In the first post in this series on evangelism, I wrote about the temptation to view evangelism as an exercise of relational power. What could begin as a legitimate mission of spreading the gospel can quickly run amuck when we choose to carry this mission out by means of manipulation, superiority, and inflexibility in terms of how we view “the church” and “the world.” I argue that much of this is due to a misguided priority we place on protecting the institutional church at all costs.
In the second post in this series, I argue that the way we view the idea of Radical Hospitality can serve as an example of our practice of evangelism from a posture of power and superiority. This practice of existing as the church is a fundamental testimony of the God who calls and welcomes us together. When it is used as a means of attractional evangelism, however, it becomes nothing more than a polite ploy to bring people into our church buildings.
In moving toward my own understanding of evangelism in a contemporary society, I want to begin by defining the practice evangelism in terms of narrative.
If we are to have any hope of redefining the practice of evangelism in a contemporary society, we have to begin by understanding what exactly evangelism is in light of the overall life of the church. To do this, we must talk in terms of narrative, or story, both for us as individuals as well as the church and even creation as a whole.
For any activity or practice to be understood, or explained, it must be considered within its appropriate context. As Bryan Stone points out, “narrative is an intrinsically historical genre that embodies the unity of a life across time and points toward some end, or telos” (Stone 2007:39) Therefore, we can argue that to become a Christian is to join a story and to allow that story to begin to narrate our lives. In other words, conversion is the process whereby I grow to understand my personal story in light of the gospel story–past, present, and future. It is the reorienting of our lives as we gradually exchange our story as we’ve always understood it for a new story, born out of the light of the love and grace of God.
I emphasize the term process because more times than not we not converted in a single moment or event, but we are instead gradually changed–transformed if you will–into something new over time and through practice.
One way we have to understand evangelism in terms of narrative is to address how we see ourselves in light of the larger story of history and creation. We must ask ourselves whether the church merely a collection of individuals who happen to be sojourning at the same time and in the same place, or is the church something larger? I would argue for the latter. In order to further the process of conversion, we must shift away from our modern notion that the individual is at the center of creation and social order and see ourselves in light of the much larger story of history and creation.
In the end, we have to ultimately view our narrative in terms of where it will end. The telos of any narrative plays the guiding role of how the story ends. As Christians, we believe the telos, or ending, of the story of creation is salvation: humanity and creation fully restored; God’s shalom. It is quite literally the kingdom of God being revealed on earth.
Salvation is understood as both a present and future possibility. It is a future possibility because we recall that time will end with the culmination of “a new heaven and a new earth”–one where God has triumphed over tears, pain, sorrow, weeping, and death (read Revelation 21:1-6). It is the end, or telos, that narrates where we are headed.
But salvation is also very present in our current time. It’s what happens when love, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, and ultimate unity triumph in a world that would offer a different trajectory of its story. Salvation offered by God to the world is not a set of ideas that people then are able to deem as credible or incredible. Salvation in this life is quite literally a community that finds its life source in its being shared together, and with the world, and into which people are invited to be welcomed and incorporated by the Holy Spirit. It’s a visible expression of life as it was meant to be from the beginning of creation–shared together in union with all people and creation. The church is made capable of witnessing to God’s salvation only when it becomes a witness itself. In this, the story of salvation becomes the message expressed and made visible to the entire world; one that goes well beyond programs, cliches, “attractional” emphases.
Next Post: Evangelism Beyond “Conservative” and “Liberal” Approaches
My column from the Macon Telegraph, Aug. 7 2011: http://www.macon.com/2011/08/06/1656130/renewing-our-faith-every-day.html
[This is under what I submitted as the original title. You'll notice from the link they changed it to a more bland title for publication]
Recently, I was walking through the grocery store minding my own business and doing a little shopping. I turned to go down an aisle at Kroger when I encountered an energetic young boy running up and down the aisle, getting all worked up about the plethora of goodies on this particular aisle. For him it was like entering a magical world where all of his candy-coated wishes were right at his fingertips. He couldn’t contain his excitement any longer and was led to run and dance for joy.
I am a married man in my late 20s with no children. So you can imagine my gut reaction when I encountered this joyous scene, already in progress.
I looked at the boy as he ran by and I looked back at his father, who was weary from chasing him around. I chuckled and made some offhanded joke about the wonder of a child’s energy and how they should bottle and sell it.
He laughed and then he made a very profound statement.
“At least he’s healthy and happy enough to run all over the place. I try to thank God even for the crazy days like today.”
Wow! I left that aisle a different person than I had entered it. You see, we can get so consumed with life that our faith becomes an afterthought. Who has time to search for those grand moments of faith, high atop mountains where serenity and inspiration meet to refresh and make us new people? That sort of stuff isn’t meant for “real people.”
But what if faith was not as tricky as we sometimes make it out to be? What if we didn’t have to go to such extremes to search out and find opportunities to experience our faith? What if all we needed were the eyes to see those opportunities fall into our lap on a daily basis?
Everyday life can be full of a surplus of encounters with God. Faith isn’t meant to be something we compartmentalize into our “spiritual life.” Instead, it is the lens we use to see the everyday and even mundane routines of life. It’s what helps us notice the beauty of a summer morning, in spite of the stress of “yet another Monday morning.” It’s what puts into perspective the importance of friends and family even when these same people are the source of much of the tension in our lives. It’s what helps us laugh and be thankful for the odd ways children find joy in life — even if that joy is expressed in the middle of Kroger for the whole world to see.
Faith is most often the hidden moments of everyday life, when the mundane meets the sacred, that we discover a God who can’t wait to reach out and be with us. It’s when we’re able to slip up and see these moments amid the clutter of our lives, in all of their eccentric beauty, that we can be overcome with the joy of the presence of God.
I hope you find joy this next week beyond your wildest imagination. And if you do, you have my permission to run and dance around Kroger for the whole world to see.
What is the greatest danger facing our world? Well, maybe that’s too large of a question. But really, what is quickly becoming the biggest hindrance to the reasonable exchange of ideas? I’ll give you a clue: This problem becomes especially evident when it comes to discussions on matters where any sort of stake in change or affect in the human condition is concerned.
What am I talking about? Well, fundamentalism of course! One online source defines fundamentalism this way: a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principle.
Now before you write this off as just another rant against conservative, religious fundamentalism, it’s not. In fact, I picked up a new term this week in reading another piece of writing that I would also like to share: Liberal Fundamentalism.
Before we get into explaining new terms, let’s begin with the well-known concept of conservative fundamentalism. In my religious profession, this beast rears a pretty ugly head when anything new, or “outside of the box”, or even “edgy” is introduced into the discussion of faith, values and Christian practice. I’ve addressed the problems with claiming so-called biblical authority before. True to form, much of conservative fundamentalism uses the Bible to advance authoritarian notions that would lead one to believe, in the end, that Christian Triumphalism is the greatest form of Christianity. History has shown us that such views have lead to the exploitation of entire cultures of people through measures including mass genocide and even enslavement. This view of Christianity would offer the shackles of a very particular Western, European, and capitalist on all who come into contact with it.
Now I’m offering a bit of an extreme portrayal of conservative fundamentalism. What about its more subtle manifestations? How about nationalism cloaked as Christianity? My hometown used to offer a fireworks show every July 4th called the “God and Country Celebration.” Now I think it’s important that we celebrate both God and country whenever we can. But we have to be careful lest we merge the two into some sort of American Christianity that runs the risk of blinding itself to the presence of God in cultures outside of America. Not to mention such a view could blind us to the ways in which America falls short of its calling in the world. All of a sudden, critiquing American policies becomes not only anti-American but also anti-Christian. This would be a grave mistake to make. Patriotism is very important and a worthy practice. But it’s not identical to faith in God found in Jesus Christ.
So how about that new term I mentioned, Liberal Fundamentalism? Lately I’ve come into contact with more and more self-professed “liberals” who come across just as rabid (if not more) in their beliefs than their conservative counterparts. Today our national government is split over a federal budget because BOTH liberals and conservatives seem too busy upholding their personal political agendas instead of seeking to reach an agreement for the good of everyone involved. Conservatives have long labeled tax increases as public enemy #1 but liberals have demagogued their own issues now. For instance, if one were to support any adjustments in the Medicare of Social Security systems, they hate all old people everywhere (I actually heard that on one of our illustrious 24-hour news networks). Forget that when both systems were created they were never invisioned to support such a large population at one time who would live so long (we’re living 10 years longer on average from 1950 to 2010). But all of this is besides the point. The point is, it’s become pretty clear that you can’t talk about any changes to the system receives major backlash from those who have historically supported it, thereby (according to our definition) running the risk of cross the fine line over into fundamentalism.
Another example: the Church. Theological liberals would lead one to reducing the mystery and magnitude of the biblical narrative in an attempt to make it more palatable and universal. Miracles are now seen as magic tricks and Jesus is the essence of what it means to be a “good person.” On the other hand, theological conservatives would lead one to cherry-picking their favorite one-liners out of the biblical text in order to uphold whatever political or social opinion they have. Forget that these words were also written for a very distinct people who were not Americans living in the 21st Century. On either side of the divide the mystery and incomprehensible power of the story of God’s relationship to humanity is lost when we try to boil it down to its lowest common denominator.
Fundamentalism is what my grandmother would call a “funny bird.” It can take the shape of bible-beating, narrow-minded conservatives who are rigid to anything different from them. Equally, it can take the shape of “peace and love” loving, throw away money on so-called social welfare, equally narrow-minded liberals who are rigid to anything different from them. When the two versions meet, people demonize one another based on their beliefs. All of a sudden there’s no merit whatsoever in another person’s viewpoint because of the ideals they uphold. Before we can even hear what they have to say, we’ve written them off as ignorant (or at least not as enlightened as we are).
Before we solve the great problems of our time maybe we should begin by solving the problems with how we hold and express our opinions. Maybe then we can see each other in a different light-one that doesn’t demonize another for their respective opinion. You see, it’s not about merely being civil. It’s about being Christian and a disciple of Jesus.
How have you experienced fundamentalism?
How does one measure an experience? Is there a scale or a spectrum we can place our experiences on that would allow us to compare with one another? What if my experience of faith is different from another person’s experience of faith? Is it less valid? Is it more valid? Let’s at least be honest that the idea of measurement always means we intend to
compare what is measured.
In a continued effort to examine the merit in measuring what we do in the church, I want to ask: can we measure an experience of faith? Before we attempt to answer that, perhaps we need a couple of caveats to begin the discussion.
Much of 20th Century spiritual formation tended to be individualistic and information-oriented. If a person sought to be formed in a spiritual community, it was generally emphasized that formation came down to a matter of the individual’s relationship with God. If you had any hope of growth, then it was expected that information about God and faith would eventually form you into the Christian you were meant to be. Knowledge is power and, therefore, it has the power to form the individual.
On the contrary, if you were not growing it could be assumed that you were not receptive to the information provided that would naturally form you into the Christian God called you to be. Surely there was nothing wrong with the basic knowledge presented in the narrative of faith.
I think there are a couple of problems with this type of outlook on spiritual formation.
First, a community of faith is not simply a collection of individuals gathered in a common space. It is not simply the sum of its parts. Instead, the community itself carries a certain flavor based on the collection of people gathered, a shared history together, and a shared context in which it exists. The community itself inevitably shapes the individual who encounters the community just as much, if not more, than the individual will shape the community. There is an implicit faith found within the community that continues to form an individual, even if they’re stunted in their possession of their own personal explicit faith.
Secondly, faith is not just something we agree with intellectually, but rather it’s something we experience together. To treat spiritual formation as simply an intellectual endeavor would rob it of the existential value that faith in God naturally carries. We live in a society where freedom is the ultimate good in life. The problem with taking this approach with faith assumes that faith is similar to consumer or political choices. The truth is, if we profess a belief in the Risen Christ, faith will naturally have a active and embodied quality that transcends intellectual freedom. This comes through the active presence of the Holy Spirit. You can’t think your way into being transformed by faith you have to embody and experience it enabled through a power beyond your own.
Thirdly, a community of faith is called a community that shares more than just ritual. To simply worship together falls short of what it means to be a community o faith. A community must find ways to grow through shared experience that touches the life of a disciple beyond just worship. Communities must learn how to risk together. After all there is more to the life of a disciple than just ritual observance. A community must be innovative enough to allow space for the entire life of disciples to be shaped together.
All of this is to simply ask: How do we measure an experience? Is it theologically correct to measure arbitrary categories by the individual or should w emphasize the priority of the community—even if this means we can’t measure as easily?
As you may know by now, Oprah ended her run of daytime programming last week after 25 years on the air. But Oprah was (and is) so much bigger than merely an afternoon TV show. She’s become her own brand—a force of nature, if you will. Her endorsement can make or break the career of potential entrepreneurs.
The city of Macon has a special love for Oprah and she came here a few years back to film on of her “Favorite Things” episode. As a newer resident of Macon, it took about two weeks before someone shared the “Oprah in Macon” story with me.
After all of the build up from weeks of celebration, Oprah’s final episode was a simple and unique hodge-podge of thoughts similar to what those in academic communities know as “Last Words”—where a retiring professor will share what they’ve learned during their career.
As she shared some of the wisdom learned throughout the years, Oprah confessed that she could not have accomplished anything over the last 25 years without God. She gave credit to God in saying, “because nothing but the hand of God has made this possible for me.” She would go on to share more of her faith woven within a beautifully honest and human backdrop of love rooted in the human experience. When it came time, she ended her show, she earnestly proclaimed, “To God be the glory.”
And yet you don’t have to go far to hear from those of us who would be skeptical of the validity of Oprah’s faith. Why is that?
There have been certain authors and religious personalities who have made a good living selling books and sharing thoughts using Oprah as the embodiment of the so-called “secular spirituality” that seems to pervade the American religious experience. Many of these use Oprah as the counter to what a good, solid “Christian America” looks like. And that’s very sad.
But please hear me, I don’t think Oprah is a saint by any stretch of the imagination. She would be the first to admit that. However she has helped us see for the last 25 years that one can be both a follower of Jesus and a lover of all things beautifully human. In her final episode she demonstrated that the Christian faith doesn’t have to begin by opposing those outside of the faith, but rather it begins by including all of God’s people in love and acceptance as the very expression of our faith.
I have lots of admiration for Oprah. She’s a smart businesswoman who knew she couldn’t preach day in and day out if she wanted to be as big of a success as she is. But I think she also knows deep down that God loves all people no matter what. And she showed us that God’s grace is demonstrated best when we resist beating people over the heads with narrow expressions of faith. It’s something all Christians should try from time to time.
Oprah reminds us that we can “love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength” but we also have to “love our neighbor as ourselves” even when that neighbor is not Christian or not even like us at all. God’s love is very real tangible. It’s a message all people probably need to hear that now more than ever.
[This post will run on Candler’s blog soon. I wanted to give a “first-run” on here. Enjoy!
They say all jokes have a hint of truth in them. That’s what makes them funny. There was a joke I heard when I started seminary three years ago that goes something like this:
Seminary is much like the Easter Story. The first year they’ll crucify you and things you believe in. The second year they’ll bury you in the tomb of major classes, lots of reading and papers. And the third year you’ll finally be resurrected.
It seems like yesterday I was in my first semester of classes at Candler. I can remember the conversations about classes, professors, and all of the work required to pass. If I think about it really hard, I can remember the feeling that three years would be an eternity. Graduation wasn’t even on the horizon—it was nowhere close to conceptualization.
Over that year, I can remember seemingly endless hours of reading and writing. I can remember assignments that made no sense at all and being asked to write papers on matters I could hardly spell, much less articulate with any sort of coherent or precise thought. All the while I was asked to sit through some of the most uncomfortable, and seemingly unending, sessions with people I did not know from Adam’s house cat (I’m from South Georgia so you’ll have to forgive the colloquialism) as we reflected on things we were experiencing at our Contextual Education sites or in the classroom.
I can remember the first time I was asked to critically consider some of the quant Sunday School lessons of my childhood in a classroom setting. It was as though someone had the audacity to walk right up to me and ask for the cloak off my back. How dare they ask me critically examine the stories of my childhood! But engaging in such critical thinking caused me to have a wonderfully scary encounter with foundational beliefs beginning to crack. I intentionally mean that it was both wonderful and scary all at once. It became clear early on that who I was when I came to seminary was not going to identical to who I would be after the rigors of the program. And that was simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.
By my second year I began to experiment with trying on various voices. Amid the burying underneath mounds of materials and thinkers, one begins to find that some of the thinkers resonate with them. Some have special qualities that tickle the fancy of budding theologians in such a way that often, you try their voice on for size. It’s okay to do that. Some voices fit better than others. Some you will quickly outgrow like a child can outgrow clothes in a single season. Others stay with you, like old friends. Either way, the array of voices has the ability to cause mass confusion in the life of the “in-process” seminarian. But you continue to listen for in the middle of the confusion are sometimes subtle, yet profound moments when they surprise you and sing in a melodious chorus together.
And then comes the glorious possibilities of being in your final year. By this time you have successfully questioned and re-questioned much of what you came to seminary believing and thinking. Some you have kept because, after all, Candler will never take the easy road of simply telling you what to believe. You will form relationships with professors and peers and, dare I say it, you will enjoy classes. As the end of seminary comes closer and closer you will even have days where you’re sad that what seemed like such a distant possibility is slowly, but surely becoming an all-too-close reality. You are, all at once, a bumbling mess of mixed emotions. Job possibilities hang in the balance. Ordination pressures arrive. The end of school means the exciting end to deadlines and never-ending papers. And then it hits you—you will soon no longer be able to hide under a guise of safety at Candler. You will learn that you will soon have to enter the world and do this ministry thing on your own.
You realize a couple of important things after your time at Candler is finished. First, after I realized how scary it will be to finish and “do this ministry thing on my own,” I remembered, “I’m not on my own at all.” God is with us no matter where we go. And we have the opportunity to be a valued member of a division of the “communion of saints” at Candler. And so you are never, ever alone in the world. Secondly, there will come a day that you will speak and it will not be the voice of Barth, Luther, Luke Timothy Johnson, Tom Long, Carol Newsome, Athanasius, James Cone or Howard Thurman. It will be you. And it might scare you the first time you hear it. It will sound like you, but not the you that you once knew. And it will also sound like those wonderful conversation partners you developed in your studies, but not exactly because none of them will ever be a perfect fit. It will be a you that is not finished developing yet. In fact, you’ll realize that seminary is only the beginning this new you.
But don’t let me spoil the ending too much. Enjoy your ride and know that you have a community of saints, both past and present, lifting you up in prayer through the deadlines, pressures, all-night study sessions, and exams that will ultimately lead toward a transformation that you never thought possible.
Maybe folks are right in that all jokes have a hint of truth in them. Maybe seminary can and will reflect a smaller version of the grand and glorious story of redemption in the lives of each and every student ready to embark on the journey.