It is commonly said that the motivation for evangelism is 'passion for the lost.' I believe this is inescapably true. The belief that Christians have something unbelievers do not is fundamental. This point leads me to two questions. First, Nazarenes, do we feel that passion? Second, church, how do we communicate it?
'Passion for the lost' is rooted in love, which sounds wonderful. 'Love' is a popular word - 'lost' isn't. It's offensive to non-Christians, and I argue that it has become offensive to many Nazarenes as well. Yet while we may avoid the word, we cannot avoid the issue.
Nazarenes live in a world of competing religions, and we're in danger of letting our tolerance (which is good) become relativism (which is bad). As Ron Sider recently wrote in an open letter to this generation of young Christians, 'You have rightly learned from postmodernism that every person's ideas and beliefs are significantly shaped by their specific location in space and time. Do you still believe there is moral and intellectual truth?'¹
Emphatically, we must.
If not checked, relativism seeps into our relationships and stymies evangelism. Our convictions become attenuated, pale reflections of the strong faith God desires.
It is tempting to think that the often lackluster result of our evangelism is due to our culture's resistance to the gospel. Yet we ourselves may be resisting the call to evangelize out of fear of violating the cultural rule to value other traditions on par with our own. Most likely, both reasons play a part. This should cause us to examine both self and society during our evangelistic efforts. Effective evangelism in the 21st century will require a commitment to bear witness to Jesus Christ, matched with respect for how deeply shaped people are by their worldview and times.
Let us consider the 'lostness' of unbelievers. Taking it as eternal lostness (i.e., eternity in hell) is probably the easiest for us to do, but the hardest for non-Christians to understand or accept. Our exclusive claim to hold the key to eternal life - and thus prevent eternal torment - is an unpopular view for non-Christians. Some characterize evangelicals as folks who scare people into the church with coercive, supernatural threats.
Stereotypes function as mental devices that prevent thinking. If there's a sure way to repel instead of engage, it's to confirm a stereotype. If we approach unbelievers with tales of eternal bliss or woe, our message will be rejected because they've already rejected it a hundred times in their heads. Being Wesleyans, we know human beings are free to choose. The Spirit won't make them believe anything. We must find a language they understand.
I'm reminded of a conversation I had recently while tuck-pointing an old brick wall at a Catholic worker house in Kansas City. My fellow worker, a college senior, had been raised Unitarian. In his words, he was a 'searcher.' Almost as insurance against any reference I might make to the afterlife, he assured me that he disliked any church that demanded he believe something or risk being punished in hell.
Is my Unitarian tuck-pointer 'lost?' Yes, he is. The word 'searcher' is a misleading metaphor for the activity of many postmodern spiritualists. Better words might be 'vagabond' or 'stroller,' which adequately connote the lack of spiritual direction in their lives.²
To be captured by the love of Jesus requires something stronger than 'strolling.' Just as we aren't transformed by the tentative love of God, we can't claim the Matthew 7:7 promise (seek, and you shall find) by dabbling in God-matters. True searching is praying, fellowshiping, and trusting, not keeping oneself free from a serious faith commitment.
Finally, we must live a wordless witness that grounds our words. In a world of lonely, unloved people who are yet skeptical of exclusive truth claims, our message will get nowhere by simply making claims. Skeptics love nothing more than unmasking the bombast of the gospel to see the self-centeredness and greed of those who proclaim it.
What if they were to take the mask off and find out that the person underneath is very much like the message we share - honest, broken, forgiven, loving, welcoming, merciful, and believing. The word for that is authenticity. Integrity is its complement. For many today, it's the only witness to which they'll listen.
Evangelism is welcoming people into a community where they meet folks who know Jesus. In a world where people don't care if they go to heaven or hell, we have to show them that loving Jesus means something in this life.³ It's not a matter of giving up our beliefs about eternal destiny, which no respectable reader of the New Testament can do. It is a matter of understanding how the majority of people will make spiritual decisions in the 21st century.
We have to show them what it means to follow Jesus now.
This has always been part of our witness - it was just downplayed as an evangelism technique because the cultural power of Christianity made scaring people into salvation easy. Now our influence is waning, and a new epoch is upon us. It's scary not being in charge of society, but for the first time in a long time, we may not see people come to church unless we are truly salty (Matthew 5:13). Our confessions are still important (Romans 10:9), but will be disbelieved if we don't love one another (John 13:35). I think this will have a powerful disciplining effect on the future church, and I, for one, am excited about what's to come!
Wesley McKain is field support specialist in the office of Evangelism and New Church Development, USA/Canada Region.
Useful resources for evangelism, church renewal, and communicating the gospel to relativists can be found at www.missionevangelism.org.
Holiness Today, Nov/Dec 2011
1. 'An Open Letter to This Generation' (RELEVANT Magazine, March 15, 2011)
2. Volf, Mirslav. Exclusion and Embrace (2002). Abingdon Press. Nashville, TN. Footnote on p. 40.
3. I refer you to a song by the alternative rock band The Streets, entitled 'Heaven for the Weather, Hell for the Company.'