Is preaching nonviolence bad for evangelism?

Is preaching nonviolence bad for evangelism? March 19, 2013

Many in the evangelical realm, especially pastors and lay leaders committed to church growth, believe that proclaiming the revolutionary vision of nonviolence and Kingdom allegiance is antithetical to evangelism. In other words, some folks (with good intentions) worry that emphasizing an Anabaptist (peace and justice) ethic might make the Gospel unattractive in our American context.  I’m quite sympathetic to these concerns but sometimes wonder if we church leaders would be willing to apply this logic elsewhere?

Are the following areas bad for evangelism? –

  • Standing for free market ideals that leave the poor of the world poorer.
  • Proclaiming that Jesus is THE way in a pluralistic society (which, by the way, I affirm, when articulated with “gentleness and respect” through a proper theological grid).
  • Equating Christianity with a political agenda.
  • Spending millions of dollars on buildings and a fraction of that on local community development.
  • Telling LGBT folks that our religious beliefs should dictate their political rights.
  • Fighting against scientific realities such as biological evolution and global warming.
  • And the list of both positive and negative examples could go on and on and on…

Every example above, and countless others, can hinder evangelistic efforts. One of the tasks of discerning what the Apostle Paul called “stumbling blocks” is to first discern the underlying motives and assumptions that fuel them. How we communicate our values is just as important as defining them in the first place. Many of the convictions listed above have hindered evangelism, most of which are driven more by cultural values than Kingdom ones. The things that the church does regularly can in fact block outreach efforts within certain demographics. This matters in every part of the message and movement of Jesus that we mediate to the world around us.

Jesus and the Apostles did little in their preaching to soften the cost of discipleship. The price only goes on sale when we promote our own agendas rather than the priorities of the reign of God. One central element of the gospel of the Kingdom is peace. Why would we worry about proclaiming something that is so beautiful, but be content to expound other ideas that are not motivated by following Jesus? May we count the cost afresh in our day!

The realities of post-Christian America invite us to salvage the Christian radical roots of nonviolence, empire subversion, and justice for the poor. My conviction is that the moment the Anabaptists (and like-minded folks) have been waiting for is right now. The day has come when the church and the Christian story is no longer at the center of public discourse, in many ways because of the way evangelicalism engaged in politics without a peacemaking agenda.

Many in our society, who continue to see the destructive effects of militarism, are ready for an alternative paradigm. Hearing Christians preach peace is actually a bridge to Jesus and not a blockade for some people who have been turned off by “organized religion.”

As a church planter, the message of enemy love, justice for the poor, and a suspicion towards the agendas of empire, will be part of the Gospel that we preach and live in the Seattle area. Those of us with Anabaptism in our history (or who share similar values for peacemaking) have the opportunity to carry our cross for the sake of the world.  In the days ahead, we may discover that the way of peace, justice, and empire subversion is actually a bridge to leading many in this post-Christian culture into a relationship with Jesus Christ.

We ought to do all we can to not allow the cultural garb of evangelicalism to block our access to those unacquainted with Jesus. This should never come at the expense of core convictions of Christian living, especially ones that have the potential to turn the world upside-down.

How should we navigate the tension between evangelism and proclaiming our values? How have you seen this done well? Any “horror stories?”

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  • “I’m quite sympathetic to these concerns but sometimes wonder if we church leaders would be willing to apply this logic elsewhere?”

    What a great question in response to the (to me, truly weird) idea that preaching non-violence is bad for evangelism. Not only is preaching peacemaking an accurate reflection of Jesus’ message, but, frankly, I find it really unlikely that it will be a hindrance to evangelism. May the Lord bless your planting efforts in Seattle.

    Just out of curiosity, do you have a link or reference to leaders in the evangelical community advising that preaching non-violence is bad for evangelism? I’d really like to observe their argument.

  • tulanian

    Don’t know if they’re “bad” for evangelism, they’re certainly not Christian. You hear all the time in Evangelical circles about the dangers of “watering down” the Gospel re: LGBT issues, abortion, etc. but so very little about social justice or the unholy marriage of politics and religion. Preach the full Gospel with humility and love, Brother, and the Kingdom will increase.

  • “We ought to do all we can to not allow the cultural garb of evangelicalism to block our access to those unacquainted with Jesus.”

    You seem to be arguing that the “cultural garb of Evangelicalism” is currently predominatly of the right. I think you’re correct. However, will you repeat the quote above when the “cultural garb of Evangelicalism” is predominantly of the left? Culture and politics are pendulums that are constantly in motion. What is of the right today tends to become of the left tomorrow and vice versa. The illusion is that one political party is closer to Christ’s teachings than the other. We like to tell ourselves that to reinforce our worldview but it’s a farce. We should all endeavor to read Jesus apart from our American political lens as best as possible.

    It seems to me that the thing this article seeks to critique about the evangelical right is itself guilty of. I see a lot of pro-left ideas here and none of the right. The point it should be making is that both political sides of evangelicalism are guilty of promoting a Jesus that fits their political biases. The question should be – what do we do about that? Not – how can our side respond and become more influential?

  • Kurt, you put your figure right on something that I have struggled with. As someone who also feels called to be a pastor, my journey of nonviolence has led me to wrestle with this very thing…preaching nonviolence will not be very attractive (in fact I know it pushing many people’s buttons!). Unfortunately we are not called to be attractive, but it is a battle I have faced and not just on this issue alone. My journey has lead me to agree that peacemaking is central and while it may not be attractive to everyone, it will be attractive to some, and they are the ones I want to lock arms with and bring about change. Great article and thanks for writing on this topic!

  • Anthony

    Violence is everywhere in the bible so try not to say anything about violence and your stuck with a large portion of the bible unchecked and the majority of the word not getting around as it it should be may god bless us all for we all have sinned and we might not be taken in for such a profound sinful country we live in today.

  • Jerry lynch

    Jeff, if you have trouble believing that preaching nonviolence can be a hindrance to evangelism, spend a few days on some Christian forums and listen to their violent comments about nonviolence. Many Christians I know take it as immediate affront to a soldiers. Others straight out believe it is a form liberal (socialist, communist) ploy to weaken the country. How often have I heard, “Jesus told his disciples to sell their cloak to buy a sword, you hippie freak!” It seems that Christianity in America is so closely married to the Right Wing that any mention of peacemaking is seen as anti-American.

    • Thanks for the response, Jerry. I don’t doubt at all that preaching non-violence is inflammatory when speaking with Christians–I’m well familiar with the responses that you mention. What surprises me, though, is the idea that preaching non-violence is a hindrance to -evangelism-, i.e. communicating the gospel to non-Christians. I would have guessed that emphasizing the peacemaking aspect of the gospel would generally be pretty effective in evangelism (even if not so much when addressing the Church itself).

  • Jerry lynch

    Meant to add in that last sentence, ‘…is seen as anti-American, an attempt to take away their guns.’

  • Anonymous

    Kurt, I agree with most of this post, but free market capitalism has done more to lift people of global poverty than any other force. This is as well-confirmed a reality as evolution and global warming (which I agree are well-confirmed scientific realities).