Saddled with stereotypes
Your friends probably have a stereotype or two about what Christians are like. Fill in the blanks. You know a lot of the possible options. Narrow, bigoted, fanatic, hypocrite, angry. Against women, against gays, against science, against pretty much everything. And there are a lot more. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve earned their scorn by actually being any of them; some combination of these descriptors is often assumed.
OK. Not fair. Not fun. But more and more, it is the burden of being Christian in our culture. Yes, the perceptions are sometimes fed by the sin and folly of the divine enterprise we call the Body of Christ. Other times, the media stokes the fires of incendiary stereotypes that tell us more about the stereotyper than the stereotyped. Either way, we’re placed somewhere on a continuum between irrelevant and dangerous.
What do we do when the Church is viewed as a mob of heartless, theocratic bullies? Among other things, we figure out what it means to live the Gospel in ways that challenge the reigning assumptions about Christian faith and practice. The roadblocks to faith in our culture aren’t just cognitive or intellectual and, therefore, we cannot think about witness simply in terms of a battle over ideas (although it certainly is that as well).
And the challenge isn’t simply with our secular counterparts. Neighbors and co-workers who come from other cultures and are raised in different faith traditions are as likely to be confused about what it means for you to be a Christian as anyone else. Take Islam, for example. Did you know that many Muslims would be surprised to learn you pray? Many followers of Islam equate the decadent, materialistic culture of the West with Christianity. This means they too often embrace a fairly negative stereotype of what it means to be a Christian. In addition, you might want to acknowledge that draped invisibly around your neck as you talk to Muslim friends are such matters as U.S. foreign policy with regard to Israel, drone strikes in Pakistan, Western colonialism in the Middle East, and the Crusades. And all that is apart from any actual religious differences.
Evangelism: more than mere words
The point is that we don’t generally start at square one with people. We often start at square negative ten or fifteen. There are obstacles, stereotypes, and misunderstandings aplenty. How do we begin to break through them? Again, no single sure-fire way exists but certainly one non-negotiable way is to draw those God has brought to us into our lives so that they can see the reality of Christ’s transforming power at work in us. In other words, it’s not enough to simply declare the reality of the kingdom; we must demonstrate the reality of the kingdom. It’s the pattern we see in Jesus’ own ministry where he announces the good news of the kingdom in both word and deed. He both tells and shows. We’re inclined simply to tell but Jesus reminds us that we must also show.
However, we’re not quite finished because, while Gospel truth must be incarnate in individual lives, it must also be embodied in community because it is only in community that the Gospel can be displayed in all its fullness. Let’s test that. Consider the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. We think of the fruit as internal qualities. But look again. How do you love or extend kindness or act in patient faithfulness all by yourself? Paul is describing the characteristics of kingdom community. In a world marked so often by anger, revenge, alienation, and violence, what the world needs to see is another possibility for human community marked by love, self-giving, forgiveness and reconciliation. The Church, the community of the kingdom, is an essential part of the witness of the Gospel.
Evangelism through participating in Christian community
A dear friend in London helps lead a wonderful South Asian church in the Southall section of west London, New Life Masih Ghar.[i] One of the things I find so compelling about this church is the way the life of the community is central to its idea of witness. For them, it’s not simply about proclaiming a message but embodying the message in the life of a grace-filled community of forgiveness and reconciliation.[ii] I led their church retreat last November and to my delight there were Muslims and Hindus there. In fact, these are folks who are ordinarily part of pretty much anything the church does. My friend calls them “‘belongers.” They aren’t sure yet about where they are with Jesus but what they know is they experience something at New Life Masih Ghar that they don’t experience anywhere else. And so they want to belong and as they belong they inch their way closer and closer to Jesus, listening to the good news of the Gospel as they experience that Gospel in relationship.
It interesting isn’t it? We live in a time when truth claims are viewed with deep suspicion as acts of coercion and maybe even violence. In spite of that, so often our inclination is toward coercion as a means of Christian witness. Yes, let’s name the elephant in the room. Politics is ultimately about coercion because we want, in one form or another, the coercive power of government to support or enforce our Christian convictions in the name of “reclaiming America for Christ.”
Evangelism from a position of weakness
One book that looms large in my thinking is Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity.[iii] Stark seeks to answer one simple question, “How did a tiny and obscure messianic movement from the edge of the Roman Empire dislodge classical Paganism and become the dominant faith of Western civilization?”[iv] His answer is profoundly simple: Christian teaching acted out in the daily life of the community was able to powerfully transform human experience, individually and, eventually, culturally. Word and deed, proclamation and demonstration were the church’s “strategy”[v] for over two centuries and the world was never the same. You need to read this compelling book to see how this worked out in detail. But I’ve often thought that until we wrestle with the things Stark discusses, we will continue to be adrift with respect to witness in our culture.
One of the things I find challenging about Stark’s book is that the early Christians didn’t see their lack of access to power and the institutions and instruments of power as somehow limiting or thwarting their witness. It was a witness not dependent upon earthly power but the power of God in the Gospel. Look at the end of Acts 4 and note the radical union of economic shalom and the proclamation of resurrection that would simply have amazed a watching culture. What imperial power could have commanded or forbidden such witness? Is it the case that we’ve so lost real confidence in the power of the Gospel that we resort to coercion before witness?
Faithfulness in deed
As we think about evangelism and the church’s witness, our call in the end is to live the Gospel together as we proclaim it. Men and women, secular or religious, from down the street or across the planet, whether polytheist Hindu or Muslim monotheist, need to see truth lived faithfully in a new kind of community. There is no better place to begin our thinking than by reading the New Testament with Rodney Stark as an imaginative conversation partner. For all that ails us when we are confused and distracted about witness, my prescription is to rub on liberal applications of Rodney Stark and call me in the morning.
[i] Masih Ghar means House of Messiah
[ii] It is helpful to remember that the national, cultural, and religious differences among South Asians are sometimes enormous and are a source of conflict back home. That former Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs from Pakistan and India come together to be one family in Jesus is at the core of their witness to the reconciling power of the Gospel.
[iii] San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1996.
[iv] Ibid, p.3.
[v] Certainly the early Christians didn’t work this all out in advance by having a conference to come up with a mission strategy for the Empire. They simply taught and lived as the Bible commanded and the consequences were astonishing. We have the benefit now of studying and benefitting from their example for thinking about our own life and witness.
If you know someone who doesn’t mind speaking freely about their non-Christian convictions, ask them why they have a certain perspective on Christianity. Then ask, what would it take for you to change your mind? Is there anything you can do personally to undo the negative, media-fueled impressions many have of the Christian faith? Are you part of a community of the kind in west London that Bob describes above? If so, would an invitation be in order to your non-Christian friend?
Bob mentions Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity above. Want a copy? You can order it from the Colson Center Bookstore. It will give you some fresh perspectives on evangelism.