Evangelism before and after Christendom
Some quick thoughts on evangelism following a lively discussion at Community Church Harlesden…
Evangelism has clearly become for many Christians a problematic and frankly anti-social requirement of the faith. To some extent this can be dealt with at the level of practice - there are good ways and bad ways of doing personal evangelism. But I think there are some deeper conceptual issues involved that get us to the heart of the problem of what it means to be church today. It may help in this respect to think of evangelism as an integral expression of the state of a community’s existence - or perhaps better, of what God is doing through its actual, contextualized existence. This can be demonstrated by exploring the narrative dynamic of the ‘good news’ motif in the New Testament and then asking how we might interpret the present situation in the light of that dynamic.
For Jesus the ‘good news’, the euangelion, was an announcement about what God was doing to bring the oppression and captivity of his people to an end, to overthrow its corrupt rulers, and to inaugurate the new life of the age to come - that was the coming of the reign of God. Evangelism in the context of this early story about the renewal of the people of God was the announcement to Israel by Jesus and his disciples that this was about to take place - within the lifetime of those who heard it.
This is (at least analogically) the ‘good news’ of Isaiah 52:7-10 - the announcement to Zion that her captivity is ended and that her God reigns. The ‘good news’ of this ‘salvation’ is then proclaimed to the nations: all the ends of the earth shall see what God has done for his people Israel through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
This became Paul’s evangelistic, good-news-announcing mission; but the character and experience of the community was radically transformed in the process. So his ‘gospel’ morphed into the disclosure of a ‘mystery’ - the largely unforeseen inclusion of Gentiles in the covenant community (Eph. 3:1-10).
But the existence of this community, drawn from all the nations of the ancient pagan world, constituted a direct affront to the ‘good news’ of an imperial peace and prosperity guaranteed by the god and saviour Caesar. In this evolving narrative context evangelism became the bold - indeed reckless - community-based announcement to the Greek-Roman world that Christ and not Caesar was Lord. The Edict of Milan in AD 313 was the real-world vindication of this prophetic announcement.
For the modern evangelical movement evangelism has been at its best an expression of the church’s confidence that secular rationalism could not finally expunge biblical truth, that lives can still be transformed by putting trust in Jesus. But it easily degenerated into an expression of the church’s frustration, its fear of irrelevance, its desperation to maintain its privileged position within the Christendom paradigm. This, I think, explains why for so many people, both inside and outside the church, evangelism has become an embarrassing and offensive form of religious activity.
Within emerging paradigms, therefore, we probably need to start by asking: What is God really doing here? What is the nature of our exceptional existence? If, as someone suggested to me last night, the church might see itself, for example, as a sign of urban renewal - a missional, worshipping community of compassion and justice that resists the corrupting, soul-destroying forces of urban life - evangelism should be an expression, a public articulation, of precisely that re-orientation and the new possibilities that it opens up. The very existence of such communities is an announcement to post-modern, post-Christendom Western society that the creator God has not given up, that he has not simply capitulated to the forces of rationalism, materialism and cultural disorder, that Jesus still has the name which is above every name. That is ‘good news’.
This ‘announcement’, embodied in the whole life and practice of a community, is bound to have ‘personal’ implications; it is bound to impact individual lives; and some people are bound to hear in it an invitation from the God who has not given up. But it arises out of the concrete, biblically and prophetically interpreted, experience of a community. To a large extent our modern forms of personal evangelism have lost touch with this narrative-theological framework. We have put the cart before the horse. We have started at the wrong end, with the isolated personal experience, and as a result evangelism has become stripped of both meaning and integrity.
I have not read the following books, but I imagine they are worth considering as resources for this debate. Other recommendations are welcome.
Bryan P. Stone, Evangelism after Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness
Oh, and I think Re: Mission: Biblical Mission for a Post-Biblical Church, which I have read, also helps to set evangelism and mission within a narrative biblical framework.