July 27, 2015

Evangelism’s Half Time Oranges

So you’ve heard the one about the cigar-chomping coach giving his team a shellacking after a first half shocker? Oh you haven’t? Well, there they are sitting in the sheds sucking on the half time oranges, ruminating on the game so far and licking their wounds.

Coach: So, can you win this game? Team: (half-heartedly) Maybe. Coach: SAY IT LIKE YOU MEAN IT! TEAM:  (with gusto) MAYBE!!!

Evangelism in the modern West is sitting in the sheds after, if not exactly a shellacking, a tougher end to the first half than they were expecting and it is “MAYBE’S!” all round.  The last decade of evangelism putsch has, in the West at least, increasingly seen more ball in our own half, and at least two or three heart-in-mouth goal line scrambles.

Despite all of the books and conferences, despite all of the programs that promise, despite all of the radical calls to this and that, evangelism in the West is firmly in the “MAYBE!” camp.  We don’t seem to be winning. We don’t seem to be winning even with all of the resources thrown into dozens of programs over the past two decades. We don’t seem to be winning despite the surge of interest in apologetics and the face-offs between Atheists and Christians that attract entrenched supporters who cheer their teams and then go home.

And if the solution is, seemingly, just try harder, just be braver, just give that Two Ways To Live presentation to the bloke at work, then it’s no wonder that more and more players are wanting to sit in the shed sucking on an orange, long after the whistle blows to get back on the pitch.

We are in the “MAYBE!” territory for a number of reasons, some external to us and some of our own making. Let me kick off with a couple of our own making:

1. We View Evangelism as Discrete 

Modernity just loves the discrete.  By that I mean it has a tendency to compartmentalise life into segments. Secular programs on offer, such as money making schemes, simply focus on the scheme itself whilst rarely assessing where it might fit into the rest of our lives; our kids, our spouse, our sick parents, our penchant for depression, our work anxieties and struggles, whatever. In other words the program sits independent of all of the other variables of life, assuming an ideal world that will not hinder your ability to make money like the guy with the shiny teeth insists you can.

But life is not so easily disentangled.  Each section of our lives blurs and bleeds into the others.  The same is true of the Christian life – we call it “discipleship”.  And the problem with many evangelism programs is that, in order to simplify the process, they tend to break discipleship up into discrete segments in order to find their place.  Now I venture to say that many evangelism programs don’t have the intention of doing that, but that is the end result.

But evangelism is a subset of a life of discipleship that includes equally important components such as holy living, costly decisions regarding money and time, thoughtful responses to cultural trends. Oh, and an overriding decision to preference meeting with the people of God on an ongoing and regular basis, often to the cost of the things that our culture views as the good life; sports/leisure/chilling out at a cafe every Sunday morning etc, (hey, I just preferenced traditional church every week for 52 weeks per year excluding holidays, so shoot me!).

The problem with discrete methodology is that it always looks and feels discrete to both the evangeliser and the evangelised. And people can smell “program” from a mile away these days.  They just can.  And we know it, so we tend to come over all nervous and apologetic for it – as we probably should be!

The problem of course is that a discrete call to follow Christ makes everything look a bit “plug and play”, an option to fit into an already fairly busy life that is quite satisfied, but could do with a boost.  At heart we know that is not what we think it is, but it sounds to others that that is what we are offering them.  And since it is all done outside the life of a discipled person in the context of a discipling and discipled community it feels clunky.

2. We Have Tried to Be Too Sensible

I’ve said this before, but a big part of our struggle with evangelism is that our presentation of the gospel to our mates suddenly looks like the only strange part of our lives. We have tried to be too sensible, and it is backfiring on us.

For months or years we try to give the impression that we are actually just like normal people. Then suddenly we spring this crazy idea of a resurrected bloke who is coming to judge the world and give us resurrection bodies like his resurrection body, upon our friends, and they are kinda entitled to wonder:

“Do they really believe that? I mean , everything else in the rest of their lives looks so sensible!  And then they spring  something random like that on me whilst doodling a diagram on a piece of paper over coffee? Whats that all about?”

I reckon our lives just aren’t strange enough.  By the time we get to that gospel doodling on a piece of paper that should be the “Aha, so that’s why!” moment for our mates, but often it’s far from it.  That should be the point they start to make sense of why our lives never really made that much sense to them; why we make the curious decisions we do; why we treat people so darn differently; why the corporate ladder just doesn’t hold the allure; why we aren’t afraid to apologise – publicly – for getting something wrong;  why we didn’t have hopes and dreams in the same order as their hopes and dreams.

Let’s face it, if you are a middle class semi-professional or professional who is a Christian, the great temptation you have is to ensure that other semi-professional and professional people view you as just as sensible as they.  Just as ordered and non-threatening in what you believe.  Well I believe those days are over.

I simply don’t think we are revelling in our strangeness anywhere near enough, and to be frank the sharp turns in culture these days have many middle class Christians frightened, because they have so much social capital to lose should they not conform on matters of sexual ethics etc. We’re playing catch up in the strange stakes, and it’s painful.

One of the biggest ways to crush the sensibleness out of us is to rediscover the “enchanted” world, and to normalise it in our engagement with the secular framework.  Now by enchanted I do not mean “fairies at the bottom of the garden”, but in the way that Charles Taylor talks of it in A Secular Age.  His contention is that the secular context refuses to countenance anything outside the immanent frame; anything enchanted, and has thus disenchanted the world, and the language we use to describe what happens in the world.

I believe this has affected us more than we think, and conservative evangelicals could learn a lot from our more charismatic brothers and sisters.  Let me give you an example from my own life.  We sold our 90 year old house last week after having it for 16 years.  When I first bought it it was run down and in need of repair.  I spoke to my neighbour across the road whose front porch view looks into the front yard.  She is a widow twice over, losing her first husband (and a son) to the dreaded Huntington’s Disease, and a second husband to cancer.  She is the only Christian in her extremely  pagan family.  She is also of a fairly extreme charismatic brand of Christianity.

She said to me when I told her I was a Christian, “Oh I prayed that a couple would buy that old house and do it up, so that I wouldn’t have to look across the road to a house that was getting more run down each year.”

My initial response (to my shame), was to think; “Right! Why would God care about a prayer like that?”.  In other words why would God think to graciously answer the prayers of an elderly widow who had come to faith in him late in life and been through her fair share of misery.  My problem?  I was just looking at life too sensibly!  I had forgotten the enchanted world and had been sucked into shaping my life from within the immanent frame. And if it was like that with another Christian, it was certainly like that with non-Christians.

My neighbour simply assumed (and still does at 81 years of age) the enchanted world. I, on the other hand, well-educated, and fearing people feeling sorry for my stupidity more than hating me for my faith, have had to wrestle an enchanted framework back into my life and into my everyday language.  I think that’s the part we are scared to try because it is just so confronting to those whose default is the immanent frame.

Charles Taylor goes on to say that our apologetics is a prime example of us losing the game before we even begin by agreeing to play by the disenchanted rules of secularism.  We try to engage the literary and academic culture in a “I’m just as smart as you are” match, whilst desperately trying to smuggle in a world that includes God before they catch on.  Since the standard practice of the Richard Dawkins’ and Lawrence Krauss’s of this world is to dismiss such a belief at the start of their debate with us, we end up gasping and flapping on the riverbank like the landed bass we are.  Anyone who has been to one of those types of debates recently will testify to how contorted the Christian interlocutor becomes in trying to make his or her argument sensible. I’ve come to find them cringeworthy if I am honest.

My thinking is that we need to junk the sensible stuff. Why?  Not simply because it doesn’t work for us, but because there are plenty of people out there, who despite the secular hegemony are still asking the question “Is that it? Is this all there is?”  Sensible, disenchanted answers may have been letting them down for years, and they could well be looking to us for something more than that.  What a pity if we only have another version of “sensible” to offer them, one gilded with some religious terminology.

Anyway, those are just the initial musings I have on this one.  I will follow it up as I see fit.  But for the meantime keep sucking on those oranges and:

Give me an “M”


“Give me an “A”


Give me a “Y”


Give me a “B”


Give me an “E”


What does it spell?


Now go out there and win this game!

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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