Good Questions: Evangelism in the Postmodern Matrix
This was a chapter I wrote for the book, "Postmodern and Wesleyan?: Exploring the Boundaries and Possibilities"
“Suppose you were to die today and stand before God and He were to say to you, „Why should I let you into my heaven?‟ what would you say?” I have used this question countless time in my spiritual conversations with people. You may recognize this question as a very crucial part to one of the most popular evangelistic tools of the 20th Century. It was a question that was used to determine whether or not a person knew the right answer.
Like many who came of age in the 1980‟s, I was nurtured in a faith community in which canned sales pitches and thinly veiled manipulative invitations were used to get people to say a magic prayer that would keep them from going to hell someday when they died. I, like many others in the late 20th Century, memorized the sales pitch, confronted people we barely knew, and swallowed hard to bury that deep seated intuition that this whole process felt off kilter. It was not a far cry from, “What is it going to take to get you in to this car today?”
The truth is, I care a lot about people. I really believe that life is infinitely better with Jesus in it. I believe that evangelism is not just something I do to get another notch in my ecclesiastical belt. But somehow in my evangelistic journey, the good news of Jesus became associated with a lot of anxiety.
In recent years, conversation over confrontation has become the new trend among emerging church leaders. Evangelism for many is becoming more respectful, more empowering, and less manipulative. And it is a good thing. But this trend is not without its unintended consequences.
In Brian McLaren‟s book, “A New Kind of Christian”, part of the dialogue between Dan and Neo includes this gem from Neo, “One of my mottos in life is that people are often against
something worth being against but in the process find themselves for some things that aren’t worth being for.”1
So here is the dirty little secret about the emerging church – it stinks at evangelism. For all its talk about being missional, the emerging church is generally a monolithic group of burned out white, middle class, college-educated, young adults who are sick of the American expression of church. Somehow becoming against manipulative and in-authentic evangelism has meant being the kind of person who is insular and conspicuously silent about matters of faith.
When I was a rookie pastor, I became good friends with a man named James who oversaw the local chapter of Narcotics Anonymous. As a former drug addict, James had deep compassion for those suffering from addictions of all kinds. That is why I called him when Larry visited our church. “James, I had this guy who came to church who I think might be a drug user. Can you meet with the two of us and give me some insight?” James quickly agreed and we set up a time for coffee at the local Duffy‟s restaurant.
After brief introductions in a window booth, James awkwardly stirred his coffee and said, “So, Larry, when are you going to stop using.” Both Larry and I were stunned at James‟ frankness. “I‟m not using.” Larry smiled in and shifted uncomfortably on the cheap vinyl bench. “When are you going to stop lying to yourself and others?” James said without batting an eye. I was beginning to regret bringing my friend James to ambush Larry when Larry dropped his head and began to confess his addictions. It was one of those rare moments of both truth and grace as James became a conduit of God‟s grace to a broken man in desperate need of reality.
Afterward as we stood in the parking lot, I said to James, “What was that all about?” To which James gave me words that have formed my ecclesiology ever since, “We don‟t do people favors by ignoring their self-destructive behavior.”
Drug addiction may be an extreme example, I believe that if we are serious about loving the people God has placed in our paths (neighbors), it may mean more than just accepting them. It may mean having difficult conversations with people about their self-destructive patterns. Not conversations from a position of superiority but conversations in the spirit of love and compassion. I think that means both accepting and affirming people as human beings AND helping them escape from their own self-destructiveness (sin). Jesus‟ words to the woman caught in adultery are illustrative of this difficult balance: “Neither do I condemn you.” AND “Go and sin no more.” (John 8:11)
So how does one re-frame evangelism in the postmodern era to reflect our loving intention for the world? How do we both speak the truth and do it in love? Simple formulas probably cannot encapsulate this tension. But a good place to begin is by re-thinking the questions we ask in our spiritual conversations:
1. “If you knew you were going to live another 40 years, what kind of person do you want to become?” This is a re-imagining of the infamous evangelism question about why you should get in to Heaven when you die. Maybe it is because we live in a society that sterilizes death and removes us from the experience of dying but for some reason, most people (especially younger people) do not carry a large load of anxiety about death. In addition, making evangelism ONLY about when we die someday tends to create disciples that are not concerned with either who they are becoming or the kind of world they are leaving behind. The truth is, we may die tonight but it is much more likely that we will live another 20-30 years. Then what? What kind of legacy will we leave behind?
2. “If you could know what God is doing in the world, would you want to be a part of it?”2 – I like this question because it focuses evangelism on God and his agenda instead of us and how to get God to care about my agenda. I also like this question because it opens the door to talk about what Jesus talked about the most – the Kingdom of God that is breaking in to our world right now. I have used this question many times and have many very interesting conversations come out of it. But I have never had anyone answer by saying, “No”!
Evangelism in the modern world seemed to be focused on being right. That is, getting people to accept the “truth” of who Jesus is or knowing the “right” answer to get in to Heaven. But people seem to be asking different questions these days. Questions focused less about, “is it true?” and more about “does it work?” Paul‟s posture to a pluralistic pre-modern world can probably help us out in our post-modern conversations -- “Let me show you a more excellent way…” (1 Corinthians 12:31)
1 Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christian. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001, p. 48.
2 This question is adapted from Steve Chalke, The Lost Message of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003, p. 117