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on evangelism

Below is an essay I recently wrote for one of my classes regarding evangelism. I’m braving posting this before it’s been graded, but I welcome any feedback. : )

When we ponder the subject of evangelism, we are really pondering God’s overall purpose for the human race. For what reason were we created in the first place? In God’s ideal, what would we look like, and what roles would we play? Peter provides a framework for the ideal: “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) In this view, we are all in danger of destruction, and this is not within God’s volition. His overarching plan is that we might avoid this destruction through repentance and obtain an alternate situation: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) Jesus informs us that the good news with which we are immediately concerned pertains to our rescue from destruction. Our alternate (or perhaps original) destination is that of eternal life.

Such a message, it seems, would be universally embraced without our agency. In spite of this, Jesus rightly predicted that relatively few would accept His offer. Hence, before His departure, He commanded his trusted apostles to disperse among the population and spread the news. This command has been transmitted through the ages, even to the point of our current discussion. I submit that our own efforts to uphold this charge must focus on two questions. First, in what distinctive ways does contemporary, unbelieving culture find itself incongruent with the Christian faith? Second, and perhaps more vital to our success, in what specific ways does our modern community of believers find it difficult to display faithfulness to our mandate? I will argue that these issues are ultimately rooted in the same soil.

The world theater as we currently experience it is not bereft of conflict. Nations struggle for influence. World views clash in the Middle East on a daily basis. Even in our own developed government, political parties combat for values, resources, and power. Despite our heritage rich in conflict, post-modern man’s acceptance of spiritual conflict is not ubiquitous. The question no longer entails how we might be saved, or who might enact such a salvation, but rather whether salvation is an issue at all, and from what we might need saving. This scenario provides little impetus for unbelievers to inventory their theological beliefs. These issues are relegated to philosophy and personal meditation, where they pertain to personal issues only nominally, and to corporate matters not at all. This is the barrier before which evangelistic efforts now must stand.

It is fortunate, then (or perhaps God’s design), that the conflicts apparent in the physical world provide a bridge to spiritual struggles still invisible to our culture. In his Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism, Brueggemann argues that the first theme represented in an evangelistic trio of stories is Theological Conflict. He observes that Yahweh’s victories over Pharaoh and Babylon provide the necessary history to engage non-participants with the faith of Israel. At the time, these victories were apparent amid a contemporary struggle. Pharaoh and Babylon were very real powers over which no physical victory might be expected. Yahweh’s initiative to address and conquer them prompted an invitation to those previously under their employ.

The conflicts that immediately occupy our own culture are poverty, addiction, familial dysfunction, and depression, among others. Such concerns claim the same undeniable reality as did Pharaoh and Babylon. Victory seems unlikely. One may observe that all of these conflicts may stand on their own, outside the purview of faith or religion. If we now introduce an agent who seriously challenges and defeats these stalwarts, this agent gains immediate credibility among those previously in defeat. In many demonstrable ways, the manifest disciplines of spiritual living strike a death-blow to our most feared enemies. When we give our cloak to him who has none, we wound poverty. Self-control crushes addiction. The husband who gives his life for his wife trumps familial dysfunction. Loving one’s neighbor as one’s self abolishes depression. When the unbeliever witnesses such massive victories in the conflicts that characterize his world, he is open to the suggestion of alternative conflicts and a superior future. In this way we can see why Roy Fish predicted that 21st century evangelism would entail increased focus on societal needs, and how that focus may be illustrated.

Perhaps before we can overcome the difficulties of reaching our unbelieving culture, we must discover the causes of our own reticence. Brueggemann details three candidates for evangelism, one of which is the “forgetful insider”. Along with Brueggeman, I am convinced that it is this candidate with whom we can most readily identify in terms of our outreach efforts.

The Church in the United States has been increasingly placed in what we believe to be a delicate position. Our culture accepts fewer and fewer of our fundamental claims outright. Richard Dawkins is not the only person who believes Yahweh is a delusion. The jealous God of the Old Testament is increasingly “embarrassing,” as Brueggemann phrases it.

On the one hand, we are tempted to become staunch, to put up walls, and to protect what little assets remain within our control. Of course, this is counter productive as a method of engaging lost souls. Exclusion decidedly does not lead to growth. On the other hand, we are tempted to give up the sticking points that are judged to be foolishness by the world. Perhaps we can concede that Jesus is not the only way to God. Perhaps we can stop insisting that the Bible contains imperative moral claims. Unfortunately, neither of these options provides a serious solution. One promises asphyxiation. The other guarantees that we will lose our identity altogether. Are there any alternatives to this confining horizon?

The truth is that we have forgotten the victory God claims over our lives and the lives of the people around us. God’s triumph and our good news is His forgiveness despite what Brueggemann calls our “massive seduction and sellout.” The very barriers that we believe are so insurmountable become the spans by which we will arrive upon success. It is imperative that we recognize the darker times in which God has triumphed before, and the power He holds to claim victory again. Only by connecting to that power will we have the courage to press forward in seemingly dangerous circumstances. We should be encouraged to follow Peter out onto the water. Only then can we learn from his mistake and avoid sinking.

Our call is to expose the darkest places of fear in our society’s mind. We must show that the God who demolished Pharaoh and who humbled Babylon will also destroy these demanding enemies. In doing so we will ignite faith in those who have none, and prevent our own from being quenched.

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  1. Yay! A blog entry! More of this…

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