Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Fads of Christian Evangelism

 by Stan Williams

Crusade Evangelism with Billy Graham
The title is unfortunately provocative. Juxtaposing "fads" with "evangelism" implies that evangelism is as insignificant as a fad of fashion.  But while Christian evangelism is perhaps the antithesis of a cultural fad, it nonetheless suffers some of the same attributes.

Track Evangelism
I was born into Evangelical Christianity—Free Methodism, it was called. We were evangelicals because we understood Christ's Great Commission to be the one command that superseded all the others.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age (Matt 28:19-20) 

Pulpit Evangelism with Billy Sunday
Consequently, over the decades of my life I have seen evangelism fads come and go. Each being described as the silver bullet that would save the world and usher in the Second Coming of Christ, or Christian utopia. Here's a list of some of them:

  • Crusade/Stadium Evangelism
  • Pulpit Evangelism
  • Personal Evangelism
  • Tract Evangelism
  • Teaching Evangelism 
  • Family Evangelism
  • Prayer Evangelism
  • Life-Style Evangelism
  • Bible Evangelism
  • Protest Evangelism
  • Mall Evangelism
  • Curbside Evangelism
  • Lead Evangelism
  • Small Group Evangelism
  • Blimp Evangelism
  • Sticker Evangelism
  • Street Preaching
  • Pre-Evangelism
  • Booth Evangelism
  • Tent Meeting Evangelism
  • Street Evangelism
  • Apologetic Evangelism
  • Bill Board Evangelism
  • Radio Evangelism
  • Book Evangelism
  • Food Evangelism
  • TV Evangelism
  • Movie Evangelism 
  • On-Line Evangelism
And in each of these there are sub categories where the technique takes on a hard "confrontational" or softer "salting" approach.

Of course none of these techniques ushered in Christian utopia, so leaders got frustrated and started their own efforts—new churches with a thousand different names. Some opted for the mountain top. Frank and Edith Schaefffer chose the Swiss mountains and started L'Abri Fellowship. William Booth took the Gospel to the poor, the homeless, the hungry and the destitute.

Food Evangelization

These two extremes are found in the Gospels in the accounts of Christ's Transfiguration. Jesus took his disciples to both places. The mountain top was for enlightenment, and the valley was where real ministry took place.

Others rejected evangelism altogether because evangelism took on a militant-utilitarian identity that the Christian's only reason for existence was to save other people, so they in turn could save others, etc. Franky Schaeffer, Frank and Edith's son, wrote a popular book about the subject, Addicted to Mediocrity. And as much as my copy is heavily highlighted, I didn't agree with his final resolution—he gave up on Christianity altogether.

Evangelism falls under the second of the great commandments: 1. Love God, and 2. Love your neighbor. In my case I was so inundated with the above evangelization tyranny that one day I realized we had forgotten to Love God. Catholicism for me offered an opportunity to attend Mass where I could worship God and not bemoan yet another 10 minute altar call to save the lost sinner somewhere in the Sunday morning congregation. Such "altar calls" were rituals growing up in Free Methodism which lost their meaning before I turned 13.

I am almost 70 now. Pam and I left Protestantism 18 years ago and became Catholic. My current parish, Our Lady of Good Counsel (OLGC)  in Plymouth, MI, is beginning a 14 week program called REROUTING. It's really not clear what it's all about or where we're being rerouted to...though it seems to be an attempt to reroute us around misunderstandings of Christianity, the way a GPS mapping app reroutes our car around an accident.

Protest Evangelism (e.g. anti-evangelism)
We've been through the first week where the emphasis was about how we're all called to be personal evangelists to those we meet at work, on the street, in restaurants, or at a sporting event.  It seems old to me, but it's clearly a new idea to many at OLGC. I've heard the illustrations and the Scriptures a thousand times, if I've heard them once. I've been an outspoken Christian all my life and although I gave up on Evangelicalism (see my faith memoir, Growing Up Christian), I will never give up being evangelically minded. But my methods now are more nuanced and relationship based. I've stopped asking waitresses if I can pray for them, because about the 10th time the waitress hears that from a customer it sounds like Bumper Sticker Evangelism, and cheapens Christianity.

Everyday I attempt to wear my Christianity on my sleeve, especially in my business dealings. Yesterday, I attended the funeral of a friend who died suddenly at age 76. He was a great pulpit preacher and teacher, and during his life I was involved with him in a number of evangelical media efforts that had a business aspect to them.  One of his sons greeted me before the funeral service. He drew me aside and said, "Stan, when we first met years ago, I didn't trust you. I thought you were taking advantage of my Dad. But over the years I have seen that you are an honest man, You are a man of integrity, and I would trust you with my life."  I should quickly add that his father, too, was an honest man of integrity. And today, that son, now a grown man with a family, is considering entering seminary for the diaconate, along with his two brothers.  

Street Evangelism
Evangelism is an important part of the Christian life. But its importance should not be overshadowed by everything else that God calls us to, namely obedience.  Evangelism is not mentioned in the Ten Commandments, The Beatitudes, or the list of vices and virtues in Galatians 5. The Great Commission was given to Christ's 11 Apostles following his resurrection. It was not given to his hundreds of disciples, nor to his thousands of followers. To the masses the instruction was to Love God, Love Our Neighbor, stay away from sin, and to obey God. When it comes to evangelism, I believe the cornerstone for everyday Christians is 1 Peter 3:15-16. Why? Because it puts personal integrity up front. It's not about being assertive with "words" about Christ, the Bible or your church (which is what most of the evangelism fads listed above are all about). Rather, it's about outwardly obeying God, living a life of integrity, and then...
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. (1 Peter 3:15-16.)