As I’ve read, studied and thought about this idea over the last few months I’ve found that the more I ask questions, the more questions I seem to have about the practice of evangelism. I suppose that’s a faithful response to a subject one is passionate about–or a stupid one, I don’t really know yet.
In a previous post, I argue that the primary aim of evangelism must always be proclaiming the good news of God’s reign in the world. This is in response to our compulsion to saddle the practice of evangelism with other exterior, yet important, goods such as conversion, discipleship and membership growth. All of these work with and are even sometimes dependent upon the practice of evangelism. But they are not the primary aim of evangelism.
Today I’m let to another caveat in rediscovering the practice of evangelism. If the primary aim of evangelism is proclaiming the good news of God’s reign in the world, then who is the primary actor in this practice?
Have you ever noticed how much of our faith life is devoted to the individual Christian? We set up our organizational structure around meeting individual needs. Churches become one-stop-shops of small groups, mission opportunities and programs all designed to be at the whim of any individual who might grace the doors. I’m a United Methodist and we gave ourselves over to this mentality when we crafted a mission statement declaring: “The mission of the church is to make disciples for the transformation of the world.” Worship wars continue to rage in local churches and communities over which style of worship is most “effective”–nevermind that effectiveness in the church has been reduced to what can attract the most people at a given moment. All of these would point to the idea that church culture seeks to promote the idea of being in the business of meeting individual needs in Christian community. And evangelism is no less subject to this trend. Think about what evangelism looks like in your community. Is it simply a marketing campaign designed to attract people to worship? Is it a one-on-one campaign of meeting people in the community? Is it the measurement of new members in your local church?
The problem with this individualistic view is not so much that we’re willing to use worship, authentic relationship, and mission as “tools” to “assimilate” persons to our way of thinking–though that’s pretty bad. The real problem with these methods of evangelism is the priority it places on human effort in carrying out the practice of evangelism.
For instance, take the example of one-stop-shop church programming. At what point do we offer so many programs that we stop doing anything well? Churches live by the example set by mega-churches who portray utopian church communities where all the needs we’ll ever have can be met under one roof. This “Willy Wonka view” of church becomes tainted when we use it as a means of separating ourselves from the world we live in. Church can quickly become an elitist community where one must “belong” to be welcomed. This all points to the compelling narrative that we must first be “attractional” to be “successful.” Unfortunately we often miss it when this takes the place of being faithful.
Secondly, look at the example of my denomination, The United Methodist Church, and our mission statement. It sounds well and good to consider the primary role of the church being the “making of disciples.” The problem with this is that it places evangelism in the place of searching out new people by those already in the church. It creates a binary world where you are either churched (disciple) or unchurched (not a disciple yet). In this world we become consumed with evangelism as corporate growth. If you aren’t churched, we’re coming to find you. And the life and breath of the church becomes reduced to the simple ideology of producing new products.
Finally, consider worship wars. Again this is rooted in the obsession of being attractional as the primary goal of the church. The practice of evangelism is measured by its “relevance” in the greater society, thereby defanging any hope of pointing to God’s presence as something different or counter-cultural. Proclaiming the reign of God becomes the candy-coated task where one hopes not to offend anyone while trying to be appealing to everyone. The gospel message is portrayed as one that hopes to make people feel good through a worship “high” (contemporary worship) or feel safe through a harkening back to “the good ‘ol days” (traditional worship). The sharp edges of evangelism as the proclamation of something new and challenging are smoothed out in order to make it easier to swallow and digest.
Therefore, I argue that God must always be the primary actor in the practice of evangelism. All hopes of human ingenuity, work ethic, and narcissism are put into proper perspective in light of God’s transformative presence in the world; a presence that comes not from within, but from without, as a gift of grace. This type of perspective would seek not to create a message of hope but rather simply point to the existence of hope in world. The evangelist can, at best, hope to discern God’s activity in the world and then boldly point to it for all to see. It’s not our message to craft. It’s not we who “make disciples” and it’s not us who sit at the heart of the life of the church. Church survival need not be a goal of evangelism because as our United Methodist Baptismal Covenant declares, “the church is of God and will be preserved to the end of time.” Evangelism is the art of boldly proclaiming this narrative to all who would have ears to hear and eyes to see.
The primary actor in the practice of evangelism is always God. The message is that God in Jesus Christ is reconciling the world and making it new. Our best hope as evangelists, then, is to boldly witness to this message in all that we say and do.