ReBe Evangelism

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

Once again, Dan Dick's blog, United Methodeviations, brings forward a critical issue that those of us in the emerging missional movement have been grappling with for some time-- evangelism.

And this one may strike us closer to home, and perhaps be a bigger challenge for some of us than we may have imagined.

What Dan's research found is that United Methodists in the US do not engage in personal evangelism, by and large. Instead, if they do anything at all with evangelism, it is either "representational evangelism" or "passive evangelism." Representational evangelism means either letting a committee (evangelism committee) do the work of evangelism for the congregation or inviting people to come to worship or other church-related events, and trusting that that invitation and that context will somehow do evangelism for us. Passive evangelism means either attracting people to professionally produced one-way events (seeker services as example), or non-interactive media advertising, or trying to suggest that how we live, in general, is its own witness not requiring words.

Probably many of us in the emerging missional movement have given up on institutions doing anything helpful toward real transformation, personal or social. Representational evangelism is thus something we're more likely to critique than to do, much less endorse. And as for the marketing and seeker service models of passive evangelism, I think most of us have ruled that out on principle long ago. "Attractional is not missional" might be the way we put it.

But across the larger emerging missional conversation, perhaps especially at the intersections of critical-evangelical and mainline streams, the "non-verbal witness is enough" element of passive evangelism has often been modeled as a more authentic way forward than more direct, personal models. I see that stream of the conversation, at least, being more reactive against a sort of merely doctrinal and transactional approach to evangelism (perhaps epitomized in something like Campus Crusade's "Four Spiritual Laws"), and in that opposition generally commending the "authenticity" of the lived life without words over any communication of words at all.

The missiological element of our larger conversation ought to be ringing alarm bells at that assertion, however. What we know from missiology-- also affirmed in sociology and even neuroscience-- is that almost no "complex" action on our part has coherence for another without some sort of framework in which, or against which, to interpret it. Very simple things we can all understand-- a look of surprise or fear, or a warm embrace. But these very simple, "hardwired" immediate responses do not, in themselves, provide enough of an interpretive background to make any sense of a concept like "following Jesus," much less salvation. It is precisely language and culture that provide that interpretive framework.

There is a famous quote about evangelism often attributed to Francis of Assisi. "Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words." There is no evidence from his writings or any contemporary writings about him that he actually ever said these words. But if he did, or if he or other Christian leaders said anything like them, they were being said to a culture (13th century Italy) that was already thoroughly Christianized and had been for nearly a thousand years. What Francis found lacking in Italy in his day was not a failure to teach Christian doctrine; it was a failure to live the way of Jesus.

For those of us in North America in the 21st century, at least most of us who may be reading this blog, the culture around us is perhaps now only vestigially Christian. There is in the culture at large a lack of teaching of the Christian faith, and with it a lack of other cultural correlative practices that support that teaching. The cultural supports remaining that could interpret actions without words as any sort of proclamation of the good news of God's reign are in a jumbled shambles at best.

So as we consider what ReBeing Evangelism requires of us, at the very least it requires both lives that correspond to the way of Jesus AND a way of telling others, for whom few if any coherent cultural supports exist, why we live as we live and inviting them, personally, to follow Jesus with us.

Congregations as we have them are probably not up to either task: teaching the way forthrightly and accountably or helping those so taught to communicate it effectively wherever they go. That's not a condemnation of congregations. It's just an observation of reality.

This is part of why organic groups or accountable discipleship groups or mission groups or whatever we call these small bands of sisters and brothers who are commited to follow Jesus and help each other do the same are so critical in our day. The best hands on teaching of the way of Jesus will happen here. So will the best hands on teaching and exploration of how to communicate directly and personally in words, ideas and, actually, culture-- the culture we create together-- the good news of God's reign and the invitation to follow Jesus with us.

ReBe evangelism... it's not just for the settled congregations or the Enlightenment principlists or the pushy evangelicals anymore...