Monday, January 25, 2010

The Politics of Evangelism, Part VI: Toward Categories of Discernment For Faithfulness to the Spirit's Mission in the American Context

The question, at this point, rightly arises: But what does this look like in real life? Of course, Christians get in the worst kinds of trouble when they start prescribing checklists and paradigms as the “answer” or “solution” to some issue or problem; so that will not be the strategy taken here. Instead, while thinking concretely, we will explore what I will call the “politics” of evangelism, through an (inevitably incomplete) discussion of certain categories for discernment of faithful evangelistic practice, with an eye toward various issues and ecclesial habits in the American context.

Communal intentionality. The politics of evangelism is necessarily both communal and intentional. Not only is it grounded in the life and faith of the community together, evangelistic practice belongs to the entire community. It is not the prized possession or professional domain of a paid minister, however well trained or charismatic, but rather is properly the vocation of the entire church body, the priesthood of believers. This arises out of the fact of the church’s apostolic ministry, its manifest sent-ness, and thus calls forth a radical intentionality on the part of the entire community. There can be no passivity, no members who are left aside in the Spirit’s calling, equipping, and empowering for the missio dei which is the church’s reason for existence.

Baptism and discipleship. The politics of evangelism is characterized by disciples of Jesus, formed and shaped over time into the cruciform pattern of the way of Jesus, whose initiation into the community is consummated in the act of being baptized as believing adults. After Constantine, after Christendom, in a new phase of evangelism because in a new context—and therefore because in a new epoch of the church’s life in the world—the church must renew and reinstitute the practice of adult believers’ baptism. Not only does it leave behind the cultural habit of speaking on behalf of infants, only to see so many of them leave behind the faith as adults—a practice which thousands of families perpetuate without any connection whatsoever to a church body, yet whose “membership” and/or annual “tithings” the denominational structures are more than willing to accept—it renews the radically subversive character of baptism: that here all prior allegiances are subordinated, all prior divisions severed, the old world and old person put to death, only to be raised to new life as a new creature of the new creation, forever in Christ. The gift of the Spirit, too, so strangely divorced from baptism by the rite or sacrament of confirmation, now may be truly spoken as given in the act of being baptized—properly passive, for baptism is a communal act—and the beginning of the path of discipleship within the wider community of disciples. Furthermore, in order to pave the way toward a life of discipleship, believers’ baptism demands significant biblical, ethical, and theological training leading up to and after baptism. This is no paradigmatic Ethiopian Eunuch experience, who already had a knowledge of Scripture and Israel’s God—our context is one of a distant Enlightenment deity, a me-myself-and-I spirituality, an almost complete biblical illiteracy. Disciples must be baptized, disciples must be trained, disciples must be shown the way in order to follow.[1]

Justice and hospitality. The politics of evangelism is the politics of the reign of God as proclaimed and embodied in the ministry of Jesus, whose foremost message was good news for the poor and whose most visibly scandalous act was fellowship with the socially marginalized. Therefore justice for the oppressed and hospitality toward the other, as practiced and modeled by the Messiah, must also be practiced by the messianic community. The question of whether either are intrinsically (or can ever be truly) “evangelistic” is beside the point, for we follow the ultimate evangelist whose life cannot be divorced from these practices. We do not feed the hungry or clothe the naked because we hope they will “come to church”; but neither do we do so outside of our vocation as witnesses to the reign of God. To “evangelize” is to do and be “gospel,” literally to gospel, and in working for justice and welcoming the other we are in concrete fact embodiments of the gospel. Often there is nothing more truly evangelistic we can do.[2]

Peaceableness and urgency. The politics of evangelism is, on the one hand, one of God’s abiding peace, and thus acts peaceably towards all people, even enemies, in imitation of Jesus; on the other hand, it is marked by remarkable urgency, for that same Jesus proclaimed the imminent coming of the reign of God in all its beautiful and terrible implications as a reality now to be faced, now to decide upon, now to receive as gift or to reject as threat. If peaceableness overtakes urgency in the church’s evangelism, a dithering or sectarian passivity can overwhelm the church, to the extent that it acts unloving toward a suffering world or even forgets its primal commission. We might note the achievement of the Amish community in this case, living in absolute removal from the wider world. If urgency overtakes peaceableness, however, “winning,” “conquering,” and “crusade” become the buzzwords, secular orders and nation-states are baptized in the name of “spreading” God’s kingdom, and non-Christians inevitably start to die. If the soul is more important than the body, eternity more pertinent than time, why not offer Native Americans the choice of baptism or death? Praise the God of Jesus Christ that the gospel is not coercive, but neither is it a private affair. The church is perhaps most dangerously disobedient to its calling when it falls into either of these traps.[3]

Worship and technology. The politics of evangelism is always contextualized, never “universally applicable” in its catholicity but rather particular to the context of each congregation. Therefore the worship of each church, more than anything, must equally be proper to its context. However, in America in the 21st century, churches are tempted to be culturally relevant in the extreme—precisely as strategies of attraction, as evangelism—and no more so than in the arena of technology. This is an area of extreme ambiguity, but there must be basic contours in place within which a faithful engagement of modern technology may occur, particularly as it impinges on the practice of worship. On the one hand, worship must be in the language spoken by the people, culturally recognizable in its form, and continually open to new translation. On the other hand, worship is not entertainment, nor is it a show, nor is it a corporate board meeting. Creativity—better, beauty—as exhibited in visual and oral mediums is a welcome addition to a Protestant tradition than has often been dull and stale in its artistic expression within and for the worship of God. However, serious questions must be asked of technology before proper use in worship: Is this a fad? What does it communicate? How does it seriously attend to or facilitate the worship of God? In what ways does it conform to the way of the gospel? Should disciples of Jesus have more or less of this sort of technology in their lives? To what formative habits does this technology contribute in the practice of worship, not to mention everyday living? Such questions are crucial for patient discernment.[4]

Diversity and refusal. The politics of evangelism is, finally, one which accepts “no” in response to its offer. Furthermore, the reality and acceptance of refusal on the part of the church is concomitant with the church’s faithfulness in presenting the gospel to those most likely to reject it—the rich, the powerful, those with the most to give up in repenting and following Jesus—as well as to those most likely to receive it. The church’s diversity, then, reflects the extent to which no people group—whether around the world or in our backyards—is excluded from the good news of Jesus. Neither ecclesial homogeneity nor widespread acceptance of the gospel mark the sort of faithfulness consistent with the gospel of the crucified Lord.[5]

Conclusion. There is no way succinctly to summarize all that we have discussed up to this point.[6] Suffice it to say that the practice of evangelism is multifarious, inordinately complex yet radically simple, rooted in the gospel of peace and destined for the city of peace, committed to love for all because grounded in the God who loves all. Much of what passes for evangelism in America today—so unbiblical, often sleazy, rightly deserving a bad rap—we have learned is not evangelism at all, but a pale shadow. The politics of an evangelism ordered by the life of Jesus and the mission of the Holy Spirit, however, is the conceptual and practical remedy for this serious crisis in the life of the church. That God’s people have been unfaithful is nothing new; that they may turn from their ways and renew their strength on the wings of the triune God, only faith can maintain.

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[1] For a substantive account of discipleship, including a significant treatment of baptism and coming from my own ecclesial tradition, see Lee Camp, Mere Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003).
[2] See further Howard Snyder, Liberating the Church (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996).
[3] Here is where Stone’s project has its greatest weakness: there is simply no urgency in the evangelism he articulates. Instead, see Vincent Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1978), for an example of a man driven to share good news with all people.
[4] The work of Wendell Berry is vital in this instance, especially his essay “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine” in The Art of the Commonplace (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2002), 65-80. See also Stanley Hauerwas’ essay “Worship, Evangelism, Ethics: On Eliminating the ‘And’” in A Better Hope (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2000), 155-61, for an account of the beauty of worship as evangelism.
[5] I believe this is perhaps the most pressing evangelistic task before the church in America today.
[6] Indeed, my brother, upon reading through this series, thought it strange I did not mention faithful "speech" in evangelism much at all. This probably reveals my unconscious response to what is been a radical over-emphasis on talking; to the extent that I swung the pendulum too far back the other way, I heartily welcome constructive ideas for faithful evangelistic speech in the American context today.

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