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.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Church Culture, Evangelism, Good Theology, This Is Good

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s