Thursday, July 26, 2012

On Preaching Christ By Any Means: Means and Ends in Evangelism

In church discussions concerning popular evangelism, one often encounters the sentiment that, however odd or imperfect or even distasteful a certain kind of proselytism may seem to us, we ought to follow Paul in rejoicing that Christ is nevertheless being proclaimed (see Philippians 1:15-18). The reference is usually made quite sincerely, even to the detriment of the speaker -- i.e., "It may seem strange or wrong to me, but I should get over myself and my narrow predilections (or even standards), and recognize that the gospel is being preached. Who knows what God might do through or in spite of such practices?" However, while granting the spirit in which this attitude is typically expressed, I find it to be at once a conversation-stopper and theologically misguided, not to mention a misinterpretation of Paul.

Moreover, behind and alongside these would-be big-tent statements there is a sort of shadow side to them, namely a generic tolerance articulated as a desire not to "judge" others. This motivation surfaces especially in broadly evangelical discussions of different kinds of churches and worship practices -- i.e., "Though I don't agree with the mega-church model (or preacher-centered congregations, or technology-obsessed worship, or simplistic Jesus-prayer altar calls), I've known great Christians who do -- so who am I to limit God's ability to work in places I wouldn't expect to find him?" The implication that tends to follow is that one ought not to express any kind of real or substantive criticism of such practices and ideologies, since there is evidence Christians have been produced and/or sustained by them.

Again, though this is often well-intended, I think it is largely wrong-headed. I often find it helpful to clarify with an extreme example that reveals that all of us do, in fact, have a clear limit to our nonjudgmental ways. For example, imagine an evangelist who finds people walking alone on the street and beats them (while preaching) until they relent and confess Christian faith. For the sake of argument, let's also imagine that, oddly enough, the propositional content of this evangelist's preachments is doctrinally sound. No Christian would respond to news of this style of evangelism with approval, much less a resigned sigh of "Well, at least Christ is being proclaimed." Rather, they would react with shock and horror, and would want to see this person brought to justice and/or to persuade the person to stop immediately. Why? Because the means of the witness do not match the end; the form is incongruent with the content; the medium is ill fitting to the message. The truth of the Prince of Peace is rendered false -- the good news bad -- through the use of violence in the telling of it.

So, as in most matters, there is a continuum: In certain qualified instances, the imperfect communication of the gospel is worth celebrating in spite of what may be regrettable aspects involved therein; nevertheless, a line is crossed when the concrete shape of proclamation is so discordant with its subject -- Christ -- that it ceases to be the gospel but something else that is proclaimed. In that case it must either stop or be altered substantially; either way, it is something to lament, condemn, counter, repent of, rather than laud or encourage or rejoice in.

If this account is true, then it would be better to refuse the temptation to qualify or discredit our judgment of evangelistic practices for reasons of humility or celebration of Christ's proclamation by any means. Instead, we ought to develop and maintain, in dialogue with our sisters and brothers in Christ, the criteria by which we will in fact, and must, make such judgments, along with disciplined practices that nurture the kind of prudential wisdom that is crucial to their being applied in ways that are neither arrogant nor condemnatory.

To put some meat on these bones, allow me to share a story. A few weeks ago, standing on the quad at Yale while waiting for a friend, a man approached me and immediately started talking to me. Without introducing himself, asking my name, or looking me in the eye, he launched into what was clearly a rehearsed presentation of "the gospel." As he spoke he got out a tract and flipped through the pages, which contained illustrations of the gap between MAN and GOD resultant from SIN, the bridge between which ended up being -- surprise! -- the cross of JESUS. Arriving speedily at the last page, I was told that if I read aloud the four-line prayer printed there for my benefit, I would be saved from the hellish consequences of my sins and given eternal life in heaven. After about five minutes of this nonstop, I was finally able to interrupt the man and explain, first, that I was a Christian, and second, that I was waiting on a friend who was about to arrive. Looking both surprised and disappointed, the man went on to tell of how at one time he wasn't a Christian, but that after he converted he earned raises at work and has flourished ever since. As well, his life has been blessed spiritually, not least due to how wonderful (and important) it is to tell others about the gospel. With that, my friend appeared, and we walked away.

Based on the foregoing, ought we to rejoice that through this man Christ is being proclaimed? My answer is a flat no. Nothing about his demeanor, presence, words, or message was in alignment with the gospel ostensibly being shared. I was insulted, accosted, annoyed, even disgusted. Had I not already been a Christian, I would have been outraged and wholly turned off by this absurd instance of fanatical proselytizing. In short, this was not Christian evangelism -- that is, witness to the gospel, the evangel. It was anti-gospel; or put differently, it was testimony to "another gospel" (Galatians 1:8), evangelization on behalf of an impersonal, intrusive, unloving, hyper-propositional, non-ecclesial, individualized, utterly self-serving "gospel." Not the good news of the crucified and risen Messiah of Israel, but the bad news of some other lord -- in this case, from what I could tell, the instant gratification of one of the many American McDeities on offer from fundamentalism's pantheon.

It should be clear that I am entirely uninterested in whether this man has ever found success in getting some poor victim to read the magic prayer at the end of his tract; equally so in whether any such convert has emerged from that haze into full-bodied Christian faith. My contention, rather, is twofold. Not only should we be willing to judge, and actually judge, this man's efforts faulty and unfaithful; the fact that he is "preaching Christ" is worse, rather than better, for the cause of God's mission in the world. It is a matter, not for joy, but for lament.


  1. From your inspired point of departure to your compelling conclusion, an excellent post, Brad.