young Christian leader at a cafe and as our plates came to us, he began to eat. I asked, "Can I pray for our meal?" He stopped and said, "Sure." And I did. After I was done, he explained to me how he thought it was more missional to not pray in public. His central reason was that it made us more approachable if we didn't engage in such odd behavior in public.
I honestly don't care if people pray before a meal or not. It is often an empty, thoughtless action. I often don't. But I still find his "reason" to be more an excuse for his sense of awkwardness than missional posture. Here's the deal, the whole missional work–or evangelistic endeavor–is done so with the conviction that you are different. In other words, the very definition assumes that, as a Christian, you participate in something that others don't... but should.
Maybe part of this awkwardness stems from a misunderstanding of what evangelism is. In another great book, Evangelism After Christendom, Bryan Stone argues that, for many, evangelism is simply about the end results–or what he calls, "external goods." And that feels just plain weird.
"Once an external good (such as quantitative growth, power, and influence of the church or the number of conversions one is able to produce) has come to be substituted for the internal good of the practice, and precisely to the extent that the church becomes skilled in achieving those external goods, the church ceases to have any good reason to practice evangelism well or virtuously."

In other words, once the idea of evangelism is divorced from a way of life and simply about outcomes, it becomes pointless. In a sense, evangelism is rightly understood only as the whole of how the Christian lives... which includes how we talk about why we're Christians.

So, how do we talk about the gospel in normative ways?
What has changed in our culture and in what ways can/should our promulgation of the gospel change in light of our context?

Note that I'm not asking if we should or shouldn't. I'm assuming we should. I'm interested in how folks think this is to be done appropriately.

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