Why Theology Must Take on Flesh and Bone and Breathe into Everyday Life

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We live out theology everyday that we would never affirm with our minds or state with our mouths. On a lived level, we all have deeply faulty theology that has become habitual.

These habits have serious ramifications, and so need our attention.

Christians can sometimes inspect and analyze the words we say when it comes to theology—what if we were just as careful to assess not just the theology we speak, but the theology we live?

Christians can sometimes inspect and analyze the words we say when it comes to theology—what if we were just as careful to assess not just the theology we speak, but the theology we live? Click To Tweet

Two Ways We Demonstrate Our Value For Spoken Theology Over Lived Theology

To illustrate, let me describe two situations I’ve seen (or been guilty of) on many occasions:

1. What Our Posture Toward the “Wrong” Spoken Theology Reveals About Our Lived Theology

Imagine this: A well-read theologian discovers faulty thinking in a fellow Christian leader and begins to comment on that leader’s social media accounts. Soon his civil tone deteriorates into vitriol. The theologian is convinced that the leader is twisting the minds of those he leads, that it’s vital that the leader be challenged and persuaded for the sake of Christianity. Soon the theologian finds himself referencing this Christian leader in his classes and blog posts, questioning the leader’s orthodoxy, faith, and right to lead. The Christian leader then finds herself wrapped up in a torrent of controversy, her job in the balance, having to spend weeks quelling the fears of her own constituency.

As onlookers, we might watch the situation unfolding and choose a side based on whether or not we agree with the theologian’s points. We might remember Jesus’ words, “By their fruits you will know them,” and decide that since the theologian’s approach has become personal, it’s hard to imagine he’s working with the Spirit.

But at no point in this all-too-common scenario have I seen the theologian’s theology of confrontation and reconciliation challenged. The same Bible that the theologian is using to pick apart the teaching of the Christian leader also says:

If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.

Isn’t this also theology?

Here Jesus is teaching a theology which not only creates exhaustive systems of thinking—but knows how to live as if the ideas are true.

Sadly, I’ve found that the longing to bring theology to life often is met with derision, as if making theological ideas livable makes them less serious. But I would say it shows a more rigorous attention to theology to trust that if a concept is true, it will be true in every way a human lives.

2. What the Anxious Frenzy of Our Ministry Reveals About Our Underlying Theology

Imagine with me again: A Christian pastor takes his calling seriously and applies himself faithfully to his ministry, to the point that he regularly answers texts during family dinners and on his day off finds himself answering emails. It begins to affect his marriage and health, and the folks he leads begin to worry about him. So they get together and plan a wonderful vacation for him and his family. They find preachers to fill the pulpit for a few Sundays and send the pastor off with their blessing.

But he is hurt that they don’t need him. He’s angry that they would ask him to stop working and threatened at the thought of someone else in his pulpit. Don’t they know how many things will fall apart if he’s not there?

We might feel sorry for this pastor who is so overworked and encourage him to make some life changes. But in these all-too-common scenarios, do we ever challenge the leader’s theology? Isn’t there something about this lifestyle which is practical atheism? The same Bible which has prompted this pastor to be perseverant and selfless also says:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

If the pastor preached in a way that questioned the deity of Jesus, we would challenge his theology. Would we dare to challenge the faulty theology that his life teaches—that he, as pastor, is our hope?

The Healing of Our Fractured Faith and Selves

My primary interest here is not to create more opportunities to challenge one another, but to find healing. My longing is to bring our thinking faith and our reading faith and our walking and weeping and working faith together again. To heal the rifts between the academy and the Church, between professional Christians and laity, between hearts and minds and bodies and spirits.

It may stretch our systems of thinking to test them in our daily lives. And it may stretch our own hearts and minds to find ways to bring our theological ideas into life so thoroughly.

I’m fascinated by one particular moment in the disciples’ discovery of Jesus on the road to Emmaus. They’ve spent the day together, walking, eating, discussing events and Scripture, exploring truth—a thoroughly theological day. And when they finally discover the Truth that’s been walking with them all along they verify it in a strange way:

Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?

Their physical, intuitive, emotional experience of Truth does not undermine their acceptance of it—but only adds to its veracity.

It seems fitting that Jesus then goes on to reveal the Truth of his resurrection (something we’ve shaped entire theologies around) by showing the disciples his wounds. It really is possible that Truth can be embodied.

It’s time to end the old dichotomies of rational vs. experiential faith, of objectivity vs. subjectivity. These dichotomies ask us to choose one part of ourselves over another part—a kind of violence against the integrated beings God has made us to be. What I want to leave behind is partial engagement with God to embrace whole person engagement.

Wouldn’t we claim that our theological ideas are big enough to encompass all of human experience? If so, is it possible that intuitions and bodies and emotions are places where theological ideas can be tested and learned? We know that theology can reason and articulate. Can it feel and breathe?

We fear this might diminish theology. But what if it expands theology? What if it teaches us about a whole God who wants to engage us as whole beings, in every part of our existence? What if it shows the bible to be a living, active Word again and the Spirit to be comfortable in human skin again?

In the end, how sincere we truly are, how desperate and committed we are, will be demonstrated by how hard we are on our discipline, how willing we are to break with academic fashion when fashion mutes the polyphonies of life, how willing we are to be honest and accept difficulty. . . . [L]ived theology emerges from the movements, transactions, and exchanges of the Spirit of God in human experience.
Charles Marsh, Lived Theology


Word of mouth and word of body. It’s the thing that gets passed down over generations.
Kyra Gaunt, TED Talk

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16 responses to “Evangelism OR Witness?: The Necessary Turn for the Missional Church 1

  1. David, no I don’t think this distinction is overdrawn at all. I love hearing it put this way. This quote by the Mennonite author John Driver equally makes the point, “Peoplehood is a part of the good news as well as an essential instrument in mission.”

    This concept is what I finally came to after nine years of doing evangelism around the world as a missionary.

    I’ve been collecting phrases that capture this idea.

  2. I enjoyed your post, Dave, and I agree. One of the things I’ve really struggled to explain to older evangelicals is that conversion is a process for most people that requires a consistent witness over time. You would not believe the hostility this has raised. On the plus side, though, I’ve been given two different Charles Finney books by two different people to help show me the error of my ways. But I’m like, “Wow, Dude – free books!”

  3. Is this irony (I always forget the textbook definition)? I always used to kick you in the shins about evangelism and now I’m the one dodging the metaphorical boot to the kneecap.

    Please don’t tell me it’s karma. That’s almost too persuasive.

  4. One more thought:

    I was listening to Tim Keller recently and he quotes someone but I forget who. Anyway, he makes a distinction between Christianity, which proclaims good news, and other systems of belief which at best can only give good advice/counsel.

    The metaphor he uses to explain this is a king at war. If the king loses a battle and the town is endangered, the advisors come to the town and say, “Okay, we need earthenworks over here, archers there, cavalry will come from here, etc…” which is entirely different from the Christian announcement of the gospel: “That battle has been won by Jesus Christ, therefore repent and believe the good news.”

    He maintains that legalists and the self-righteous can only come as advisors, directing how to marshall our resources for the fight. Only Christianity comes and declares (kerygma) Jesus’ victory which is apprehended by grace through faith.

    Therefore, Keller maintains that because we come as runners & town criers bringing news that the town is saved & the battle is won, there will always be a place for kerygmatic preaching.

    Moreover, if I can try to synthesize more of what I believe I’ve understood from Keller, I believe he’s saying that we must constantly deconstruct legalism/phariseeism (a la Jesus’ sermon on the mount) for the church because of the awful human tendency to proceed by self-righteousness, rather than by grace, grace, and grace. Advisors, like the pharisees, help one do greater works of self-righteousness, while kerygmatic preaching teaches us to depend of the free, radical and unlimited grace of God given to us in Christ.

    I find his presentation compelling and I hope I’ve done it justice. And yet I’ve been wondering about your thoughts. Does (or How does) kerygmatic preaching have a role to play in being a witness & a community of witness?

  5. I appreciate your post and I think you point out some wise shifts in current thinking.

    However, I think what Sam has pointed out in the two comments above me indicate a wise caution.

    (The only thing I might disagree with Sam about is his view of Baptism, but that’s more a reflection of my covenant theology that allows for the baptism of infants. But that’s a digression away from the post).

    I still cling to evangelism as proclamation however. In our witness (doing), we still need to be explaining (telling) what we believe and what difference that makes. I’m not in agreement that witness (doing) alone is sufficient. My atheist friend does alot of good works, but for entirely different reasons.

    Pastor Chris

  6. David,
    It appears that, rather than helping us to understand evangelism better, you have instead surrendered evangelism to modernity and replaced it with witness. Yet for evangelism to truly be evangelism, i.e. for it to be good news, it requires a quality of life in the messenger that embodies the value of the news. Evangelism isn’t the transference of data or facts or propositions, but it the expression in words of a message whose goodness is embodied by the messenger. In this sense evangelism does require witness.
    Witness, on the other hand, seems to be a word used in such a way that the witness is one who has seen something and so embodies what they have seen. So, the witness to the resurrection, in order to be a witness, must embody the difference that the resurrection makes.
    In both cases we must resist the modern dualistic tendency–and recover both words as words that are used by the church as it seeks to live out the good news for the sake of the world.
    Thanks for the thoughtful blogs!


  7. Here are a couple more thoughts.
    If we accept the dictum “meaning is use” then perhaps you’re right–evangelism, as it is used, has come to mean the thin modern understanding that you describe in your blog. Perhaps we need to translate the Greek into something that can be faithfully used and so gain the sort of meaning we see in scripture. “Herald” might work, or “to bring good news” or any sort of word that helps us get away from the use that “evangelism” has gained from modernity.
    Similarly, “witness” was used in my own upbringing to induce guilt–“you should be witnessing to your neighbors and your friends.” It was used in the same way as “evangelism.” Perhaps we should start calling ourselves “martyrs” instead and let the strength of the common use of the word infect our practice.

    Also, to respond to a comment Mike made, I would make sure that when we describe conversion as a process we allow room in our theology for baptism. Baptism marks a precise moment in the life of the church when a person dies with Christ and is raised to a new life in Christ. It marks a decisive moment. All of our well-meaning attempts to resist the “decisionist” elements within evangelical theologies of conversion and insert accounts of salvation as a journey, or conversion as a process, must at some point admit that baptism marks a decisive moment. In fact, baptism names a practice that actually resists a “sinner’s prayer” theology and instead brings the decisive moment back into the necessary folds of the church. I admit that this doesn’t rescue our evangelism from the sticky requirement that it asks people to make a decision, but it does bring that decision back to the community of the faithful in which such a decision makes sense.

  8. In response to Chris–

    I want to clarify that I think the difference between evangelism and witness is not as simple as the difference between telling and doing.

    To be sure, evangelism is mainly concerned with proclamation, yet its unique characteristic as good news must be embodied by the herald in such a way that the value of the news is present in its proclamation.

    Witness is more a way of being in the world that makes sense of God’s action (cross and resurrection, e.g.) than it is doing particular things.

    David, what I think we need is an account of evangelism/proclamation that avoids both the coerciveness of much contemporary apologetics and also the tendency to disembody the message that comes from any number of attempts to distill it into any combination of four laws…. Here we need incarnation to inform our proclamation. Evangelism must flow from the church as a necessary expression of its life together–a proclamation of its hope that has become tangible in its community.

    That’s all for now…

  9. Adam the phrases …!!

    Thanks to all the rest for good contributions … Let me add … that the reason I said at the end ythere “Evangelism can be done without witness. Witness cannot be done without evangelism (yes that’s what I meant to say)” … is to in no uncertain terms affirm that evangelism, proclamation is inextricable part of witness. I do think however that KERYGMA is enriched, even made possible by MARTYRION … and to some degree changes the nature of it so as to make it deeply incarnational.. not separate from life.
    I hope to talk more about this in my next post. But I have already learned much from Mike, Sam and Chris

  10. I wonder if conversatio morum implies that those who are continually being converted are also dead to their impact on the world? Does a kenotic Christology imply that, without negating the call to incarnate the message, we are somehow dead to the result? Maybe this would be a path beyond the being/doing dichotomy and help us put down the “gospel gun”

  11. To add to Adam’s phrases:

    Stanley Hauerwas said:
    “The work of Jesus was not a new set of ideals or principles for reforming or even revolutionizing society, but the establishment of a new community, a people that embodied forgiveness, sharing and self-sacrificing love in its rituals and discipline. In that sense, the visible church is not to be the bearer of Christ’s message, but to be the message.”

    A concern of mine with evangelism in its 70’s or so through to now North American ‘incarnation’ is that judgment is implicit in its process – why would I need to convince you if I had not judged you to be in need of salvation? The process of judgment risks reducing the other to being an object, and then presto! – the object now is at risk of being used to for my own ego gratification and needs, just as other objects in our society are, and is no longer loved as the person created in the image of God. The reduction is at risk of being unnoticed as consumer-based Christianity has displaced true spirituality and discernment with feeling good about what God and I are doing for each other, and so by golly, God really is blessing all that I do which proves I’m right and in his favour… Len has a valid point re the value of becoming dead to our impact.

    In contrast, consider the insight of Jean Vanier, an anthropologist, living in community, dedicated to the disabled, who over fifty years has meditated on the gospel of John, on the foot washing:

    “I can imagine with what tenderness Jesus touches the feet of his disciples, looks into their eyes, calls each one by name and says a special word to each one. When he speaks at the meal, he speaks to them all: he does not have a personal contact with each one individually. But as he kneels humbly before each one and washes their feet, he has a personal contact with each one. He reveals to each one his love, which is both comforting and challenging. He sees in each one a presence of his Father, whom he loves and serves. The love of Jesus reveals to us that we are important, that we are a presence of God and we are called to stand up and do the work of God: to love others as God has loved them, to serve others and to wash their feet.” Jean Vanier “Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John” p. 232-233

    Vanier unveils Jesus as a witness to great truths of our existence, who in his witnessing reveals truth to us.

    Another thought – I have nearly twenty years of experience in the criminal courts as barrister. I sometimes refer to it as trench warfare. To extend David’s court metaphor, and building on Sam’s comments re “meaning is use”, current evangelism is more consistent with the role of an advocate than that of a witness. The advocate’s duty is to his cause may result in evangelism becoming exactly what Sam said it is not – the “transference of data or facts or propositions”. The witness is to “speak” to what he has seen, and in part, is tested as to credibility by the congruency of his actions on the witness stand, and as described at scene. I agree David, character becomes critical.

    Regarding martyrdom, community, – Vanier again, on ‘..there is no greater love than this…’ :
    “To love people as Jesus loves them is to wash their feet, to serve them in humility; it is to help them rise up in truth and love. Here Jesus is revealing something more: to love is to lay down one’s life for others, to place their interests before our own. It is to give them life. That can mean accepting difficulties, danger and even death so that they may live and grow in love. To love is to live in communion with others, to transmit to them the life and love of Jesus. It is to reveal to them that they are loved, loved by Jesus. In this way we become their friend because we are a friend of Jesus.” P. 274-275

    Yes David, missiology is ecclesiology; and equally, ecclesiology is missiology. And no, the distinction between evangelism and witness is not overdrawn relative to common current practices of evangelism. Plus I echo your thoughts re much learned from the others.

  12. Hi David, how are you? Thanks for the post. Thought you might enjoy reading this. I wrote it awhile ago, but thought you find it interesting.

    It’s not Business, it’s the Gospel

    “If you don’t like the way you were born — try being born again!”

    This announcement, prominently displayed recently on a church marquee in my neighborhood, reflects perfectly the spirit of religious life in North America today. It advertises to all who pass by the church what sounds like very good news: “If you don’t like who you are now, God has a ‘new you’ ready to try on! Details available inside!”

    This is exactly the kind of message that modern men and women like to hear. What could be better news than to hear that the God who called the universe into existence wants nothing more than to make us over into what we most want to be? How could this message not be compelling? As a result of years of cultural conditioning, recent generations in North America have come to see themselves almost exclusively as consumers whose sole purpose in life is to satisfy their individual needs…Not only does this message by itself leave much to be desired, it is also symptomatic of a widespread problem within the church today, which is to confuse the gospel with an infomercial, and the community of God’s people with vendors of spiritual goods and services.

    I love this quote from the book StormFront. It reminds me of a similar situation I went through in the mid-90’s.

    I was invited to sit on a panel to explore a new program called; “New Strategies For City-Wide Evangelism.” I still remember the question that was posed to me as if it were yesterday. “Mark, if you could figure out how to put the gospel into a vitamin bottle, package it, market it, and get it into the hands of men and women in the city, our churches would be filled to capacity.” In other words, I was asked to help implement a marketing strategy that would successfully saturate the entire region with the gospel and turn “customers into consumers” and the church into a “vendor of goods and services.”

    My years of business and my experience in marketing and producing products seemed to be precisely what was needed to launch a new and innovative marketing program. Had I found my call?

    Let’s face it. Though the fundamental idea of marketing has been around for over fifty years, the message itself is ageless. Surely, if Fortune 500 companies see fit to spend money on marketing campaigns in order to achieve brand recognition and successfully turn customers into consumers, couldn’t the religious sector do the same? Customers are the focal point of all businesses, religious or secular, aren’t they? It doesn’t take a savvy executive to know that in order for organization to exist, one must do marketing and do it extraordinarily well to flourish.

    You can read the rest here

  13. Sorry David, I meant to comment on your post, “Is The Consumerism Critique Legit?” I went ahead and put the comment there as well. Grace, Mark

  14. David,in short and to answer your question, no I don’t belive it is overdrawn. Early in my college days (30+ yrs back), my wife and I were positively transformed by J.B. Phillips translation of the great comission; the precise wording now escapes me, but it said smething like “while going through life (doing life) to be witness vs. the guilty ladden mandatory passing of tracks and pushing the gospel down people’s throat which we grew up with.

    I concur with your subsequent comment that evangelism can be done w/out witness, however the reverse is not posible.

    I have found in my own experience that living a life of witness, always follows with an opportunity for proclamation.

    I am not saying that there is not a place for evangelism; there is. However for my own personal life, I am learning to to bleed for people as Christ does and will “proclaim” it when they asked me, which invariably they do.

  15. Yes, I appreciate this very much. Witness has been on my heart for a very long time. To hear it put this way makes complete sense. That is probably why so many in the church like evangelism since it takes the pressure off them to actually engage the culture risking more than sitting in the pew.

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