This recent article from the Episcopal News Service has prompted me to think again about the “E” word – you know, “evangelism”. The article is entitled, “Mobilizing for mission: Seminarians organize for young adult evangelism.” I have a lot of respect for this group of Episcopal seminarians in their effort to engage in evangelism, but to what are we calling people? Is there an enduring aspect to what we are calling these young adults?
When I ask myself that question, here is what I keep coming back to: The Church needs to reclaim one of its primary purposes – to be about the Cure of Souls. That means we call people to God through Jesus Christ first and foremost. But, why should anyone be compelled to heed such a call, particularly if they take an account of our lives as examples of what we are calling them to? How is our witness?
Within certain circles of the Christian Church in the U.S., and I suppose everywhere, the “E” word is avoided with a passion or simply redefined to fit particular sensibilities.
Growing up in American-Evangelicalism/Pentecostalism, evangelism was supposed to be at the center of my experience of the Faith. We believed that we and all Christians are charged by God to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” We believed this because, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:15-16).
While I certainly upheld this call to us all to preach the gospel, the problem I had with all the evangelism stuff was the preferred and accepted method most often used by American-Evangelicals, particularly in my context, which was the college campus. The method used was often refereed to as “Confrontational Evangelism”. In a more crass and defamatory description, some people referred to it as “bible-thumping.”
I was uncomfortable with evangelism all together because this was all I knew. This method to me seemed fake, contrived, and forced in a way that didn’t leave room for dealing with real and honest questions and doubts. To me, it did not seem to respect there object of the effort. Paul, as described in Acts 17, often said something like, “Come, let us reason together…”, but there was no real reasoning within confrontational evangelism. It seemed overly superficial. Yet, I personally knew people who came to be reconciled to God (“saved,” in good Evangelical verbiage) through this method – God works as God will work! Who are we to get in the way of the Spirit because of our own likes and dislikes!
I was drawn to another concept of evangelism during those days – “Friendship Evangelism.” This method seemed more natural and respectful. We befriended people simply because we wanted to be friends, although added to the mix was our desire for the person to also be a friend of God. The problem was the constant tension between being “in the world,” but not “of the world.”
Being friends with a “worldling” sometimes seemed to ran counter to God’s demand that we, “come out from among them”. (2 Corinthians 6:17) How could one just hang with a non-Christian and be okay with that when being with him/her may be a bad influence on one’s own struggle against sin and striving for holiness? Besides, their eternal soul hung in the balance and it was up to us to do something about that. Pressure! Pressure that made real friendship nearly impossible. That’s why these “friendships” rarely lasted. When the object of our efforts didn’t get saved, we dumped her/him and moved on to another prospect. This was our witness of “friendship” among many non-Christians. Some kind of friendship, eh?
This was why I hated “evangelism.”
Within American Mainline Christianity, there took hold among some an idea that “evangelism” wasn’t so much converting people to Christianity, but doing things that helping the poor and down trodden and then hoping that those helped would like us. I remember while in seminary a representative from our Church’s Foreign Missions office declared that we no longer try to convert people, because that is disrespectful of their culture and religion, but we simply help them be all that they can be. To what are we calling people?
Today, for much of the Mainline, the “E” word has been redefined. “Evangelism” is simply helping, and then perhaps someone might like to help us help other people. Helping others is a very good thing, but is it that to which we are to call people?
I can’t get into this kind of “evangelism,” either.
Within the Imago Dei Society, we center on Formation and Witness. The Imago Dei Initiative is the means for helping us to live lives that reflect God, that reflect the transformational nature of God’s work within us, and that reflect something compellingly different within the surrounding contexts of our lives that get people’s attention. What we hope gets people’s attention is not due to marketing, gimmicks, or manipulation, but simply the way we live – “There is just something compellingly and delightfully different about these people!” The difference, if seen, is due to our relationship with God first and foremost and the re-formation of heart and mind that results.
In a society and culture that is increasingly similiar to the pre-Constantinain environment, “evangelism” comes about because something about our lives and example attracts the attention of those seeking something other than the status-quo. If we can be the “image of God” with integrity, with honest, and with humility in our everyday lives among the people we encounter regularly, we will be doing “evangelism.” We will be a good witness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We do “evangelism” whether we want to or not. The question we have to answer is whether the image of God and the Christian life we portray is on target (as best it can be in success and failure) and whether we call people to be reconciled with God before anything else. Do we?
We hope to call people to two things consistently – be reconciled to God and with one another. Take up your relationship with God and discover how you are transformed to live “life to the full”. (John 10:10) It isn’t easy, and that is why we need one another to keep on.