Monthly Archives: June 2011

William Abraham on Evangelism

I want to write something soon about how we move past the pervasive individualist paradigm in America, and what should replace the failed model of personal evangelism among our churches.  But the best things I have to say on that topic have come largely from trying the think William Abraham’s thoughts after he has already thought them.  The Logic of Evangelism is a brilliantly insightful book which has influenced me enormously.  (And I suppose I should add a positive review on Amazon to balance the fairly critical ones that are there.)  A good overview of his argument appears in his article “The Theology of Evangelism: The Heart of the Matter,” which you can read here in PDF format.  His general conclusions from that article appear below:

We now need to think through the connection between
evangelism and the evangel. How are the two to be
linked? If the gospel centers on the arrival of the
kingdom of God in Jesus Christ, how are we to construe
the relation between evangelism and the kingdom
of God? This is a pivotal matter.

The favored position for some time has been to
insist that the natural connection is through some
kind of speech act. Thus evangelism has again and
again been construed as the proclamation of the gospel.
In some cases this has been extended to include
teaching the gospel or persuading someone to believe
the gospel. In other cases it has been expanded
to the proclamation of the gospel in word and deed.
In this instance it becomes natural for the actions of
the church, say, in education, medical work, social
action, and the like, to be construed every bit as much
as evangelism as does the verbal proclamation of the
gospel. Moreover, it is surely this conception of evangelism
that lies behind the enormous efforts currently
being made to evangelize the world through radio
and television. The warrant for the widely held conviction
that the world can be evangelized through
television is the claim that communication is of the
essence of evangelism. Evangelism is just the verbal
proclamation of the gospel; hence in our situation
the obvious tool for this is television.

We have already seen that the attempt to base
this on purely etymological considerations is precarious
in the extreme. However, even if the argument
about the origins of the term ‘evangelism’ were to
hold, that is, even if ‘evangelize’ originally meant
simply to ‘proclaim’, this would not settle the matter.
We also have to ask if this is the best way to
construe evangelism in our situation today. We must
explore how far it is appropriate to consider evangelism
in these terms in our context. In my judgment
it is imperative that we enrich our conception of evangelism
to the point where we move beyond mere
proclamation to include within it the initial grounding
of all believers in the kingdom of God. If we
make this shift, then, in fact, we actually come much
closer to what evangelists, ancient and modern, have
actually done, but, even then, the argument is not
advanced on purely historical grounds. The primary
considerations circle around the needs of our current
situation in our modern western culture. Here I
shall be brief and make three points, one negative
and two more positive.

First, continuing to think of evangelism in terms
of mere proclamation fosters the practice of disconnecting
evangelism from the life of the local church.
It nurtures the illusion that evangelism can be done
by the religious entrepreneur who can simply take
to the road and engage in this crucial ministry without
accountability to the body of Christ. To be sure,
there are lots of local churches who welcome this kind
of evangelism. It allows them to ignore evangelism
entirely as a constitutive element in the mission of
the church, for it can hand this responsibility to the
itinerating evangelist, or it can keep evangelism to
those seasons of the year in which it focuses on the
proclamation of the gospel. However, this is not the
really deep problem here. The deep problem is that
this way of construing evangelism has generally been
used to cut evangelism loose from the life of the
Christian community precisely because the responsibility
of the evangelist has stopped once the proclamation
has ceased. On this analysis, the evangelist
need not belong to a church; indeed if he does
not like the church in which he was brought to faith,
he can invent his own on the spot. Nor need the
evangelist be accountable to the canonical traditions
of the church; indeed if she does not like the canonical
narrative of the gospel, then she can invent her
own narrative at will. Nor need the evangelist take
any responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the
seeker or convert; this can be conveniently left to others,
say, in the field of Christian education. In all,
restricting evangelism to proclamation helps keep
intact unhealthy evangelistic practices which should
long ago have been abandoned. In a culture
mesmerised by the power of the mass media, the
church must recognise both the radical limits and the
dangers of proclamation in our current situation.

Secondly, restricting evangelism in this manner
cannot do the job that needs to be done in an
increasingly pluralist and post-Christian culture.
Evangelism needs to be expanded to include the early
phases of Christian initiation. The gospel must be
handed over in such a way that those who receive it
may be able to own it for themselves in a deep way
and have some sense of what they are embracing.
Proclamation is but one part of the process which
will make this possible. It will also require teaching
and persuasion, spiritual direction, an introduction
to the spiritual disciplines and the sacraments of the
gospel, initiation into the basics of the Christian moral
and doctrinal tradition, some orientation on the kinds
of religious experiences which may accompany entry
into the kingdom of God, and the like. Without
these the new believer will not be able to survive
spiritually, morally, or intellectually in the modern
world. In short, an evangelistic church will take responsibility
for the initial formation of Christian disciples
as an integral component of its evangelism.

Thirdly, the wisdom of this strategy is borne
out by a very significant recent study of spiritual
development in England. In that study careful attention
was given to about five hundred people who
had come to faith in recent years. The most pertinent
piece of information to the issue in hand is that
the majority of people studied came to faith over a
relatively lengthy period of time.
The gradual process is the way in which the
majority of people discover God and the average
time taken is about four years: models
of evangelism which can help people along
the pathway are needed.

Most “up-front” methods of evangelizing
assume that the person will make a sudden
decision to follow Christ. They may be asked
to indicate this by raising a hand, making
their confession, taking a booklet or whatever
is the preferred method of the evangelist. The
fact is that most people come to God much
more gradually. Methods of evangelism
which fit this pattern are urgently needed.
The nurture group and the catechumenate are
the best known at present, but others may
need to be devised. The use of one-to-one
conversations akin to some form of spiritual
direction may be one possibility. Another
may be a series of church services where
people are introduced to the Christian faith
over a period of time and given opportunity
to respond at each stage. Even more urgently
needed are means of helping non-churchgoers
to discover God outside the church building
in ways which enable a gradual response.

A useful way to capture this vision of evangelism
is to construe evangelism as directed fundamentally
toward initiation into the kingdom of God.
Achieving this will require both the activity of proclamation
and the work of catechesis. More comprehensively
we might say that the ministry of evangelism
will include effective evangelistic preaching, the
active gossiping of the gospel in appropriate ways
by all Christians everywhere, and the intentional
grounding of new converts in the basics of the Christian
faith. This in fact comes close to what evangelism
looked like in the early church.

In order to forestall possible misunderstanding,
note that this proposal assumes that no evangelism
is possible without the concurrent activity of the
Holy Spirit. It also insists that evangelism must be
rooted and grounded in the life of the local Christian
congregation. Finally, it expects that evangelism will
naturally result in the growth of local churches, but
this is neither the goal nor focus of the ministry per
se. The focus is the coming of God’s kingdom in Jesus
Christ and the goal is to see people grounded in that
kingdom here and now. In short, evangelism is simply
the initial formation of genuine disciples of the
Lord Jesus Christ.

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The Cult of the Individual

There is a certain kind of story that is I have heard again and again in America. I think it is particularly prevalent in our society, if not unique to it.  There are many variations, but in general it goes like this:

A young man is born to a family of adequate means, although they are far from wealthy.  He has a safe, warm home and good food to eat, thanks to his parents’ work and care for him.  As he grows, he attends tax-payer supported public schools that provide him a good foundation.  His parents often have to leave for work early, but he waits with other neighborhood children at the bus stop, and a reliable school bus, paid for with taxes, picks them up.  The bus-driver, whose salary is paid by everyone’s taxes, takes him to school on smooth roads built and paid for by the government.

The boy is a sharp student and a good learner.  Through a state-mandated gifted and talented program that, by law, must be offered to students with his abilities, he gets specialized instruction that challenges him and helps him reach his academic potential.  Even though his parents have no more than a high school education, the (state-mandated, tax-supported) school counselor begins encouraging him to think about college.

Because of his excellent grades, solid SAT scores and modest financial means, he qualifies for a variety of college scholarships, some which ultimately come from government funds, others of which were provided by wealthy benefactors.  Advanced education is made possible for him because of these funds.  He finds a part-time job that covers his living expenses.  It’s manual labor, nothing glamorous, but the federal minimum wage laws ensure that he gets fair compensation for his work, and laws enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration make it very unlikely that he’ll but put in a situation that could cause him physical harm.  What little financial expense isn’t covered through scholarships and work he pays for with student loans, which are automatically granted to any full-time student, and are backed by the guarantee of the federal government.  No payment is expected and no interest accrues on these loans until after he leaves college.

He lives in a modest studio apartment in a fairly run-down neighborhood, but the police drive through frequently, and the one time he was startled by a fight just a few doors down, he called 911 and a patrol car was there within a few minutes to stabilize the situation.

By his junior and senior years the career center at his college has helped connect him with internships in his chosen field, where kind-hearted mentors show him the ropes of day to day life on the job, volunteering their time to encourage his interests, and even taking him to conferences at company expense and helping him to network with potential employers.

He graduates with a good GPA, applies to work for several of the companies where he has made connections, and is hired by one of them at a good starting salary.  Because of the knowledge and skills he has gained, he works his way up the ladder, learning more about his business and how to manage it.  In his mid-30’s he decides to go to work for himself.  He gets a loan at a good interest rate from the Small Business Administration, hires some talented employees, and is soon CEO of his own successful business.

Now he’s 40 and rich.  Frequently in conversation he tells people that he is a “self-made man.”  He believes that all it takes is skill and hard work and you can get anywhere in life.  You just have to “believe in yourself.”  He gives large contributions to politicians who promise to lower his tax rate, even if it means cutting funds to the schools, structures and programs that he depended on to get where he is.  He loves to quote Ronald Reagan’s line that “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”  And he has no sympathy for the “lazy bums” he encounters sometimes who grew up in poor neighborhoods with dangerous schools and little access to the programs that he was able to utilize.

Asking an American about individualism is like asking a fish about water.  It’s the environment that we live in, and it’s so pervasive that it’s hard to get perspective on it.  There are hundreds of thousands of people in our society like the entrepreneur above. Their entire life was a gift from others who donated to the cause, but they sincerely think of themselves as strong individuals who made their way to success because of their own determination.  They are literally blind to the fact that their life is only possible because of functional community systems–family, school, government, business networks, protective agencies, and so on.  While no doubt part of the entreprenuer’s success is due to personal characteristics, another man with exactly the same set of gifts and personal traits who was born in Rwanda or Nepal or Peru would have had a very different kind of life.

The American church has been enormously affected by the surrounding culture of individualism.  The scriptures are almost invariably focused on communities–kingdoms, clans, tribes, families, households and churches.  When there is a prolonged focus on an individual, it is usually because that individual has a role to play in blessing the larger community.  Abraham is the archetype in this–chosen by God because through him “all peoples on Earth will be blessed.”  The most famous line in scripture is John 3:16, which tells us that “God so loved the world.”  Scriptural images for believers include the household of faith, the kingdom of priests, the chosen nation, the family of Jesus, the people of God. Ephesians depicts the cross as the instrument that has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between warring ethnic factions (Jew and Gentile in this case) and created one united humanity, which is a witness to the cosmos of the power of Christ.  To be saved, in scriptural perspective, is to become part of a larger community.

But the overwhelming scriptural emphasis on community and the communal work of God doesn’t play very well to individually-minded American audiences.  Rather than standing as a healthier alternative to the typical American viewpoint that has elevated the individual to center place, the church–especially the conservative evangelical church–translates the gospel into me-speak.  The primary evangelistic message is not “come join the community of the saved,” but rather, “Jesus died for you,” and “he has a wonderful plan for your life” and he wants you to accept him as “your personal savior” so you can have a “personal relationship with him.”  You might be able to make a case that “Jesus died for you” is a Biblical message, with the proviso that you are one of billions that he died for, but the other phrases are utterly absent from the New Testament.  There is no promise that he has a wonderful plan for your life, and even if that were true, it would only work for definitions of “wonderful” that include the isolation, poverty, torture and death that have been the fate of many believers across the centuries.  There is no scripture that asks you to form a personal relationship with Jesus, but many that ask you to bless Jesus by blessing others.  See, for example, Isaiah 58:

 1 “Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
2 For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?

6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The LORD will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Much the same sentiment is more famously expressed in Matthew 25:

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Asking someone if they have a personal relationship with their personal savior

I own this book. Jesus died just for me. Sorry the rest of you missed out.

Jesus who has a wonderful, personalized plan for their life is a far cry from asking whether they are willing to take up their cross and join the community of self-sacrificing priests who are pouring out their lives for the sake of the world.  And even if the evangelizer truly means to point to the cruciform life of the disciple when asking those questions (which I doubt) the object of the evangelical efforts certainly won’t read all of that subtext into a pitch that seems to promise that Jesus is standing by to make your life an endless procession of puppies and rainbows if only you will let him.

This evangelical me-speak has carried on to such an extent that it often doesn’t just receive more emphasis than communitarian language, it replaces it entirely–sometimes in ways that can’t be reconciled at all with the scriptures.  I once preached at a church that gave every visitor a complimentary copy of Max Lucado’s little book entitled He Did This Just For You.  (There’s also an “He Did This Just For You” New Testament.)  There’s no way to interpret that title that makes sense–a plain text reading of it sounds like I, precious unique individual that I am, happen to be the only person that Jesus died for.  Even if you can squint really hard and turn the book sideways and somehow find a way to make the title a true statement, it is certainly less clearly true and in need of many more caveats than a scriptural title like “God so loved the world.”  By the time we are saying “He Did This Just for You,” we have moved beyond translating communal language into me-speak and crashed wholly into upending the gospel message to make Christianity one sub-sect in the larger religion of Me and My Best Life Now!

The aspect of American life that is often most in need of repentance is the relentless focus on me, and “what’s in it for me?” and “what have you done for me lately, anyway?”  But rather than call people to something better, richer and deeper, we far too often just cower in the shadow of the temple of self.  Christianity can overturn the worship of Jupiter and Roma, but it is helpless to tackle my steadfast devotion to me and my own well-being.

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