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Friday, April 08, 2005

Evangelism Outside the Box

I've been reading through Rick Richardson's Evangelism Outside the Box, and I thought I'd take a few moments to offer some reflections.

Here's the bottom line up front: parts of this book strike me as shallow and weak (especially in terms of application and practice), but in a number of places - particularly where he analyzes cultural shifts, and considers how our practices are perceived by unbelievers - Richardson is spot on. Where this book is good, its really good; fast-paced, easily accessible, it's definitely worth the price of admission.

I found Richardson's analysis of postmodernism (Ch 2, 3) very, very helpful. While I'm not sure I buy his division of history into intellectual epochs, he understands that strange things are afoot at our cultural Circle K's. He illustrates well how allegiances of modernism are shifting:

  • in truth - people are no longer interested in abstract, universal truth; they are looking for a truth that is "local, personal, experiential" - in a word: they want authenticity.

  • in community - people aren't looking for experts who have all the answers; they are looking for friends who can identify with their struggles - they want "a community to belong to rather than a message to believe in"

  • in imagination - people increasingly value art, beauty, heartfelt expression over sterile conformity to standards of "rightness" - its not so much what you say as how you say it.

Richardson offers a great summary of postmodern values:

"This generation of people understand that a picture can be worth a thousand words. They value authenticity as their highest ethic. They can't stand hypocrisy, or 'playing politics.' They tend to be inclusive, passionate for fairness, committed to reconciliation in relationships. They are highly motivated toward community and are very aware of actions that break trust and community. They honor the beliefs and choices of other people." (p. 83)

Anyone who has spent any time with unbelievers will recognize that Richardson knows that of which he speaks. This is where people outside our churches are at; this is where those leaving the church are headed. Heck - this is where I am!

Those of us left in the church had better figure out (soon) how to re-contextualize our message to speak to these people or we will render ourselves irrelevant.

Ch 10 is also a keeper, as Richardson wrestles with the importance of building community:

"Today people are looking for a community to belong to more than a message to believe in. Evangelism is about helping people belong so that they come to believe. Most people today do not 'decide' to believe. In community they 'discover' that they believe, and then they decide to affirm that publicly and to follow Christ intentionally." (p. 100)

I think Richardson is dangerously accurate in his analysis here: in my experience, this is precisely what unbelievers are looking for - a place where they can belong just as they are. I use the word 'dangerously' for a reason, however. You see, once we see a problem clearly, we naturally start thinking about the solution. In so doing, however, there are several potential pitfalls we must be careful to avoid.

First, it is often easy to under-identify the problem. In other words, as soon as we find A problem we think we have found THE problem, and so we can easily end up treating symptoms rather than root causes. It's important that we don't just see the tip of the iceberg - we need to see the problems behind the problems; we need to see the sins of the heart behind the sins of the flesh.

Second, we always tend to look for solutions that we ourselves can implement. Now this is natural (and good!) - if I am a writer, I start thinking about how to write differently; if I am a pastor I start thinking about how to preach differently; if I am a campus worker who does lots of youth activities, I will think about how to adjust my programs.

Given both these tendencies, however, it is very easy (especially if I see success) to start viewing my own application-of-the-solution as the solution-in-and-of-itself. This is meant to be a gentle critique: I felt like much of Richardson's book focused on programmatic solutions; if you do X, Y, and Z and you'll start seeing results! Yes, we may, but that is not necessarily a good thing.

This points us towards a third pitfall which is more serious. You see, any time we try to contextualize our gospel (which we MUST do), we run the risk of unintentionally altering that gospel to accommodate unbeliever's problems with it. We must always meet them where they are, but we must never accommodate the gospel to what they want.

In order to do that, we need to very clearly understand just what our gospel is. For Richardson, I felt this was always assumed, never defined. Here is an example of how this plays out.

While we recognize that a) people are looking for community, and b) Jesus came to build community, we must never forget that c) its not about community for community's sake; the gospel is fundamentally about community-as-Christ's-body for the sake of glorifying God, for being conformed to his image, for learning to die to self. Its about God, not us. And THAT is a huge point of contention between Christians and unbelievers. Unbelievers cannot truly participate in that community because by definition they are not part of Christ.

Scripture is very clear - there is a fundamental hostility between unbelievers and God (cf. Rom 5:10). There is a very real sense in which unbelievers cannot really experience Christian community until they become Christians. This is why Paul tells the Corinthians, "The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Cor 2:14). Or in Romans, "the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot" (Rom 8:7).

Consequently we must constantly strive to evaluate our practice in light of Scripture - if we don't, our practice can easily begin to drive our understanding of Scripture, rather than the other way around. Theology matters - it IS possible to compromise the gospel; the only way to avoid that is to continually remind ourselves of what the gospel really is.

In the case of community, Richardson is correct in his diagnosis: all too frequently we exclude unbelievers from our community. As we have just seen, there IS a sense in which this is true (unbelievers really ARE separated from God); practically, however, we exclude them for entirely different reasons - with our actions, we tell them that the only way to participate in our community is to clean themselves up first, and that my friends is the antithesis of the gospel (but Richardson never makes this last part explicit).

So we need to welcome unbelievers into our community as they are; but we must never lose site of what our community really is - it is a community of faith, where broken sinful repenters find forgiveness, reconciliation, and fulfillment - TRUE community.

Ultimately, community is a function of our gospel - get the gospel right, both community and evangelism will follow - naturally, spontaneously, and explosively.

In the end, Richardson gets a lot right, but we need to read him thoughtfully.


At 12:38 PM, April 10, 2005, Blogger Brandon said...

Fun post! Makes me want to read that book.

Here's my two cents:

I'm living on one of five intentional Christian community houses that are facilitated by our campus ministry, Chi Alpha. Two women's houses of 3 and 4 girls, our campus pastor in another house, and two guys houses of 2 and 3 guys. All geographically contiguous and adjacent... around a central backyard and garden.

What I have learned is that community is something that I think nonbelievers want desperately. So many people I talk to hear about it, and want it. My friend from work, for example, isn't following Christ just yet, and has never really been raised in the church. But he's being a part of our house devo's and is investing in us... he's coming to the ministry's weekly meetings. And the exciting thing is... before he even came to a meeting he wanted to live in community with us. I thought he had to be right with JC first, but we've prayerfully decided he is welcome to be a part of our community, so long as he is tolerant of our open (pentecostal) Christian spirituality. If he's willing to attend devo's and invest in us personally, he's quite welcome to be here.

This is still stretching my mind as far as what community looks like. We're not letting him in on the condition or caveat that he convert, just that he engage. And it's exciting. His roommate was hanging out with me while I watered my spinach and broccoli beds yesterday, and it was tangible in his voice that he wanted community, despite his hostility towards Christ. I now regret not inviting him to come check out Chi Alpha some time, because I'd love to see him living in community.

The book you're reading is right -- we all do have a yearning to belong, to have community. And once people start to see it lived out, it does one of two things. One is what I've seen in these young men and others -- they community regardless of dogma. They recognize the potential, and want to be a part of it. The other response is recoiling in fear -- those who cling dearly to "Marlboro Man spirituality" or a rugged individualism will not want it. In fact, because of the challenges it would put on some of their hearts, they actively avoid it. It's been interesting to see how people respond to it. I think 9/10 people here (granted it's in hippie Eugene, Oregon!) that I've shared community with find a drawing connection.

"They will know you are my followers by your love for one another." is what Christ said, and our community here in Eugene has been a delightful testament to the truth in that. None of us are perfect, none of us are clean, but we're loving each other with vulnerability and joy, and it is getting to be contagious. Community is a great form of evangelism.

At 3:54 PM, April 10, 2005, Blogger Christian said...

Great comments, Brandon - I really appreciate it. I would love to hear more about your thoughts on community (would you be interested in doing a guest post on this? It sounds like you are particularly qualified given your experiences)

As I re-read my post, one of the things that struck me is I think I sounded kind of anti-community, and I'm really not; I was just trying to think about how our theology and our practice should mesh (and how that impacts our expectations).

The things you say here (and what the book was saying in general) really reasonate.

I particularly like your second main paragraph - I think this is how Ryan and I approach ministry with unbelieving friends: we invite them in to participate in family life with us (it's slightly different because we're not physically living in the same location here in Philly, although we may well be in Missoula).

But in general, we find ourselves trying to do the types of things you describe: live genuine spiritual lives and be open and vulnerable to unbelievers - they are welcome to see/participate in as much of it as they want. And I think that level of genuineness is very, very attractive...

At any rate, great post - let's keep talking about this!

(and you should definitely read this book - there's some great stuff in there to chew on!)


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