Small words make a big difference!
A much needed conversation about evangelism
By Jeffrey Schooley
Each month’s columns are a labor of love and there is no greater “I love you too” than when readers send their thoughts, opinions, and even disagreements. I try my best to respond to each e-mail sent to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or in the comment section below each article. But in those instances when I haven’t been able to, I want to now offer some thoughts about evangelism, because that seems to be a recurring theme.
That evangelism keeps popping up is, no doubt, a result of my frequently writing about church membership, attendance, and participation. For example, just last month after writing about why the church isn’t dying – but is being rejected, Michael Gartland offered a series of thoughtful, probing questions, including:
- Why are so many people rejecting the church?
- Can anyone truly claim to have a relationship with the Head (Jesus Christ) apart from the Body (the Church)?
- Why are some practices in disciple-making, especially with children and youth, failing to produce another generation of Christians?
A similar theme was presented by Rob (last name not given because this was in a private e-mail correspondence) after my October 2015 column about the “Monster” lurking in the basement of every church’s heart, namely the “Fear-Monster” who feeds on your congregation’s fear of dwindling numbers. Rob said he appreciated the points I made, but then straight-up declared: “Speaking of fear and monsters, too often we are afraid of doing Evangelism.”
Part of the problem may be that evangelism is not highlighted as an essential spiritual discipline in the PC(USA). My experience has been that often evangelism goes by the name “outreach” and often outreach is paired with mission. So we have “Mission-Outreach” committees at congregational and presbytery levels, alike.
Now, I adore mission and wouldn’t want to take a single bit of it away, but the pairing of outreach with mission often permits Presbyterians the false security that they have completed both tasks by completing the first. And mission is, quite often, a fair bit easier than outreach/evangelism.
That’s because mission jives so seamlessly with the cultural virtue of philanthropy. You don’t even have to let someone know you’re a Christian when doing most missions. But evangelism always demands such an acknowledgement.I’m sure that this problem is not unique to Presbyterians, but Presbyterian is what I know and what I am.
In fact, I’ve often wondered what the missing preposition is in our name. We are the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Is that the Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A.? If so, that presents us as if we have been generated by the United States rather than the Holy Spirit.
Or are we the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.? This is better. It at least strikes that “in the world and not of it” chord correctly. But even this begs the question of what would be different if we were the Presbyterian Church in Canada? Are we still permitting our culture to define us?
I suspect we might find renewed vigor for both mission and evangelism is we understood ourselves as the Presbyterian Church to the U.S.A. This preposition makes it clear that we are “of” and “in” a different kingdom, but have been sent as emissaries, diplomats, apostles to a particular (socially-constructed) region called the United States of America. A greater emphasis on this unspoken “to” would mean that even our mission work would no longer be confused with mere philanthropy.
So part of our problem with evangelism, I suspect, has much to do with our very identity. But there is still a more pressing issue to confront. Evangelism is inherently intolerant – at least as our culture understands tolerance.
When we do evangelism, we are not merely inviting someone to a new set of beliefs, but an entirely new way of living in and to the world. To invite someone to a new way of living requires – at the very least – the implicit judgment that their current way of life is insufficient. There is no way around this deconstructive antithesis in evangelism.
Even relational evangelism – my preferred method – still involves cultivating a close enough relationship with a person to help them come to their own conclusion about the shortcomings in their way and then pointing them to The Way.
I suspect that as long as the Presbyterian Church is either “of” or “in” the U.S.A., we will never have the moral resources necessary for the hard work of evangelism. We will – in either instance – be too beholden to the lame cultural value of tolerance because our character will be more shaped by the culture than by Christ.
That this is already the implicit modus operandi is precisely why, to Michael’s question, the spiritual development of our youth so often fails to produce life-long disciples. The spiritual development has been too tainted by cultural norms because our identity is too linked to the very culture we are called to serve and point to Jesus.
Evangelism will be a whole heckuva lot easier if we first accepted that to be a Christian is to be an oddity. It is to be for the world in such a way that the world will always think we’re against it. This is because Jesus doesn’t call us to accept the world on its terms, but rather to reveal the world – as that which is apart from its Creator – to itself.
My favorite theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, has often said that the first task of the church is to be the church. It is not to be a philanthropic organization with odd Sunday morning habits. And part of being the church means revealing the world to the world’s self. And then to call the world into relationship with it’s Lord and Savior.
So, Michael and Rob, I’m not sure I’ve been able to answer all your questions, but I do join you in your calls for more faithful evangelism and add to that a call for whatever internal reform we need to be able to do this.
What reform do you, all the readers, think is needed?
Jeffrey A. Schooley is a teaching elder at Center Presbyterian Church in McMurray, Pennsylvania. He is also a PhD in Theology candidate at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Biking, Netflix, reading, teaching, and spending time with his wife and dog round out the rest of his life. He can be reached at ThinkLikeChristians@gmail.com.