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RETHINKING EVANGELISM

I've taken Christian newspapers into pubs to evangelise the drinkers.  I've
served in Christian coffee shops searching for the conversational opening
which would allow me to tell wind-burnt surfers that Jesus loved them.

I feel like Paul trumpeting how Jewish he had been when I say I've given
personal evangelism more than a good try.  But the ways I tried in my
younger days (and which are still encouraged by many) didn't fit very
easily.  I always felt a failure.

Now there are some who are gifted in this 'cold canvassing' and direct
sharing of faith to strangers.  I, too, remain open to conversations in
public which suddenly go deep.

But for most of us, this form of evangelism is like putting on an
ill-fitting coat.  Like many Aussies, we don't like strangers invading our
personal space and hawking religious views.

For the sake of contrast, let me describe the traditional way of
evangelising and an alternative road we can take if we rethink it.

The Traditional Way

The goal of traditional evangelism is to persuade others to believe what we
believe.  Just today outside the GPO I listened for a while to an evangelist
with a microphone giving uninterested passers-by such a doctrinal lesson.

The context of traditional evangelism is often contrived.  Christians are
encouraged to artificially create opportunities to share our faith.  We go
out with questionnaires on the street but we want to talk, not to listen.
We encourage friendship with non-Christians, but for a purpose.
And the method of traditional evangelism is to know what is to be shared and
try to get it across, often in standard form.  I well remember learning the
list of basic doctrines everyone needed to hear.

Another Way

I've discovered a better-fitting coat, an evangelism which springs from a
theology of the kingdom of God.  As Ben Campbell Johnson says in his book
Rethinking Evangelism, the Spirit of God seeks embodiment in the church and
world in 'kingdom ways', and our evangelistic task is to point to the good
news of God's work in Jesus and among us.

In other words, our job is to open ourselves to good news in our own lives,
live towards justice and love, and give an account for God's work amongst us
as a natural part of living differently.

The goal is not primarily to persuade others to believe what we believe, but
to invite others to experience what we experience.  This presupposes, of
course, that our experience of forgiveness and liberation is real for us.

The context is one of embodied difference.  Instead of wondering how to meet
people with our message, we are busy exploring church as the new community
and Christian involvement in society as an expression of God's inclusive
love and justice.  Our contact with others is natural.  Questions of meaning
and spirituality are always close to the surface for others if they are for
us.

Our methods will vary as much as our situations do.  We may invite someone
to a small group which is committed at the core but open at the edges.  We
may write to the newspaper engaging in social issues from a Christian
stance.  We may as a church run a local festival to let people know
Christians celebrate life.  We may have confidence to invite others to
worship God alongside us.  We may sit beside a friend or neighbour in grief,
our silent presence eloquent beyond words.

Articulation Still Central

Still central to evangelism is putting our faith into words in appropriate
ways. Those of us who have rejected the old model of evangelism sometimes
neglect the discipline of clarifying what we believe and how to communicate
it.  Incarnational mission is more than deeds alone.
This is particularly important in cross-cultural contexts such as we have in
Australia today, whether we are thinking of multiculturalism, postmodernity
or the cultural gap between Christians and others.

I'm interested in exploring the ways we can better equip ourselves to
explain our faith in a re-thought evangelism.  If you have ideas I'd welcome
some conversation.

Ross Langmead

This article appeared in the April 2001 edition of Mission Horizons, the
newsletter of the School of World Mission at Whitley College, Melbourne.
Ross Langmead may be contacted at: rlangmead@whitley.unimelb.edu.au

Reproduced with permission.

 
rowland @ johnmarkministries . org
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