The Mystic Way of Evangelism

The Mystic Way of Evangelism June 12, 2012

…there are other, deeper indicators of a loss of vitality in the American church. The accommodation of the church to the consumerism, competitiveness, and individualism of postmodern culture is pervasive, from the opulent lifestyle of prosperity gospel preachers to the ubiquitous “worship wars” to pseudoevangelistic “transfer growth” as churches cater to Christians who shop around for a better deal. The fruitlessness is experienced by renewal-minded pastors who are appointed to dysfunctional congregations, where they experience abuse and contempt; by evangelistic and prophetic lay people who are stifled by insecure clergy; by pathological church board members who think that because they are “big givers” they own the church and the pastor; by a frenetic grab for every new church-growth program and strategy that comes along because [everyone] knows that if the trend continues their church will not survive; by broken women and men who long to find a spiritual community and come home to God, only to be rejected for the unforgivable sin of divorce; by women who are called and gifted by God for pastoral ministry, only to be silenced or driven out because of gender. Aridity and fruitlessness are found in the consumeristic objectification of prayer, as if prayer were something that should be “tried” because it “works.”

In the midst of this desert we find ourselves face-to-face with our attachments, with the pantheon of religious idols, large and small, that have supplanted the God we claim to worship.

— Elaine A. Heath, The Mystic Way of Evangelism: A Contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach

Whew! Elaine A. Heath’s description of the contemporary American church is not only decidedly unflattering, it is uncompromisingly honest. The church (and by this I, and I believe she, mean all the various denominations and sects) is in trouble — deep trouble. And this passage didn’t even begin to touch the trends by which young people, even those who come from devout households, are simply not bothering to show up.

Elaine A. Heath describes the current, dire circumstances of the American church as a collective “dark night of the soul” experience. I believe she’s dead on. And that’s just the beginning of this brilliant study of how mystical wisdom can bring renewal and a new vision of hope in the gospel to the church for today and tomorrow.

Heath is the McCreless Assistant Professor of Evangelism and director of the Center for Missional Wisdom at Perkins School of Theology. She is a United Methodist Minister. In other words, she has given herself, vocationally, to this large question of “whither evangelism” in the church today. For me, this book of hers is profoundly refreshing, in two ways: first, it takes the contemplative tradition seriously, neither attacking it as foreign nor dismissing it as marginal. But beyond that, it represents a profound statement affirming that contemplation, far from being merely the “spiritual window dressing” of the Christian community, actually has something meaningful, profound, and relevant to say to the church right at the heart of its mission: to deliver transforming, breathtaking, life-renewing good news to those who most desperately need it.

Heath follows the classic formulation of purgation -> illumination -> union in her exploration of what the mystical tradition has to say to today’s church. Purgation she presents as “into the dark night,” basically an assessment of where the church is today, as exemplified by the excerpt which leads off this review. Illumination considers mystical wisdom in a variety of contexts: as the beacon pointing the way to love as the heart of the gospel; as insight into dealing with the “threefold wound” of sexism, racism and classism; as the message of kenosis which promises to liberate the church from its many idolatries; and as a critique of consumerism which in turn can equip the church to address the profound environmental crises facing us today. And all this isn’t just Heath’s own theologizing: she draws on the wisdom of an eclectic assortment of mystics: Julian of Norwich, Phoebe Palmer, Thomas R. Kelly, Henri Nouwen, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Bonaventure, and John Woolman, through their stories and words, Heath illuminates how their witness from years or centuries ago shine a light on the challenges facing Christians today. Finally, the Union section of the book introduces a case study of how an urban church might reinvent itself along missional/contemplative lives, with bi-vocational pastors, a contemplative rather than juridical narrative of theology, and an activist, justice-oriented mission balanced by an authentic, congregation-wide commitment to contemplative practice. It’s truly a beautiful vision. I imagine many Christians might balk at the radical depth of her prescriptions for church renewal, thinking “we can’t do this.” But I suspect those will be the folks who are not (yet) facing the prospect of their church closing its doors forever because the “numbers” are simply too far down.

Heath cautiously avoids all the pressing issues surrounding the question of sexual diversity, and I suspect that her vision of the bi-vocational minister will be a hard sell among those young seminary graduates who leave school with a ton of debt and no training to do anything other than pastor a church. So this book is a provisional report on a very huge complex of issues that simply cannot be fully addressed in its 200 pages. Still, for anyone who cares about the wisdom of the mystics and who would like a stirring vision of what faith community might look like if congregations took contemplative practice seriously, this book is not only profoundly inspiring, but also challenging in a needed and healthy way — for it calls those of us who are already committed to the contemplative life to consider what we can do, to contribute to the renewal of the church in America, at this time of unprecedented crisis. I have long said that contemplatives should not leave the church, because we need the church. Heath completes the argument, by making an eloquent statement about how much the church needs us.

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