When They Will Not Come” (WTWNC) names the social dilemma of the church in post Christendom when we can no longer assume non-Christians will come to church even when they are seeking God. This new cultural condition forces us to change the way we think about every aspect of the church. WTWNC is a series of posts that reflect on the ways the practice of being Christ’s church/church planting must change because of this new cultural dilemma.
Illustration by Ben Sternke of http://benjaminsternke.typepad.com.
In the West, especially within the N. American evangelical church, evangelism usually meant “going out” from the church. We trained our church people to be individual agents of salvation “going out” to engage others in the ‘act’ of evangelism. I use quotation marks here however around the words “going out” because much of what we did went the way of “you will come to us on our terms.” We went out, yet it was still from a position of power, “that we already had the answer you need,” that we already knew what your problem is. We went out to them, yet we still presumed they would understand and learn our language – another indication of the Christendom mentality. We went out assuming we did not need a relationship. We could simply present the gospel, the one form of it that was true for all people. We went “out” – but the posture was still “you will come” … “once you hear what we have, you will come on these pre-conceived terms.” In this way, our strategies of evangelism in the West have been sorely dependent upon the social conditions of post Christendom. How must this all change, “when they will not come?” (I understand that in a totally different sense – everyone is either coming or walking away from the one true Incarnate Son – Jesus Christ 2 Cor 5).
Ever since I wrote this piece and this piece, and pointed out some of the problems of our evangelism, many have asked have you come up with an evangelistic tool for these new cultural conditions you call “post Christendom?” This week Scot McKnight and Michael Spencer have been blogging on the related problem of a reduced gospel. At Life on the Vine we have been thinking through these issues as a church group at 9 a.m. on Sunday mornings before we gather to worship. We have come to some insights. We have been discussing some practices we must learn if we are to truly to engage in post-Christendom evangelism.. Yet I cannot say we’ve come up with a new tool quite yet. Next post I’ll offer some of the practices. Here are a few insights we’ve learned (as I report them from my own perspective.)
1.) The old ways – Romans Road, Evangelism Explosion, The Four Spiritual Laws, The Bridge – approach the “lost person” from a position of power. They come to the lost person with a prepackaged message that assumes one gospel fits all. They assume the questions to be asked and the answers that shall be given before we have even listened. (intellectually, and more important attitudinally – we are saying with our posture that we already know what you need, what your problem is, and we’re right and you’re wrong – none-Christians come away feeling like “I’m one of your ‘cases'”). I contend this is contrary to the gospel. For the gospel always comes incarnationally: i.e. humbly, entering in to hear each person/ culture in its own language. The one message fits all implies that everyone has the same problem. Only in Christendom, where everyone was already pre-initiated and where the cultural problems are homogenous, would this make sense. (The Romans Road BTW still makes sense ( and ‘works’) even to this day for the many families who go to large mega churches – offering a simple teaching tool for converting those already raised in the foundations of the Christian faith). If you read the New Testament however, the gospel is posed differently in each context, in each gospel or epistle. The problem the gospel addresses and the way in which the good news of Jesus Christ addresses it – differs between the gospel of John, Luke, the epistles of Romans, versus 1 and 2 Peter, versus James and Hebrews.
2.) The old ways assume the Christian language as a given. When the Romans Road has three words on either side of the chasm that is then bridged by the cross, it assumes these words are understandable. The average person however outside of Christ has no language by which to understand how the word “sin” (on the left side of the chasm) might make sense of their existence. When they hear the word ‘God’ (on the right side of the chasm) they ask “which one?” (co-pastor Matt Tebbe put the issue this way Sunday morning). We could do the Romans Road in Christendom, but not post Christendom. It is another way our evangelistic strategies are off putting … requiring non-believers to come to us on our terms.
3.) These evangelistic habits of Christendom separate the gospel from real life. They do this by “Cartesianizing” the gospel: i.e. they make the gospel into a mental concept separate from real life (the only place where people can really be reached). We could do this in Christendom, when people were largely still marrying, having children, maintaining domestic propriety, living within their means etc. and living a moral ethos still governed by the Roman Catholic and protestant worlds. In such a society, becoming a Christian means assent, or personal commitment. It’s about personal meaning and in some ways this works because one’s life is already habituated in Christian ways. These are the habits of Christendom. Yet they are reversed in post Christendom. In post Christendom, people generally (even among those rasied as Christian) come to God in Christ broken, often from homes of divorce, sexual abuse, places of despair. The gospel cannot be a concept, it must be the invitation into an entirely reordered way of life – the world of redeemed creation.
About a month ago, a man got up in our church in the gathering time and told a story about how he had been working at a Starbuck’s for over a year. He got to know some of the people there and about a month ago, a woman asked to talk. She poured out her grief over her life, the many misfortunes that had befallen here, and how she had lost all hope. As she looked towards the future, she could see no reason to live. This man said that he had a moment to respond with the “good news” but all he knew was to start charting the diagram of the Romans Road. Yet this made no sense. This little episode speaks to the problem of evangelism in post Chrsitendom where the old ways do not make sense. We missionaries simply have to think about inhabiting our worlds differently for the gospel.
In my next post I talk about how we go “from presentation to invitation.” These are the brilliant words of (co-pastor at Life on the Vine) Matt Tebbe that describe so well the transition we must make if we would carry the gospel into the new worlds of post Christendom. We will learn that Biblically the gospel is never a set of “laws.” Rather it is a Story. We will learn that we always engage the world and “the Other” in the posture of listening (as a sign of our humility). This is the posture of servanthood. We will learn there is never a pre-conceived outcome. Salvation is a mystery, it happens in God’s moment not ours, it is always the work of God. He is already working, we are simply the servants, the very participants in what God is already doing. We will learn that salvation happens as an invitation into the relationship we have with God through Christ, always as a way of life, never a singular moment or transaction. We will learn the gospel is always contextualized, addressing the issue of lostness, separation, disorder, that each person is encountering personally, culturally and socially. We will learn that it is impossible to invite someone into such a life if you yourself are not authentically immersed into that very life with the Triune God yourself.
In the meantime, what other ways has our habits of evangelism been dependent upon Christendom cultural conditions?