This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Evangelism.


I.
To say that we Presbyterians are weak on evangelism is kind of an understatement. Many churches refuse to even use the word, fearing the misunderstanding it would foster. (I once served a church that toyed with establishing a “Marketing Committee.” They finally decided to call it the “Growth Committee.” But “Evangelism Committee” was what they were trying to avoid.)
The roots of this aversion are manifold. Here are some of the reasons:
1) Evangelism was never a priority in the Reformation. The goal there was to reform the church from within. The idea of going out and bringing in the “unchurched” was simply not on their radar. Within Christendom, almost everyone was considered a Christian. The Reformation had almost no sense of going outside of the bounds of Christendom to bring others to the faith.
2) The Presbyterian emphasis on predestination militated against evangelism. If God has already decided who was saved or condemned, what was the point of spreading the gospel?
Because of these two factors, we find very little about evangelism in The Book of Confessions, until the 20th century. It is not like we have lost a strong tradition of evangelism. We have a built-in reticence about evangelism going all the way back to the beginning of our movement.
3) Presbyterians did get involved in evangelism in the 19th and 20th centuries… but it was almost always thought of in terms of foreign missions. With our deep roots in Christendom, we have tended to be blind to the idea of evangelism towards people within our own context. America was considered a “Christian nation;” evangelism within our own country was redundant.
4) At the same time, as America became more pluralistic and ecumenical, it was increasingly considered impolite to thrust your faith on another, especially if they were often just of a different Christian denomination. This “live-and-let-live” attitude carried over into relationships with non-Christians as well. People’s faith was their own private business.
5) As faith became more private and individualistic, churches became content to think of themselves as retail outlets attracting customers. It was all we could do evangelistically to spread the word that “We’re open on Sunday.” Interested people would come to us; there was no need for us to go to them. This worked really well in the 1950’s when people were looking for churches. It stopped being effective in the early 1970’s.
6) As upper-middle-class people, members of the establishment, Presbyterians looked on evangelism as something done by illiterate, low- or working-class “holy rollers.”
7) There are out there churches that do what they call evangelism in hurtful, nasty, threatening, obnoxious, and exclusive ways. When Presbyterians think of evangelism, they often get a picture of fanatic and eccentric Christians going door-to-door threatening people with hellfire if they don’t join their group. We don’t want any part of that, nor should we.
The context of the Western church for 1500 years is now collapsing. Its demise is why evangelism has become an important area of Christian life that Presbyterians need to address. We no longer have the confidence that we live in a conscious and intentional Christian culture. The unchurched are no longer just found in other places in the world. Indeed, just the opposite is the case; some of the most vibrant and growing churches are in Africa and Asia. The government – for example, the public schools -- no longer supports the work of the church. People don’t come to church out of civic duty so much anymore. A Christian church is not necessarily the first place people think of when they want spiritual help, or psychological support, or even to do charitable work.
Without the support of the culture and its institutions, the church needs to be responsible for its own message and ministry. We live in an increasingly non- or post-Christian culture. This means that we can depend on no one else to share the Christian story and the good news of God’s love for the world revealed and given in Jesus Christ. It is up to us.
Evangelism thus becomes the essential element in Christian life it was in the New Testament. Being an evangelist is now again a key part of the calling of every believer. I think it is an exciting, if challenging, facet of our mission that we get to rethink and redesign evangelism for our own time and place, based on the Scriptures and the Spirit working in and through us.

II.
Evangelism literally means “telling good news.” How the church has done this has varied over the centuries. But the one common thread in the history of the church is that Christians tell the good news best and most effectively by lifestyle and example. One hymn from the 1960’s summarizes this well: “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
1. Therefore, the primary task of evangelism is to cultivate a loving spiritual community in the church. It is one of the reasons we Presbyterians are so concerned with order. Building a community of peace, love, healing, and justice in the Spirit of Jesus Christ, living according to his teachings, and implementing this love in service to others, is the first task of being a Christian.
The church is an inherently evangelistic community because it first communicates the good news of God’s love for the world to itself. It does this by worship, education, and fellowship. We share and reflect upon the story of God’s interaction with the creation, especially in Jesus Christ. And we actively place ourselves within that story.
I am convinced that this is not a matter of whether a church is conservative or liberal, traditional or contemporary. It has to do with the integrity and authenticity of its life. Where a church is unified, focused, and can articulate its identity and mission clearly and enthusiastically, it will grow.
2. When the church’s life is ordered and shaped according to the life of its Lord, this ordering infects the life of the people who are members of the church. They take this Spirit home with them and enact it in their families, their workplaces, in the marketplace, in schools, and on the highways.
This happens by the use of spiritual practices. Prayer and meditation, reading Scripture and other spiritual texts, fasting, tithing, Sabbath-keeping, attending retreats and seminars, consciously caring for creation and the poor, showing forgiveness and acceptance, and many other practices are ways the Word of the gospel becomes flesh in our own experience. Put simply, we do evangelism – that is, we communicate the good news – when we embody it in the way we live our own lives.
Thus, evangelism has nothing to do with the hard-sell approach that puts off so many Presbyterians. Rather, it is more simply and directly a matter of reflecting the life of Jesus Christ in the church so that it shines in us when we are in the world. We radiate a joy and forgiveness, a calmness and focus, a conviction and sacrifice, and a commitment to serve others – especially the least among us – that becomes attractive. What we learn in church through the Sacraments, preaching, education, and fellowship experiences, becomes interiorized and expressed in the situations we meet in the world. We serve as an open, accepting, and healing presence among others.
Certainly we have to name it. We have to admit to ourselves and to others that whatever order, peace, and motivation we now have is purely the work of Jesus Christ. It is his gift to those who trust in him. Naming it means having learned the language, symbols, images, and practices of God’s people, and keeping them. It means being able to talk about your trust in the Lord intelligibly to others in terms they can understand.
In Jesus’ name, we become an inviting, healing, liberating, and blessing presence in our world.

III.
This mode of evangelism is not new. It is the way the apostles functioned. It is the way the church grew from its earliest days. It focuses primarily on building up the gathering of believers as a living community of love, respect, acceptance, healing, grace, and forgiveness. Secondarily, evangelism focuses on how the believers live their lives as people sent into the world in Jesus’ name. If these two tasks are done with integrity and authenticity, the effect in the world is often positively seismic.
+++++++

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Barth.


I am beginning to think that the most important contribution made by Karl Barth in his entire career was the insight that Christianity is about Jesus Christ. This might seem like an obvious statement. But it needed saying at the time, and it clearly still needs to be repeated. Because I have learned, much to my amazement and chagrin, that there are lots of people, even and especially in the church, who think Christianity is about a lot of other stuff in addition to, before, and even instead of Jesus Christ.

It is fallout from Christendom that makes us believe the church and Christianity have to do with these other things. People still think the church is about promoting patriotism and good citizenship, supporting economic growth and prosperity, maintaining and promoting “traditional family values,” encouraging loyalty to the State and its leaders, and generally providing a religious anchor for middle-class American society.

At least as important is the apparent belief that Christians are free to follow influences and lords other than Jesus Christ. They reduce Jesus’ teaching on, say, non-violence, to some kind of ideal we hope for in the far future or in heaven after we die. But when it comes to actual decisions and actions in the world, many Christians believe that ideas other than those of Jesus should be implemented. Jesus is not practical for the real world. When it comes to actual existence, we are content to use reasoning identical to that of terrorists. “I will win by using more effective deadly violence than my enemy.”

Barth’s famous statement at the beginning of the Theological Declaration of Barmen needs to be memorized and reflected upon regularly. Put these words on your desk and on your refrigerator:

Jesus Christ,

as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture,

is the one Word of God

which we have to hear

and which we have to trust and obey

in life and in death.

We reject the false doctrine,

as though the church could and would have to acknowledge

as a source of its proclamation,

apart from and besides this one Word of God,

still other events and powers, figures and truths,

as God’s revelation.”

It is clear that the traditional church often allows itself to be given many other “events and powers, figures and truths,” as sources of authority for its work.

In Barth’s day, of course, he was issuing a stern warning to the German church in 1934 about following the policies of Hitler’s government. But it doesn’t matter what these other powers are. They don’t have to be the obvious manifestation of profound evil that the Nazis were. In fact, it is unfortunate that the Nazis were so comprehensively depraved. It allows us to continue in the illusion that we are qualitatively different from them. As if the “other events and powers, figures and truths” that draw us away from Jesus Christ are okay, since they are clearly not as bad as the Nazis.

Yet Barth’s point is that any “other events and powers, figures and truths” are dangerous and corrosive to the gospel if they are allowed to become a source of the church’s proclamation. Even the universally accepted good things in life, if the church starts to see them as essential to its proclamation, undermine the gospel and draw us away from Jesus Christ. Even the Nazis saw themselves as doing good, believe it or not. As do all oppressors and murderers.

If the church makes the gospel dependent on, equal to, or identified with a particular political, moral, or economic system, let alone a particular nation, family, gender, generation, race, party, company, or individual, then it is denying its Lord who demands unequivocal and exclusive loyalty. For all these things are about us. They may express our highest aspirations, our deepest hopes, and our greatest dreams. But they are still products or our creativity and ingenuity, corrupted by sin.

Throughout our history, when the church forgot its Lord and stumbled away after such “other events and powers, figures and truths,” disaster ensued. Forgetting Jesus Christ and following our own political and economic and moral reasoning is how we got the church advocating and rationalizing atrocities like the Crusades and the Inquisition, slavery and genocide, witch-hunting and torture, ecological devastation and apartheid, wars of conquest and “preemption,” nuclear proliferation and economic injustice.

Our faith, on the other hand, is about Jesus Christ, “the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.” Period. Anything else that elbows its way into the frame seeking to associate itself with him, or even pretending to be his sponsor or patron, is at best suicidal presumption and at worst catastrophic usurpation. Any other presence up in the chancel, any symbol of some other event, power, figure, or truth, any alien colors alongside the Pulpit, Table, and Font, is anathema, a desolating sacrilege, an abomination.

Not all the Reformation solas still function. But this one has to: solus Christus. Christianity is about Jesus Christ.