Missional Perspectives for Church Leaders 08 – EVANGELISM
This is part of a larger article on Missional Perspectives. See the Related Areas at the bottom of the page for all the articles in the series.
There are many aspects of ministry that are affected by the postmodern mindset. The implications are stronger, however, in areas such as evangelism. For this reason, LifeandLeadership.com offers this interpretive essay regarding resources in evangelism.
Evangelism in the our era is largely ineffective, and in many cases is non-existent. The church needs a good check-up on evangelism. One way of assessing the reasons for ineffectiveness is to look at the current trajectories among those who take evangelism seriously. Zeal often comes out of holy discontent with the status quo. In our time, the postmodern ethos has a “lover’s quarrel” with the conventional church in most dimensions, evangelism included. Some of this is a reaction. And typical of reactions, it contains both needed critique and over-correction. The reaction is primarily against faulty perspectives and practices of evangelism found in the traditional and pragmatic/church growth philosophies. Listening in on the conversation can tell us a great deal about ourselves.
Evangelism in 4-D
Let’s begin by surveying four dimensions of evangelism. The New Testament mentions each of these, both individually and collectively, as making significant contributions to God’s work of reconciling people to him.
Demonstration – This emphasizes the powerful testimony of exemplary living and good works of believers.
- Exemplary Living – The winsome and convicting effect of lives that are attuned to God is a repeated refrain in the New Testament – John 13:34-35; John 17:20-21; Colossians 4:5-6; 1 Thessalonians 4:10-12; and 1 Peter 2:11-12, 3:1-2. For example, in the last reference, Peter refers to the unbelieving husbands of his readers being “won over without words by the behavior of their wives.”
- Good Works – Another recurring emphasis is how God uses the good deeds of his people to draw others to him. This is reflected in Jesus’ metaphors of “salt of the earth” and “light of the world” with the intent that people will “see our good deeds and glorify our Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-16) This is echoed in 1 Peter 2:11-12: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”
Whether it is the corporate witness of the whole church or the personal witness of a single individual, the demonstrative effect of exemplary living and good works is integral to evangelism.
Dialogue – This refers to careful conversations and exchanges of believers with those who espouse different, and sometimes opposing belief systems. The idea is that the gospel becomes clearer through the dialogue, especially when the conversations are conducted with gentleness and respect. This dynamic receives strong emphasis in the New Testament.
“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:6)
“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” (1 Peter 3:15-16)
These two dimensions of demonstration and dialogue are emphasized in popular evangelistic approaches under labels such as conversational, relational, friendship, lifeystyle, permission, etc. They underscore the importance of genuine relationships, or at least they assume connections between believers and unbelievers that go beyond sharing information, but which present opportunities for sharing the gospel.
Some refer to demonstration and dialogue as pre-evangelism, i.e. they are not evangelism in the strict sense, but create the good ground in which evangelism may occur. Yet the New Testament indicates these activities, by themselves, bear considerable weight in God’s reconciling work. It is fair to say, however, that these are indirect means of evangelism. They are not necessarily purposely evangelistic, but have value in themselves as the authentic lives and gracious conversations that should be characteristic of all believers, but should be engaged evangelistically in order to steward their potential for God’s reconciling work.
The next two dimensions are more directly evangelistic, and are more commonly associated with the popular images of evangelism – declaration and defense.
Declaration – This is the presentation of the gospel. In the Acts accounts, this occurs in the apostolic preaching (e.g. 2:14ff, “Peter…addressed the crowd”), in the preaching of disciples (e.g. Stephen, ch. 7), in the proclamation of the scattered disciples (8:4-8), and in many other ways. We should not in every case project our images of long monologues, as many of these presentations were dialogical from the outset (cf. 2:37-38, “they said…Peter replied”). The content of these declarations was multifaceted, but we can be certain that it included a historical witness to Christ’s bodily resurrection and its implications (1:8 [cf. Lk. 24:48]; 1:22; 2:31-32; 10:41-42). Every Acts record of apostolic preaching makes this declaration and calls for a belief response from the listeners, even in situations such as Paul in Athens, where the hearers had no biblical background (17:2-31).
Defense – By this is meant the defense of the gospel in situations where there is opposition, antagonism, or an alternative truth claim. Paul described this as a central part of his call, to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and…take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5) We find him doing this in Acts with Jews in the synagogues, such as in Thessalonica where he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead.” (Acts 17:2) Peter also instructs Christians to “be ready to give an answer,” (1 Peter 3:15-16) which translates the Greek term apologia, meaning a reasoned statement or argument in support of one’s beliefs.
Does one of these four constitute the core of evangelism? Has one evangelized by simply demonstrating the gospel, or dialoging with those who believe differently? Must one declare and defend in order to truly evangelize? Certainly not all evangelistic situations require defense, but if the gospel is not declared, has one been evangelized?
Evangelism Trends that are Needfully Corrected by the Postmodern Ethos
I am indebted here to Dr. Charles Lawless in Evangelicals Engaging Emergent (208ff), which was written during a period when emergent was a more nouveau representation of postmodernism. This ethos is now more widely represented among Christian believers. Lawless appreciatively surveyed popular emergent authors at the time of publication, rightly pointing out that they truly had a heart to see lives transformed by the gospel. He then discussed five areas where their passion has provided a needed corrective in the work of evangelism.
Reductionistic Evangelism — Reductionism occurs when a practice that is rich with meaning when fully-orbed is whittled down to something that reflects only a fraction of its complete significance. This is made worse when the fraction becomes mistaken for the full value. Several common evangelistic tendencies reflect reductionism. One is the quick, single-moment salvation consisting of “repeat this prayer and you will immediately become a Christian,” which minimizes repentance, genuine faith, baptism, life transformation, and discipleship. Another is the older “bait-and-switch” method of using spiritual interest surveys to gather a list of “prospects” and get one’s foot in the door. A lingering result of these approaches is a history of shallow conversions in which the lifestyles between believers and unbelievers is statistically indistinguishable and the evidence of the church’s influence on culture is hard to find. Emergent approaches often fail just as much as traditional in emphasizing repentance and life transformation, but nevertheless sound a helpful warning.
Evangelism Divorced from Relationships — In some traditional and attractional approaches, evangelism is reduced to inviting people to church or to specially hosted evangelistic events, what Frost and Hirsch call “in-drag” vs. outreach. Accompanying this is a “fortress,” “social club,” or “cocoon” mentality in the church which encourages isolation that “sucks Christians out” of the surrounding culture and “isolates them in a religious ghetto” where they are “warehoused as merchandise for heaven.” (McLaren) Those who are converted are more like trophies won rather than people loved. By contrast, emerging approaches desire a church that loves people unconditionally and prefers to know a genuine Christian for a long while before becoming a part of their faith community. Lawless says, “while I do not accept that confrontational evangelism is no longer effective, it does seem clear that relationships are key to sharing Christ today. …A single holy life lived obediently before others can sometimes overcome the influence of a multitude of hypocrites.” (319)
Evangelism Focused More on Eternity Than on the Immediate. — Many approaches to evangelism focus on escaping an eternity in hell with a view toward eternity in heaven, with little emphasis on the meaning of kingdom existence in this world through practices of genuine Christian community and transforming culture through social action and holistic ministry. Another result is a kind of radical individualism that as long as I am saved, I care less about others or about engaging in accountable community. By contrast, the emergent goal is “complete persons leading to whole societies today.” Nonbelievers today are likely to join a Christian community before accepting Christ, where they are given opportunity to engage in fellowship, conversation, ministry, prayer, and worship before being invited to commit.
Evangelism Focused Only on Propositional Truth — Some strands of postmodernism are compelled by the noise of competing truth claims to reject the idea of there being only one absolute truth or one “metanarrative.” Thus earlier attempts at evangelism through declaring the truth of biblical propositions are rendered powerless. In this context, narrative, or story-telling, replaces propositions. The gospel is more illustrated than proclaimed, as each person’s story becomes a “case study in God’s power to change” (McLaren). And the method is narrative exchange through dialogue, or question-and-answer. A popular metaphor is evangelism as “dance” (McLaren). The gospel is a song that we join in dance and ask others to dance with us. And the dance is stopped dead in its tracks if anyone tries to “win over” the other through a better step (or a better argument).
Evangelism Separated from the Evangelist’s Lifestyle — This emphasizes the importance of believers being genuine followers of Jesus who share their faith as a natural byproduct of that relationship, rather than through an impersonal evangelistic program. Also, evangelists see themselves as on a “journey” or “adventure” in which they are always humbly learning and changing, even willing to experience “reverse evangelism” (Rollins) by learning from and being evangelized by those whom they evangelize.
Evangelism Characteristics that Need Preserving in the Current Era
Alongside these strengths, however, Lawless presents several caveats about evangelism in the postmodern matrix. He begins with a quote from Scot McKnight that “emergent churches simply are not known for evangelism.” Lawless follows with a more thorough critique in four propositions, which I have rephrased as characteristics of biblical evangelism that need preserving. The following is a summary of Lawless.
Biblical Evangelism Should Not Dispense With Propositional Truth — Certainly propositions divorced from lifestyle are powerless. A “so what” response to logical arguments elevates the need for “community-based relationships and dialogue-centered discussions.” Theological humility befits the complex Christian belief system, (323) yet Lawless emphasizes “this in no way diminishes the truth that the gospel is expressed in propositional statements.” (323) He gives examples of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 as evidence that “the message of the Gospel is undeniably a set of truth claims, and apart from these claims there can be no true evangelism.” (324) Failing to set forth these propositions could lead converts “to assume their salvation apart from knowing essential truths.” (324)
Biblical Evangelism Should Include the Transcendent Power of Gospel Proclamation — Here Lawless distinguishes between “presence” and “proclamation” evangelism over against an exclusive inclination toward “presence,” or being a force for good in relationships and in one’s community. This stresses “the vulnerable rhetoric of good fruit, good deeds, good lives rather than coercive argument.” (McLaren) Lawless quickly affirms the value of presence evangelism, yet also shows that the biblical definition of evangelism involves intentional proclamation, that love demands a proactive declaration even if unbelievers never bring it up in conversation, that social ministry is vital but still inadequate apart from proclamation, and that believing the gospel will not be heard apart from the witness of our lives limits the gospel’s transcendent power. As he says, “genuine New Testament evangelism is based on a gospel that is powerful apart from us.” (327)
Biblical Evangelism Should Convey a Sense of Urgency — Lawless begins here by recounting the apostles’ strong passion to preach boldly in a context of multiple spiritualities, in the face of fierce opposition, and at great cost. One motivator was their “genuine concern about the eternal destinies of nonbelievers.” (327) This contrasts to perspectives that describe evangelism variously as “inviting others to join us and be a part of what God is doing in the world” (Karen Ward) or being “quiet for a year and only doing good works” (Dieter Zander) Lawless attributes this to an emphasis on living out the kingdom in the immediate and a disdain for evangelistic strategies that over-focus on the afterlife. Yet he says this “has counter-productively weakened attention to the eternal state of unbelievers” (328) and is quite ambiguous about the reality of hell. Alongside this is a reticence to differentiate between “who’s in and who’s out” and a dislike of terms such as lost, unChristian, nonbeliever, and unsaved. Certainly we must refrain from terms that are unnecessarily polarizing and insulting. We must balance this by remembering that Jesus himself clearly conveys the concept of “lostness” in the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and lost son in Luke 15, and in the description of his mission in the Zaccheus narrative as “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). It may indeed by helpful to refrain from these terms in some contexts or in the beginning or intermediate stages of evangelism, but a complete understanding of Jesus’ mission is not possible without grappling with being lost and found. And it is these concepts that are often foundational to evangelistic urgency.
Biblical Evangelism Affirms Exclusive Truth Claims — Lawless’ concern here is the faulty views of hard postmodernism regarding followers of other faiths, those who reject Christ outright, or those who have never heard the name of Jesus. There is a strong current in Christian communities toward universalism and a hesitation to affirm that Jesus is the only way to salvation (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). Along with this is “reverse evangelism” that seeks to learn from those of other faiths and “admit the possibility ‘that the Spirit has been with these people all along.’” (331, quoting Gibbs and Bolger, Emerging Churches, 131) Lawless quotes Piper as an example, that “evangelism…is no longer persuading people to believe what I believe…[but] is about shared experiences and encounters…with the possibility of encountering God and truth from one another.” (331) Lawless responds that if the purpose is to show respect while seeking to proclaim Christ as the only way to God, this approach is justified. “The risk,” he says, “is that the relationship never leads to a clear proclamation that Christ is not just a way to encounter God; rather, He is the only way to encounter God, and that only through a personal response to Him. (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; Romans 10:9-13)” (332). Lawless makes an excellent summation:
“The universalist sees little need for evangelism, for all will be saved in the end anyway. The inclusivist is not inclined to evangelize, as a personal relationship with Christ is not necessary for salvation. The conditionalist may still evangelize, though his understanding of the non-eternal nature of damnation may weaken his urgency. The exclusivist is the most likely evangelist, for he believes that Jesus is the only way to God, a personal relationship with Christ is necessary for salvation, and hell awaits those who do not follow Christ.” (332)
The LifeandLeadership.com Ministry Resource Guides concurs with Lawless’ assessment of both the strengths and weaknesses of evangelism in the postmodern ethos. Benefiting from this perspective requires a degree of discernment that is hopefully facilitated by his analysis.
Remember the AND
One of the most helpful words in the English language is “AND.” Relative to the nature of biblical evangelism, it is important to avoid the tyranny of either/or and affirm the beauty of both/and. Each of the polarities below expresses an important reality about the nature of evangelism. Evangelism involves…
- BOTH the demonstrative presence of the Gospel by the transformed community of faith, AND a proclamation of the core historical truth of the Gospel.
- BOTH a conversation between lives that have been transformed by faith, AND a propositional truth about what God has done in Christ.
- BOTH an exclusive testimony about Jesus as the one and only way to salvation, AND a respect for the circuitous route some may travel through alternative religious affiliations before arriving at that necessary conclusion.
- BOTH a truth claim that is defensible by sound argument, AND a lifestyle that may be convincingly proven by the authentic church.
- BOTH a Divine Word that is transcendently powerful beyond the imperfect messenger or medium, AND a demonstrated witness that genuinely attests to the legitimacy of that Word.
- BOTH an ordinary work that is the responsibility and privilege of all disciples, AND a special work for which some are uniquely gifted.
- BOTH a process by which persons arrive at faith, perhaps over a long period of time, AND an event by which a person, at a particular point in time, is saved by grace through faith.
- BOTH a redemptive God-authored story that is compellingly conveyed and experienced in the context of a winsome faith community, AND a powerful encounter with God’s word that may not be contingent on the conduit of human relationship or an immediate awareness of the larger biblical narrative.
- BOTH a matter of experiencing the reality of God’s kingdom in the here and now, AND entering the hope of eternal life in the new heavens and the new earth.
- BOTH a decision to accept Jesus as King, Savior and Lord, AND an observant participation with the redeemed community before and/or after conversion.
- BOTH a hospitable reception by the church before one is converted, AND a call to conversion before God adds one to the church.
If all of the above are true, then it is important for participants in today’s discussion about evangelism to listen to each other. For none of us embodies it all, and some of us do not embody it AT all. When we think we “get” it, someone we least expect shows us we have missed it, somewhere. Is balance the right word? Perhaps. Integration, convergence, fusion, may be better words. But we certainly will not get it if we take our stand on one end of these polarities all of the time. The work God does to bring others to him is so multi-faceted. We should not shrink from engaging the hard or soft tasks for fear of man, but should walk alongside Him in both, trusting and praying all the while that the Spirit will orchestrate in us a convincing symphony that brings the world to the bent knee and bowed head of the honor of God.
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