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