By Merv Budd
When we talk about the mission of the church we are talking about a mission that is fundamentally evangelistic. The mission of the church is primarily shaped by the good news of God’s Kingdom. The effective sharing of that good news both experientially and verbally with those who are strangers to it is essential to that mission.
By and large the old paradigm of evangelism has not fit well as the missional church conversation has progressed. Some have chosen to avoid the evangelism piece of sharing our faith, thinking that somehow it is possible to become a missional church without it. Of course this is simply not possible, like trying to lift up the head side of a coin while leaving the tail side. It can’t be done. Failing to engage the evangelistic task is failing to engage the missional task.
What I am proposing is a fresh encounter with the evangelistic nature of the mission. By and large evangelism has been characterized by four primary assumptions, which for the sake of alliteration I summarize in this way:
- Evangelism is Proclamation
- Evangelism is Propositional
- Evangelism is Punctiliar
- Evangelism is Personal
In the next few blogs I’d like to explain what I mean by each of these and how, standing alone, they do not fit well (perhaps even repel) within a missional DNA among the present Western cultural mood. While critiquing these assumptions I’d like to suggest how we might approach the evangelistic task a bit differently in order to better cooperate with God’s evangelistic mission.
Evangelism is Proclamation
The act of proclaiming is always done by one who is informed to one who is not. By default it comes across as arrogant. “I know something that you don’t know” kind of arrogant. By proclaiming it seems as if the one doing the proclaiming is somehow enlightened and that leaves those to whom they are proclaiming feeling ignorant or at least accused of being such. And while we would hope that the posture of the one proclaiming is like “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread,” often it comes across as less contrite than that.
In critiquing the “Evangelism is Proclamation” assumption, I am not at all suggesting that the necessity for proclamation is not needed. I am saying that we need to discern the time to proclaim, and it is discerned by first learning to listen.
Advocates of proclamation evangelism will quote Romans 10:17, “Faith comes by hearing” and so they reason that filling quiet with the words of the Gospel message will bear the most fruit. While words are needed, the passages which Paul quotes from in Romans 10 to justify the need for hearing, appeal to wordless proclamations.
Here is how Paul frames his argument:
But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?” Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ. But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did:
“Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (Romans 10:16 – 18).
Paul first quotes from Isaiah 53:1, but in context this verse reads as follows:
For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand. Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed (Isaiah 52:15b – 53:1)?
The message they do not believe is that which they have seen but not been told, and what they have not heard. In other words it was a wordless proclamation.
Similarly, he quotes form Psalm 19:4. In context the passage quotes reads as follows:
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world (Psalm 19:1 – 4).
Once more the message has no speech and no words. While I am not at all arguing against the proclamation of God’s Word, what I am arguing is that God’s Word is already being proclaimed and sometimes, in our rush to speak, we actually drone out God’s voice.
If we engage the evangelism task as first a listening engagement, in which we are listening to hear how God might be already proclaiming to those we care about, we might then be in a better position to help verbalize what God is already saying. What I am encouraging is conversation that will lead to proclamation as we are invited to speak.
It is in the context of conversation that the humility of our witness would sufficiently disarm the one with whom we are engaged so that they might also humble themselves in order to inquire as to “the reason for their hope.” Then we will be able to explain “the word about Christ” as Paul wrote, or the “Jesus piece” which can so easily be left out of the missional engagement.
In my next article, we’ll look at the propositional side of evangelism.