Evangelism as Missional Proclamation
If the gospel finds its truest form in narrative, then it would follow that our best articulations of it would come in that form as well. But, if the gospel is this particular narrative of reconciliation and restoration, our practice of telling that story is shaped by it all the more. The postmodern ethos of contemporary culture has a much-noted distain for metanarratives. For many in the Christian faith, this appears to create an impasse in terms of evangelism, for they believe that our story is grand, overarching and true. Indeed, many so-called “evangelism training” programs now include a section defending metanarratives, seemingly suggesting that those who don’t yet believe must be converted to the concept of a metanarrative before they can be converted to the gospel. However, I would suggest that this concern is unnecessary. For the record, I affirm that the narrative of the gospel is grand, overarching, and true. At the same time, I would argue that the gospel narrative is not a metanarrative at all.
In a discussion of Christianity in light of Lyotard’s self-admittedly oversimplified definition of postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives”, James K. A. Smith explains:
“…many assume that metanarratives are the target of postmodern disbelief because of their scope, because they make grand, totalizing claims about reality and have universal pretensions...But this is not what Lyotard means by a metanarrative. What is at stake for Lyotard is not the scope of these narratives, but the nature of the claims they make. Put another way, the problem isn’t the stories they tell, but the way they tell them (and, to a degree, why they tell them). For Lyotard, metanarratives are a distinctly modern phenomenon: they are stories that not only tell a grand story…but also claim to be able to legitmate or prove the story’s claim by an appeal to universal reason.”Smith goes on to explain that that the problem with metanarratives is that they are a particularly modern phenomenon. They claim to be legitimated from an objective, universal standpoint that is above all perspectives and outside all stories. Thus, they function as power-games that coercively demand compliance. The problem is that while they attempt to dismiss all other narratives, they are, in fact, narratives themselves, and proceed as such, while denying their own nature. The gospel is an invitational narrative, and as such does not act coercively. The gospel is not a story of a God who exercises “power-over”, but rather it is of a God who humbles himself, who takes the form of a servant, who saves by exercising “power-under”. As such, those who would bear this God’s image must do no less. When the gospel is spread by coercion or even by intellectual bullying, it ceases to be the gospel. Byron Stone explains:
“…when a hearer’s acceptance of the Christian message becomes obligatory, when witness is no longer surprising but coercive because it is presented as undeniable, the good news is neither news nor good. Weakness, vulnerability, incarnation, and refusability are all markers of faithful Christian witness.”Thus, evangelism is not about winning debates about the “rightness” of the gospel. It is about bearing witness to good news, embodying good news, and speaking good news to the world.
There is a powerful and pervasive temptation to define the gospel as merely information, and thereby to render “evangelism” as the successful transmission of that information. This is deeply problematic. Scot McKnight argues that while the gospel must certainly be proclaimed, it must also be performed. He explains:
“The first without the latter is hypocrisy; the second without the first is not the gospel. But, together they tell God’s story so satisfyingly that others are compelled to join along.”The story of the gospel is hollow and irrelevant if it is not embodied by individuals and by communities of faith to the world. The imperative to bear witness to the gospel is not simply an imperative to speak testimonies. It is a commission to live as witnesses in and to the world. In short, when a person becomes a follower of Jesus, this should be good news to everyone around them on some level, due to the kind of person they are becoming. As those who begin to live lives that bear witness to God’s unconditional love, grace and forgiveness, they will thus embody those things to the world around them regardless of agreement or reciprocation. This is not to say that bearing witness never calls the witnesses to speak prophetically or stand in opposition or protest, for there has always been tension between the people of God and the “powers that be”. However it is to say that even in protest, the “power-under” stance of those who would bear witness looks more like the nonviolent resistance of Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, and Mother Teresa than the coercive, “power-over” methods so often employed in our world.
Modernity presented us with a further temptation that tends to obscure our approach to evangelism. It comes to us in the form of our obsession with measurable results. While I certainly affirm there is a body of research in the field of marketing that can be quite useful in terms of clarifying our communication, there is an obsession with church marketing among many church leaders (and members) that reveals an apparent syncretism between Christianity and consumerism. Darrell Guder rightly cautions that focusing on things like measurable results and numerical growth tempts us to “dilute the gospel in order to ensure success”. Guder believes that such a focus necessarily conflicts with the practice of incarnational ministry. Emphasizing the role of God in evangelism, he explains:
“The response to the gospel is in the realm of spiritual mystery. We can no more produce faith as the manipulated result of our proclamation than the farmer can make the seed sprout once it is planted. Thus we may properly understand effectiveness as obedient witness, which God uses to present the gospel in power and truth.”Such an understanding is true to the cooperative impulse within the gospel narrative itself. God has invited us to partner with Him in His mission to the world. God is already at work reconciling the world to Himself, and he invites us to join Him. Our call is to bear faithful witness placing our confidence in God’s action. However, this is not to advocate a ham-fisted, unthinking approach that actually distorts the gospel. Many missional leaders have been raising precisely this concern, and there are several recent books exploring this theme from a missional perspective. Pointing to a Christian subculture that exists as a direct result of an attractional understanding of church, Dan Kimball plainly states:
“…please understand, I affirm that the gospel is a radical message that entails faith in the risen Jesus, the denial of self, and repentance to align with God’s will. I know that this message is a stumbling block and that there will be those who reject this good news. Yet I am convinced that we have created a new stumbling block with our Christian subculture that keeps people from even getting to the gospel at all.”In short, there are those who will certainly reject the gospel. However, as those who are called to bear witness, we also bear a responsibility for presenting the gospel with our lives and our words as accurately and as clearly as possible. Ours is a story that must be embodied as well as heard. May we resist the urge to promote a god created in our own image. May we faithfully bear the image of the God of hope, who never gave up on his dream for creation, and who even now is working to reconcile all things to Himself.
(To Be Continued...)
 Lyotard, The postmodern condition, xxiv.
 Smith, Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?, 64-65.
 Ibid., 66-69.
 Stone, Evangelism after Christendom, 232.
 Mcknight, Embracing Grace, 3.
 Guder, Be My Witness, 138.
 Kimball, They Like Jesus But Not the Church, 238.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 8, 2009 at Tuesday, September 08, 2009 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .