Evangelism, Mission, and the Unimagined in Christian Discourse II

In the last blog I suggested that a Christian discourse located entirely within an immanent frame, while preserving Christianity from colonializing discourse and eschewing concepts like evangelism and mission, limited the Christian imagination and inadvertently placed the Christian Gospel in a global religious free market.

In that market this fully immanent Christianity cannot complete, or at least not well. By its own self-understanding it brings nothing of unique value except a dubious historical past, a certain kind of social effectiveness, style (consisting mostly of either nostalgia or down market pop-culture), some great retail locations, and in some cases excellent product design and marketing. But having dismissed the possibility that Christianity originates in a unique, historical revelation of God, it cannot really imagine offering anything else.

This is where recovering the discourse of evangelism and mission as the public enacting of a unique revelation by God might actually help us.

First, evangelism and mission as characteristic behaviors of the Christian church are based on the idea that the Gospel is revealed by God at a singular moment in human history, exactly what the immanent frame excludes within the realm of what can be imagined, and what many progressive Christians wish to exclude as being implicated in an inevitably colonizing discourse.

Yet this claim that God is incarnate in a specific historical and cultural context may not be so limiting in what it can imagine as either colonial discourse or the immanent frame.

First, it entails recognizing both the cultural specificity if its verbal and behavioral symbols, and thus the need to recognize the distinctiveness of other cultures. By being explicitly self-limiting it is implicitly open to the reality of diversity. In this it should be in sharp contrast to universal philosophical constructs of God.

(For this reason the appearance of Jesus to all people at the same time is inevitably portrayed in scripture as an eschatological event, and marks the end of both the Gospel and of mission and evangelism. The union of the philosophical imperialism of Greece and the political imperialism of Rome, which offered a different form of universalism, is quite possibly the most problematic development in the history of the Gospel, although it’s totalizing discourse never entirely dominated Christian life.)

Secondly, because revelation requires that the gospel be culture-bound, whatever universal claims it makes can be tested only through cross-cultural communication. Mission/Evangelism takes place by definition in a social space outside the Christian community and the discourse of whatever Christendom happens to exist, and explicitly recognizes the need to communicate meaning from one realm of human experience to another. In short it recognizes explicitly that our social world is culturally pluralistic, and it places itself within and indeed embraces that pluralism as the appropriate location for the Gospel.

In doing this evangelism and mission relativize the universalizing discourse that has captured Christianity in the West. Because the evangelist/missionary must, by definition, become bi-lingual in order to do the work of evangelism/mission she must also explode the totalizing myth that the immanent frame dominant in the West circumscribes the human experience. Because the gospel is received as good news in worlds of discourse shot through with transcendence and a host of gods, demons, and spirits, Christianity is the last social location that can confine itself within the discourse world of the West that denies these realities.

Recognizing this we can see why Christian social action, both of the food pantry type and the political action type, may be neither mission nor evangelism. For both types of social action assume that the immanent frame is the “normal” realm of human discourse in both its verbal and active forms. Neither seeks to speak across the cultural differences that make up our society. Instead both normally continue to operate within supposedly universal constructions of what constitutes human need and fulfillment.

(I exclude from my critique the forms of political and social action that actively seek to deconstruct either or both the immanent frame and neo-liberal economic discourse that dominate and largely determine the American self-understanding.)

Even programs of “conscientization” risk simply becoming propaganda if instead of listening to the ways in which people construct their self understanding, they seek to tell people their situation from the standpoint of a particular form of political, social, or economic analysis.

Thirdly, and following from the character of Christian evangelism and mission, dialogue becomes the central mode of Christian engagement with non-Christians. The Christian evangelist/missionary cannot possibly become bi-lingual without spending a lot of time listening to others, understanding their language, and engaging in increasingly sophisticated dialogues in which the ability to communicate the Gospel becomes more and more accurate and refined, whether that communication takes place verbally or in other forms of action.

Dialogue in mission/evangelism should be a discourse-creating process out of which emerges a new system of shared meanings. And a new and distinctive Christianity should result if individuals and groups choose to associate with Christ and the Christian church through faith.

Finally, the missionary/evangelist becomes conscious through this dialogue that the Gospel is never spoken or enacted into a spiritual or ethical vacuum. Inevitably too many ideas are understood, too many narratives readily indigenized, too many values shared for the missionary/evangelist to assume that the Gospel is entirely new to any social context. If it is not universal, it is equally not entirely alien.

This may well mean accepting that those who hear the Gospel see no pressing need or advantage to abandoning their existing religious commitments. And even the most positive response, that usually characterized as conversion to Christianity, will indicate an emerging religious discourse, an emerging Christianity, in which the preached and enacted Gospel plays a formative role, but by no means the only role.

In short mission/evangelism, as essential expressions of faith in Christ released from both colonialist discourse and the immanent frame, are the best guarantee that neither discourse can ever colonize the Gospel and reduce the Church to its chattel.