Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Coffee and Tracts

Hello friends. How’s life? I trust that you are all doing well, staying off the police blotter, and generally out there saving the world from villains, supernatural baddies, and trans-fats. I, on the other hand, have been reading. No, this does not mean I’ve saved any of you from a nuclear meltdown (yet), but I did read one book that has really had me thinking over the last couple of weeks, and I wanted to riff on it in the sincere hopes that I could get some responses from you all. So, here goes.

The other day, I went with my family to the Eclipse Bookstore, in Bellingham. This place was great. There were literally so many used books that there were piles upon piles of them all over the ground, in addition to packed shelves. We ended up wandering for about 45 minutes, and in the end I purchased More Ready Than You Realize, by Brian McLaren. This book concerns evangelism, and it is set in the framework of e-mails between Brian and April, which slowly beautifully describe April’s progression from religious skeptic to believer. Brian uses this correspondence to illustrate what he views as the best mode of evangelism in our day, which he calls “friendship evangelism”. Overall, as I read it I was largely impressed, but it also got me thinking about the task of evangelism as a whole. As someone who studied missions, evangelism is a topic close to my heart, and I’m really hoping to hear your responses on this.

To begin, I commend McLaren for asserting that evangelism is still a vital part of the church’s mission. In McLaren’s mind, the traditional forms of evangelism have become obsolete in our post-modern milieu. Instead of traditional evangelism, which feels like a “sales pitch”, McLaren advocates evangelism made up of conversations over a period of time. McLaren’s goal is obvious, to turn Christian evangelism from a results and conversion-driven endeavor into an organic process driven by conversation rather than agenda. McLaren points out that many of our evangelistic models are derived from the revival heydays of Wesley and Edwards through Billy Graham and Billy Sunday. McLaren states that these methods were effective because they took place in a time when America still embraced its identity as a “Christian Nation”. As such, the average person was more likely to embrace the Gospel, because it appealed to his national identity. However, as our country becomes more and more likely to embrace the designation of “post-Christian”, the cultural religious identity that served the efforts of the evangelists of the past is no longer available. As our culture has changed around us, McLaren writes that Christians have failed to adapt. The statement that the church has been losing its influence over American life is hardly shocking (see this article:
http://www.newsweek.com/id/192583). In the face of this situation, McLaren states that our churches must embrace their post-modern surroundings in their efforts to evangelize. Specifically, he states that we must abandon any efforts that focus on simply “making converts”, and instead seek ways to engage our neighbors in authentic conversations, which he feels will lead to both better numerical results, and more devoted followers.

As I read this book, I came away impressed for two main reasons. The first aspect that impressed me was that, by writing this book using the format of shared e-mails, McLaren demonstrated that evangelism is an exercise that we are all capable of. In McLaren’s model, the preeminent tool in the evangelism toolbox is genuine friendship. He states that the shift in America’s religious culture has removed the underlying sentiment that being “American” entails embracing “Judeo-Christian Values”. Thus, the age when preachers could appeal to these values when speaking to an audience of strangers and get a response is past. In my mind, this is not necessarily a tragedy, because it removes the excuses that we could use to pass on the work of evangelism. When this work was carried out in churches by preachers, gifts such as public speaking, personal charisma and apologetics were key components. When the venue in which evangelism takes place moves from the church to a coffee shop, park or home, the Church is no longer reliant solely upon “preachers” to reach the lost. When friendships are already in place, discussions of heavier matters are likely to occur. In the world of friendship-evangelism, Christians must be ready to seize the opportunity to speak honestly and openly about their faith on these occasions.

Even more impressive to me was the concept of taking what is “mundane” and making it “sacred”. This is more than merely a “church phenomenon” (I recommend reading David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise to see what I mean about this being a widespread trend). What McLaren hints at is that we as Christians must see our day-to-day lives as being filled with opportunities to both live out and speak about our faith. These chances are often spontaneous and unscripted. McLaren states (and I agree) that this is how it should be. Evangelism for today is most effective when it is allowed to function within the daily routines of our lives. Thus, if we want to see our loved ones drawn into a relationship with Christ, me must resist the temptation to write off our daily existence as “secular”, “mundane” or “average”. Of course, we want to avoid being so agenda-driven that we turn off the friends we hope to see saved. Instead, we must be constantly praying that God would work in these opportunities and allow us to share our faith in large or small ways. Thus, the commonplace parts of our lives take on spiritual significance. I feel that this is something that the church must understand, so that we may seize as many of these opening as possible.

Of course, McLaren’s book is far from perfect. In fact, as I read I found that I agreed with most of what he said, but I was nervous about the things that he left out. For example, in our culture, have all traditional forms of evangelism (apologetics, evangelistic outreaches, etc.) become obsolete, or must we just change how we utilize them? What sorts of knowledge would be helpful in this endeavor? For me, the most glaring absence was there seemed to be a lack of urgency. Of course, we cannot rush the work of the Holy Spirit, but I still wished that I had seen a greater sense of desperation to reach the lost. I feel that evangelism is necessary for two reasons. The primary reason is that God loves the lost, and calls us to introduce them to his love. The second is because the Bible warns of the consequences for those who reject God’s overtures. I never want to devolve into a “hellfire and brimstone” kind of guy, but I do feel that this reality should energize us to pray all the harder for the lost, and seek opportunities to share, and I missed the sense of urgency that should come with the task of evangelism. Overall, despite these critiques, I felt that this book was a pleasant surprise, and very helpful. Most of all, McLaren reminds us that the front lines of evangelism are often our homes, shops, places of employment and restaurants, rather than in the pews. After reading this book, I was reminded that the best thing our churches can do in order to reach the lost is proclaim Biblical truth, find effective ways of loving our communities, and impressing upon their congregations the fact that evangelism is best accomplished by them, Monday through Saturday.

Anyway, now that I’ve ranted, I really covet your thoughts. How is evangelism best carried out? Which methods, if any, should we abandon or modify? What role does dogmatic theology play in evangelism? What are some ways to energize the church for evangelism? Comment early, comment often.

Many thanks,
P.S. I know that Brian McLaren is something of a divisive figure in the Evangelical world. I haven't read that much of his stuff, and most of the other stuff he's written I've been more or less unimpressed with. That being said, I did find this book interesting. I guess I would say that I think this book is worth reading (carefully), but I can't speak for much of his other material.


Michelle said...

Collie, My thoughts after reading your post are that as a church community and as individual believers, we should not limit God’s work by deciding that it should be done in primarily one manner or another. Rather, we should be prepared to respond to his leading… Will he have some share in a more public manner, such as at the Harvest Crusades, others through the arts, and others over coffee? Will he use our prayers to lead some to the very edge of entering into a relationship with him, and others to guide those to a saving knowledge of him through a note, by example, brief conversation, or attendance at a summer camp or good ol’ fashioned tent revival? Having listened to the testimonies of many followers of Christ, and having read stories of conversion in the scriptures, I have come to believe that there is no one formula for evangelism-- and that God surprises. That being said, a heart willing to respond when he asks us to share is what I believe God wants from us. I also found myself thinking while reading your post that some things I have read about evangelism (written by North Americans) seem limited by the author’s cultural background knowledge and experiences. Though I have had very limited experiences in other countries, it has been in these experiences that God’s work has surprised me the most, and challenged much of the dialogue on the subject of evangelism that I have been exposed to. So, I guess my summary thought is: Let’s not put God in a box! Let’s expect him to work in any way he chooses and expect him to surprise us! Thanks for the stimulating post ;-)

Sabrina said...

one of my first thoughts as i read your review was that we must take the immediate cultural context into account. although i prefer "friendship evangelism", that is not the only effective method, and that is not going to work in each and every situation. and not only that, but every person is uniquely wired, and will respond differently to different methods. however, since younger generations are becoming less and less familiar with church settings, i would agree that "friendship evangelism" might be more effective than not.

i think that many people are becoming stagnant regarding evangelism because the gospel is not regularly preached, and instead many have to sit under watered down sermons every sunday. we should be reminded of the gospel with every breath. also, prayer is HUGELY needed for revival.

all that to say, we have been commanded to preach the gospel. no matter what. no excuses, no beating around the bush, trying to determine which methods are superior to others. the time is short.

Danny said...

Nice one buddy. My favorite line was "After reading this book, I was reminded that the best thing our churches can do in order to reach the lost is proclaim Biblical truth, find effective ways of loving our communities, and impressing upon their congregations the fact that evangelism is best accomplished by them, Monday through Saturday." Keep rockin it homie.