Most congregations I know feel stuck evangelistically. They know that the old ways of doing evangelism (door knocking, high pressure, guilt-inducing, proposition stringing) don’t fit anymore, but they’re not sure what else would count.
I think this issue is particularly acute for congregations that are taking a missional/hospitality posture seriously. Let me explain this. Stephen Pickard in his book, Liberating Evangelism, says that the gospel is good news only insofar as people are treated well. He uses the work of Jurgen Habermas to sharpen this distinction.
Habermas distinguishes between “instrumental” and “communicative” reason. Instrumental reason serves an end other than knowing the other. For instance, instrumental reason seeks your vote (and on the heels of this election season, we know what that kind of communication sounds like) or wants you to buy a certain product. Communicative reason, however, seeks only to understand the other. Instrumental reason depersonalizes by objectifying relationships. I’m valuable to you only insofar as I further your agenda. That overly friendly waitress wasn’t hitting on you, but hoping for a bigger tip (seriously, she’s not hitting on you). The car salesman offers rust protection, not because he cares deeply about your well-being, but because its a high margin earner for the dealer. These are crass examples, but you get the point.
For Pickard, genuine care comes not through instrumental reason, but through communicative reason. And too much evangelism, for Pickard, has the feeling of instrumental reason. We fashion messages
One of our highest competencies for missional innovation is hospitality, or cultivating new relationships, and not primarily on our own terms. This stance of hospitality moves us away from the instrumental and toward the communicative. To suddenly turn the other, the person of peace that we’ve found, into an evangelistic target seems to instrumentalize that relationship.
This is a very real dilemma. It’s hard, in my estimation, to have someone be simultaneously a friend and a prospect. So, once you’ve cultivated a friendship or a partnership, how do you switch things and turn it into an evangelistic encounter? Whichever way you go, it seems you’re either compromising friendship or your convictions.
I have three pieces of advice. First, being a friend means sharing your life. And your life is Christian. That should be plain, even natural. I don’t think you have to have a Bible study with someone or constantly be quoting Scripture to have an authentic, Christian witness. Be yourself. And pray for the best for your friend. You might be surprised.
Second, this is a place where our limited sense of what passes for good news limits us. If we think of the gospel, and in turn our evangelistic message, only as salvation from sin and personal guilt, then our only issue in evangelism is personal status. The individual is the issue, not the condition of the world. Personal guilt is the issue, not how sin distorts human life and the life of all of creation. The only roles in our evangelistic script, therefore, are for God to be a no-tolerance judge, our friend a guilty defendant. And we, unwittingly, get the role of prosecuting attorney. We have to convince our friend of their guilt for our message to work.
But if we understand the gospel the way Jesus did (and I would argue, also the way Paul did), as the announcement of the nearness of the Kingdom of God, then all the issues and roles change. Now the issue is God’s good rule over all of life. The issue is shalom and the world’s lack of it. And I doubt we’d have a hard time convincing others that our world lacks wholeness or well-being. And I doubt we’d get much resistance with most people that a different way of ordering our world is sorely needed. The issue now is whether or not we believe the way of Jesus is the way of shalom.
What happens to personal guilt and the need for forgiveness? Forgiveness is a necessary part of the Kingdom of God. God’s shalom can’t get off the ground if we’re overcome by the powers of sin and death, if our own guilt and shame overwhelm us and make us neurotic, unstable, and untrustworthy. What happens to the importance of the death of Jesus? It’s significance becomes greater. It is not only a sign of our forgiveness, but also a model for a different way of life under a different set of powers, notably the power of trusting, self-giving love.
So, most of the old stuff is there, but its been reframed by the larger theme of the Kingdom of God. Now, the message is inviting others to belong to God’s in-breaking reign with all the benefits that brings. So now, not only is your friend more than a prospect, but your friendship might actually be a sign of the Kingdom of God. It can actually be a part of the good news you proclaim.
I have friends in Ontario who have developed relationships with Sikhs and Muslims in the neighborhood near their church. They drink chai together and play cards. They’ve built relationships of trust and care, and for my friends, this has been done in the name of Jesus. As their relationship has grown, they’ve eaten in each other’s homes and have talked about God and life. All of this started in a community center where my friends asked what, if anything, was needed there. My favorite story involves the director of the community center, who is an atheist, being encouraged to believe in God by both my Christian friend and her new Muslim friend. In a world where religious differences lie at the heart of much of the violence in our world, I think the story of Christians who drink Chai with others as an offer of the peace of Jesus qualifies as good news of the nearness of the Kingdom of God. And while these Sikhs and Muslims might never become Christians, there are others watching and listening, hoping to find in God’s name a witness to peace in the name of Jesus.
Missional congregations learn how to link hospitality and witness in precisely these ways.