Evangelism, Mission, and the Unimagined in Christian Discourse I

At a recent conference I heard a group of theologians express surprise, and indeed disdain, that I had been appointed director of a Center for Evangelism and Missional Church Studies. How, they wondered, could such a thing exist in the 21st century? And how could it co-exist with a commitment to inter-religious dialogue?

I was tempted to dismiss these comments, but to do so would miss an important point.

Their objection is to the form of discourse within which the words evangelism and mission  are so hopelessly linked to colonialism and imperialism that working within that world of discourse cannot help but perpetuate the colonial enterprise.

More importantly, this discourse is understood to be so embracing, so powerfully self-referential, that within it an authentic Christianity cannot even be imagined. It isn’t enough to redefine the terms within it. Only a complete alternative discourse can allow authentic Christianity to emerge and express itself socially and politically.

The problem is that various alternative discourses also have a serious problem. To avoid perpetuating colonizing attitudes or behavior these new forms of discourse avoid all language in which the Christian gospel, or indeed any other religious claim, could be regarded as in any way superior. The discourse most suitable for this commitment to equality among all religious options is that which Charles Taylor calls “the immanent frame,” the discourse characteristic of the modern West and particularly its academic institutions. In this frame all references are to the material world and to human action within the larger natural world, but primarily the human social world.

Within this discourse, which either dismisses God or at least dismisses God’s active engagement with the mundane world (through revelation for example) all religious claims are treated as cultural residues of some more general human longing for the Divine, or as the remains of a dying phase of human social evolution. And thus within this world of discourse one cannot imagine why new generations of Christians (except out of nostalgia) should place particular value on hearing the gospel, placing faith in Christ, and joining the Christian community. It is just an option, not the only option and not necessarily the best option.

Small wonder that Christian communities that have placed the gospel within the limitations of the immanent frame are dying. They cannot imagine why they should live – except as yet another social organization dedicated to engaging in humanitarian causes and  progressive political action. Christian worship exists primarily to encourage, inspire, or rebuke human beings engaged in these causes. God is simply the name for the sum of human idealism, incarnate in Jesus – the quintessential social/political activist who died on the cross not for our sins,  but to demonstrate our righteousness in relation to the oppressive social classes who crucified him and oppose our political agenda, be it liberal or conservative.

(Nowhere have I seen this so clearly as a recent Facebook posting initiated by a former student. She asked her friends, “What would you say to a new seminary graduate?” More than one replied, “Why do you want to work in a church instead of one of the other excellent human-orientied social organizations?”)

Placing all Christian discourse within the immanent frame leads to no shortage of irony. Those who do so have inadvertently placed the Gospel, and all other religious claims, in a free global religious commodity market. Offering no distinctive claim to religious truth all they have left is political, therapeutic, and aesthetic values, or perhaps just style and marketing, to recommend the Gospel and the church to rising generations of non-Christians.

In these realms they cannot compete with social welfare agencies, political action groups, exotic Asian spirituality, and pop culture entertainment. Indeed, apart from recovering the sunk cost in ancient institutions, they cannot imagine why they should try.