Proclaiming the Gospel: Overcoming the Post Billy Graham Syndrome

Billy Graham has had a profound impact on the culture of Christianity in the United States. Billy’s ministry drew (hundreds of) thousands to Christ as he highlighted the personal relationship with God offered through Christ via the substitutionary atonement. These thousands of converts were largely raised in Western church in 30’s, 40’s and 50’s and had become disconnected with mainline church traditions.  The substitutionary atonement was the means to God and a personal relationship with God and the blessings of that in all of life (including knowing where you’re going when you die). It could be said that Bill Hybels, of Willowcreek Seeker Services, took the Crusade machinery one step further. He adapted the message to affluent middle class Christians answering questions like how could my life be more meaningful, more purposeful, and healed from the brokenness within my family systems through Jesus Christ. Again, the substitutionary atonement, accepting Christ’s sacrifice as an atonement for my sin, was the entry point to all of this, but the selling point was how God worked to change your life.
This evangelism made sense in the Christendom cultures of the West, particularly in the United States. There was a background familiarity with the story of God in Christ in the culture. There was a familiarity with sin and a malaise/guilt over one’s sin that was still resident in the culture as well. Today, these common cultural frameworks are largely gone. Forensic atonement has less currency. The subtitutionary atonement, a brilliant contextualization for Medieval Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries (thank-you Luther et.al.),  makes less and less sense. I still see the representational elements of the subtitutionary atonement as Scripturally valid and contextually relevant for many people today. But in large parts of the West, we have cultures of addictions, enslavements, violence, hate, broken relationships. We are a culture of narcissism that has run out of ways to find temporary happiness. The forensic notions of atonement lie barren and minimalized (As I once heard George Lindbeck say, it’s better than nothing). Despite the best efforts of people like Tim Keller, there’s a disconnect between traditional Reformed forensic notions of atonement and the healing of the real everyday world amidst its violence and brokenness. So with great appreciation for Billy, we must move beyond Billy. I suggest three ideas for such a moving beyond the Billy Graham hangover in our evangelism (but there are many more).

1.) Move beyond the formula/presentation.  Whether it be a Billy Graham Crusade, a Seeker Service or a 4 Spirtual Laws booklet, there always was some technique to convince someone of their need/sinfulness and a process for receiving the gospel. Today, among the masses, these techniques are perceived (most often) as coercive. For me, these techniques deny the prevenient work of the Holy Spirit. Instead of a technique, let us be present with our non believing (yet) friends, coming alongside them as just part of our lives and love for the world. Let us always believe God is drawing people to Himself, including us through our non-believing friends. Then let us tend to His presence by being present to the other person allowing for His presence between us. This space then becomes the arena for the in breaking Kingdom.  Evangelism happens in the space of His presence between us and other people, not in a coerced set-up presentation.

2.) Move beyond the substitutionary view of the atonement. I believe the Christus Victor understandings of what God has done in inaugurating his victory over the powers of sin, death, evil, violence is the more central metaphor to our faith both historically and Scripturally than substitution. Substitutuionary models of atonement in my opinion (and this includes Anselm) were later contextualizations (not that there is anything wrong with that). Their forensic nature connects less and less with cultures of the West. Expand your understanding of the gospel. Read Scot McKnight, NT Wright, Gustaf Auelen as a start.  Come to see evangelism as the inviting of people into the world where Jesus is Lord, not merely leading people to accept Jesus as their “personal” Savior.

3.) Move beyond evangelism as explanation, to evangelism as proclamation of the gospel. Evangelism isn’t convincing somebody else of a particular truth of the gospel. There will no doubt be some explanation involved, but all the explanation in the world will mean nothing apart from proclaiming a reality out of own’s own belief and testimony. There’s an epistemological shift going on here in this move called proclamation. Proclamation is the announcement of an alternative reality that has begun, and that is happening now in our midst. We say “Here’s is what I’m seeing, that Jesus is Lord, he is working in all this for healing and renewal. Can you see it? Can you enter into it? Can you submit to Him?” Evangelism is the declaration of hope in God’s work in and through Christ and the opening of another person’s imagination, soul, eyes to another world by the Holy Spirit. This is a practice we have largely lost because we confuse it with demagoguery, coercion, and fundamentalism. But proclamation is none of these. If we own from whence we live, if we inhabit the Story we proclaim, then we declare what’s going on out of humility and grace, never as coercion.

All these moves place the follower of Christ into the middle of the arena of the Kingdom, the working of the Spirit. They ask us to walk with people, wait for the right time when God gives us words to proclaim. The very dynamic is one of humility, grace. Even when we proclaim, it is out of humility and things we have seen and heard (witness).

If you’re interested in these questions, we’re setting up an outstanding Missional Learning Commons this Fall entitled. We’ll be dealing in the nitty gritty of leading into these places of proclaiming the gospel.

Evangelism in the Missional Church:
How the Kingdom Breaks in Among Us

November 7-8, 2014, Westmont, IL

Save the dates won’t you?  It will beheld here, and as always, it will be really really inexpensive.

Sponsored by Northern Seminary and Missio Alliance.


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