Evangelism after Christendom – reflections (part 1)

A while back, Jeremy sent me a book entitled Evangelism after Christendom (Bryan Stone). For those of you who don’t have friends in interesting graduate programs that actually read books, I would suggest you find some, and then have them tell you what to read.  It cuts down on the amount of bad books you go through significantly, and allows you to read more bad books in your own field, if you choose.

With most Christian books I’ve read in recent memory, I generally read the first few pages, say, “Oh, I know what this is going to be about”, and then spend the next 300-500 pages discovering the book was, indeed, about exactly what I suspected on page 4.  With this particular read, however, I’m close to 50 pages in and I have absolutely no idea where he’s going to end up, which is an extremely exciting and refreshing feeling.

Stone begins his book with reference to the idea of Christianity in general, and evangelism in particular, as practice.  In doing so, he begins with Alasdair MacIntyre’s (virtue ethics) definition of a practice, which is probably easiest to explain using James McClendon’s analogy of a game.

One of MacIntyre’s core principles of a practice is that if a “means is internal to a given end”, then “the end[s] cannot be characterized independently from a classification of the means”. In other words, it is impossible to separate a practice from the “internal goods” of that practice. What are internal goods? It’s perhaps easiest to start by talking about what they are not.  For starters, internal goods are not merely skills or rules. Consider baseball, for instance.  There are a variety of skills that might be required to play baseball – running, throwing, and catching, for instance.  However, none of these *are* baseball. The practice of baseball is something other than running, throwing, or catching, though all of those skills are required in order to participate in the practice. Whatever skills are required for a particular practice, however, the practice cannot be reduced to any of them, and each skill is judged by how well it serves the practice, not the other way around.

Additionally, Stone  points out that there may be “external goods” which result from a practice – in the case of baseball, money and fame – but that these external goods do not define the practice, and in fact can generally be achieved by other means which have nothing to do with the practice in question (say, being a personal injury lawyer).  Stone also notes that often times our desire for these external goods can distort the practice, and cause us to miss the point of what the practice is “really” about, if they become our goal.

A practice, then, is about more than the individual skills required for it, and more than the external goods produced by it.  It is also about joining a tradition that self-justifies the practice, and requires participation to fully understand.  More on this in a later post, but for now suffice it to say that a practice is about more than having a certain skillset, or a certain set of rules, or a certain set of results, and even when it is done alone is an inherently social activity that requires a communal agreement on what the practice entails (think about the game of Solitare, for instance).

Let’s stop, then, and consider in our own particular context how these ideas might relate not just to the “practice” of Evangelism, but Christianity as a whole.

There are certainly a number of “skills” (for want of a better word) involved in the practice of Christianity. Prayer, meditation, study, service – each of these forms an important part of the Christian experience, but as a practice, Christianity cannot be reduced to any of them.  Additionally, it’s often tempting for us to think of these skills as the measure of the “Christian-ness” of a person, or of ourselves.  If we’re not careful, our pursuit of quiet time, study, or even service can actually subvert us from the ethos of what it means to live Christianity as a practice. Finally, we find it easy to mistake the external goods of the practice (morality especially) for internal goods.  While these external goods may result from the practice of Christianity, they are not unique to it (i.e. there are moral non-participants in the practice), and when these external goods become our ultimate aim, distract us from the essence of Christianity as practice.

What does it mean to practice Christianity?  What are the “internal goods”? What are the things so central to the practice that they cannot be characterized apart from it?

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