(Modified, originally posted in August, 2016).
A while back I read a blog post from Scot McKight on Rethinking: Evangelism, and alongside reading Brian Zahnd’s book ‘Water to wine’ of his own journey of faith beyond the narrow approach of ‘in / out’.
McKnight asks the question of how we should evangelise:
so now then how do we evangelise… what do we say in that 3-5 minutes when that might be the only conversation we have.
This is a poignant question when we think beyond a person ‘going to heaven and needed the entry ticket’ – what then is evangelism?
Zahnd’s book is deeply moving as it is his personal journey of integrity. I cannot make the journey he has made where he appears to me to be deeply sacramental and (in my perspective) a staunch believer in the institution and liturgy of church, and although he seems to come at it by a different route his journey likewise challenges the traditional understanding of what it means to evangelise.
Both carry the label of ‘evangelical’, and although I sometimes question the validity of that label, in as much as it means having a centre in Jesus, salvation through his atoning death as revealed through the authority of Scripture then I too am probably happy with the label. The label describes some core beliefs for us all, and it is in that context the question of ‘then what about evangelism’ becomes important. The question becomes a relevant question when the Gospel is seen as broader than the four spiritual laws. And it becomes harder and harder to reduce the Gospel to those (or similar) kinds of laws / statements. The 3-5 minutes under the former viewpoint was easy, now what?
For Gayle and I we live deliberately missionally. In our opinion the call to follow Jesus necessitates that. I appreciate that the first call of Jesus to the apostolic band was to be with him (Mk. 3:13), the apostles were those who ate and drank with Jesus (Acts 10:41), so maybe I miss something in all this. Being (with) before doing and acting. However, I confess that we think purpose. We think that way because we think all believers are called to live that way. However, we have stopped using that (missional) language because far from seeming to help others find purpose two things happened. A view that it is different for us – ‘you live in Spain’, as if an address makes a difference? (And it does at times – try living in Saudi Arabia, Syria etc… or in some Western nations that have all-but sold out to materialism.) And secondly, it seemed to carry an expectation that because we are living in Spain there are certain things we are / should be doing. So we use the phrase ‘living life’. This might become a less than useful phrase too. What we mean by the phrase is life centred on the values, teaching and person of Jesus, so the whole of life is shaped by that viewpoint, and I hasten to add ‘imperfectly’. Now we all live life – whatever our address, but a follower of Jesus has to be ‘guilty’ of living life shaped by the One who died for their redemption.
Long paragraph there, but the reason is, McKnight, Zahnd or Scotts, who all see the Gospel as broader than the four spiritual laws have to answer the question of evangelism. I am not a Universalist (too many Scriptures there for me), but neither do I automatically submit to all are off to hell at death except for the born-again ones, and partly as I see the ‘hell’ Scriptures as both having an AD70 application and that where they do not the issue is eternal punishment not eternal punishing. So maybe there is an easier, softer-edged approach to my theology, that avoids me living with the imagery that all are in a burning building and our task is to get as many out as possible by whatever means (evangelism that treats people as objects therefore is not too objectionable under that imagery). I still hold to ‘those who receive Jesus are saved’, so I want the whole world to receive Jesus. What then about evangelism?
McKnight used the word ‘witness‘ in his post. I found a resonance in that. We are called to be witnesses to Jesus – we read this of course regarding the promise upon reception of the Spirit, where Jesus explicitly harnesses the Israel calling to the nations, as in Isaiah, conferring that on the disciples (Acts 1:8). The Acts 10:41 scripture I referred to above says:
but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.
We are witnesses and perhaps all the better witnesses if we eat and drink with him. Lifestyle witnesses. That was why when the bank assistant swore at a reasonably high volume asking me to make some kind of monetary response, I had made a witness. She then said to me ‘I know money is not important to you’. Did I evangelise her, rebuke her for her use of the well known ‘-er’ verb? No, but I bore witness. Off the back of that one day, maybe… But I am not about to exploit the situation.
Witnesses to values, based on following Jesus. He is the centre, not some facts about sinfulness and ‘wrath’. We can connect with people, we can confront racism, sexism, abuse, unfettered capitalism (note ‘unfettered’) all on the basis of our Jesus’ discipleship. We can resonate with activist groups that care for the poor, and when there is an opportunity we can explain the reason is that ‘this so closely resonates with what our teacher instructed us‘. The witness is to him.
The language of ‘witness’ gives us some language that we find helpful. Living life is missional, witnessing is evangelism (good news-ing). Living life is eating and drinking with Jesus. If he is important the occasions when we encounter the restricted 3-5 minutes might contain some verbal communication in summarised form about sin and the cross, but more likely the challenge will remain as to how we live life. That is the core element of witnessing, and the only way to effectively plant seeds where people can ‘hear him’ and not simply some approximate truths about him.
A little theology
I do not believe the Bible teaches the eternal punishing of ‘sinners’. In summary: the soul is not immortal; God alone has immortality; the tree of life was barred to humanity so that ‘they might not live forever’; the imagery drawn is from Sodom and Gomorrah, they being destroyed by eternal fire and all that remained was the smoke of their torment, and from the closing verses of Isaiah where ‘their worm did not die’, the fire was not quenched but the result was non-existence. This is the difference between eternal punishing and eternal punishment. One is unending and ongoing, the other (at some stage) final and irreversible. I also consider that many of the warnings in the Gospel are concerning the ‘hell’ of AD70, so not relevant to the issue of eternal destiny.
I also lean to the blurred line position of ‘all who receive Christ’ are saved (we then have to wait to see what it means to receive Christ – what about those who received an image of Christ, and how perverted is an image until it is no longer a Christ but an anti-(replacing the authentic) Christ?), and all who ‘reject Jesus are lost’ (again what does it mean to ‘reject’ Christ). This is not a Universalist position but holds solidly to the universal inclusion through the Cross. This gives room for those to be included in the age to come who have not come through the narrow door that those from an evangelical / fundamentalist background have been (implicitly) taught to work with. Though it needs to be noted that the above is well within the boundaries of evangelical faith.
[Side note: the narrow path, flee the wrath to come type of Scriptures fit totally the coming judgement of AD70… We have to read the Scriptures narratively first, not as a set of doctrines.]
I consider that such theology takes some of the angst out of the ‘one opportunity so quickly discharge your responsibility’. Other issues I have with the hard line ‘one opportunity’ scenario is that we can treat people as objects to be saved, preached to, or whatever. Something I think is far from the scenarios we find in the Gospels with Jesus or in the Acts with the Gospel mission. There was a ‘I-Thou’ relationship (to take out of context a quote) that seems to me to be about the encounters we read there. In many of the scenarios a giving in relationship was the context, and that takes time.
The Pauline Gospel has at the centre a belief concerning the death and resurrection that proclaimed a new foundation for the world. A new creation is on its way because he is the ‘firstborn of all creation’, and (I think) by implication there was a new way to be society in the light of that. Paul could proclaim this in the market place alongside the other philosophers. The huge added dimension was a transcendent one, witnessed to by the inbreaking of heaven’s realities with miracles and the expulsion of demons. Immediate signs of another dimension, and subsequent signs of a different dimension evidenced socially if someone took a focus on the transformation among the marginalised.
For me then the proclamation of the ‘kingdom of God’ is not a three step:
- all sinned
- Jesus died for all
- receive him and you are saved.
Hence I think our call and Paul’s preaching was ‘to bear witness’. This seems to accord with his desire to come to the Roman church to proclaim the Gospel, not to reduce this to work with them to ‘evangelise’. His desire was to preach the Gospel to ‘them’ (the church).
Now the flip side. There is wonderfully more than enough evidence throughout the letters that personal salvation is a reality. Paul spoke of wanting all to be in his situation (minus the chains) when addressing the royal court. He wished for them to be as he was personally bonded to Christ.
This is why we need to be very sensitive to the ‘in the next five minutes I need to get across the deeply core aspect of the cross that Jesus was present to reconcile all to God’. If we call that evangelism, then let’s be very sensitive to evangelise. I simply think that is one aspect of bearing witness, and an aspect that if forced in another situation might not be a bearing of witness.
Praying for a sick person without explaining the four spiritual laws, digging someone’s garden or whatever might be the most powerful witness we can bring at a given time. Our witness is not to how good we are, nor to how bad someone is who is not a ‘believer’ but our witness is to Jesus, that there is a new creation here and coming.
So my tentative position is that we are to bear witness. We must resist the temptation to evangelise at all costs. We have to be passionate about Jesus so that we see people as he saw them. Perhaps to the religious person we might have to insist that without them being born again they will not even perceive the kingdom; maybe to the rich person we might need to exhort them to sell everything for without it they can never be free to enter bondship to Jesus; perhaps to the financial cheat we should go eat with them and only when they look to put right what they have done do we take the liberty to proclaim that salvation has come to their household; maybe… Yes all gospel stories and ones centred in on Jesus’ ministry to Israel so they have their limitation, but maybe they also have enough provocation to bring me to repentance over the situations where I have opted to evangelise when I should have born witness, or have missed on out on that specific opportunity to ‘evangelise’ when I opted to avoid it.