A couple Sunday mornings ago, at the Community Bible study hour at our church, Tim told a story about a secular Jewish woman taking classes at the local Christian liberal arts college in order to get her teaching certification. Over coffee she tells Tim how she is struggling terribly – not with the classwork – but with the ever ubiquitous message at the Christian school – that all people are sinners, depraved, and deserving of God’s wrath. She said “I can’t believe everyone is born a dirty rotten sinner.” To me, this woman is the paradygmatic post Christendom person and presents a challenge to traditional ways evangelicals have taught evangelism. Tim’s question was “what do we say to this woman?”
Traditionally, the first move in evangelism is to convince the non-Christian that he or she is a sinner in need of God (or that he or she is deserving of God’s judgment and going to hell without Christ). “You must admit you are a sinner in need of God!” We evangelicals inherit this ‘starting point’ from our Reformed theology (which for many reasons starts with the depravity of humanity). This starting point was effective in Christendom where so many were determined by the ever-present Western guilt derived from the Roman Catholic ethos of the European medieval time period. This guilt however is waning in the new cultures of post Christendom. As a result, some of our evangelistic techniques must go to greater and greater lengths to prove to the non Christian that they are indeed sinners. Kirk Cameron’s 10 commandments technique is one of the latest examples of this where he goes through the ten commandments with people he meets on the street trying to prove to them intellectually that they are a sinner. These kind of approaches assume a whole host of things that have been true about our own conversions, yet make no sense to people in the new worlds of post Christendom. We therefore end up coming off as incessantly judgmental, and make no point of contact for witnessing the good news. The result is often now this person will try to run and hide whenever she sees an evangelical Christian within 50 feet.
I have no desire to avoid the issue of sin in engaging others with the gospel. Yet I suggest that in these new post Christendom contexts, we must teach believers three things about the doctrine of sin in order that those we encounter with the gospel might be able to hear the gospel as “good news” (not an agenda of some judgemental person).
1.) Sin is a complex doctine. Surely “the depravity of man (sic),” the sinfulness of humanity, is an essential truth of the gospel that should not be discarded because of its cultural irrelevancy. Yet sin in the Bible is not only about transgression – (i.e. breaking the law), but also about the missing the mark. Sin is not just about guilt but about the powers that enslave us. We therefore have to approach each person with the knowledge that sin will manifest itself in different ways. Our job is to listen and probe for the manifestations of lostness, emptiness, enslavement, and yes guilt, and be available to reflect with the person … always waiting patiently for the Spirit to reveal any sin, brokenness, hurt and/or enslavement that might be going on..
2.) Sin is a language we learn within a community. Sin is not a universal term that everyone automatically understands. It is not even a term every Christian automatically understands. The discovery of sin is a communal enterprise. I often say that I have many sins in my life I am not aware of. I need to be in conversation with people who know me who can enable the revealing of my sins by the Holy Spirit. Sin is understood and exposed in our lives through the witness of the community around us (and we must be humble, vulnerable and open to receive words that in turn can lead to confession and growth in Christ). This vulnerability should define us as Christians and should make it safe for those outside Christ to discover the source of their own brokenness.
We should therefore not expect people outside Christ to know what we are talking about when we say the word “sin.” As Hauerwas says, “We must be trained to see ourselves as sinners, for it is not self-evident. Indeed, our sin is so fundamental that we must be taught to recognize it … we only learn what our sin is as we discover our true identity through locating the self in God’s life as revealed to us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” From Peaceable Kingdom 30-31.
3.) As witnesses we are therapists of sin, always listening to “the other” modeling the vulnerability that has made it possible for us to see our own sin. We listen, probe, ask questions. It is the Holy Spirit that convicts of sin. It is not our job to convince someone. Yet like a therapist we have a language for all that is going on in the social spiritual moral physical world as it is under God the creator and Lord of the universe. But the therapist rarely goes out and tries to convince all people they are sick. “They must be ready” we often hear. Likewise we who live in a post Christendom world, are not here to go out universally and try to convince people they are sick. We live life in and among the sick, the poor, the broken, the lost and make ourselves available and vulnerable to offer both the diagnosis out of our own lives and the gospel as good news.
All of the above challenges the use of sin as an anvil in the work of evangelism. Yet it argues that sin is an essential doctrine of the church. We make sense of it however in the practices of confession, repentance, and restitution in the community. In Hauerwas’ terms, as Christians “we must learn to become good sinners” in order to model it before the world and invite those outside Christ into this victory, healing and pardon. Is this too soft of a view of sin? I don’t think so? Is this too communal? contextual?
We’ll be discussing issues like this (post-Christendom evangelism) and more at the Missional Learning Commons. A non/conference gathering of “missional co-conspirators.” So you’re welcome to join us!! Check out info on the missional commons website. If you’re going to show up let us know via the Facebook Page, or e-mail me at email@example.com.