Lent is almost over. Palm Sunday is almost here. The Easter Season is coming next. The question remains. What do we do once we proclaim “Christ is Risen”? It is a good question. The answer most of us were given in church was “tell other people about it.” What does Mary Magdalene do once she sees Jesus near the tomb? What did the angel tell the women to do after showing them an empty tomb? It is obvious. They went and told the Apostles. Go and do thou likewise, the church often says. Is that really what should be done? I propose to rethink a common church practice. Evangelism, sharing the gospel, is mistakenly thought of as the most important church practice. Indeed, I grew up hearing it was the sole purpose of the Church.
What I Witnessed
Two decades ago, I sat with a group of other ministerial candidates learning about basic church functions. One class discussed evangelism.
The teacher set up an example “evangelistic” conversation. The scenario was a pastor visiting the home of a person who recently visited the church. A dialogue began between the two people. The pastor asked a question about the visitor’s faith. “Do you consider yourself a Christian?”
“I am not sure.” The visitor replies.
“You can know for sure.”
“You could pray for your salvation. Then you would know you are saved and then a Christian. Jesus promised to do whatever a person asks for in his name.”
The visitor assented to repeat the prayer the pastor offered saying, “repeat after me.” Once that was done the imagined visit was over.
We were asked if we understood what happened. I nodded. I had seen this kind of skit before then. The teacher asked for two more volunteers. One candidate stood up and said he would play the part of the visitor. He was the son of a pastor and knew the scenario too. He started with telling the pastor he could spare just a little time “because the game would be on soon.” The candidate playing the pastor was taken aback but quickly recovered. The conversation ended with the visitor saying he would “think about it” and ushered the pastor our because it was time for the game.
There was another difference in the second conversation. The pastor’s son playing the visitor asked, “what happens after I say the prayer?” Good question. The teacher of the class smirked at that. I decided after the class that the pastor teaching it knew he was setting up an unrealistic conversation.
What Was Wrong With The Picture?
I endured the class. The leaders wanted the class taught. It was similar to classes taught in evangelical churches as well as some liberal ones. But, something is seriously wrong with the picture. What exactly is it?
The conversation demonstrated in these classes has no parallel in the New Testament. The pastor asking a person about his or her salvation is the whole problem. No conversation in the Acts of the Apostles includes such a question. The people who want to become followers of Jesus ask a different question. 1.”What should we do?” (Acts 2:37)
2. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36)
3. “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30)
These questions are from people who are ready to change something in their being.
A lay person from my church approached me with a concern. According to a teacher in another local congregation, an entire class was recently saved. The class members were all four year-olds. She could not see how children that age needed converting.
The Continuing ProblemCoercing someone with the threat of not going to heaven is wrong for any age person. Children are especially susceptible to this kind of manipulation. The “sinner’s prayer” is an invention of people who were at a loss for something to serve as the act of signing “the salvation contract” with God. Being a “Christian” becomes a matter of saying magic words. American Christianity consists too often of assenting to statements or formulas. To be counted among the faithful, a person merely says the right words.
When a colleague tells me someone has “given their life to the Lord,” I cringe. It is the kind of language and thinking that is meaningless. Evangelism came to mean, throughout my lifetime so far, church growth. Church growth programs are about stats. We count number of supposed conversions made, the number of people attending worship times, and the number of dollars given as the standards. The very aspects of church that turns off people in churches (the dones) and outside churches (the nones) are assumed by church leaders to be what the church is all about. The focus on church growth has nothing to do with the New Testament.
Making Christians Out of Christians
The right-wing of American political/religious ideology asserts that America is Christian. I agree with that assertion just not for the same reason. Christianity as the main influence of modern western culture is undeniable. The argument over Christianity and culture concerns positive and negative impact on our societies.
Evangelical Protestantism recognizes the “cultural Christians” who do not have “a personal relationship with Jesus.” The purpose of preaching the gospel is to help individual people have that relationship. The basic code words of the churches are “evangelism, discipleship, and growth.” The problem many churches are facing is the one churches have created.
The culture is judging the churches by Christian standards. American Christianity has a puritanical lineage. Everyone recognizes that as a negative influence. However, there is a positive influence. The Puritans wanted results. They wanted to see evidence of Christian faith and living among their members. “By their fruits you shall know them” was more important than creeds or testimonies. It is a pragmatic understanding of the faith.
The Real Practice of Evangelism
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” says the resurrected Christ. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” These are the closing words from Matthew. Many people agree that they are “the great commission” to the church. They aren’t. The Apostles receive this commission from Jesus. The writer of this gospel wants the church to put the teachings found in it into practice. They became disciples through baptism under the authority of the resurrected Christ. The new disciples live the values and ways of the “kingdom of heaven” to use the words of the text.
What we call personal evangelism, church growth, and discipling misses the point of this. How can a person give their life to the lord while ignoring Jesus’ teachings? What happens when disciples assume the authority of the Christ as their own? Why have we replace Christ with goals that were never those of Jesus?
The practice of evangelism is the practice of the gospel. The job of the church is to love and act. The purpose of the church is to glorify Christ. And to do these things effectively will require the church jettisoning the ideas that it should persuade, coerce, and manipulate other people.