This issue of Let’s Talk has posed the question of whether or not it is still necessary or even appropriate to engage in the intentional Christian evangelization of a highly diverse, pluralistic social environment. The question itself implies an attitude or understanding about what evangelism is and how evangelism is done that is highly suspect.
Sadly, in my interactions around the synod and around the world, I find that “evangelism” has become a code word for one of two things:
- Either evangelism is seen as a benign and half-hearted effort to recruit new affiliates to a religious institution that operates largely like a lodge or club or society where membership has its privileges,
- Or evangelism is seen as an act of violence and manipulation designed to dominate and control those who are either too weak to resist it or too slow to escape it.
If either of these represents the attitude and understanding of our Christian evangelists, then it is quite true that everyone would be better off if they stopped doing whatever it is that they are doing, because it has nothing to do with evangelism.
EVANGELISM, that is, the work of sharing the life-giving, life-saving, and life-changing love and power of Jesus Christ with those who do not presently experience it, begins with self-differentiation — knowing who we are. Christian evangelists must, first and foremost, live and move and derive their being in the certainty that:
All that I am and all that I have comes by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone
In a social environment where vast numbers of people live their entire lives without ever really knowing who they are underneath all of their roles, responsibilities, and possessions, the first gift of evangelism is to offer the possibility of a clear, unequivocal, and unassailable identity that does not depend upon ego, achievement, or acquisition. It is a pure gift that has nothing to do with institutional recruitment. And it is a gift that by its very nature negates the forces of violence, manipulation, domination, or control.
Having offered this clear, differentiated identity, evangelism then goes on to provide us with a mission. Christian evangelism provides an answer to the question, “Why am I here?” by reminding us, as evangelists, that in all that we do and say we are here to:
- Bear witness to the love and power of Jesus
- Invite others into the love and power of Jesus
- Dismantle the barriers that are excluding others from the love and power of Jesus
Everything that I say or do bears witness to someone or something. The only uncertainty is the object of that witness. Evangelism makes this uncertainty certain. The object of my witness is the love and power of Jesus. But unless my words and deeds explicitly bear witness to something else, they implicitly bear witness to me. Is the goal of a diverse, pluralistic society to have every individual bearing witness to himself or herself? It is hard to hear good news in this.
We have developed, in the ELCA, an impressive history of making the world a better place through broad-based coalition building between business interests, religious interests, political interests, and earnest individual desires for usefulness and righteousness. Everyone admires the essential goodness and masterful accomplishment of these endeavors.
But to what or to whom do they bear witness? If we are embarrassed or ashamed to allow them to bear witness to the love and power of Jesus, then they will implicitly bear witness only to the power of our love, our strength, our virtue, our ingenuity, our intrinsic goodness.
In a very precise way, the optimistic humanism that is the basis for this witness was the failure point for a late nineteenth-century impulse known as Protestant Liberalism. Liberalism was an impressive and totally admirable conviction that pure hearts, sharp minds, and willing hands could build the world as it should be, provided that we did not alienate any potential co-workers by explicitly bearing witness to the scandalous cross of Jesus Christ as the source and ending of the effort.
But the optimistic anthropology of this “witness to ourselves” could not withstand the scorching heat of the catastrophic, self-annihilating evil of World War I, and Liberalism melted again into the unabashed and uncompromising evangelical neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Anders Nygren.
The mass exodus from the current manifestation of mainstream liberal Christianity suggests the possibility that even if history doesn’t exactly repeat itself, history rhymes. Christian virtue that retreats or hides from Christian evangelism inevitably withers by cutting itself off from the source of its own love and power. And by bearing witness to its own goodness while keeping the source of that goodness hidden in the shadows so as not to offend anyone, our virtue bears witness to a lie.
The challenge to Christianity in a pluralistic cultural landscape is NOT to figure out how to be Christian without evangelizing. The challenge is to learn how to evangelize respectfully. And the reason we must learn to evangelize respectfully is not merely so that we can all tolerate our neighbors in a state of detached peaceful coexistence. We must cultivate respectful evangelism because a style of evangelism that is violent, manipulative, dominating, controlling or otherwise disrespectful is a force that drives others away from the love and power of Jesus instead of inviting them into it. Paradoxically, evangelistic activity that alienates or devalues others becomes the very barrier that authentic evangelism is sworn to dismantle.
Respectful evangelists must begin their work by listening openly and honestly to those who differ, and then continue by taking responsibility for the clarity and conviction of their own identity and their own witness, rather than by trying to control another person’s response to their witness. Stated in the language of developmental psychology, respectful evangelism is the necessary work of a Christian community that is differentiated from the world, while at the same time remaining stubbornly connected to that world in all of its diversity. And it is this same respectful but unapologetic evangelism that may convey the love and power that will transform and redeem creation.
Metropolitan Chicago Synod, ELCA