A great post from Will Willimon:
She came up to me at the end of a joyous Christmas service. She had just returned from a mission week in Haiti, one of the poorest places in the Western world.
“How dare you, with all the suffering and hunger in the world, speak of joy? The joy of this service was offensive.” I could see her point. With all the suffering in the world, how dare we Christians express joy? Our joy seems in sensitive and uncaring.
In recent years, we preachers have been encouraged do “share your story,” to expose ourselves and our struggles to the gaze of the congregation, to preach “inductively,” inviting the congregation to link its experience with our personal experience in democratically shared conversation, to be “authentic,” that is, self-revealing in the pulpit.
Little in Advent scripture supports such preaching. John the Baptist, at least in John’s introduction of him (John 1:6-8, 19-28), is intent on convincing us that, “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light” (John 1:8).The Baptizer’s Jordan congregation is too sunk in old configurations of power, old officially sanctioned readings of the texts, to see anything new without the aid of external light.
Perhaps that is why there is so little real joy in our congregations. If we do experience joy, it is too often the ersatz high of a merely emotional rush brought on by an effective music program–joy induced by a pleasing soprano voice backed up by a pre-recorded tape. If the only theology we have to preach is of the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps variety, then we are doomed. Doom produces gloom. In our better moments, we know that the ultimate sources of our mourning are more than psychological–they are political, social, maybe even cosmic. This society tries to convince us that if we are hungry for something more than present arrangements, if we gaze at the full shop windows and can’t find anything we really want, if we wander through the shopping malls in a daze, it is a personal problem, something amiss in our psyche, something in need of corrective therapy.
What if our problem is more than psychological? What if what’s wrong with us is what’s wrong in the whole society, something out of kilter in the cosmos? What if our pain will be soothed by nothing less than the advent of God? The offer of anything less is cheap substitute, a set-up for even greater despair.
Real, full-throated, full-orbed, let loose joy is a gift to those who have heard the testimony that our God comes.
Which returns us to the question with which we began: How dare we, in a suffering, hurting world rejoice?
The question has within itself an answer. Dare is the right word. If we Christians are joyful, ours is not the simple-minded, bubble-brained cheerfulness of those who deny the world’s hunger and pain or who think that somehow, it’s all for the best. Joy is to us a gift, a Christmas gift of a God who is never content to leave us be, who intrudes, offers, creates.
Sometimes the Spirit intrudes, gives voice to a joy not of our own creation. Sometimes a light surprises our all too accustomed darkness for the first time in a long time, we see. Sometimes we experience so much of the near presence of God that we never stop rejoicing, and even in the worst of circumstances, we dare to give thanks.
“Dare to believe it possible.” The one who calls you if faithful, and he will do this” (I Thess. 5:24).
Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied” (Luke 6:20). This Sunday in Advent, let us dare to rejoice.
William H. Willimon
I am writing this not because I am someone who hates Obama. I really like him. I voted for him in both the primary and the general election. I worked at my local Obama headquarters during the primary. I am a registered Democrat and a member of the national party. I am writing this because, when he gave this speech the other day, I was greatly disappointed on many levels.
If you are looking for a link for the speech here it is. In seminary I find rich and very mixed discussion on the issue of politics and faith how the two mingle. So here are some thoughts on how I see them mingling in light of President Obama’s speech in acceptance for the Nobel Peace Prize.
First of all, I feel the main complaint I have over the speech is not that is was counter to my Christian faith but rather that is was counter to all that the Nobel Peace Prize stands for. This award has been given to the likes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Mother Theresa. These are giants in the movement of peace around the world and have served to help form a worldview on not only what peace is in thought, but more importantly, what peace actually looks like. They have all in their own way served as beacons of hope that the world doesn’t have to be a place filled with nothing but violence and hatred and that we can actually find terms to love one another on. A speech given in acceptance of such an award that is used as a tool to justify war and advance specifically American ideals is just plain wrong. I understand he is the President of the United States first. But this is an award that expands one notion of world beyond national borders and into the global community. If this is to be an issue the committee should have thought about this before awarding this pretigous award to a sitting President. I hold them equally responsible for the travesty of this event. I believe that is why it’s difficult to name a sitting President as Nobel Laureate-they are always judged by what they do for national interests and that stage should be taken by someone who can talk about peace from a human perspective and not from and American perspective.
This speech served to better articulate how poltics and faith do not line up. This is an obvious fact but, as recent history has served to show, people continue trying to merge the two. Republicans have since the early 80s used social issues such as gay-marriage and abortion to advance the case that they are the party that best encapsulates the Christian faith. By the turn of the century the Democrats decided to use faith in their politics as well. Probably the most shameful aspect of this for both parties is how faith is merely a utility, a means to an end, and we, the people, buy it hook, line and sinker. I know many of us who supported Obama did so out of deep religious conviction because of his stances on issues such as healthcare, the economy, jobs, racial relations, etc. But to argue he (or any politician from any party) has a better angle on the essence of the Christian faith does nothing but show they we think so because they embody not the essence of THE faith, but the essence of OUR FAITH. These are often very different things.
The Christian message has been, is now, and will be forever one of peace and not war. I know this is not reconcilable in politics and issues of national interests as other things must take priority. But, as a Christian, I must say I was very disappointed in my President for his words on one of the few stages left in this world that actually promotes an idea of peace.
While I am aware this is not nearly a thorough enough discussion of evangelism and post-modernism it is where I feel the mainline church finds itself in terms of evangelism in the contemporary world.
One can argue if modernism was seen as the pursuit of a singular, all governing truth, then post-modernism can be viewed as the pursuit of accepting many truths as ultimate truth. The challenge of evangelism in the post-modern world becomes navigating a clear path in a society that is distrustful of any claims of an overarching and unifying narrative. The post-modernist is led to ask if Christianity is a faith whose authority of claims are accepted as part of a buffet of religious options, what is the motivation or aim of inviting persons to become Christians. On the other hand, one is also led to ask if Christianity is indeed the primary story of human existence what, then, is the attitude of its adherents toward persons who adhere to other religions? If one is not careful they can find themselves caught between a proverbial rock and hard place in approaching evangelism in a post-modern world. This is where I think it is very easy to fall into the trap of Church Growth Theorists. This trap is that if the world exists in a post-modern construct then the Church must seek to protect itself and its interpretation of truth while, at the same time, competing against other faiths where the winner is to be determined by who has the largest number of adherents. Evangelism in the mainline churches has seen a major drop-off due to such disputes over the nature of the practice. Evangelism seems to become an issue in many churches only when numbers are noticeably down and there is a push to preserve the local body.
In a post-modern society the Church finds itself in a peculiar place when it comes to evangelism. On the one hand many are turned off from traditional views of evangelism and label them as coercive and exclusive in traditional practice with an evangelical angle that can be deemed offensive. On the other hand, many want to cling to the traditional orthodoxy of Christianity (albeit under the auspices of a modernist framework) and see any reluctance to advancing this orthodox message as a retreatment from the mandate of the Great Commission as understood in Matthew 28:16-20. This is, as I see it, the great quandary of the post-modern church.
 One can refer to James Adams’ book “So You Can’t Stand Evangelism? A Thinking Person’s Guide to Church Growth” (Cowley Publications, 1994) for an example of this adherence to evangelism as a means of preserving both truth and numbers in a pluralistic world
 Adams, James “So You Can’t Stand Evangelism? A Thinking Person’s Guide to Church Growth” (Cowley Publications, 1994) p. 16 as cited by Bryan Stone in “Evangelism After Christendom”.
Here is another part of the big Evangelism Paper. It was 19 pages double-spaced so I will release parts of it over the next week or two. This is a short discussion on Modernism and how it has affected the practice of evangelism.
Evangelism and Modernism
Much has been written and said about Modernism and its effects on the modern world. One can trace the roots of modernism to the period of the Enlightenment. But just as with any movement of thought whose effects are felt along a broad range of schools of thought this distinguishment is fluid at best. In terms of its effects on religious experience and the ontological understanding of religion one is met with a number of hurdles to overcome in order to understand modernity as a movement of thought and not the ultimate end of thinking. First, modernism has all but successfully abandoned any conception of history outside of its own. This notion of history has placed humanity front and center in the course of history and has helped humanity enjoy the illusion that it is, indeed, humans that make and can overcome history. This construct of history through the lens of the modernist point of view (many would argue through a purely Kantian point of view) holds the assumption that there is one set of universal and unchangeable principles that govern the affairs of humanity. Many learned scholars will contest the point of modernity was to remove God from the center of the conception of life and replace God with humans. Much time and argument was done by many orthodox Christians at the end of the 19th and early 20th Century as this conception of history took its foothold and science emerged as a conceptual way of understanding life instead of religion. Oddly enough, however, those who argued against the prominence of science and in favor of the providence of God did so (and often continue to do so) through the very same rules of engagement as that of the Kantian modernist. If religion has been taken out of the center of life and pushed to the margins it has, inevitably, become an activity of the individual engaged in by personal choice. By this logic salvation is transformed into an essentially private affair and evangelism, inevitably, becomes a practice based on individual persuasion, an attempt to “make a personal decision for Jesus” or to join the church. One need not go any further than the work and emphasis of televangelists and churches whose evangelical charge is for a “personal decision” in order that one may, for example, “know where they are going when they die.” The irony of the Modern story is that the very groups who fought so voraciously to save religion from the grip of the secular modernist movement have, in the end, given in to the very premise of the movement and taken those premises to their logical conclusion.
 Ibid, 94-95
 Abraham, William. “The Logic of Evangelism” (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989) p. 188
 Stone, Bryan. Evangelism After Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian. (Brazos Press: Grand Rapids Michigan, 2007) p. 138
This is the first of a series of posts I will put out over the next couple of weeks. I am in the process of working on a major term paper on my understanding of evangelism. I plan to, at the very end, propose my own theological model of understanding evangelism in the life of the Church. This is Part 1: Evangelism as a Kingdom Movement
(disclaimer: please esxcue typos and misspellings as they will be corrected upon final draft. This is a rough draft I put out because it will be part of a series)
One could spend a substantial amount of research and white space on paper defining and expanding what exactly the Kingdom of God means, describes, and implies. For the purposes of this project let me simply define the kingdom as God’s active sovereignty in the world. The kingdom, in effect, stretches one’s traditional conception of God’s work in the world from within the confines of the institutional church to a more ambiguous and fluid notion of God’s work within the scope of the entire world. This definition immediately draws into question the role of the Church if the Kingdom of God refers to something larger than a specific community or body.
Quite simply, the Church can be defined as the body of Christ. According to this reference one can infer the Church also has an action as the body of Christ. The Church’s primary roles as the Body of Christ is to not only be a sign pointing to Christ but, through the Holy Spirit, also be an agent of the Kingdom of God for the entire world. In this sense the church, as an agent of the kingdom, preserves its integrity as it is always acknowledging that it, in and of itself, is not the kingdom but rather a witness to and for the kingdom. In other words, if the Church is a participant in the work of the kingdom there is little room for exclusive claims of Christian Triumphalism in the work of the Church.
One can also describe the Church as the ecclesia, or the assembly. But one has to wonder whether or not this is a truly accurate definition of the church. From an insider’s perspective this is a right characterization. But one must wonder, from the perspective of an outsider, if this is indeed the most thoroughly accurate characterization of the church. The study ecclesiology is a study done from within the church by those who work and operate from within the church. The major flaw in such a simple characterization of an entity, in this case the assembly of the church, is one of epistemological root. This flaw also tends to manifest itself further within the church by becoming the basis for evaluating success through tangible means such as growth in income, attendance, or other quantifiable measures. If the Church is simply and identifiable entity then the natural expression of it will be self-preservation in order to remain in existence. Before one can determine and understand the role of the church as the ecclesia of God as the sign or agent of the Kingdom of God in the world one must get past such ill contrived notions of measuring the work of the church. This is why one must grow to conceptualize the church in terms of how the church demonstrates the gospel through its actions and words within the world as it participates in and helps to expand the reach of God’s kingdom. Such a view does indeed see the Church not as an entity with solidified and distinguished definition but rather as an event. It is this conception of church that will eventually move us to better understand the movement of evangelism within the entire scope and life of the church.
This action of church calls the church to act according to certain standards in order to be faithful to such a lofty calling. First, the church is called to be redemptively present in the world and yet, at the same time, always witnessing to such a way as to not be held in bondage by the norms of the world. This idea may not be as clear-cut as the previous statement might indicate. This notion actually means the church may be in need of ridding itself of certain accepted norms of hermeneutics from the practices of this church-as-event model. For instance, the church must not stand by idle while epidemics such as poverty, disease, and genocide (to name just a very few) run rampant through the world while confessing faithfulness to an exaggerated eschatology. On the flip side of the statement the church must also witness to and strive to live into the standards of the Kingdom that, all too often, are not the same as those of this world. This idea offers skepticism to the idea of relativism within the ethics and beliefs of the kingdom. In other words, there is a needed distinction between the norms and values of the kingdom and those of the world. If the church lives into its witness to such distinct and peculiar norms and values then it will inevitably be set counter to the world. But this is not always a negative idea. In order for the witness of the church to be distinct and inviting to the greater world the church must be witnessing to something different than what is found in the world.
Secondly, the church lives into such a calling as agents of the kingdom through all of its practices within the life of the church. Taking the previous paradox a step further one must come to the conclusion that limiting the activity of the church to a particular genre of practices is, in particular, an example of the church not being faithful to a God that calls the church to be ever expanding and ever reaching to the wider world. This is to be done despite partisan political ideologies that have helped shape the work of the church recently. Bryan Stone makes a powerful argument (with much credence to the work of John Howard Yoder) on this topic saying the reach of the church is ever expanding in political and economic terms when he says:
The politics of evangelism stands in contrast to (and offers salvation from) a politics of domination, exclusion, national idolatry, and individualistic rights, while its economics stands in contrast to (and offers salvation from) an economics of scarcity, consumption, greed, utility, and competition.
It is these kinds of societal realities the church should navigate towards throughout the realm of its practices in response to a God who calls for such action and a world in need of such actions. One can go so far as to affirm along these lines the thought found in the writing of the Letter to the Ephesians describing Christians as a people who are striving to be “no longer strangers and aliens” but “citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God”. This is the work within the wider world and not to be limited to the institutional church. One can go so far as to suggest the household of God be a reference to God’s Kingdom and its activity.
The point should be made here this is not an attitude or way of being the church constructs within its own perception and faculties. If it were it would surely be lacking of the range of impact deserving of God. This action is only that which is ordained and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Without getting too in depth in the parameters of Trinitarian theology one can agree the church often does not do an adequate job defining and understanding the third person of the Trinity, namely, the Holy Spirit. In terms of the role of the Spirit in the evangelistic action of the church one must first acknowledge it is a power but one that is not owned by or domesticated within the church. The Spirit is also not guided by the church so as to propagate the motives of the church. The Spirit is the active force that rules, guides and goes before the church into the world. It is, as Lesslie Newbign puts it “the free, sovereign, living power of the Spirit of God.” By the very nature of the Spirit one cannot limit of it as the mere presence of the Kingdom of God within the world today. One must gain some sort of conceptual understanding of how the Spirit transcends linear time. On the one hand, to speak of the Spirit does not mean one speaks of its presence in the church now as though it is a unique event. This presence and activity has been present in the world since the creation of the world (cf. John 1:1). This helps explain the historical nature of the Spirit as not something that happened “back then” but rather in a way that helps one come to an understanding of how the Spirit is present in the here and now. On the other hand, one must also further this understanding to gain some sort of idea of the presence of the Spirit in the future. This understanding is guided by a directed understanding of the Spirit’s presence both historically and in the present time. All of this is to say the Church and the evangelistic activity of the Church is guided by and perpetuated through a Spirit not constrained by time but whose presence can be understood throughout all time. It is this Spirit that guides now as it guided before and will continue to guide the work of evangelism through the Church in the world as the activity of the Kingdom of God.
If evangelism is the practice of a body united by common activity, inspired by a common story, and guided by a common Spirit one can understand the linkage between evangelism and mission. If boundaries establish the parameters of community and membership is understood as the intentional marker of such a community what is to be said of mission and the ecclesia of the Church? Quite simply, mission attempts to extend those boundaries beyond the known into the unknown. This idea of mission can be best understood as the proclamation, presence, and provenience of the Kingdom of God within the world. But there is a tension in understanding mission as an activity of the Church. One must attempt to understand mission as uniquely of God within a world that advocates very similar (often the very same) types of activities in the form of social and welfare service. Many outside of (and frankly some inside) the Church see mission as being more effective for society if it remains a neutral activity of the state so as to not perpetuate a particular religious leaning. Some more conservative opponents of mission see it as distracting from and inhibiting of the activity of evangelism. I argue that mission is both an activity distinctly of God as revealed through Jesus Christ and is inseparable from the activity of evangelism. In other words, mission without evangelism is nothing more than charity and lacks the theological impact of the Kingdom of God and, equally so, evangelism without mission nothing more than petty words about God lacking the theological impact of the physical demonstration of the work of God through a life devoted to the work of the Kingdom of God. If the dual nature of mission describes the work and inspiration of such activity then the dual nature of the work of the Kingdom of God is both missional and evangelistic. If one is faithful to the call of the Kingdom and inspired and guided by the Spirit then there is no separation between the two concepts. This, in essence, describes the relationship as a synthesis under the idea of the Missio Dei. This term meaning the very “sent” or apostolic nature of God and then expected of God’s people (i.e. the Church). This nature also references to whom the message of the Kingdom is to be sent to. Mission Dei, by traditional understanding, refers to the sending of the message of the work of God in the Kingdom of God to all people (cf. Matthew 28:16-20). By more fully understanding the relationship between mission and evangelism it helps one understand better the scope and reach of the Kingdom of God. This relationship also offers a more comprehensive insight to the expansive and inclusive activity of the Kingdom. One only hopes that through the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit the Church can better find its place in such a large context of understanding and activity.
 See 1 Corinthians 12:12-14
 Snyder, Howard. “A Kingdom Manifesto” (Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1985) p. 80
 Gregory Leffel, Churches in the Mode of Mission: Toward a Missional Model of the Church, ed. Howard Snyder (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), p. 73
 See the work of Peter Wagner and Donald McGavran and other Church Growth Theorists for more on this emphasis on material growth and measuring success and failure within the Church through such tangible means.
 Ibid, 75
 Snyder, Howard. “A Kingdom Manifesto” (Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1985) p. 81
 Stone, Bryan. “Evangelism After Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press 2007) p. 176
 Stone, Bryan. “Evangelism After Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press 2007) p. 176
 Ephesians 2:19
 Newbign, Lesslie. “The Open Secret” (London: Eerdmans Publishing, 1995) p. 56
 Smith, Luther. “Intimacy and Mission” (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1994) p. 118-119. Smith uses this definition to further describe the issues of initiation into a particular faith community. I felt this was a telling definition that was universally applicable to all faith communities.
 Newbign, Lesslie. “The Open Secret” (London: Eerdmans Publishing, 1995) p. 91. Newbign makes a most comprehensive argument for mission within the life of the Church and the Kingdom of God.
 Karl Barth, An Exegetical Study of Matthew 28:16-20, eds. Robert L. Gallagher and Paul Hertig (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009), p. 24-26. Barth’s understanding of Missio Dei remains the standard conception of mission