In Search of a New Framework for Evangelism and Mission

corntastic

One of the things I have become fascinated with over the course of the last decade falls broadly under the umbrella known as missiology, or the study of Christian missions. I like many of you have a history with big ‘E’ Evangelicalism where mission is generally understood as “winning souls for Christ.” Evangelism and mission under this rubric is really focused primarily on quantity of people who will give a public profession of Jesus usually represented in going forward for an alter call, saying a special prayer, and getting people to come to your church’s Sunday morning worship.

In the marketplace of churches there is great competition nowadays to get people to profess the Christ of one particular church or another, here professing Christ is more or less synonymous with coming to worship on Sunday morning. After all, if your soul was won for Christ what better way to prove that then to show up on a Sunday morning. Thus the word “church” itself has become synonymous with the worship service and the building. To make Christians is to get them to join the Sunday activities, to enter the building, the sit in the seat, to accept the do’s and the don’ts, and to fall in line with the acceptable categories laid out for Christians.

This way of thinking believes that Christianity is first and foremost getting people to agree with your particular arguments, and “facts” about what it means to be a Christian. Once someone agrees, this is usually symbolized by the altar or a prayer, and begining to come on Sunday morning, their soul is more or less “won.” Discipleship in this context is again based in ideas, learning the doctrines, believing correctly, knowing what the proper questions are and not asking the wrong ones.

While it appeared to me to be a Gospel of grace, it harped so much on my absolute wickedness of the sinner that I could never trust that I heard or responded to God in the right way. God was always foreign to me, always something outside that I continued to try and grabbed onto but could never quite reach.

This was also a Gospel that told me God loved everyone, but was going to send millions and millions of people to an eternal flaming pit. This was a Gospel shared through a preacher-centered evangelism that told me that any kind of social act, any kind of social good was only a distraction from what really mattered, which was of course taking a head count of souls.

If we could visualize this approach to “mission” we might imagine a husk of corn. This way of thinking might be something like trying to peel back all the layers and get down to the very core of that cob then we have the pure and essential Gospel.

Personal Thoughts

Now as you can probably sense, I’m somewhat critical of this way of thinking. I’m not very good at hiding my biases I suppose, but this is my own lived bias, not an ivory tower one. So I want to be sensitive to the fact that for many this way of “church” has been meaningful, and has lead to deeper and meaningful experiences of Christ. I am clearly a product of this path and am indebted to many aspects of it.

However, as a young person I began to see a few things that didn’t work for me. First, I never felt good enough, I visited that altar with the frequency of an addict, I pounded the pavement in search of having just the right theology, just the right words to pray, just the right people to be with, making sure I was never “unequally yoked.” A second thing I learned from this was that denominations were all doing it wrong. This was mostly because, going back to the Corn husk imagery, people like the Catholics, Lutherans, and Anglicans have all these layers of husk covering the simple core of the cob. They were themselves “unequally yoked,” strapped down with years and years of tradition (and traditionalism), strapped down with people who disagree with each other and carrying the weight of aged structures.

And for a long time I had no other way to think about any of this. This was the only framework from which I understand Christian spirituality. But then I got mixed up with Quakers and began to learn that there are always alternatives and that we need not throw the baby out with the proverbial bathwater when things no longer work for us. (And isn’t this such an important lesson for all people of faith? Isn’t this what Paul talks about when he discusses switching from milk to meat? At some point a transition takes place, and that transition, that moving from framework to framework, is not painless. At least for me this is how I have experienced it.)

So maybe this is my therapy, just to say all this aloud and hope that I am not alone. But in either case I invite you into a little of my own process and hope that you find connecting points. And I wonder if many of you have struggled with this in the past. Maybe you really wonder what evangelism and outreach has to do with the Quaker tradition? Or feel like talking about Quaker testimonies (as I have been doing in our Quaker meeting this summer) is really just a waste of time.

Is a Different Framework Possible?

Because of our theology and practice the Quaker perspective on mission has always been an alternative response to the more general “winning souls mentality” it is far more holistic and operates out of a conviction that God is already at work in our world, it is our job as the church not to bring God to the heathens but to find where God is already at work and participate in that work, call that work out, name it, and support it. A truly Quaker understanding of mission (or evangelism) parses the stereotypes of Social Gospel vs. Sharing the Gospel through words and is effective not because it is dumbed down and stripped of any oddity or difference, but because it is holistic, compelling, participative and authentic.

Recently, I heard the question from a programmed Quaker: why do some programmed pastors use older Quaker language like “meeting,” “meeting for worship” and “meeting house,” while others still use church to basically describe all these things?

It’s a good question and one that we should consistently revisit. One thing I’ve noticed is that while programmed Friends have often dropped “meeting” from their language, unprogrammed Friends have equally forgotten that they are the church and have let go of that language. Discussion on both sides of this wouldn’t hurt. (A convergent Friends gathering around this topic might be a good suggestion!)

One response to the question is that those of us who have made this move feel it is more helpful and accurate to talk about a church who has “meetings” (whether for worship or business) in a “meeting house,” then it is to equate the word “church” with a worship service or a building. It’s not only better New Testament theology, but it helps remind us that whether we are in a “church building” or not, we are the people of God and whatever we put our hands to can in fact be worship (as we discussed just a couple weeks ago). We don’t go to church, we are the church. Church doesn’t start at 10:30 on Sunday morning, because once you are a part of the church you are never off the clock.

I don’t see anything wrong with being a stickler about language, especially in a culture that is consistently more and more language about the words it uses. This is a testimony Friends can re-imagine with little difficulty.

Another response is the more standard evangelical fare. All this talk about language, Quaker testimonies and history, just adds layers of debate and difficulty to getting people into Sunday morning church services. How does talking about Quaker stuff get people to confess a belief in Jesus? Some feel that those in the depth of despair, whether homeless, caught in a cycle of addiction, or other difficulties could care less about this Quaker story, practices, and tradition. I recognize that if we are working from that corn-husk framework, then it is hard to image how this is at all possible. But again, there is more than one framework and we have 400 years of examples of that alternative framework in action. We can test it’s successes failures fairly easily. In other words the Quaker tradition (or whatever tradition you want to plug in here) is an irrelevant discussion for people who are actually stuck in the trenches of life.

And maybe it really is? But my sense is that it is anything but irrelevant.

I have too many friends and experiences that tell otherwise. I have know too many people who come and join us in our meeting for worship, or come and eat with us in our homes who do not yet call themselves Quakers, or even Christian, but are drawn to our community. They are drawn to who we are and the Light shines from our gatherings. My feeling is that a community that truly loves and cares for the outsider, for the the addict, for those in the trenches of life, is a community formed by certain convictions, practices and ways of thinking about who God, without which that groundwork that church would not be what it is. In other words it is our convictions that shape not only who we are but what we care about, who we love and welcome, and who we cast out. Our practices form us in a certain direction and if we don’t like the community we’ve become we need to start looking at how we practice being the body of Christ on a daily basis. Without this perspective there’s no reason to think we’d care about anybody who doesn’t just look and sound like us (which is often the case). Nor is there any good reason to think we actually trust that God is already working in that individuals life and rather than just assuming that it is “I the great preacher-evangelist bring the Good News to the heathens!” I’m glad Jesus’ own understanding of mission is radically different from this.

I believe that despite what many Christians believe today, that our tradition is readily suited to respond as well as be a resource in today’s world. I earnestly believe that people are looking for an Authentic Christian community that lives out these Quaker testimonies we’ve been talking about all summer long at Camas Friends, a community that truly lives under the reign of God and seeks to embody the mission of Jesus, who himself is the prime example of a missionary in the Bible. To me that’s a great place to start for a new understanding of mission.

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

6 thoughts on “In Search of a New Framework for Evangelism and Mission”

  1. “… to find where God is already at work…” This is what John Woolman set out to do when he went to visit among the Native Americans. I have found that God is at work in many denominations and religions and have found my own understanding advanced by readings from other traditions.

  2. Thank you for the link to your earlier post, which I’d missed, which I’m glad I found!

    I tend to agree with what you’re saying (although you might want to edit out some slips) but I also think that in places you understate the value of words and ideas; God’s power is more than anyone’s ideas about it or the words used to describe it– but people’s ability to recognize God at work is influenced by their thinking: Remember how Jesus could only do miracles in places where people had put their faith in him.

    1. Forrest, certainly. As a theology student I too think ideas can be important. But what I’d say is more important than ideas is language which creates the structure and the possibility for ideas. I think even “faith” is more than just a thought or an idea though, while it certainly includes this, it also includes the action to show up, to be responsive to Jesus even if one is not aware of what they are doing or who it is that is doing a miracle in front of them. Peter is of course the best example of just how we might understand the complexity of the word “faith.”

  3. It sounds like you have been reading Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch. If you haven’t, you might want to investigate. You and they are barking up the same tree. I personally love the barking and the tree. Keep up the good work!

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