Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Evangelizing Church

Picture a time when although most people are nominally Christian, the large majority of them have a confused idea of the basic message of Christianity. The Bible isn't much read and the preaching in churches is often about anything but the Gospel. Despair and hopelessness are widespread. Many people think they can secure their hapiness by buying things.

It's present-day America, right? Or is it sixteenth century Europe?

This juxtaposition of the problems of the Reformation era and the problems of modern America is from the second chapter of The Evangelizing Church: A Lutheran Contribution. The authors (primarily Kelly Fryer for this chapter) offer a fresh look at the power of Lutheranism. What if rather than seeing the Reformation as a correction of bad doctrine, we see it instead as a revival movement where the Gospel was spoken with power and the Church was renewed not by a return to better theology but by the impulse to spread the Gospel? Does that look anything like the Lutheran churches we know?

I've aired my reservations about evangelism here before. And yet it's a problem that just won't go away. As much as I'd like to, I can't get around the Great Commission.

The authors of The Evangelizing Church identify three typical Lutheran stances toward evangelism:

1) Skepitcal

In this stance, the whole enterprise of evangelism is viewed with suspicion. In as much as evangelism is proselytizing, it is seen as a bad thing. In as much as it is a holdover from colonialism, it is seen as something for which the Church needs to repent. And in as much as we live in a pluralistic society, evangelism shows disrespect for those of other religions. All of this lets us sidestep the call to evangelize.

2) Pragmatic

Fully embracing the call to evangelize, the pragmatic approach looks around at other denominations and borrows whatever they are doing. And so we have Lutherans embracing the Four Spiritual Laws and Evangelism Explosion and the Purpose Driven Life and whatever else is popular in the wider church culture without worrying about the question of whether these methods are faithful to our Lutheran traditions.

3) Romantic

This stance views everything the Church does as evangelism. It loves the slogan, "Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary." But in general it never feels words are necessary. And so we feed the poor and clothe the naked, but we never actually verbally express the Gospel to anyone.

Seeing these position before me, I was able to easily identify myself as an adherent of the first position. When pressed with the necessity of evangelizing, I might be willing to fall back on the third position, but I hate the second position with the fury of a thousand suns. But, of course, I do see that all three positions are tragically flawed.

The authors of The Evangelizing Church promise a way forward. And so I'm reading on with great hope. I'll let you know what I find.


Tom in Ontario said...

I've got that book. I started reading in it back in the summer and got part way through. I've got to pick it up again and start over. I think evangelism is very important. I think point number 3 is a cop out. Point number 1 has some truth to it. Point number 2 needs some revision (reformation?) to make it a Lutheran response.

If "Love Changes People" (and I believe it does) and if "The World Needs What We Have" (and I believe it does) we can't make our faith a private thing that we do behind the closed doors of our homes or our churches. If God's loving grace has changed your life and if you love your neighbour then doesn't it make sense that you'd want to fill them in?

Andy said...

Yeah, I think number 3 is clearly an excuse. It's what we say when we don't want to admit the things that keep us from spreading the Gospel verbally. At least, that's the way it appeals to me.

I mean, it has some truth in it. Doing service does help spread the Gospel, but only if you explain the connection. The authors take the bold step of proposing a third means of grace, adding "Christian community" to the traditional Word and Sacrament. I think this is undeniably a way that Christ comes to us, but for it to be transforming the community must be speaking the Word.

David said...

I agree with the two of you concerning #3. If everything we do is evangelism, then why is that during council meetings, the Evangelism Committee's contribution is usually, "No report."

daninbigd said...

Point #3 also assumes that being loving, selfless and sacrifically giving towards others is such a uniquely Christian thing that it would identify us in the face of a cold, heartless world.

There are many loving, selfless and "Christlike" people who have no religious beliefs or affiliation at all. The uncomfortable reality is that being "Christlike" in our behaviour is not a uniquely Christian trait.

Andy said...

Hi, Dan. Good point. It also assumes that Christians in general act this way often enough for it to even be expected from us. Thomas Adams had a post this week about how the media were scrambling to figure out what theological reasons the Amish might have for forgiving the man who shot their children. Is that really a secret? It doesn't speak well for those of us who are Christian "in the world".