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Evangelism in the Inventive Age
By Doug Pagitt
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2014 Doug Pagitt
All rights reserved.
I'M AN EVANGELIST
I'm an evangelist. I have been an evangelist since the day I became a Christian, at the age of sixteen.
I grew up in an intentionally nonreligious home. There were churches on every corner, but we didn't go to any of them. Ever. On purpose. I didn't know anyone who was interested in Christianity or even religion in general—at least that's what I assumed, since I never heard anyone I knew talk about faith of any kind. When I was sixteen, a buddy invited me to see a performance of the Passion play, and I found myself compelled to give my life to the story I saw that night.
After that, I was eager to share this story with nearly everyone I met, whether they wanted to talk about it or not.
In high school, I spent lunch hour talking to my friends about Christianity, and I wrote about my faith in my classes so I could share my faith with my teachers.
On weekends, my friends and I would drive around Minneapolis–St. Paul looking for groups of "lost" teenagers—skate punks, gang kids, those packs of teenagers who hang out on the street corners waiting for the right adventure to come along—and talk to them about our God.
In college, I spent my spring break walking around Daytona Beach talking to other college students about the meaning of life.
After I graduated, I joined a basketball ministry team that played in cities throughout Central America with the hope of introducing our opponents to Jesus.
As a youth pastor, I led training programs to help teenagers engage in evangelism with their friends and families.
I've led international trips designed to help adults and teens engage in evangelism with strangers.
I've spoken at youth rallies and events where I shared the story of Jesus with hundreds of people at a time.
I started a church with the hope of helping people find the story of God in their lives in real and practical ways.
My evangelistic "philosophy" has changed over the years, but my compulsion to urge others to see God in the world and live in harmony with God has remained.
It is my constant engagement in evangelism in my nearly thirty years of Christian faith that has led me to deeply reconsider many of my assumptions about evangelism.
I haven't just been on the giving end of the evangelistic conversation.
I AM AN EVANGELIST, BUT I AM ALSO EVANGELIZED ON A REGULAR BASIS.
I have the privilege of sharing my life with people who are constantly showing me what God is up to in the world, people who graciously invite me to join them as they figure out how to be part of God's agenda. Some of them are church professionals, some are farmers, some run camps or orphanages or coffee shops. Some are older than I am, some of them are quite a bit younger than I am. Some are dying, some have just been born. And I gladly welcome their invitations.
Because I talk and write about Christianity in ways that sometimes challenge people's ideas about faith and church and community, there are people who feel compelled, even obligated, to contact me by e-mail, voicemail, even U.S. Postal Service mail to tell me I should repent and change my beliefs, my words, and my influence. They're worried that I'm proclaiming news that isn't remotely good.
A few days ago I received a handwritten letter from someone I've never met. This person included a bizarre brochure titled "Shocking Truth—Yahweh Decrees Punishment." It connected natural disasters with dangerous theology like mine.
I also recently received an e-mail with the subject line "A Message of Warning." The e-mail listed several concerns for my eternal well-being and finished with the sentence, "I can only hope that you'll repent, but I hope even more that like Paul, the scales would fall from your eyes, and that you'd see (by the revelation of God the Holy Spirit) the false/heretical 'gospel' that you preach."
I really do pay attention to what these people have to say. If it's possible, I try to have actual conversations with my evangelists by responding to their e-mails, letters, and calls.
I know they are genuinely worried about me and about the people I might influence. I want to stay open to the ideas of others and keep an ear tuned to the prophets among us. But our discussions rarely end with anything but frustration. For both of us.
For me, the problem isn't that they want me to turn away from what they believe to be heresy. It's that they want me to do something that is about as unappealing to me as my ideas are to them. They want me to fear God. And when they start talking like that, well, they might as well be speaking to me in another language. Even in my earliest days of faith, I found the "fear God" approach to be so far from the news of Jesus that I've never given it much consideration. It just doesn't fit with how I understand the story of God.
My evangelists don't always try the fear approach. Sometimes my fellow Christians just want to tweak what I believe. Not long ago, I was at a conference for church leaders. I was standing in the lunch line with a nice Lutheran who wanted me to reconsider my views on baptism and the way we practice baptism at our church. He was concerned that we "not undo the promises of God" by allowing people to practice both infant baptism and what is often called "believers' baptism."
For some reason, I also have a knack for attracting Mormon missionaries. Perhaps it's my willingness to make eye contact as they walk or bicycle by me. These conversations usually end up with them asking me to consider building up my faith by reading the Book of Mormon and seeing if I indeed experience a "testimony."
Then there are the folks who want me to convert completely. They want me to change from one faith to another.
Last month, as a result of some growing friendships in Minnesota's Muslim community, I attended an Iftar meal with members of a mosque as they broke the Ramadan fast. While I waited in line for the meal, a passionate, winsome young man implored me to consider the value of the five pillars of Islam in my own life and submit to God "more completely."
On another occasion, a dear friend asked me to "consider my inner mystic" so I could become more spiritual.
Even my friend August Birkshire, president of the Minnesota Atheists, assured me that if I would follow his reasoning I could be freed from my "mythical belief systems." He offered me a small card that read "Saved by an Atheist."
It seems a lot of evangelizing is going on, at least around me.
Whether it's me doing the talking or someone else talking to me, I can't help but wonder what it is we're up to. Evangelistic conversations are so odd, so unlike anything else in our lives, that they seem to take on a different cast than other conversations. Whenever I become aware of that oddness, I find myself wondering if evangelism as we know it is working or if it's even appropriate.
I WONDER IF WE SHOULD EVANGELIZE ONE ANOTHER AT ALL.
It seems I'm not the only one wondering about the goodness of evangelism. When I tell people I'm working on a book about evangelism, they have one of three responses:
The chilly response, in which they assume I'm telling them about my book as a means of evangelizing them, and if they show too much interest I'll launch into the Four Spiritual Laws;
The heated response, in which they rattle off a long list of frustrations with the practice of evangelism as they know it;
Or the please-suggest-something-that-will-make-evangelism-okay response, in which people share their hopeful but not overly optimistic desire that there might be a way of sharing the story of God that is respectful and meaningful to everyone involved.
I have yet to meet someone who is neutral on this subject.
CONFORMING OR TRANSFORMING?
I get why we have this impulse to evangelize. And I think it's a wonderful impulse. There's something in us that wants other people to know what we know, love what we love, value what we value, especially when what we know and love and value seems profoundly good. We want to share what we've got.
But I find that evangelism rarely feels like sharing something good. In most situations, it feels like an effort to make a person change. When people evangelize me, they don't tell me what they love about their faith; they tell me what's wrong with mine. They don't share what's life-giving or hopeful about what they've found; they warn me about the dangers of continuing down my current path.
For these folks, evangelism is about conformity—conformity to particular ideas, practices, and beliefs. From this perspective, the role of the evangelist is to help people see the wayward path they're on, change course, and become conformed to the likeness of Christ. While this desire to see people change comes out of the best of intentions, I'm convinced that conformity rarely works out the way we want it to. Conformity simply doesn't last. It's like a cast on a broken leg—it might help in the healing for a short time, but if it's left in place, atrophy sets in. Conformity is temporary.
What I find most problematic in this approach to evangelism is that it feels more like conformity than a call to true freedom. In nearly every conversation I have with a person who wants to evangelize me, there is some external model of faith that they want to impose on me, one that doesn't take into account who I am or what I'm about—my hopes, my dreams, my fears, my passions, my struggles. It starts with the answer and my need to get in line with it.
Maybe that approach works temporarily for people who are truly unhappy or confused about their lives. And maybe they even concede for a while and try to live out whatever story of faith they've been handed. But in the long run, it doesn't stick. There is a natural bent, an inner narrative, a life force in each of us that wants to shine through.
WHEN AN EVANGELISTIC MESSAGE IS NOT IN HARMONY WITH THAT NARRATIVE, IT'S SIMPLY NOT SUSTAINABLE.
Those of us who evangelize are truly hoping for a better result. When we proclaim good news, we hope that news finds a home in the hearts and minds of the people who hear and witness our proclamations. We want it to resonate with them in that deep, profound way that only the truest things can do.
I want the good news I proclaim to ring true and weave its way into the roots of someone's story. That's how the good news becomes more than the cast that holds a broken life together. It becomes the new growth, the new bone that heals and strengthens not only what's broken, but everything that surrounds it.
SO MY GUIDING IDEA OF EVANGELISM IS NOT CHANGE.
It's not conversion.
At the heart of my suggestions for evangelism in the Inventive Age is my belief that all people are created in the image of God and have within themselves aspects of God. Each of us has core passions and fears, and when our core passions are met by God's actions, we resonate with good news.
I'm not only saying this is how it ought to be, I'm suggesting that this is the way it always has been. Any evangelistic engagement that might be deemed "successful" turned out that way because the story we were telling connected with the core passion or fear in the person. And because there are at least nine differing core passions and fears—we will talk about these more later—any single approach is only successful for some people, some of the time. An approach that might be deeply meaningful to some people can be completely uninteresting to others. I don't think that's due to a lack of something in the evangelist or the prospective convert. I think it's because the story we are telling is too big to be confined to a one-size-fits-all method of conversion. What's good news for one person might not be good news for someone else.
PROCLAIMING GOOD NEWS
Wikipedia, the popular Internet encyclopedia, says evangelism is "the practice of relaying information about a particular set of beliefs to others who do not hold those beliefs." This seems to be a common view of evangelism.
I wish it weren't.
I don't think that definition captures the beauty, intimacy, and power of real evangelism. The way I see it, evangelism is not simply relaying information. It is far more invitational. It's not about changing beliefs. It is about actively entering into an ongoing, life-giving story with one's entire life.
In the process of putting together this book, I've been more aware than ever of just how much work is involved in reclaiming this vision of evangelism.
For example, I am privileged to have a number of really smart, theologically minded, and sometimes-funny friends on Facebook. As part of my research, I threw out some questions to the Facebook universe to see what I'd learn. I started with a status update that said, "How do you define evangelism?"
Within thirty minutes, I had the following responses, showing the mixed feelings on the subject:
Adam Walker Cleaveland: Evangelism is bearing witness to what God has done, is doing, and will do in the world and in one's life, engaging others in Spirit-dialogue and inviting people to faith.
Gene Ramsey: Evangelism is sharing the good news of the gospel in such a way that it is given an opportunity to actually be heard.
James Hunt: Evangelism: initiating others into the Reign of God. (thanks, Elaine Heath)
Lisa Boylan: Living my life—honestly, peacefully and with love. I'm horrid at verbally proclaiming something and it often bothered me (in the past) that I didn't feel comfy "talking" to others in a more bold manner. I've grown to realize that my personal journey is the way I evangelize. Many people have asked me about Christ because of that very thing ... which I'm thrilled about—just don't get me jabbering on and on 'cause I'll flub it up.
Josh Blanchard: Evangelism is best done and defined as the community of faith witnessing to the good news that the kingdom of God is upon us.
Lisa Boylan: SEE! I can't even form a clear, concise answer! Sheesh.
Andy Wade: Shedding the light of Christ on the mysteries of God and inviting others to join the journey.
John Martinez: Evangelism is annoying my neighbors with the premise that I am somehow better than they are and that they can be like me if they just listen to me, because I am that good, and therefore better than them.
Krzysztof Raczkowiak: Evangelists say, "All men are equal, but we are more equal than others."
Nathan Willard: Evangelism is simply sharing the good news concerning what Jesus, God the Son, did and is doing to reclaim and restore humans and the world. If we make it about what we are doing, then it can easily become: "I'm better than you." When we keep the focus on Jesus and what he did, it remains about how we were all in rebellion against God and in need of reconciliation.
Pamela Chaddock: The invitation that welcomes everyone into the Family of God.
Tim Lyles: I define evangelism as the same thing that those 4 good news books do [you know, Matty, Marcus, Lucas and JohnnyB] ... tell the Jesus story in a way that makes sense to a particular audience and get outda way and let Spirit God do some heart transforming. It doesn't hurt to read that Isaiah scroll thing either.
If my Facebook friends are an indication, there's little consensus on the nature of evangelism. I think that's because we all sense that there ought to be something better than the evangelistic approach we've been taught and subjected to.
In spite of the baggage people bring to their ideas about evangelism, there seems to be a common thread in our collective understanding of this practice. At its heart, evangelism is about telling something, sharing something, offering something.
The word evangelism came into the Christian vocabulary from Koine Greek, the language used in the writing of the New Testament. The Koine (or common) Greek word used in the original text was [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which referred to good tidings and the reward given to the messenger who delivers this good news.
This helps explain why the same word is also the source of the English word angel. Angels in the Bible didn't just float around and keep an eye on things. Almost every time they show up in the biblical narratives, they are there to proclaim good news. Think of the angel coming to the shepherds in Luke's narrative of the birth of Jesus: "Don't be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people."
Evangelism, it seems, has little to do with the person doing the evangelizing and everything to do with the message itself. It's the content—the goodness of the news to the hearer—that makes it noteworthy in the Bible, not the delivery device.
The prophet Isaiah uses this notion of evangelism to speak of those who declare the good news of God: "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of a messenger who proclaims peace, who brings good news, who proclaims salvation, who says to Zion, 'Your God rules!'"
Excerpted from Evangelism in the Inventive Age by Doug Pagitt. Copyright © 2014 Doug Pagitt. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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