When is an evangelical not an evangelical?

Picture courtesy of frozenchipmunkPlease forgive me for another post which hinges around semantics, but this is something that has been gnawing at me for some considerable time and which was freshly piqued by a couple of comments I’ve seen over the last couple of weeks.

What do I mean, and what you interpret when we hear or read the words evangelical, evangelism and evangelise?

In my view, there is difference between what I mean and what most people here is growing into an unbridgeable gulf, which then makes me wonder whether it’s worth trying to redress the issue or simply to move on and not use the terms any more.

What I think of when of when I use evangelical and its cognates

When I use the term evangelise what I mean is pedagogical exposition. There are many ways in which this may happen which is why I don’t think it’s appropriate to regard it as a denomination in and of itself. So, even though I went to a wide variety of churches as a teenager, from Baptist, Charismatic, Pentecostal, Methodist, Anglican, Presbyterian, etc. they were all evangelical.

The biblical basis for evangelism is often pinned down to the great commission, Matt 28:18-20;

“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Yet there was also the time when Jesus sent out the 12, which is told most extensively in Matthew 10, but which has shorter parallels in Mark 6 & Luke 9.

Here, they were simply told to “proclaim the good news” – interestingly they were to travel from town to town and stay in people’s houses. Here, I think some cultural context is called for, as staying in other people’s houses was, I understand, more common in the culture of that time and place than it is in 21st century England. Nonetheless, they were engaging with people on a personal level.

On the day of Pentecost, Peter addressed a crowd that had been drawn there by what was going on around them, and he freely explained to them what was going on. In Acts 4, where we have the most concise summary of what the early church did, we are told that “the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection”

In Acts 8, Philip just went to Samaria and “proclaimed the Messiah to them.” It seems that he was in a crowd when he did for we are informed that a crowd was listening to him. We aren’t told explicitly where this took place, but chapter 13 of Acts gives us a strong hint: the synagogue.

Again, in Acts 17, we have Paul who went to the synagogue to reason with them (here, the word commonly translated as ‘reasoned’ is dielexato which is derived from the verb dialegomai which has connotations of converse, preach, lecture, argue).

So what is the modern equivalent of the synagogue? Is it the church building?

I would posit the following: the synagogue was the main meeting place, the hub of the community. It’s where people met in order to listen and to discuss what they heard. It was a social place where the everyday business of living was largely carried out outside of the home or the workplace. That is not to say it wasn’t a place of religious worship, it very clearly was. But it was more than that.

So what does that look like today? Society is not particularly uniform; it’s pluralistic, multicultural and many places, disconnected in isolated pockets that may be physically next door to one another. So the modern day equivalent of the synagogue takes many different forms as a consequence; it might be the pub, the coffee shop, the youth club, the gym. It might also be the digital spaces such as the blogosphere, the discussion board, Facebook, Twitter. All of these are places where people come together to discuss ideas (amognst other things), and as such I don’t think it too far-fetched to suppose that had the apostles been living in today’s world, these would be the spaces that they choose in which to proclaim their message.

What I do not mean (but which is often the common perception)

To me, evangelism doesn’t mean putting pressure on people or trying to get them to change their whole life in an ‘altar call’ or similar act of coercion.  It should in no way resemble browbeating. I can find no biblical precedent for forcing anyone to listen or, worse, forcing them to accept the message. I accept that not everyone will accept the message that evangelists bring, and they are free to reject it. My wish, though, is that they can at least have a fair understanding of what it is that they are rejecting and hence their reasons for doing so may not be based on a lack of understanding or poor reasoning.

For example, in some modern parlance, there is talk of christians believing in a bearded sky fairy, which represents a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the christian faith. Whether that misunderstanding is deliberate, due to a misunderstanding of what they had been told, or whether they have been poorly informed is not always clear.

I do not consider evangelical to be a denomination in and of itself. It is a characteristic that runs through many widely varying denominations including those (like myself) who do not define themselves by denomination.

The view that it is a denomination comes, I think, primarily from the mega-churches of America, fronted by their celebrity preachers. The sort of ideas that come out from within these churches into the public view is one of a very American, Republican conservatism. John Piper, when describing his father, says, “He was an evangelist – the old southern, independent, fundamentalist sort, without the attitude.”

It is this identification of evangelicals as fundamentalists that disturbs me. To many, I think, the two are synonymous with one another. The term evangelical conjures up images of a biblical literalist, creationist, afraid of good science, homophobic and often with a strong sense of Zionism (none of which are ideas/attitudes I share).

Interestingly, when I once told someone I went to a Pentecostal church, their first reaction was to suppose that my church was “Pro-Israel” when in fact my local church is really quite apolitical, has no official stance and I don’t ever recall contemporary Middle Eastern politics discussed in any church meeting. We’re just busy getting on with the business of being a church.

Am I saying these people aren’t evangelical? No. What I am saying is that they have views that are “stuck on” top. It’s a little like taking a picture and gluing on sequins, glitter, string and bits of felt. The add-ons should not be mistaken for the underlying picture. Admittedly, the more add-ons that we have, the harder it may be to see the picture, so it understandable that some misconceptions exist.

So who isn’t an evangelical

As I visited quite a variety of churches in my teenage years, learning how others viewed the world, the gospel and the role of the church, I never encountered anyone who was openly opposed to the notion of evangelism. That is, no one in churches.

It was only when I went to university that I first encountered a group of conservative, traditionalist Anglicans (who included the college chaplain, who was, and still is, one of the cathedral canons) who thought evangelism had no part to play with christianity. They were very much religionists, whose idea of church was something that happened once a week in an ornate building, where you chant the liturgies, sing some hymns, endure a sermon and go home without thinking about it and without allowing yourself to be challenged.

When I asked about the great commission and the history of the early church, their response was that they thought it was meant only for the apostles and had no application for today. So the obvious follow-up is to ask “How do you expect anyone to know the gospel?” The answer, in summary, was that if anyone wanted to know then they should go to the church and ask, or just pick up a bible and read it.

While these may be ways by which people find themselves in churches, it absolves the churches of any responsibility to be proactive in educating people. Yet, when I went along to their churches the one thing that was noticeable by its absence was the gospel. The sermons consisted of reading the news headlines and saying “as christians, this is what we should think about these things.” It was always assumed that people knew the basic teachings of christianity, and it’s this assumption (or rather, presumption) that I found rather arrogant and out of touch with the modern world.

So what then 

Where does this leave us? One the one hand, we end up with a skewed vision of evangelism that has crept across the Atlantic and in many cases leaves christians open to (deserved) ridicule. On the other, we could become anti-evangelical and stick to religious ritualism, making it very much an ‘insiders’ club.

One compromise that has become more popular over the last 5 years or so is to refer to a church meaning “missional” which essentially keeps the heart of evangelism without the negative right-wing connotations that have accrued around it. However, its use seems just as muddled as evangelical, as it means different things to different people.

To me, the two key considerations that have to be balanced are those of “doing to others as you would have do you” and the issue of efficacy. This latter point is contained within Jesus’ instruction to be “as shrewd as snakes, and as innocent as doves.”

I view this as needing to be considerate to others whilst at the same time trying to get the message across as clearly as possible. Of course, some people won’t want to even listen. There’s fairly clear instruction on that. It’s not easy to get the balance right and it is often done wrong.

So at the one extreme end of evangelism you might have the open air preacher. I don’t care much for this method, as I think it actively detracts from the christian message rather than promotes it. It ensures that people have heard the name Jesus and that he loves you, but little more than that. At the other extreme, you have those who adhere Francis of Assisi’s notion of “Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words” where pedagogical exposition is a matter of last resort, only after someone has somehow grasped the notion of sin and redemption through the historic events crucifixion & resurrection, simply through you being nice to them.

As you can tell from my tone, I don’t think either of these are effective means by which to educate people about the gospel. But there isn’t a one-size fits all approach to evangelism. But has the word itself been twisted so far out of its original meaning that it shouldn’t be used any more? I’m not convinced.

I think it could still serve a useful purpose, as I am not convinced a suitable replacement has usurped it. Missional may well do the trick, but for now it is too nebulous. After all, if someone is willing to listen to you explain what you mean by ‘evangelism’ they may be willing to listen to some more.

9 responses to “When is an evangelical not an evangelical?

  1. It feels to me that you’re conflating “evangelical” and “evangelising”/”evangelistic”.

    An evangelical church is generally seen as one characterised as believing in a high view of scripture. This normally goes with a belief that salvation is by faith alone, and an expectation of a “born-again” experience. This tends towards quite an individualist view of faith and salvation.

    On the other hand, the attitude to the Church, and often its heirarchy, is low. The view of tradition is that it is relatively unimportant – or even harmful.

    An evangelistic church, on the other hand, is one that wants to bring “good news”. The more obvious outward manifestations of this attitude will often be seen from evangelical churches, maybe because of their “born-again” expectation. For example I remember some members of your old church being in the Quadrant with a megaphone back in my salad days! A less evangelistic church may be inclined to less obvious and more social forms of evangelism, because of its belief that faith can be caught and shared, rather than imparted and held.

    I’ve generalised a bit here, but hope it helps.

  2. Hi. I’m not a Christian, I am a Unitarian and a Wiccan.

    I draw a distinction between interfaith dialogue, evangelism, and proselytising. Interfaith dialogue is where you simply explain what you believe, with no attempt to persuade. Evangelism is kind of a positive attempt to persuade people of what you believe (e.g. “Jesus loves you and it will make a positive difference to your life if you believe this”). Proselytising is more threatening (e.g. “You’ll go to hell if you don’t accept Jesus as your personal saviour”). The problem for me is that whilst most evangelicals are likely to put a positive spin on their evangelising, what they actually believe is that you’ll go to hell if you don’t accept Jesus as your personal saviour. As Gary says, it’s very much predicated on the idea of an individual relationship, rather than being in and with the church as the body of Christ.

    Now, I have always thought that this is completely unfair – people may have all sorts of completely valid reasons for not accepting the message (like having a perfectly good and satisfying religion of their own) so why should they be condemned?

    Mind you, if an evangelical Christian is going to attempt to evangelise me (and I would rather they didn’t, as I really have heard it all before), I would rather it was someone like you with a balanced approach.

    I also think that the reason people conflate evangelicals with fundamentalists is that there is frequently a considerable overlap between the two.

    If the message was actually good news – like “if you join our community, you’ll have a community of people with different ideas which will enlarge your horizons and your capacity to love, and you are encouraged to find your highest meaning and purpose”, maybe more people would join. Or maybe they wouldn’t because they are so used to the idea that you have to believe the same thing as your fellow church-goers that that seems weird.

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