Reverse Evangelism (by Jonathan Storment)

Reverse Evangelism (by Jonathan Storment) January 7, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-01-05 at 5.04.27 PMHow arrogant is the white man?  We came to this country thinking we were going to India, and we called the Native Americans Indians.  We found out a few days later that we were wrong, they weren’t Indians …but we’re still calling them that.–Louis C.K.


A few months ago, some preacher friends and I spent the day with Peter Rollins, author of How (Not) to Speak of God and Insurrection.  It was a laid back time of just asking questions and how he got where he was theologically.  One of the most interesting parts of our time with Peter was when he was talking about Reverse Evangelism.  Earlier in his ministry, Rollins would take mission trips to different parts of the world, where different religions were predominately practiced, and would just ask them to explain their religion, to help understand how they saw the world.

This might sound like a strange idea, but Rollins grew up in Ireland, during the Protestant/Catholic wars, which I think had to raise an awareness of the dark side that religion has.  Looking back on it, I think this was a brilliant idea from Rollins, one that displayed the greatest of Christian virtues…humility.  I think that to listen before we speak is a good way to learn about our brothers and sisters from other religions, even the ones who don’t think of themselves as religious.

Last month, I wrote a blog about Post-Colonialism, and all the good it has done, but the way I often hear it represented strikes me a little like the well-known parable used to discuss World Religions.

It is the parable of the 6 blind men who have stumbled onto an elephant, and they try to feel around to discover what they have found.  Each blind man feels a different part of the elephant and while trying to describe it, each one is certain that an elephant is like a snake (tail) or fan (ear) or tree trunk (leg).  The parable ends with the implication that this is what anyone trying to describe God and ultimate truth is like.

The problem with this parable and so much of the subtle, yet dominant narrative in Western society is that it is inconsistent.  The parable crumbles once you ask the question, “Who is actually seeing all of this?”  In order to tell this story, someone is presuming to have a bird’s eye view of the entire picture.  Someone can see that there is not 6 different kinds of animals, there is one elephant and 6 blind men struggling to describe it.

The parable is a great metaphor for the dominant world religion of the day, one that depends on quite a bit of smoke and mirrors to keep us from asking the question, “Who is seeing the bigger picture?”  Is there some kind of ancient tradition based on self-sacrifice and mercy and justice?  Or is this just a cute story designed to keep people from getting too worked up about anything and disturbing the status quo?

To be clear, I think there is quite a bit of wisdom to glean from this parable.  It can lead us all to a deep sense of humility and self-awareness about what it means to have faith, and the limits of being human.  But if the story is going to be told with integrity we must end it with, “or at least that is what the 7th blind man thought was going on.”

In other words, everyone is taking a leap of faith, there is not a box to check for certainty. And I think this has great implications for evangelicals and sharing the Gospel.  It is never a unilateral conversation between a convert and “evangelist.”  This is where I think Tim Keller and Peter Rollins might overlap (which is not a sentence I get to write often).  Tim Keller points out that each culture has different hopes and dreams, and the Gospel is really the fulfillment of the purest forms of their hopes.

I really do believe that the Gospel is good news for everyone.  I just don’t think we know how good the news is until we do the hard work of listening and learning about what people’s hopes and dreams are.  And I have noticed that whenever I enter another culture, and understand it, even (or especially) when they don’t believe what I believe, that the Gospel just gets bigger for me.

So back to post-colonialism – I think that it is a great and needed perspective.  It just depends on what kind of colony we are talking about.  Have you ever noticed just how much colony language is in Paul’s letters?  Paul, a person with all the privilege of being a citizen of the Empire of his day is trying to colonize the world.

But it is important to understand what kind of colony he is trying to create.  It is never a Roman colony.  Paul seems indifferent at best to Rome’s way of governing, and often quite subversive of it.  In fact, I think the best readings of Paul’s letters to churches are trying to set up counter-cultural colonies of equality and justice and mercy for all, because Jesus is Lord.  The Church is a colony of reconciliation.  The Church is a colony for the healing of all the ways we have carved up the world, and is the firstfruits of a day when every nation is healed and every tribe reunited with God and one another.

This was Paul’s goal and has been God’s goal for every local church since – to bring colonies of Heaven to this world.  For Paul, his life’s goal was to create group after group of diverse people from every tribe, because whenever a new person comes into the Gospel, the Gospel just gets bigger.



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