Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Politics of Evangelism, Part III: What Won't Work

Various strategies have been offered and performed by Christians in response to the church’s crisis of faith and evangelism in America. Briefly we will take a look at some of the more popular responses, and see why they must be rejected or supplemented if we are to be faithful to the character of the Spirit’s mission in the world.

The extensive failures of both the Constantinian and the modern stories have been discussed above. In their explicit form, the church in America must unequivocally reject them out of hand. Yet that cannot be the end of the matter, both because the imagination inculcated by these stories lingers powerfully in the minds of Christians and because aspects of evangelistic practice in America have often been unconsciously or uncritically adapted to meet the demands of persons still under their sway. Thus we must find ways creatively to discover where our or others’ assumptions have determined our practice, rather than the other way around.

For example, the project of apologetics, though in theory dedicated to intellectual persuasion of non-Christians of the truth of Christian claims, ineluctably leads to the stripping of the rich substance of Christian faith down to the bare bones of whatever the apologist happens to think most important, or (worse) to the bizarre goal of convincing people that a God exists, or that the Bible is historically reliable, and so on. To the latter, with others we ought to say, So what? Christian faith is not about becoming a theist any more than it is about becoming “religious.” To be sure, believing the gospel entails believing that God exists, but not just any god, and certainly not the gods established or allowed by modern skepticism or by the categories of the Enlightenment—no, the one true God revealed in Israel and in Jesus of Nazareth. Any and all attempts to clarify or justify Christians claims to the truth under the greater authority of a prior plausibility structure[1]—which, inevitably, apologetics is—fail to do justice to the integrity of Christian witness and offer an emaciated substitute in place of the whole gospel.

Another strategy on offer for Christian evangelistic practice in America is that of “church growth” theory. This view focuses on the tangible, quantifiable results of evangelism as the identifiable fruit of evangelistic efforts. Basically, the more the converts, the better the evangelism; the bigger the church, the more faithful it must be. As William Abraham outlines extensively in The Logic of Evangelism, however, there are numerous and important deficiencies with this theory.[2] What Abraham calls the “fierce pragmatism of the movement”[3] reveals the extent to which Alasdair MacIntyre’s emphasis on a practice’s goods being internal to the practice itself, and thus its means cohering with its ends, impinges on the practice of evangelism.[4] Is evangelism at root merely about high numbers of “converts” (without content) or “filled pews” (regardless of who is there)? What, ultimately, is the telos of evangelism? We will attempt a positive answer below, but suffice it to say for now that persons checking “yes” in the “Christian” column or happening to “attend” a church on some regular basis is neither proof of evangelistic success nor the end toward which evangelism is aimed. There is more to God’s mission than numbers on a spreadsheet.

Finally, assuming that we are not given to abandoning the evangelistic project altogether—and there are serious suggestions of just that in many Christian circles—there remain two seemingly opposed potential strategies that in fact are mirror images of each other. For our purposes we will call them the “watered down” options. Each sees itself as a needed response to an over-emphasis on the endlessly divisive doctrinal controversies of the past. One calls for a letting go of the identifiers that mark out Christian faith from other religious traditions and instead partnering with all peoples to work for justice and mercy in the world; the other lets go of its archaic language and rituals, not for the greater cause of justice in the world (though that may be involved), but rather for “cultural translation,” technological relevance, simplicity of beliefs, and attractive experience. The former may be seen in the decaying mainline denominations in America, the latter in the evangelical megachurches sprouting up in urban and suburban hubs around the country. Though each strategy contains strengths to offer the wider church—the primacy of working for justice in the world, the need to contextualize the gospel—both fail in the end to realize the character, politics, and telos to which the church is called by the Spirit.

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[1]See Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 8-11.
[2] See William Abraham, The Logic of Evangelism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 70-91.
[3] Abraham, Logic, 77.
[4] Stone, Evangelism, 34.

1 comment:

  1. Brad, your posts on evangelism (which I'm very much enjoying) appear to be parts of a single paper - I was wondering whether you would be happy to email it to me. If so, my email address is

    Grace and peace

    Ian Packer
    Sydney, Australia

    Director of Public Theology
    Australian Evangelical Alliance