Tuesday, March 08, 2016

A New Missiology

I've been thinking some about evangelism over the last few months. I like the name evangelical. I don't much like the way it's been used and appropriated in recent years, especially during the US election cycle, but I absolutely claim the title evangelical. Traditionally, the title has focused on transformation - most definitions use the term conversion - but that just means change. There's also an emphasis on faith impacting life - yes, this is often translated to legalism, but of course, it doesn't have to.

I like the term evangelical because, in essence, it means I believe the love of Christ can and should change people in real and long-lasting ways. Faith is not something we put in our shopping cart to enhance our experience of life. We can't just add Jesus to our collection the way a museum curator acquires a new Monet. An evangelical understands faith as taking an abandoned warehouse and turning it into a museum. For a Christian, this transformational element is the gospel, the good news of Christ - which, in short, is simply that God loves the world, each and every one of us and every part of creation, enough to die for us; and that this kind of love really and actually can and does change the world. It overcomes violence and hatred, even death (that's why Easter is kind of a big deal).

I'm glad to be an evangelical, especially when I confuse other people who've so narrowly defined in along political, legalistic, and irrational lines. I wouldn't know what else to be, quite honestly. In the same vein, evangelism is the means by which evangelicals share this gospel (good news) with other people. It's the method by which we communicate the love of God to others so they too can understand and be changed by this radical idea.

Now, I chose the word 'idea' very specifically... because it's the wrong word.

For a long time, we evangelicals have taken the notion of evangelism to be mostly an act of the mind. From the very roots of the Reformation, 500 years ago, we've been afraid of looking too "Catholic," which really just means we want to have a very strict division between what we believe and what we do. We're scared of people thinking they can find salvation through good works. Life is not a game of karma - that idea tends to make God's love less radical and more contingent (you know, upon us actually being good people).

So we got all caught up in "believing," in people giving intellectual assent to the idea that God loves them unconditionally and then teaching them a series of (mostly) well-thought-out rational propositions about God and life. We essentially commodified faith and put it through the modern ringer of mass production. The most efficient means of evangelism was then entirely a game of the mind (although we've never been beneath using emotions to open that door to the mind).

None of this was malicious, of course, but it was very influenced by the world in which it emerged - a modern construct heavily centered on truth. It's all about truth. In fact, if you really press people for the simplest definition of evangelism, in a moment where they're not concerned about political correctness or proper marketing, most evangelicals will probably tell you evangelism is all about teaching people the truth.

This is where my thoughts have been for a while - since I guess I'm thoroughly postmodern enough to be uncomfortable with that idea. I'm comfortable enough saying God is truth (absolute truth, if you must) and that Jesus Christ is the embodiment and image of God. I'm less comfortable with the notion that I can or do understand Jesus well enough to properly communicate truth to someone else - at least in the reductionist, definitive way it seems so often presented by evangelicals.

I'm uncomfortable also, that our efforts at evangelism are really attempts to convert someone to our religion, not produce an actual gospel transformation in their lives. All of this is very much intertwined with the way we've combined Christ and Christianity into one entity in recent years - something I've written on before and will certainly write on again (because it's important), but moving beyond that notion here, I want to focus specifically on what conversion means and why we might need a new way of approaching it through evangelism.

I titled this "a new missiology" partly because I hate click-bait titles and I felt like "What's Wrong With Evangelism" might mislead people or create unnecessary controversy. Missiology is, after all, simply the study of evangelism and how the gospel is translated from one people to another (usually across cultures, but not necessarily). Missiology is essentially the study and theory of evangelism. It's our approach to sharing our faith with the world.

I used to be very much in the camp (a very popular one these days) that maintains our evangelism should be that of example. We should live out the love of Christ in our lives and communities and allow this visual, relational embodiment of gospel to influence and transform. I still think this is right - at least far more right that trying to argue or convince someone to assent to a specific set of beliefs. I also think its a beautiful description of the Church - the definition of how Christians should live in the world. God called us to be examples, not converters.

At the same time, I've come to appreciate the purpose of evangelism and the notion of missiology. I just think we need a new way of doing it.

Now, my missiologist friends will probably read this and say, "there's nothing new here;" I'm guessing much of this post could've been reproduced from missiology work done decades ago. It's like old hat in the realm of theory; I doubt it's so well known and accepted in general practice and certainly not by the majority of my fellow evangelicals in the world today. We're still caught up in this notion of being right, finding truth, and communicating such to other people.

I'd like to propose, as we bring the gospel into the world, by all means making it a relational, immersive, and felt experience. Live the gospel; it is THE most effective way to be faithful to Christ and the calling of every Christian. At the same time, this shouldn't make us afraid of or embarrassed by a good conversation. We just need to do it differently.

I'd argue our missiology should be rooted around inviting others to evangelize us. The best spiritual conversations I've ever had are with people who will never be convinced they're wrong - at least not by me. The conversations that prove mutually beneficial to deepen both partis' understanding of truth are those where we focus on disagreements. I want to hear why someone comes to a different conclusion than I do, then dig down into the assumptions and decisions that led to those conclusions to see where we've diverged.

Ultimately, every capable, thinking person makes their own decisions about truth and faith and life. Some people may be persuaded, but it's not because we convince them we're right or properly countered an argument, but because they've seen a different perspective that makes sense. That's what I want - not only for other people, but for myself as well. I want more truth, deeper understanding, better introspection. I want as many perspectives on love and life and truth as possible to best follow the leading of God - to be further evangelized.

This is why I hate apologetics. I don't use the word 'hate' lightly. I think it does nothing by harm and sets back the gospel in the world. Apologetics is essentially the rational argument for faith - it's a tool meant to refute the reasons people have for not believing and to convert them to a specific way of understanding God. It worked well in the modern age of reason and rationality, but I think it's far more beneficial to growing a religion than it is to spreading the gospel.

People just don't work that way.

Listen, I am the most rational, least emotional person you are likely to find (I won't say "in the world" because that's not rational, but I think I'm far enough to the end of the spectrum you're unlikely to find someone farther) - all of that apologetics stuff makes rational sense if you're trying to win some head-counting contest or if you're convinced you've got a handle on absolute truth.

I've just come to realize, in all my rationalization, that you can't reason your way to truth. It's a journey that must, first and foremost, be felt - but also one that doesn't end. I like how Peter Rollins says (quoting from John Caputo, who might've gotten it from someone else) "truth doesn't exist, it insists." If truth existed, we could grasp it, find it, control it, master it. But truth insists - it is constantly pushing us to more and deeper understanding in a spiral that will never end. This is why eternity makes sense to me. There's a lot of rational reasons for not believing in eternity (especially eternal life), but this notion of truth being a destination that never fully arrives is certainly a persuasive argument for it.

I know Christians like to claim "All truth is God's truth" - which is our safe, orthodox, non-idolatrous way of saying the more mystical "God is Truth; Truth is God" - but we're not very good at living it out. Our need for certainty keeps us from engaging in the kind of missiology that, I think, is more honest to the gospel we're trying to communicate.

Ultimately the evangelism we need is not "us" telling "them" what to believe,* not "us" challenging "them" to something new and different - the evangelism we need is challenging ourselves to believe more deeply and thoroughly. By that I mean not us looking for arguments we can tear down to assuage our doubts, but us genuinely exploring those doubts and uncertainties in hopes of finding better and more compelling truth. We can and must do this communally, together. But because we're searching for genuine truth and not interested in winning debates or defending dogma, we can do it with genuinely diverse people. We can use our own search to spur others on to the same kind of introspection and development. In essence, our attempt to be better Christians (or more like Christ) will push Muslims to be better Muslims and Buddhists to be better Buddhists and atheists to be better atheists and in the end, any push toward further development and internal challenge will lead us toward truth - and truth transcends whatever religious system we build around ourselves.

Now, I know, this is going to sound to people like I'm saying all religions lead to God. If you read the blog at all, you know I don't believe that. I do, though, believe that Christ is the embodiment of truth and that all religions, if pursued honestly and with an eye toward truth, will lead to Christ (even if they don't necessarily lead to Christianity). I believe God is calling all people at all times by all means to a greater, deeper, and stronger understanding of this radical love we call gospel - and that we can never get gospel mixed up with doctrine or dogma.

If we can get over that scary notion, perhaps we'll be free to evangelize and be evangelized and maybe, just maybe we'll all become a little more evangelical in the process. And, contrary to the way it looks in the world today, that's a very good thing.

*This is one of, although by far not the only, reason why it incenses me when people call a sermon "teaching" or, even worse, make a sermon "teaching," but that is definitely something for another day.

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