Why Does Talk About “Evangelism” Make Me Nervous? February 20, 2014
At an event I was at recently I heard about a new effort to get Christian colleges united around the concept of ‘evangelism’. Well, fine. Jesus desires that people in all cultures be brought to Him and taught to do the things He commands [Matthew 28] and we certainly desire that the maximum number of people in all cultures be brought to the truth and love of Jesus. Of course, I wondered at first who they were going to evangelize on Christian college campuses. Some of the professors, maybe?
But if I desire to see people who don’t know Christ come to Him, why does talk of ‘evangelism’ often make me nervous? Is it that I don’t really believe He is the appointed savior for all? Or are there things about the way ‘evangelism’ has often been approached that give me concerns? Here are some possibilities.
1. For a long time most of evangelicalism was dominated by the mentality I call “Great Commission Utilitarianism,” or even sometimes “Great Commission Deism.” This is the mentality that in fact restores the old pre-Reformation attitude of the ‘higher calling’ of the pastor, church worker, or missionary, and regards other callings, the butcher, baker, candlestick maker and all the rest, merely as means to finance the Gospel, or to build relationships to spread it. Whereas the historic view is that God created meat, bread, and light, and us to do things with them; and if anything, ‘evangelism’ is a means to not only get people into heaven but to get them right with the Creator of physical matter and on the track of restoring a fallen world through their work in all human callings. So rather than culture existing for the sake of evangelism, perhaps we are called to evangelism partly, at least, to reinforce the restoration of the world. A way we have put this in my office is: “God did not retire from His universe business to go into full time ministry: He took on the ‘ministry’ to solve a serious problem in one part of His universe business! God has no ‘second half’ of His career.”
2. If we are mainly concerned about getting ‘souls’ saved so that they may go to heaven, we may lose interest in them once they get ‘saved’ and neglect further discipleship, with the possible exception of ‘stewardship’ toward the institutional church, which the church, being a human institution as well as a divine one, will naturally be interested in! But I define ‘discipleship’ as “teaching people to apply Christian virtues and Christian standards in all the situations they are likely to face in their lives.” It’s both ‘to’ – they should do it – and ‘how to’ assuming they want to do it, which [if they are really reconciled to Christ] they should be expected to want to, here’s how. Relying on the Holy Spirit, of course; but some Reformed traditions have a very negative attitude toward any sort of ‘how to’. I will admit to a prejudice that those traditions that believe in unpredestined ‘decisional regeneration’ while at the same time holding ‘eternal security’ might be a little more inclined to get people saved and then leave them alone, but the problem is not confined to these traditions.
3. The third complaint is a deeper and more basic one. I read through Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections some years ago, and the basic takeaway point that I got from it is that it is dangerous to share ‘God’s love’ to people who are not acquainted with God’s loveliness, character, and beauty. If you follow the comment thread on any social issue, you can see a lot of people hold rather bizarre concepts of who Jesus is and what He stands for. In particular, they seem to believe that Jesus rejected the entire Bible except for a few of His sayings which they happen to like. [If they believe He took that stance, they haven’t read all of His sayings!] I for one happen to believe that these ‘other Jesuses’ are a greater threat to our faith than atheism, and that we have not been wise in turning all our big apologetic guns toward the City of Atheists. [Islam, also, attacks from a very different direction.] It does not do any good to tell people like this “Smile, Jesus loves you” even though the real Jesus doesn’t love them. We have enough sense, nowadays, to know that we shouldn’t tell them “You are going to hell” even if they actually are going to hell, because our just saying it doesn’t prove it to them. But if they think “Jesus loves you” means “Jesus validates you and you can now be a Scribe and a Pharisee even while continuing to be a prostitute and a tax gatherer” [which is what the liberal gospel of “acceptance and tolerance” amounts to] we have to approach them some other way. C. S. Lewis, in God in the Dock, has some suggestions. If we are looking for conviction of sin, we have to start with the sins that people (a) actually commit, and (b) actually regard as sins. He suggests that the best area for most is the pettiness, selfishness, and catfighting of everyday life. Most of us who are Christians are still doing a bit of that [hopefully less] and so we can speak to it from experience.