How we share the Gospel matters as much as what we’re saying
Last week I wrote about the importance of evangelism for the Christian and why I think it’s the most important job of the church. But I didn’t talk much about how we do it. So I wanted to address that specificity because I think the details around our strategy of evangelism matters as much as prioritizing it.
I think, for the most part, the reason that “evangelism” is a word that turns off folks is because the strategies used to evangelize have been ineffective, but also potentially damaging. How we reduce Christian “conversion” to just a matter of acceptance of new doctrine or new belief or mere mental assent is not only flawed in its incompleteness, it ends up changing the basis of Christianity: the incarnation of Christ.
If all we needed to do to follow Jesus was know the facts or the right doctrine, even, I’m not sure why Jesus needed to incarnate, why the Word needed to become flesh, so to speak, at all. The fabric of our faith is rooted in relating, not just knowing. Our faith is tangible, practical; it’s alive. So the incarnation, the humanity of it all, the relationship with God and with each other is both the method and the medium of our faith.
It doesn’t happen instantly; if it does, be suspicious
That is why we say that Jesus is best revealed incarnationally. And I’ll keep saying it until I’m blue in the face. Jesus is known best through relationship. And became human in order that we might know him, connect to him, and follow him.
Today, Christians need to demonstrate a similar incarnational approach to evangelism. People get to know Jesus because they get to know us. We get to know Jesus because we get to know one another. We are based in relationship, and we are changed because of who we are related to. Thus, how we share the Gospel through Circle of Hope is in community, in relationship, face-to-face, person-to-person.
This makes our evangelism strategy a little less instantaneous than others’, because it’ll take more than coercing someone into making a confession of their faith to help them follow Jesus. But I think that sharing the Gospel by sharing ourselves as we are influenced by Jesus and filled with his Spirit, while not very “fast,” (although who knows how quickly God will act), I think builds a more resilient faith.
Developing your faith in the context of a community at work, in a community that is on a mission, makes our faith more resilient, because it isn’t based on something as ephemeral as intellect or emotion. Relationships last longer than cerebral convictions and emotional experience; those things are still part of the process, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing you a blog post, I guess, nor would we be trying to enliven your spirit with worship on Sundays, but the heart of the church isn’t in the content of a sermon or even the experience of worship. The heart of the church is the body of Christ, it’s people.
If he came in person, why did we dehumanize the Gospel?
In the New Testament, communities and families made up the church. That wasn’t just based on how the society was organized, but also because the church started as a rebellious new religion, both different from Judaism, where many Christians came from, but also distinct from Rome. The early Christians just didn’t have a lot of friends; and they mainly had enemies, and thus they had to form their own society under the empire.
So the church has always been communal, until, I suppose, the community under the empire became the empire itself. I think when you’re in power, when you have authority, when you monopolize violence, you no longer need relationship and community to hold your faith together because you have institutions to do that. When you merge the church and state, the community of believers is so much less important because your new citizenship legalized under Rome is all you need now.
So, relational quality of the church is rapidly undone once we introduce political power to the mix. And I think that sort of evolution with the times has further denuded our fundamentally incarnational and communal connection. Because even after Christendom, let’s say during the European Enlightenment, which paved the way toward liberal democracies of which the United States is the crowning achievement, we still weren’t more relational as Christians. Rather than having our doctrine canonized into law and imposed upon us by a magisterium, we simply created a society in which we could freely observe our faith. So under “liberalism” where our religion is one of many free philosophical options, our faith no longer needed a community, it just needed individual choice and action. Here’s how Stanley Hauerwas put it, “Because Christians have been so concerned with supporting social and legal institutions that sustain freedom of religion, we have failed to notice that we are no longer a people who make it interesting for a society to acknowledge our freedom. Put differently, in such a context, believer and nonbeliever alike soon begin to think what matters is not whether our convictions are true but whether they are functional. We thus fail to remember that the question is not whether the church in America preaches the gospel as truth.”
God dwells in community, Jesus is revealed in it
That’s essentially where we’re left today, with evangelism just being an almost purely transactional, autonomous action. Your personal decision to follow Jesus is all that matters. You express it alone, or at least alone in your mind; and you publicly demonstrate it if you feel like it, when the mood strikes, on the Sundays you’re in town. I think that is the summary of the Evangelical church at the moment, and I think you can apparently see it in churches that are committed to butts in seats and not making disciples.
In fact, I would say that as much as I love “incarnational evangelism,” what I’m really going for is incarnational discipleship. I’m looking to not just change your Sunday morning routine, but rather to change your whole life, to change how you love and how you relate. The work evangelism needs to happen personally because it is concerned with whole persons. The work of personal transformation through Jesus needs to happen personally. Jesus changes our personhood by relating to us; put another way, he descends to become like us, and in becoming like us, he in fact elevates our very humanity. That interpersonal connection and relating is exactly how we transmit the Gospel.
We do it in person, face-to-face. Showing up counts around here. You can’t evangelize if you aren’t hugging someone, crying with them, relating to them. This is all over the New Testament. Jesus met with people face-to-face, ate and drank with them, connected with them and that’s how he made followers. In John 2, he starts his ministry at a wedding. John 3, he’s having a midnight talk with Nicodemus. He meets the woman at the well in John 4. By the end of the Gospel, he’s still eating with his very disciples. It all happens in a personal setting, in community, and together. Probably all of his moments of preaching, even the compilation of his teaching called the Sermon on the Mount, happened in bits and pieces over dinner, in relationship, in community. Even the public worship in the New Testament happened as an expression of a community, not as a replacement. So our meetings on Sunday? They are birthed by the community and our commonality. They aren’t just shows. They aren’t “the church.” We don’t go to church, we are the church. So please, don’t just come to our church.
That means we do life together. We share food together, while sharing our hopes and struggles. That’s why we meet in cells. We live in community together, often in the same homes or even neighborhoods. We don’t necessarily move to special neighborhoods; we are authentic enough that our neighbors become partners. That’s what loving our neighbor means. We serve together, do justice together, and make peace. We also worship together, share our money in common. But we also do laundry at each other’s houses, or carpool together. We live our lives together. And when we make a new friend, we invite them along to what we are doing. There’s no “obligation” to participate, but we do think we get to know Jesus best together. The amazing thing is this simple way of living and relating does so much to change the world, not just in terms of resource management and crossing sociological barriers like race and class and gender set up to divide us, but also in changing our common relationships by uniting them in mission, and not just individualizing them to whatever preference we have (our atomized selves enslaved to our preferences are quite easy to exploit, by the way).
But this doesn’t happen without a cost. We build a trust system. We contribute to the team. We share our resources and our time. We don’t talk behind each other’s back, and when we do, we apologize. We have healthy conflict. We move each other toward our common goals. We love each other.