Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Practical (and theological) Evangelism

Why Evangelism is Still A Relevant Topic
Evangelism is somewhat of a touchy subject these days.  Inherent in the idea of evangelism is the belief that your faith tradition is superior to others.  This isn't a popular idea in our culture.  However, the Great Commission - the invitation from Christ for Christians to go out and teach people his teachings -- is still a central element of the Christian faith. So, in order for Christianity to remain faithful to the divine invitation to share the Jesus story, we must have an understanding of evangelism that is rooted in strong theology and practiced in a way relevant to the culture in which we live.

I must confess that this blog was partially inspired by Manny Silva's blog and the discussion that is going on there about evangelism. I have already spoken my peace about Silva's blog and rendered my verdict on Concerned Nazarenes, so I don't plan on addressing those issues any further. While Silva's blog has mentioned some of the real issues, it still hasn't developed a strong theology or practice of evangelism.

Before I go on let me express the fact that I am not an "expert" on evangelism; Hundreds or thousands have not come to know Christ because of me.  The number of people who have started following Christ because of a conversation I had with them maybe could be numbered in the tens. While I wish I could say that more people have started a relationship with Christ because of my relationship with them, I can definitively say that I have conversations with people who don't follow Christ or who are on the verge of following Christ regularly. As a matter of fact, even today.

For some folks, the word evangelism is really a dirty word.  For them the word connotes intolerance, ignorance, arrogance, or even conquest.  If you are one of those folks, just substitute the phrase "sharing the Good News" anytime you read "evangelism." 

Whatever you want to call the act of telling someone who doesn't believe in Jesus Christ as Redeemer about this faith, you still are faced with questions on how it should be carried out.  Some people think that the best ways to evangelize is to go door-to-door in the community, leave gospel tracts with their tip at a restaurant, or invite a bunch of non-Christians to a revival where the speaker explains they are going to hell if they don't repent.  In recent years (decades?) many in the Church have felt that these methods are really antithetical to the good news itself and have tried relational evangelism. This "method" is about making friends with non-Christians and not only seeing them as "potential Christians" or as a soul that needs saved.

The Hazards
Each of the aforementioned methods of evangelism has its own hazards.

When Christians try to share the story of Jesus with people they just met or barely know, they often send messages that they don't mean to send.  The person who is the recipient of the knock on the door or the tract on the restaurant table (I sure hope you're not leaving tracts with little or no actual tip) may think one of these thoughts: 1) That sure is judgmental of that person to think in the few minutes we talked that I "need salvation" 2) That person doesn't even know me, why does she think that she has a right to tell me what to believe 3) I am a very devout [Muslim] (insert any other religious faith here), and this is exactly why I don't want to become a Christian. They think their faith is better than everyone else's and don't even take the time to care about me or my faith. This method for evangelism may seem programmatic, mechanical, and cold.

When Christians try to become friends with non-Christians in order to share the faith, they sometimes don't send messages that the mean to send. It's easy to get so caught up in the relationship that you don't ever get around to the evangelism part.  Or sometimes, if a Christian postpones talking about faith-things until the friendship is "strong," he/she may eventually fear bringing up religion because it might put the relationship in jeopardy.  While the often-used exhortation to "preach the gospel at all times and if necessary, use words" is good and helpful to instruct a Christian how to live his/her life, it also assumes that the people watching you live will already know you are a Christian. This method for evangelism may seem to put acceptance over the Gospel.

We can take these hazards and put them into a summary of what evangelism should not and should be.  Evangelism should not be a programmatic and divorced from a true relationship.  So, evangelism should be relational.  However, evangelism also has to be intentional.  We cannot prioritize a friendship over sharing the Gospel.

The  [or An] Answer
Christian practice ought to flow from Christian theology (and we ought not attempt to confess a theology that is contrary to how we live). So, before I declare a good medium for evangelism in the 21st century, let me provide some theological background.

At Faith Church right now I am preaching a sermon on the Missio Dei - The Mission of God.  This Latin phrase refers to a theme throughout the Bible (and human history) that God is working on redeeming creation and He's been doing this by sending (The Latin Missio is more connected to "sending" than "mission," like we understand it). 

A flash summary: God's original intent for creation was to include humanity in His creative work (Adam names the animals, completes creation by creating woman from man, Adam and Eve take care of creation), after sin took over God has been working to redeem the world.  God sent Abraham to be a blessing to the nations (Genesis 12), He sent Moses to rescue Israel from slavery, He sent judges and kings to lead Israel in the faithful ways of YHWH and the covenant He had established with them, He sent prophets to speak truth into the kingdom, God the Father (and, perhaps, God the Spirit) sent God the Son, God the Father and God the Son sent the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit sent the Church, the Church sent missionaries and ministers, the Holy Spirit continues to send the Church, missionaries, and minsters, and eventually everything will end in doxology (the worship of God in perfect relationship with God, each other, and creation).

So, then, the Church (and even individual Christians) are sent as an extension of God's sending work to redeem all of creation to Himself.  This means that sharing the good news that we can be forgiven of our past sins, set free of the continued tyranny of sin, and live eternally even now is part of being Christian. 

So, how should evangelism happen?  Well, it seems that sharing our faith should be the natural outcome of being made new in Christ.  If God Himself is on a redemptive mission and the Holy Spirit (who is God himself) lives in us, then we, too, should be living out this mission to bring God's already-but-not-yet Kingdom here. (You can read a little bit about realized eschatology here). <-- This is a Rob Bell mention.

Considering the nature of evangelism as our participation in God's redemptive work, and also considering the ministry of Jesus here on earth, telling the good news MUST happen in relationship.  The story of Jesus is Good News about a new relationship with God Almighty who heals our relationship with Him and others.  To try to tell the story of restored relationships outside of the context of a relationship doesn't make sense.

While sharing the Gospel within the context of relationships is a necessity, it must not be put on a back burner to the relationship itself.  Dr. Lyle Pointer, adjunct evangelism professor at Nazarene Theological Seminary, once said that we should never have a relationship that doesn't point the person towards Jesus.  There is a balance here that must be maintained: we must see people as real people whom God loves and we love.  It is out of love for them that we must tell the story of new life in Christ.  We can't meet people and call "relationships" what are really sales-leads for peddling a religion.  Christianity cannot exist outside of relationships and sales-leads or "potential Christians" don't count as true relationships. 

Finally, telling the story of Jesus is telling a Good story. "Gospel," from a Greek word that can be translated "Good News," needs to be a word folks can use to describe the story we're telling.  We shouldn't be telling stories of fear or guilt, but stories of hope and restoration.  Jesus invited people to follow him, to leave their sin, and to begin a new life.  His message and the message about him should never be "turn or burn."  Even though we believe that trust in Jesus' death and resurrection is the only way to get to God, we must tell the story of Jesus as an invitation into a new life and not as an escape from a horrible hell.  Relationships rooted in love are much stronger than those inspired by fear.  While the Bible is quite clear on the consequences of eternally rejecting the reality of salvation in Christ, it is also quite clear that Christ's sacrifice on the cross was given in love and that love must be the root of our relationship with him.

In conclusion, evangelism is telling the story of a new life through Jesus Christ in the context of relationships.

A Small Soap Box
As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, I am not a Christian all-star who brings someone into a relationship with Christ every day, week, or even month.  But I am actively engaged in having conversations about Christ and the Good News of Christ with non-Christians. The story of Jesus is primarily a story about salvation.  When people start making Christianity something else (a set of beliefs that need us to defend them or, on the other hand, just one philosophy among all others) and lose sight of God's mission of redemption, they are proclaiming a story different than the one told by Jesus or the one told in Scripture.  The Good News of Jesus doesn't need to be defended, it needs to be shared.  It is in the stories of salvation that the message of Jesus is proven to be true, not in philosophical argument and not in philosophical universalism. To say in bluntly: I have little respect for folks who spend all their time talking about Christianity but spend little time living it out by sharing the story. 

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