After fourteen years of youth ministry I took something of a ministry detour. My “new” day job—which I will have been doing for a year in June—is teaching evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA. It’s a unique appointment in which I teach half-time at the seminary and spend the rest of my time working with congregations.
I must admit that I never thought I would have the “e-word” in my job title. I grew up in an evangelical denomination and intentionally moved into a more progressive tradition after I experienced the deconstruction of my high school fundamentalism in college. My first several years of ministry were very much colored by a post-evangelical distancing from the faith of my youth. Like most progressives, I didn’t want anything to do with the kind of evangelism prominent in conservative Christianity.
Eventually, though, I came to accept that certain aspects of my youthful evangelicalism are permanent parts of my spiritual DNA. In particular, I cannot shake the deep conviction that the way of Jesus really matters in my life and in the world. By contrast, I’ve often struggled to find that same sense of evangelical urgency in the liberal and progressive congregations I’ve known. For evangelicals, it’s clear what’s at stake in the gospel: the eternal salvation of souls. It’s often less clear to me what, if anything, is at stake in liberal and progressive congregations—especially because you don’t really need Jesus to be a good person or be passionate about social justice.
Now, talking about evangelism is my job. When I introduce my approach I often use Simon Sinek’s concept of the “Golden Circle.” Sinek made a name for himself with a presentation that became the third most watched TED talk ever. He wanted to know what makes certain businesses successful. More specifically, he wanted to know how certain leaders inspire loyalty and action. He suggests that most organizations focus on the what and how of what they do. For example, a computer company tries to sell us computers by telling us how good their product is. But a company like Apple—especially when Apple was helmed by Steve Jobs—focuses more on the why. And the why for successful organizations is not to sell as many products as possible. It’s not to make money for shareholders. The why is a belief that shapes everything they do. In the case of Apple, the why is thinking differently and challenging the status quo. This is the ethos and the culture that shapes Apple—it just so happens that they do this by building beautifully designed and user-friendly computers. And people buy them, as much for the why as for the computers themselves.
To help us understand and apply this insight, Sinek uses what he calls the “Golden Circle.” Most organizations start from the outside when making their pitch. We’ve got great computers and here’s how they’re different and better than our competitors. But inspiring leaders and organizations start from the middle and move out. Here’s what we believe. Here’s what we’re passionate about. Here’s a way of life, a cause, a movement. And here’s a product or a service or an activity that will let you be a part of it.
The why of evangelism is not to attract more people to our worship services and youth programs. It’s not to increase our membership. It’s not to keep struggling churches alive. It’s not to save declining institutions. It’s not to justify our jobs. For most progressives, it’s not about saving souls from hell. It’s not even serving others and working for social justice, as important as these things are. These are all whats and hows. The why of evangelism is something much deeper. The why of evangelism—the why of everything we do—is the gospel itself.
And this is a big part of our problem. Let’s face it, many progressive Christians have a hard time articulating the gospel as clearly and succinctly as our evangelical siblings. Sophisticated, well-educated Christians like us want to say that the gospel is too complex to reduce to two or three sentences. We’ll spend thirty minutes on caveats and qualifications before we dare say something simple and straightforward about what God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ. We’ll tweak our language and nitpick details before answering the question: what is the good news?
Before we can ever say what evangelism is and how we ought to do it, we need to have clarity about what we think the gospel is. We have to understand what’s at stake in the world and in our lives and how the gospel addresses these needs. We need to be able to articulate why Jesus matters.
This isn’t just head work. This isn’t simply a matter of getting our theology or our polity right. The gospel isn’t a doctrine to believe or an ethic to follow. It has to be more than that. It has to be a spiritual transformation grounded in the reality of the living God. Within our churches and youth ministries, it has to be a culture change. Perhaps we might even be bold enough to call it an awakening. A revival.
From time to time on this blog I’ll talk about the whats and hows of youth ministry, but I’ll mostly leave that to the team of active youth workers I’m assembling as regular writers. They are still in the trenches of youth ministry on a daily basis. For my part, I’ll mostly be focussing on the why: a deep and wide articulation of progressive Christianity worth sharing with the emerging generations we care so much about.