Evangelism is a sordid subject—often for Christians, even for pastors, but especially for theologians. At the very mention of the word, nightmares of televangelists and snake oil salesmen, of Bible beaters and door-knockers, of street preachers and hellfire and damnation fill the minds not only of those outside the church, but of those in the pews, in the pulpit, and in the academy. The practice, if it may be called that, seems destined for the ash heap of history, either reserved for a once-uniform culture convinced of its own supremacy or relegated to small-town habits that still know the meaning of “revival.” Christians in America today would, as often as not, prefer to get by unscathed in their day-to-day interactions with non-Christians, rather than openly profess their faith, much less seek to share it with others in a spirit of invitation.
That evangelism has to some extent become an embarrassment for Christians in America is as regrettable as it is empirical. To be sure, the specter of past (and present) sins and misrepresentations of evangelism deserves to hang over the church’s life as both reminder and threat: reminder of why non-Christians rightly feel hesitant toward evangelism, and threat of the consequences of relating poorly to neighbors. Fortunately, there also hangs a promise over the church, and not only above but within: the indwelling Holy Spirit, the gift of God who not only judges and rebukes but guides and renews. The mere fact of the Holy Spirit’s presence ensures that all is not lost; moreover, the Spirit’s primacy in God’s mission on the earth entails hope that because not all is contingent on our “getting it right,” we may indeed, by God’s grace, somehow or another get it right.
This series is an attempt at a constructive vision for what might be possible for the faithful witness of God’s mission in the American context . Drawing especially on the work of Bryan Stone, John Howard Yoder, William Abraham, Wendell Berry, Lesslie Newbigin, and Stanley Hauerwas, I will argue that evangelism is the Spirit-led practice of the church’s peaceable witness among the nations to the good news of God’s reign come near in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, toward the gracious end of welcoming women and men into the life and faith of the church as initiation into the reign of God. What it means for Christians to practice evangelism in America can only be discovered through attending to the particular context in which we find ourselves; assessing past and present understandings of and strategies for the task; exploring the history of the church and the witness of Scripture; and attempting to shape whatever indeterminate conclusions that surface to categories of discernment for faithful practice. In what follows in the coming posts, we will attempt a sketch at just that process.