Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Evangelism: Christianity's Awkward Baggage
God is just too busy loving us to have any time for disappointment.
Father Gregory Boyle
The more I have read the Bible and studied the life of Jesus, the more I have become convinced that Christianity spreads best not through force but through fascination. But over the past few decades our Christianity, at least here in the United States, has become less and less fascinating.
Most Christians in North America are part of a tradition that adamantly claims to possess The Absolute Truth: that sin is a disease that keeps people from being in relationship to the God of the universe and will result in an eternal existence in hell after they die....unless a heart-felt conversion is made to receive the grace offered by Jesus' death on a cross. Of course, if this is The Absolute Truth, then only one thing matters: getting your friends and family (and everyone else in the entire world) "saved."
So the reason that most Americans think of evangelism as violent, awkward and/or judgmental is because the events of history have proven that it has been, quite frankly, all 3 of these. I, myself, was trained in the "techniques" of evangelism from leaders of Campus Crusade For Christ. They quoted the Bible extensively like it was a magic book of God's directly dictated words descended from heaven. What I later realized was that these leaders mastered the art of "proof-texting," taking passages out of context to support their ideological agenda.
For instance, consider the NIV version of Philemon 6:
I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.
Pastors and other leaders in my life used this passage to "motivate" me to "share my faith," which meant that I was to attempt to convince my non-Christian friends about The Absolute Truth. Eventually, when I got the opportunity to study New Testament Greek at Fuller Theological Seminary, I learned that "sharing" in the Philemon passage was the word koinonia, a political and vocational concept in the 1st century which referred to being in "fellowship" or even better, in "solidarity" with those who have pledged allegiance to a common mission in life.
When Jesus called himself the only "way" to God the father in John's Gospel, he was referring, as all Jews understood a "way," as a life path, the way-of-life that God expected of those who pledged allegiance to "the kingdom of God" (as opposed to the many other paths that lead off the cliff of the world). Jesus' life, teaching and courageous death at the hands of the elites unveiled a divinely-mandated prophetic path (as seen in prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Amos) committed to a two-fold strategy of energizing the poor & oppressed ("the least of these") while criticizing the greed and corruption of the powers that eventually killed him.
This demanding way of Jesus required a vigorously practiced spirituality that included prayer, fasting, meditation, personal inventory and reading & memorizing prophetic texts so as to be scripted by this alternative "way." Jesus taught his disciples that only when they are connected to what is divine, true and virtuous could they possibly bear the fruit of the prophetic path. It takes vigilence and discipline to live in a way that Jesus called "abundant life": liberation from personal affliction like narcissism, anxiety, addiction, apathy, depression, but also from structural oppression like income inequality, war, overbearing debt, hunger, cancer, home foreclosure and rampant discrimination based on our differences.
If this is the "way," insted of the The Absolute Truth espoused by fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity, then evangelism is entirely contingent upon pouring our time, energy and resources into the challenge of actually walking the path tred by Jesus 100 generations ago. Evangelism is about inviting others to participate with us in this liberating and abundant lifestyle.
Because we are all created in the image of God, we all intuitively experience the divine blessing when we choose enemy love instead of the herd instinct of mob mentality, humble service instead of selfishness, forgiveness instead of revenge and relational intimacy instead of hiding in addiction. But Christian evangelism invites people to convert to an intentionality that organizes our entire lives around the scandal of the cross.
As it turns out, God's Love is far greater than even death and people need to hear this message and be invited into this as an ongoing Reality. The Christian message of salvation is that God meets us in the pain and suffering of depression, death and disorientation and eventually lavishes us with new life and a reorientation of what life is all about.
Ironically, I am finding myself participating in a brand of evangelism that focuses on keeping followers of Jesus in the flock. Unfortunately, so many folks have grown up with a Christianity obssessed with The Absolute Truth and have, therefore, been commissioned with a coercive (albeit mostly sincere) evangelism that starts by identifying us all as sinners in the hands of an Angry God on the road to Hell. After a while, this triumphalist Christian faith becomes understandably just too arrogant or ignorant to believe anymore. This, often times, leads to a rejetion of organized religion altogether, a rebellion into relativism where "anything goes" or just a default into spiritual apathy or indifference.
Yet Jesus' own evangelism was about neither condemning nor condoning. It was about energizing and criticizing. It was about proclaiming a prophetic option for humanity: an opportunity for everyone (regardless of race, religious creed, gender or sexual orientation) to become citizens of the kingdom of God. This was about action. A "way" of life. Jesus knew that far too many of God's children experienced hell on earth. Jesus sought to replace this with a heavenly path. We ought to do the same.