Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Politics of Evangelism, Part V: Defining and Unpacking Evangelism

What, then, of evangelism? Evangelism is not synonymous with mission, for mission defines the church, but the church is not defined by evangelism. Evangelism is part of the church’s mission, but cannot be equated with it. The mission, however, must be understood in order to comprehend evangelism’s place in it. We will be primarily be relying on the work of Bryan Stone and William Abraham in this section, seeking to synthesize their thought into one coherent, actable account.

For Stone, himself appropriating John Howard Yoder, evangelism is ecclesiology. The existence and life of the church constitutes its witness, and is therefore its evangelism. Like Hauerwas’ dictum, “The church doesn’t have a social strategy, the church is a social strategy”[1]—a statement with which I substantially agree—so “the church does not really need an evangelistic strategy. The church is the evangelistic strategy.”[2] (15). This is so because “the most evangelistic thing the church can do today is to be the church—to be formed imaginatively by the Holy Spirit through core practices such as worship, forgiveness, hospitality, and economic sharing into a distinctive people in the world, a new social option, the body of Christ.”[3] I share many of Stone’s convictions and conclusions about the church, as they are rightly drawn from the extraordinary work of Yoder, and thus I find his vision extremely tempting. And for the most part, he is right. However, it is here that William Abraham’s definition is helpful: evangelism is “that set of intentional activities which is governed by the goal of initiating people into the kingdom of God.”[4] Stone speaks much of the telos of God’s story as embodied in the church—a telos of peace, the shalom of the heavenly city—and on a macro level, he is right; moreover, the explicit naming of peace as the end which must determine our means is unfathomably important as a corrective for modern evangelistic practice. However, for the particular practice of evangelism, a more “micro” telos—within the broader scope of peace as the goal of all things—is required, and Abraham’s explication of “initiation” as the short-term telos of evangelism is exactly on target.

Therefore, as shared above, our synthetic definition of evangelism shall be: 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. Some of the contours of this definition will be obvious, but let us briefly unpack them below.

Evangelism is a Spirit-led practice because the Holy Spirit is always and everywhere out before the church as pioneer, back behind the church as impetus, and fully within the church as empowering, guiding, judging, renewing presence, pushing and pulling the church inescapably towards God’s mission. It is the church’s peaceable witness among the nations insofar as the mission is given to God’s newly constituted people, called to the cruciform peace of love for the other, commissioned by Jesus to be his witnesses in the world, even to the ends of the earth. Evangelism’s content is the good news of God’s reign come near in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, because it is the promise of justice, healing, and reconciliation for all peoples, especially those on the margins of society. And this news is concrete in that it is no mere announcement or wish, but revealed in a particular, identifiable, historically nameable human being the reign of God took on flesh and lived a life like ours, triumphing over all the powers that enslave and oppress us, putting them to death through the cross and emerging victorious over them in the resurrection. The fact of the Lord’s rising and the gift of the Holy Spirit are the tangible promise that God has not abandoned us to our fate.

Evangelism is toward the gracious end, because it is God’s action, toward a particular telos through a particular practice; and it is toward welcoming women and men into the life and faith of the church—surely, but strangely, a controversial proposition—precisely because the salvation of God is neither Gnostic nor individualistic, but rather is social, has a shape in the world, visible and public. From beginning to end, as we saw in the witness of Scripture, God’s purposes and workings in the world are in and through and toward the calling and creation and faithfulness of a people—in the midst of the world, yet called out of the ways of that world. It is no different for evangelism: we are not about “saving souls,” not about “incanting anemic individuals into Heaven,” not about “winning” people “for Christ.” Evangelism is properly understood as incorporation into a new people; anything less is not the evangelism or the salvation spoken of in Scripture or envisaged by Jesus or the apostles.

However, the church cannot be the end of the story, for the church belongs to a mission that is defined by the reign of God. Therefore evangelistic incorporation into the church may be understood as initiation into the reign of God. The choice of preposition (“as”) may seem odd, but it names perfectly the dynamic between church and kingdom. The church witnesses to something, is characterized by something, and that “something” is the reign of God; furthermore, it is not the church, but the reign of God which will be established (graciously, gloriously, wonderfully!) in all the earth on the last day. Thus the church exists by and for the reign of God as revealed in the cross and resurrection of Christ—and so incorporation into the people of God is initiation into the reign of God. This leaves open and workable the fact that God’s reign is neither possessed nor contained by the church, yet at the same time inextricably tied up with and the ground of its faith, life, and mission.

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[1] Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989), 43.
[2] Stone, Evangelism, 15.
[3] Ibid., 15.
[4] Abraham, Logic, 95.

1 comment:

  1. The entire Christian tradition was invented by people who never ever met Jesus up close and personal--so as they could receive his personal instruction for REAL.

    This is certainly the case in 2010.

    So how "authentic" could evangelism possibly be?