Untangling the Gospel 11: Evangelism

Take a quick trip over to Bible Gateway. Then, pick your favorite translation and run a search for the word “evangelism.”

I’m serious. Go on, now. I’ll wait here until you get back.

———————-

Evangelism is not a word that is found in scripture.

The more I reflect on this truth, the more it blows me away: According to the modern church, the be-all-and-end-all-supreme-duty of all all Christians is to “evangelize.” And the word never appears once – NOT A SINGLE TIME – within the pages of my bible.

Here are the things that scripture calls us to do as we interact with the world:
– Do social justice (i.e., feed the poor, heal the sick, shelter the homeless)
– Proclaim the good news that God’s kingdom is here (I hope you can see how these first two items are deeply intertwinded)
– Make disciples

But where did this word – “evangelism” come from? And how did a large body of Chrisitans come to a point where the idea of “evangelizing” people supplanted these ideas?

In short, we live in an age of process and product. Put together the raw material, engineer an assembly line, put some trained people in place and – BAM! – you can suddenly mass produce all kinds of stuff, of varying usefulness. Watches. Computers. Burgers. Televisions. Guns and bullets. Cars. Graduate students. Spam. IPods.

At some point, someone decided that – since our capacity to build stuff in mass quantities obviously demonstrates that we have reached the pinnacle of human existence – God must have been thinking about spreading his Kingdom the same way all along, and everyone else up to that point (apparently) had been missing the point. God must have laid out in scripture, we assumed, some sort-of rigid, assembly-line process by which people can be moved from the “lost” category to the “saved” category.

We can martinize our dry cleaning. We can sterilize medical equipment. We can galvanize steel. So why can’t we “evangelize” lost people?

Like so many concepts that have flourished in the modern Church, our ideas about evangelism have suffered from a debilitating form of over analysis, borne of arrogance. As such, the most common concepts of evangelism are but a thin shadow of the mission for God’s people that is outlined in scripture.

Here are a few of the differences:
– Evangelism is about winning arguments about the nature of God and the cosmos. Jesus’ mission is about showing people the nature of God by the way we engage the world.
– Evangelism requires you to be armed with the right memory verses and persuasive techniques, but requires no working knowledge of what it means to live like Jesus. Disciple-making requies you to be a disciple yourself.
– Evangelism is about beating people over the head with scripture. Disciple-making invites people into dialog, in the same way that Jesus invited his disciples into dialog.
– Evangelism is about getting people to say the right words and to intellectually assent to the right ideas. Then – after making sure that the “saved soul” counter advances by one – you can move on to the next person on the assembly line. Making disciples is about walking along side people on the journey over the long term, showing them how Jesus lived.
– Evangelism is about having the right techniques, formulas, and presentations to get results every time. Jesus’ mission is about finding each person where they are and loving them as individuals, regardless of how they respond to you.
– Evangelism is successful only when people “sign up” by raising their hand, saying the magic words, or submitting to baptism. We are successful in Jesus’ mission simply by being a healing force in a hurting world, regardless of whether people spit at us or rush to learn more about our Master.

I could go on and on, but I hope you get the idea. We want processes that do distinct things in easily measurable and efficient ways, so that we can know when we are finished, and experience a sense of accomplishment. The command to make disciples doesn’t satisfy that itch very well, because it doesn’t have definite endings and beginnings. It is never truly complete. Plus, it is a messy business that requires great patience and commitment. Some people will make great, immediate leaps in the journey. Others will come around slowly. But they are all to be loved.

Scripture asks us simply to engage people, to serve them, to let them know that God’s kingdom has come near to them, and – for those who want to join us – to teach them to live like Jesus.

I could never get to the point where I was comfortable doing the high-pressure seal-the-deal sales pitch for God thing. But I can learn how to show love for people like Jesus did. Plus, I’m learning a thing or two about living like him, and I’m willing to teach that to others who want to learn. I can do that.

Up next: A long overdue wrap-up on this series.

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