Evangelism After Christendom – Reflections (part 2)

Remember that book I was reading a long time ago? Evangelism After Christendom?  Yeah. It’s back thanks to a Kindle edition.

When we left Stone, he was attempting to give us the idea that in the Christian tradition, evangelism could possibly be viewed as a core practice in a loosely Macintyrian sense. Stone also takes some time to point out core problems with the way evangelism is often executed in modern churches. Chief among these problems, he argues, is that evangelism has become essentially a marketing regime which seeks to attract new people by either a) trying to make the gospel more intellectually respectable b) trying to demonstrate that it is practical (good for society, economy, or personal psychology), or c) attempting to alter the traditional “stuffiness” that has categorized church in the past and instead make church more accessible to a wider audience. Stone:

Creative reconstructions of evangelism are being attempted today, and they succeed in expanding the church by adapting it to new generations that are put off by boring liturgies, irrelevant preaching, and stuffy pipe-organ music.  But while these reconstructions have triumphed in making the church more relevant to the tastes, expectations, preferences, and quest for self-fulfillment of both the unchurched and the dechurched, they have utterly failed to challenge the racism, individualism, violence, and affluence of Western culture.  They in no way subvert an existing unjust order but rather mimic and sustain it.  Our greatest challenge is to find ways of practicing evangelism in a post-Christendom culture without at the same time playing by the rules of that culture.

Cliff’s notes? Marketing evangelism works – at least if what you mean by “works” is “attract more people”, but it doesn’t do a terribly good job of remaining true to the Christian ethos, which if you will remember from our first discussion, is what really matters. Stone again:

We kid ourselves if we think we have moved beyond Christendom simply because we are able to reach more people by getting rid of our stained glass and stuffy sermons and providing a “product” that is more user-friendly. Neither large-scale revivals that boast thousands of converts nor fast-growing megachurches that have dropped from the sky into suburban parking lots as of late are in any way indications of the proximity of God’s reign, nor is their winsomeness and friendliness to be equated with Isaiah’s “peace.” In fact, the failure of evangelism in our time is implied as much by the vigorous “success” of some churches in North America as by the steady decline of others.

This is, I think, a profound statement. You may recall a recent post where we talked about the metrics we use to evaluate whether God is “working.” What is true on an individual level is also in many ways true for Christianity as a collective – namely that we tend to view God “working” in rather selfish terms – specifically when it looks like our agenda is “winning”, our political candidates are getting elected, and our numbers are increasing. There are no shortage of problems with this theology, as pointed out in the previous post, but Stone adds another: by using metrics of success that are external to the practice, we are essentially distorting and subverting the practice itself and trading excellence for sheer effectiveness, and indeed by confusing the two. Returning to the oft-used analogy of sports, effectiveness is winning a championship – excellence is playing to your highest potential day in and day out, letting the results speak for themselves. Ted Williams is considered to be one of the finest hitters to ever play the game of baseball, but he never won a World Series. You don’t necessarily have to be excellent to be effective – in fact, being effective can be achieved in plenty of ways contrary to the ethos (ideals) or telos (purpose) of the tradition you find yourself apart of.

One way Stone proposes that we counter this tendency is to first ground evangelism theologically, rather than allowing it to be whatever it wants in order to be successful.

Those who think theologically rarely think about evangelism, and those who think about evangelism rarely take the discipline of theology very seriously.  For one thing, very little in the present reward system of most churches supports thinking theologically about evangelism. Excellence in evangelism is almost wholly governed by numerical measures of success, and pastors are rewarded primarily insofar as they attain those measures.  Those who produce the literature on evangelism – especially that which concentrates on the models that are widely touted as successful in the North American context – are particularly reluctant to think critically about the theology presupposed in their practice. Their focus instead is on finding new and creative ways to express Christian beliefs and practices – forms that are more indigenous, user-friendly, and “relevant” to the experience of contemporary human beings, or more successful in making converts in an already crowded marketplace of competitors.

This book is written out of the conviction that there is no substitute for serious theological inquiry about evangelism as a practice.  In fact, theological inquiry is itself an intrinsic part of that practice.  We cannot proceed by merely trotting out a handful of “successful” pastors of fast-growing congregations to tell us what “works”.  For it is the very question of what we are working toward, what is deemed valuable and beautiful, what we are seeking, that in our time must be reexamined and that too often goes unchallenged altogether.

The “practicality of theology does not lie merely in its strategic movement toward concrete proposals for action. Practical theology is not a bag of tricks, but a process of laying bare the assumptions that guide our practice and then drawing critically upon the practical wisdom of Scripture and the Christian tradition in order to rethink and reconstruct those assumptions.

Stone’s conclusion? Evangelism isn’t about trying to translate the message we think we know into a new context, but about residing in a changing context and remaining (or becoming) faithful witnesses of God’s peace. This is not about setting up an alternate culture that never interacts with the world around it. It is not a culture that is different because it shuns sex, drugs and rock and roll, but because it challenges, in the case of our current position, the very foundations of modern society – the economic, social and political power structures that so often serve as today’s “powers and principalities of this dark world”.  Evangelism, for Stone, is primarily about remaining grounded in a life of faithful dedication to the ethos of the Christian tradition – in his words, “witness to God’s reign of peace”.

When the practice of evangelism is not grounded firmly in the comprehensive life of witness, the church is inevitably instrumentalized, reduced to a mere tool in the service of heralding the gospel, rather than the social embodiment of God’s new creation in Christ, the very news that is to be heralded as good. For, as always, the embodiment is the heralding; the medium is the message; incarnation is invitation.  That is why, as I shall attempt to argue throughout this book, it is impossible for the church to evangelize the world and, at the same time, to serve as a chaplain to the state and allow itself to be disciplined by the logic if the market.

There are some real issues in that statement – issues that challenge the predominant theology (primarily soteriology and eschatology) in some deep and profound ways. My personal belief is that most people are not ready for the type of change that Stone is outlining, but that it might be possible to move things slowly in that direction.

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