Evangelism After Christendom – The Narrative of Liberal Modernity

We’ve been following Bryan Stone’s book Evangelism After Christendom, and in the last post discussed some of the highlights of Stone’s critique of what he calls the “Constantinian narrative”. As he moves into a critique of the modern project, Stone summarizes his previous chapter as follows:

The Constantinian story is the story of the pilgrim people of God forgetting its journey, including both its point of departure and its destination, and yielding instead to the temptation of making itself at home in the world. The reign of God is now equated with a particular human social construction called Christendom, and evangelism is now narrated as the expansion of Christendom outside the empire and the enforcement of a “Christianized” social order within the empire. The church thereby secures its public acceptance as chaplain of the empire but forfeits its subversive particularity and its capacity for obedient witness, radical discipleship, and prophetic critique. When church and world are effectively fused, the world is denied the gospel’s invitation. But it is also denied the freedom of disbelief, whether through the violent imposition of Christendom upon it or the transformation of the empire or nation into a pseudo-church.

In many ways, the project of modernity was founded in opposition to the Constantinian narrative, though as Stone points out not in an entirely unambiguous fashion. The Enlightenment increasingly reflected a world (and a Church) that felt it had “come of age”, and increasingly the church’s role as chaplain of the state was seen as increasingly unnecessary. For the first time, sharp distinctions were drawn between the “spiritual” and “secular”, “public” and “private”. Many critiques of modernity point out and question the way these categories are used in modern discourse, and Stone is no exception.

Stone begins his critique of modernity by referring to Alasdair MacIntyre’s observation that all contemporary moral debates are characterized by a) a great deal of animosity and b) their interminable nature. This, in MacIntyre’s view, leads to the widely held position that “all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling”, which MacIntyre terms “emotivism”. Essentially, the emotivist position is that there is no rational basis for making judgments between rival moral positions, and thus all moral debate is essentially about rhetorical persuasion. MacIntyre notes that this position is so alluring and persuasive that “to a large degree people now thingk, talk and act as if emotivism were true, no matter what their avowed theoretical standpoint may be.”

MacIntyre, of course, broadly attempts to undercut (and many would say is successful in undercutting) this position. Stone, however, is more concerned with what effect this broad embodiment in our culture has on evangelism.

The basis of the Enlightenment project, for Stone and others, is fundamentally expressed in “the acts of choosing and deciding ‘for one’s own self.'” In a radical reconstruction of the “self”, Enlightenment thinkers fancied themselves to have discovered “freedom”. But as MacIntyre points out, in many ways this “liberation” in fact is a loss:

[O]ne way of re-invisaging the emotivist self is as having suffered a deprivation, a stripping away of qualities that were once believed to belong to the self. The self is now thought of as lacking any necessary social identity, because the kind of social identity that it once enjoyed is no longer available: the self is now thought of as criterionless, because the kind of telos in terms of which it once was judged and acted is no longer thought to be credible.

In other words, what it once meant to be a “good” or “virtuous” is now no longer seen as having any value, and individuals are instead measured, in some sense, by their utility as consumers of goods. This leads inevitably to the distinction between the “public”, where individuals are so judged, and the “private”, where individual values have no rational or philosophical ground, and are evaluated merely as matters of personal preference.

As Stone points out, this has some pretty severe consequences for the practice of Christian witness:

As the church in modernity is increasingly shaped by this bifurcated social imagination [public/private], it becomes, on the one hand, a bureaucratic institution directed by expert managers or therapists called ‘pastors’ and, on the other hand, a mere aggregate of individuals each of whom determines the character and telos of his or her own personal and essentially private relationship with God. Evangelism likewise becomes either a matter of rational technique, planning, and strategy aimed at promoting and defending the rationality, effectiveness, or usefulness of the gospel, or a function of one’s own winsome personality and skills in rhetorical persuasion.

The consequence, in essence, is that Christianity and the Christian experience either becomes something which is rationally justifiable (apologetically sound), utilitarian (self-help gospel/prosperity gospel), or a cult of personality centered around a charismatic individual.

Without restating all of MacIntyre’s critique of modernity, the crux of the matter is that, in MacIntyre’s view, the Enlightenment failed precisely because in its supreme emphasis on freedom (and especially freedom as autonomy), it neglected to consider the proper telos, or end of life. It became impossible, then, to move from life and human nature as we find it, to life and human nature as it ought to be. Morally, this leads to a fragmented situation, where moral content is inherited from prior traditions, but no longer has a ground or basis. In other words, without an end or telos, moral judgments make no sense, and become simply expressions of preference. In otherwords when I say “it’s wrong to steal”, what I’m really saying is that I disapprove of stealing – nothing more. Stone:

With no conception of what a human is or of the good toward which a human life is to aim, we can likewise discard the communal cultivation of virtues, or “excellences of character,” that would enable us to move toward the good. We may still find ourselves using the moral vocabulary of the past and even appealing to vaguely defined, ill-defined or undefined notions such as “rights” (claimed especially within the sphere of individualism) and “utility” (claimed especially within the sphere of bureaucratic organization), but moral debate can be little more than the “indignant self-righteousness of protest” and, inevitably, as Friedrich Nietzsche rightly understood, a mask for the arbitrary “will to power.” Morality becomes little more than an arena for the competition of wills, and it is simply the powerful, the clever, or those skilled at manipulation who win the day.

When the church begins to “compete” in this arena, it encounters significant problems, and its essential message becomes corrupted. Where in the Constantinian narrative the church was just another social institution which was fused with the state, suddenly in modernity the church is just another social institution that must compete with all other social institutions as a dispenser of goods and services. This has profound implications for how church belief and doctrine has changed and shifted in a Protestant, Enlightenment modernity. Stone:

Salvation in such a world is transformed into an essentially private, one-by-one affair, while evangelism becomes a practice based almost entirely on individual personality and persuasion, an attempt to lead individuals into a private decision to “have a personal relationship with Jesus” or to join the church, much as one might join any other club or association. The modern Western model of the church and salvation, especially in its Protestant forms (which are considerably more “modernized” than Catholic or Orthodox forms) is largely predicated upon this narrative of the self. The church’s evangelistic ministry becomes an expression of what MacIntyre refers to as “bureaucratic individualism” and entails the combination of rational technique and strategy, the creation of multiple programs to meet the needs of parishioners who will increasingly come to be viewed as customers or consumers, the tailoring of the gospel message to resonate with people’s personal experience, and the alteration of the meaning and purpose of worship to what is existentially satisfying to the modern subject, all in the service of accomplishing the distinctively modern model of salvation.

Indeed, modernity has so strongly colored the Protestant narrative (and vice versa) that I suspect for many Christians it is impossible to consider that church (or salvation) could be conceived in any other way. But if we view our salvation from the perspective of the modern self, where we are self-determining, self-possessed, and self-sufficient rather than as created in God’s image for a particular end, God becomes viewed indeed as a rival Enlightenment subject who stands over and against us. Instead, Evangelism becomes basically about a) transmission of information, which needs to be made intellectually respectable, or b) creating programs to meet perceived needs.

Stone then considers two rival approaches to evangelism in modernity: “seeker-sensitive” and “apostolic” churches. Stone again:

Because evangelism in [seeker-sensitive] congregations is passionately committed to starting “where people are,” its primary strategy focuses on demonstrating the usefulness of the gospel for “everyday living,” a way of helping persons adjust to the ravages of modernity in their personal, family, and social lives. These churches have learned that if this is not done, secular people just won’t be interested in the church. In fact, in visiting these congregations, studying their ministries ,and reading their literature, one cannot help but conclude that the predominant strategy for convincing secular people of the truth of Christianity is a demonstration of its ability to help – to make us better persons, citizens, family member, or workers.

Evangelism in “apostolic” congregations depends, first, on its ability to reach secular people where they are and, second, on its ability to convince secular persons of the truth of the gospel by establishing either its factuality or its utility (or both.) But of course both of these bases are foundationalist – that is, both represent an appeal to foundations outside the gospel to establish the meaning and truth of the gospel.

The problem, ultimately, for Stone, is that neither of these Evangelistic approaches recognize the new, abstract, autonomous, “free”, but simultaneously purposeless and detached self. The result, in short, is that:

[T]he reign of God goes noticeably missing throughout [a] book-length description of “what works” in contemporary evangelistic practice. Indeed, there is little or no indication of the nature and form of the salvation toward which evangelism is aimed – nor need there be, given the practical logic by which evangelism has been deformed under the conditions of late modernity. The evangelism of Jesus, as we have seen, is unintelligible apart from the announcement of a new government to which we are called to convert, embodied in such concrete practices as the rejection of violence, justice for the poor, love of enemies, economic sharing, and the relativizing of national and family allegiances. But not one of these reign-of-God characteristics shows up prominently in Hunter’s summaries of “apostolic” evangelism, a fact that suggests, first, that the end of evangelism has been altered to fit the context of modernity and, second, that the means by which evangelism is practiced have become external to the practice itself.

Operating within the social imagination(s) of modernity, the church is unable to grasp the extent to which modernity has shaped its existence. The church is able to survive and thrive, but largely insofar as it is transformed into an aggregate of “free” individuals who have contracted together for their mutual benefit – “tourists who happen to find ourselves on the same bus,” as Hauerwas and Willimon put it. Evangelism can now be focused wholly on “effectively” leading the individual into an experience of salvation as a matter of personal freedom by appealing to his or her self-interest, whether that be construed materially in terms of social belonging, assimilation, uplift, prosperity, and security or spirituality in terms of inner peace or the hope of eternal salvation. Rather than the church’s serving as a new peoplehood, a sacramental body that is a mode of participation in the life of God, and a community of virtue into which persons are formed, disciplined, and educated, the church is itself disciplined by the formative practices of modernity. In this way, far from being practiced as a form of resistance and subversion, the type of evangelism celebratd today as having achieved “results” comes to complement the (pseudo-salvific) work of both the market and the state in providing individuals economic prosperity, security from outsiders, and “peace” among other competing selves.

Ultimately, what takes place in distinctively modern conceptions of Christianity is that the distinctiveness of the church and its story becomes deemphasized, and ultimately the Gospel changes to become more compatible with our beliefs and desires, rather than our desires and actions becoming more compatible with the message of Christ. For those who disagree that the message of Christ has been subtly changed, I suggest considering comedian Stephen Colbert used to close his recent monologue: “If we are going to be a ‘Christian Nation’ who doesn’t help the poor, either we are going to have to pretend that Jesus is just as selfish as we are, or we’re going to have to acknowledge that he asks us to love the poor and help the needy – without exception – and that we just don’t want to do it.” Rather than hearing (and acting on) the truth of those words, the response of many Christians is to debate about what “helping the poor” really means – after all, we don’t want to be taken advantage of. Yet this seems to be precisely the type of self-sacrifice Jesus calls us to in the Sermon on the Mount – if someone forces you to walk one mile, walk two. If someone asks for your cloak, give them your tunic as well. The fact that we try to justify *not* doing this in light of criticism speaks to just how much the modern social imagination has converted our view of the Gospel.

As with the previous posts, what does this leave us, and how do we go forward?

First, it requires that we begin to recognize, at least a bit, how we (especially those of us in Protestant traditions) have been shaped by modernity – how deeply our view of salvation rests on our own beliefs and actions, separate and apart from any social context or tradition. Second, we must recognize our tendency to change and subvert the good news of Jesus into something that is aimed primarily at either meeting the needs of individuals today, or something which aims to be “intellectually respectable”. Our engagement with others is not aimed at trying to “convert” them per se,  as much as it is offering an invitation to participation in a community with particular beliefs, practices, and “grammar”.

I want to conclude this section of reflection with a lengthy quote from Stone, before moving on to more specific criticisms about modernity in a later post:

Within a postliberal approach to religious pluralism, comprehensiveness is a matter of inclusin rather than exclusion. But this postliberal inclusivism is not at all like its liberal counterpart, for which other religions are essentially saying and doing the same thing as Christianity, albeit anonymously or implicitly. It is by fully admitting rather than attempting to deny or disguise the material difference of Christianity from other religions that dialogue becomes possible. Indeed, it becomes more than merely possible, but as Nwebigin says, “a part of obedient witness to Jesus Christ”:

But this does not mean that the purpose of dialogue is to persuade the non-Christian partner to accept the Christianity of the Christian partner. Its purpose is not that Christianity should acquire one more recruit. On the contrary, obedient witness to Christ means that whenever we come with another person (Christian or not) into the presence of the cross, we are prepared to receive judgment and correction, to find that our Christianity hides within its appearance of obeience the reality of disobedience. Each meeting with a non-Christian partner in dialogue therefore puts my own Christianity at risk.

The risk, of course, is that my Christianity may have to change. Interrreligious dialogue is, consequently, a spiritual discipline by which evangelizing Christians seek the mutual transformation of their partners and of themselves in repentance and hope.

This openness to the judgment of the dialogue partner of which Newbigin speaks is especially critical for the post-Christendom practice of evangelism. For the sake of faithful and obedient witness, the Christian is called to repent of the specific abuses and unfaithfulness of the church in its wrongheaded attempt to Christianize the world. To thus repent, moreover, is not to merely offer explanations or admit the faults of those who have come before us; rather it means “taking responsibility for the past, naming the errors and correcting them. Repentance, it must be admitted has not generally been understood as a form of evangelism – and certainly not as a part of Christian apologetics understood as the defense of Christianity against all objections. But if, as Yoder rightly notes, repentance is a central feature of the salvation to which Christians bear witness, then it is difficult to see how one can be fully faithful as a witness to the gospel apart from repentance. The point is not that repentance “works” in converting others to Christianity; the point is that the logic of evangelism is not, in the first place, a matter of what “works” but rather a matter of faithfulness and obedience.

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