Christian exceptionalism is not good evangelism

Mike Cosper interviewed Tim Keller for The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, for a bonus episode of his popular, but sprawling podcast, last week. The purpose of the interview was to hear from the Evangelical church-planting guru about how to avoid the abusive pitfalls that Driscoll and many other megachurch pastors fell into. In response to abuse at Mars Hill, Tim Keller named the importance of accountability, power distribution, and communal decision-making. The issue is only men are involved in any of this. Polity alone can’t solve what theology doesn’t address.

So while Tim Keller’s heteropatriarchal theology went uninterrogated, his advice to decenter the pastor, to share power, and to have accountability from denominations is all sound advice that I wish Circle of Hope would have taken advantage of years ago. I plan to write about the importance of these measures in another post (or book), but I want to zero in on something Keller noted about how he evangelizes.

Keller shared that he often gets criticized by “both sides.” In the suburbs, he is too liberal; in Manhattan, he’s too conservative. I won’t belabor why I think this is a false sense of persecution, but in elaborating on this, Keller speaks about his own technique toward evangelism. Since he views Christianity as a competing ideology in a marketplace of them, he is concerned with making it the supreme ideology. As such, he says he learns the ideologies that are common in Manhattan, and he learns them better than their proponents, he empathizes with why people adhere to them, and after this, he presents the Gospel as an alternative. This Christian supremacy leads to all kinds of other supremacy and should be guarded against if we want to be an antioppression movement and force.

I am familiar with this approach to evangelism. In fact, I have employed it. One develops a cursory, at best, knowledge of a philosophy, and then creates a polemic against it, in order to convince its adherents that they are wrong. It is often simplistic and manipulative. We see this in popular culture, where someone like Jordan Peterson acts as if he knows Marxist philosophy despite not being versed in it. You can see Keller doing it here, in fact.

I saw this approach in my mentors around me, a bad understanding of a religion or idea, met with a polemic. Some loyalists are convinced, and some people who may be intimidated or threatened may also find the argument appealing, but for people who actually hold the viewpoints, for people who hold the ideas close to them, the dismissal of them by an amateur can feel harmful or offensive.

For example, a cursory understanding of Buddhism or Islam can lead to prejudice against people who hold those views, which is made worse when the critiques aren’t serious. In general, though, a polemic feels like a good way to encourage people that already agree with you, then it does to help someone else do the same. It confirms the biases of those who are already with you – which is appropriate and good sometimes. But it isn’t a way to change someone’s mind, it can be a way to harden someone’s mind, however. What’s worse, is that when faulty thinking breaks down, people lose their faith. Apologetics and polemics are not the truest ways to build a lifelong faith.

In general, I think people change their own minds, they change themselves, as they pursue their own wholeness. For churches who are looking for people to join them, we should speak about what we offer and help people who are looking for us find us. Debating someone’s ideas, or convincing them that their ideas are “wrong,” may have worked in a certain era (though I doubt this). We should be looking for people who are looking for us.

Rather than develop the hubris to think that we know philosophies that we aren’t versed in, we’re better learning from ours, but also learning from others. We can share our ideas in interfaith communities as we listen to one another. We can grow in our faith as we learn from others. We can learn how to pray from traditions that are more versed in solitude and contemplation – some of which are Christian, sure, but some come from other traditions as well.

Some of you may wonder if I am advocating for political pluralism. For ideologies that exclude or dehumanize people, we need to offer resistance. Not because we don’t want to learn from them but because including them necessarily excludes others. In fact, it is humble to understand that not all ideas are compatible, even as we strive to learn from them.

This sort of humility may actually be better in so-called evangelism than the exceptionalism that dominated churches like Keller’s.

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