Successful evangelism requires some urgency. We have to feel some kind of fire-in-the-belly to move out of our comfort zones and share the good news with others. Indifferent evangelism doesn’t work.
One of the reasons we mainline Christians fail so miserably at evangelism is that we have little or no sense of urgency. Certainly we don’t share the urgency of rescuing souls from hell, which seems to inspire fundamentalists. Without that rather negative and fear-mongering urgency, we have fallen into a relativistic, live-and-let-live, choose whichever road up the mountain that suits you, or not, attitude. It is hard to get excited about that. It is impossible for unexcited evangelists to excite the evangelized.
We need to realize some sense of urgency about our faith. And we do have cause for urgency. I propose that the urgency in doing evangelism in the post-Christendom, emerging/missional moment is the ecological urgency of Noah, feeling the first drops of rain, ushering the future life of the planet into the ark. He senses the imminent destruction of the sinful and corrupt past; and he prepares to sail in faith towards a promised future.
Fundamentalists might say that these are after-death, and/or end-times experiences. But today we know they are very real possibilities on the ground and in history. They represent a choice we have to make today. For we too face the prospect of catastrophe, and at the same time an opportunity for renewal. We find ourselves in a Noah-moment. The urgency is: “Get on this boat or die!”
The creation itself is on the cusp of a series of massive and comprehensive disasters, the biggest of which, of course, is global warming. But there are others: ozone depletion, fresh water exhaustion, mass extinctions, antibiotic-resistant bacteria and viruses, nuclear proliferation, and so forth. In some of these crises the planet itself is rebelling against human idolatry, injustice, exploitation, violence, and greed.
Evangelism says, “Get on this boat or die!” mainly by inviting people to follow Jesus. Jesus and his way of life is the boat. We get on it by following him and living as he lived.
If we do not change our ways right now, many of us will surely perish in an eco- (that is ecological and economic) catastrophe of, well, biblical proportions. Indeed, this cataclysm may be in fact unavoidable, as was the case for Noah. The best we may be able to do is to gather in life-preserving, life-sustaining communities in which we may weather the storm and be prepared and equipped to start anew.
Such communities are what Jesus comes to inspire and organize. Jesus’ teachings may be summed up by the Hebrew word shalom. More than simply the the absence of conflict, shalom has to do with justice, equality, humility, liberation, non-violence, healing, and a commitment to the least of society’s members. Jesus walked lightly on the Earth, in harmony with nature, consuming very little. He lived in community, building relationships, welcoming the outcasts, supporting the weak, and spreading God’s forgiveness and love. If people followed him by living like this, it would be enough.
Following Jesus also means conforming to his life, in which God’s infinite, saving love is demonstrated in self-emptying, generosity, healing, and sacrifice, which is fulfilled in resurrection. The atonement ultimately means reconciliation, people being brought back into unity with God and with all creation. Atonement is not something we wait for or to which we are passive spectators. By his Spirit, we participate with Jesus in his atonement now by the quality of our life together.
The fact is, for the sake of God’s creation, people need to follow Jesus. They may not need to worship Jesus, especially if worshiping him seems in the minds of many to actually preclude following him…. They may not need to harbor precise and accurate theological opinions about Jesus. Neither may they have to mouth the correct verbal formulas about him. But people do need to follow Jesus.
If they follow Jesus while retaining their religious labels as Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or atheist, fine. If they follow Jesus but don’t say (or maybe even know) he is the one they are following, I’m okay with that. What matters is if their actions reflect and express Jesus’ life and teachings. For it is our actions, the way we engage with and impact the Earth and its people, that matter most.
Evangelism, which is the communication of the good news of God’s love for the world to people, carries with it the urgency of life and death, blessing and curse. The destiny of the planet and human life itself is at stake. There can be no greater urgency than our need to board the ark, now! This means gathering in communities of shalom where we learn to live in justice, forgiveness, blessing, healing, and generosity. These are the characteristics of eternal life that Jesus taught and embodied.