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«Reclaiming the “E” Word1 Bryan Stone Boston University School of Theology Shortly after I began teaching at Boston University School of Theology, ...»

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Reclaiming the “E” Word1

Bryan Stone

Boston University School of Theology

Shortly after I began teaching at Boston University School of Theology, a colleague placed

into my hands a brochure introducing The Women’s Interfaith Action Group. The brochure

described the group as “a weekly gathering of women from all faiths, as well as those who feel

drawn to the spiritual, but who do not claim a particular religion.” The group plays an important

role on campus in providing a forum for sharing and discussing religious and spiritual histories, commonalities, and differences.

As my colleague pointed out, what was especially interesting about the brochure was the following sentence and, in particular, its use of the word „evangelization‟:

An environment of mutual respect is maintained in which members may freely share beliefs and differences without fear of disparagement or evangelization.

To „evangelize‟ means literally to offer „good news‟ or a „welcome message‟. Clearly it does not always mean that today. Isaiah 52:7 records, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, „Your God reigns‟.”2 But the feet of the evangelist are not so beautiful today. For many people in our world, both Christian and non-Christian, evangelism is neither welcomed nor warranted. This is especially true in the context of interfaith dialogue, as the aforementioned brochure makes clear, where evangelism is perceived as something to be feared, as a barrier to mutual respect, careful listening, open sharing, and cooperation. But it is also the case in the wider context of an increasingly pluralistic culture where the very notion of evangelizing is automatically connected to an attitude of intolerance and superiority toward others – a belligerent and one-sided attempt to convert others to our way of seeing things, an activity that necessarily implies that those who do not believe as we do are therefore lost or in error. For some, the word calls to mind a shameful history of forced conversions, inquisitions, fraudulent television preachers, religious wars, crusades, genocide, colonization, and the ruthless expansion of Western power throughout the world. The „E‟ word has become a dirty word – an embarrassment to the Christian and an affront to the non-Christian.

Is it possible nonetheless to reclaim the „E‟ word as expressing something positive, vital, and beautiful about the Christian life? Might evangelism be a practice that calls forth the highest in the creative energies, intellect, and imagination of Christians rather than a crass exercise in marketing the church to consumers within a world of abundant and competing options? I think so. But given the weighty cultural, historical, and theological baggage attached to evangelism and given the church‟s temptation to acquiesce to the world‟s demand that the gospel be good news on the world‟s own terms, any such reconstruction of evangelism will not be simple or easy.

Rethinking and reconstructing evangelism is a task that must be taken up in every era and in every part of the world where the church takes seriously its calling to “announce peace” and to bear faithful, public, and embodied witness to God‟s reign in its own unique context. But This chapter is adapted from Evangelism After Christendom (Brazos, 2008).

All scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted (Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., 1989).

evangelism is especially problematic today for those of us who find ourselves in societies where Christianity has historically been tied to the center of political, economic, and cultural power, but in which the old „Christendom‟ model has for some time now been crumbling. The church that once was at the center of Western civilization and could presume for itself a privileged voice has increasingly found that center unraveling and itself in something more like a situation of diaspora at the margins (though in a de-centered and fragmented civilization, one might question the adequacy of the language of „center‟ and „margins‟ altogether).3 The church can no longer assume as it once did that the surrounding culture will assist in the task of producing Christians.

The home base from which Christians thought to Christianize the rest of the world feels less and less like „home‟, despite the desperate attempts by some to keep it that way. A growing number of theological voices are helping us to ask the question of whether Christians should have ever yielded to the temptation of making ourselves at home in the first place.

Ironically, it may be that it is precisely from such a position of marginality that the church is best able to announce peace and to bear witness to God‟s peaceable reign in such a way as to invite others to take the subversive implications of that reign seriously. It may be that, through humility, repentance, and disavowal of its former advantages (so that those things that were once „gains‟ to the church now come to be regarded as „loss‟, Phil. 3:7), a church at the periphery of the world may yet be a church for the world. If so, then I take as fundamentally misguided the efforts by some to claw our way back as a church to the center of culture with renewed Constantinian vigor, whether through hostile takeover or whimpering accommodation. I likewise consider it folly to continue down one of the two now standard paths evangelism has taken within modernity. The first is preoccupied with establishing the intellectual respectability of the gospel in terms of purportedly wider or more universal criteria for what counts as truth and plausibility. The second busies itself with demonstrating the practical value and usefulness of Christian faith for persons who live in a society in which value is determined by the logic of the marketplace and in which usefulness is measured largely by service to the nation, to the economy, or to the private well-being of individual egos. On the contrary, it is from the margins – epistemologically, culturally, politically, economically, and spiritually – that a fragmented, post-Christendom culture will have to be evangelized.

Evangelizers often fear the margins because they worry that the church may go unnoticed. It is the center from which it is thought the entire world may be reached and it is at the center, or so we are tempted to believe, that firm foundations can be secured, the better to defend and propagate the gospel and to insure the inevitability of faith. We are embarrassed by a gospel that isn‟t immediately „relevant‟ to prevailing needs and desires or that has no self-evident truths or irresistible power to convince and convert any and all whom it touches. The gospel needs our help, and the support of the center.

On one level, as John Howard Yoder has argued, the error here is in assuming that the center is actually the more universal and rational world (the „wider public‟) that we dream it to be, rather than just one more form of particularity like the margins, and frequently narrower than the margins in terms of the range of reality it takes into account (1992). On another level, however, this evangelistic refusal of vulnerability, of particularity, of marginality, is finally a refusal of the way of the cross, a way that foregoes the privileges and security allied with winning and opts instead for costly obedience, incarnation, and gospel nonconformity. What the gospel needs most See especially Alan J. Roxburgh, The Missionary Congregation, Leadership, & Liminality (1997: 5ff).

is not intellectual brokers or cultural diplomats but rather saints who have taken up the way of the cross and in whose lives the gospel is visible, palpable, and true. It needs disciples for whom Jesus is to be followed, with or without the support of their culture and for whom the power of the gospel is demonstrated not through winning but through obedience. Evangelism from the margins, then, requires no prior foundations either in human experience or reason that would somehow shore up the relevance, truth, power, or beauty of its gospel. It does, however, require a people that has been made into the temple of God in which the Spirit dwells, built upon the church‟s only secure foundation, Jesus Christ (Cor. 3:10-17).

Christian evangelism is pacifist in every way. The good news is, as Isaiah said, the good news of “peace.” But this peace is not only the content and substance of evangelism; it is its very form.

Christian evangelism refuses every violent means of converting others to that peace, whether that violence is cultural, military, political, spiritual, or intellectual. Evangelism instead requires only the peaceable simplicity of an offer and an invitation to “come and see” (Jn 1:46).

This does not mean that there is no apologetic dimension to evangelism – no room for making a case publicly, intellectually, or culturally for Christian faith. The character of Christian evangelism is not only invitation but summons (cf. Webb: 27). It does mean, however, that a Christian apologetics must refuse to consider unbelievers as either barbarian or irrational. It also means that a Christian apologetics may very well rest more upon an aesthetics than an epistemology or a metaphysics, since, in declining every „secure‟ foundation for belief other than Jesus Christ, evangelism relies from first to last on the beauty of holiness made real in the church by the operation of the Holy Spirit. The very possibility of Christian evangelism, then, is premised wholly upon the faithfulness of the Spirit‟s witness in our lives rather than our own ability to calculate and predict how our obedience might translate into effectiveness.

Jesus talked about the reign of God as a radically new order that comes to put an end to ageold patterns of wealth and poverty, domination and subordination, insider and outsider that are deeply ingrained in the way we relate to one another on this planet. But in order for that new order to become a serious option for the world, it must be visibly and imaginatively embodied in the world. And if scripture is a faithful witness, the purpose of God throughout history is the creation and formation of a new people whose mission is to do just that. The fact that the old Christendom arrangements have been shattering, therefore, may prove to be liberating for the church and for the practice of evangelism. But then evangelism will have to be understood not as an adventure in “winning friends and influencing people,”4 but as a fundamentally subversive activity, born out of a posture of eccentricity (living “off-center” or “outside the center,” at the margins) and out of the cultivation of such deviant practices as sharing bread with the poor, loving enemies, refusing violence, forgiving sins, and telling the truth.

For there are indeed creative reconstructions of evangelism being attempted today, and they succeed in expanding the church by adapting it to new generations who are put off by boring liturgies, irrelevant preaching, and stuffy pipe-organ music. But while these reconstructions have triumphed in making the church more relevant to the tastes, expectations, preferences, and quest for self-fulfillment of both the un-churched and the de-churched, they have utterly failed to challenge the racism, individualism, violence, and affluence of western culture. They in no way subvert an existing unjust order, but rather mimic and sustain it. Our greatest challenge is to find I am here referencing the old self-help classic by Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), the philosophy of which surfaces as a goal toward which evangelizing Christians should be aimed in George Hunter‟s How to Reach Secular People (1992: 35).

ways of practicing evangelism in a post-Christendom culture without, at the same time, playing by the rules of that culture. But how to move forward is the question. One thing is certain; those who have long been marginalized, colonized, or made minorities by Christendom, and who therefore never had a stake in its survival in the first place, will have much to teach the rest of us.

In re-thinking evangelism for a post-Christendom, post-modern era, we do well to begin with a caution. Christendom, like the Constantinian imagination that produced it, has proved to be “a hard habit to break” (Hauerwas, 1991: 18). One of the recurring claims in the popular literature on evangelism is that in order to practice a post-Christendom evangelism, the church must discard its “stained glass culture” so that it can better reach unchurched, secular people in a pluralistic world. Christendom is thus identified with high-steepled church buildings, ancient liturgies, and stodgy hymns, and the elimination of these obstacles is presented as the way forward in becoming more post-Christendom and less „ecclesiocentric‟. Where evangelism in the past has been too imposing, inflexible, and intolerant, contemporary evangelism must now become an exercise in reassuring the world that it has nothing to fear from us. Walt Kallestad, pastor of the large and fast-growing Community of Joy church in Arizona puts the matter this way in his book, Entertainment Evangelism, “Effective churches are invitational, not confrontational” (82). In fact, “the Christian Church needs to be even friendlier than Disneyland” (81). Apparently, if the gospel is to reach our contemporaries, it must not offend. It cannot make – or at least it cannot begin with – demands. It is the strangeness of the church and its worship and the offensive nature of its gospel that must be mitigated or abolished if evangelism is to be reconstructed and made effective in a post-Christendom world. “Tolerance,” as R. R. Reno has suggested, “is the executive virtue of our time” (100).

This habit of mind is, of course, not a uniquely twenty-first century phenomenon, as testified to by Kierkegaard who attacked it (rather than pipe organs) as the very heart of Christendom.

Almost two centuries ago, he described the modern clergyperson as:

A nimble, adroit, lively man, who in pretty language, with the utmost ease, with graceful manners... knows how to introduce a little Christianity, but as easily, as easily as possible.

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