So with the passing of John Chapman the question is to be begged: To whom has the baton been passed on to in Australia? People who are already announcing the death of old style evangelism will announce its hastening with Chappo’s death. For many that is a good thing. For many that is a relief. For many that is the passing of the type of hard-core dude lampooned in Rob Bell’s well produced and often thought-provoking Nooma DVD Bullhorn. Evangelism is dead – now to get on with the kingdom work.
Now the caricatures at some level do reflect some realities. I didn’t know John Chapman, never met him and only really saw him on VHS (Say Wot? – 21st C Ed) teaching students with his presentation “Doing the Talk” (whatever did happen to those late 80’s uni students and their awful haircuts and earnest looks? – Ed). However in both disposition and approach I couldn’t imagine a man further away from the crazy Bullhorn guy in Bell’s searing critique.
It does seem, though, that the terms “evangelist” and “evangelism” are in danger of passing into history along with the likes of Chappo. “Missional” is the new term (the missional movement is ancient – at least 10 years old – po-mo Ed), connoting as it does, a much more rounded approach to declaring the reign of the King Jesus.
The problem is that words are slippery little suckers – capable of simply becoming funnels down which we pour meaning – our meaning – and thereby captive to what we want them to be. My observation over the past ten years is that “missional” – for all its strengths – is a fairly slippery word. It is being stretched in all sorts of directions to mean one thing to one person and a completely opposite thing to another. It’s also become a substitute for “evangelism”, which I think is both a pity and seductively dangerous.
Why? Because “missional”‘s flexibility allows you to bend it away from “evangelism”‘s solidity. It is hard to get past the fact that evangel means good or important news, and that, however you want to live it out without words, news is something that has to be told – and told clearly – if indeed it be good and important. But the tide may be turning. I am noticing that a few years into the missional experiment some people are dribbling back to evangelism, and to their shock, realising that they actually don’t know how to, are to scared too, and don’t know how to call their people to – evangelism!
This lack is partly due to the fact that the culture has stared us in the face and whispered words to us like “arrogant”, “intolerant” etc whenever the idea of evangelism surfaces. And pop culture has done a pretty good job of portraying gospel-telling people as nut-bars or psychopaths. In other words the culture stared, we stared back, then we blinked. It’s also down to the fact that the word “missional” promised so much to begin with. It promised a pathway through the impasse and an opportunity to leave behind the stereotypes portrayed in Bullhorn, and that was not a bad goal.
Chappo’s little tome “Know and Tell the Gospel” pretty much sums up the extent of the problem, while providing the solution. To “know” the gospel actually indicates that there are parameters to what the gospel is. It can be known, it does not having meaning ad infinitum, and it has a structure and framework to it. It’s possible to not know the gospel and thereby be unable to tell it. It’s possible to know the gospel and not tell it. It’s possible to tell the wrong gospel! It’s not possible to convey the gospel without words (take that Francis you Sissy – WWF Ed). A whole lot of assumptions are packed into that unassuming title. And all of that is to say nothing about the imperative to “know and tell the gospel” that followers of Jesus have been given.
So where does the future lie post-Chappo in Australia, a country in which many who claim Christianity for themselves struggle to know the gospel outline? It lies in finding people who, in an increasingly hostile environment, are convinced and convicted to tell the gospel. Not simply to set up Missional Communities, not simply to do good deeds, but to actively speak the good news in such a way that a response is called for. It lies in evangelists garnering a good apologetic framework that enables them to deal with the thrust and parry of conversations with people marinaded in the late modern mindset and all of its assumptions. It lies in a humility that is able to announce “Our God reigns” without hubris or arrogance. And it lies in a confidence in a justification that comes from Jesus, rather than being paralysed by the craven need to be justified before a watching world looking for any sign that we are less than the open-minded, tolerant, spiritually laissez-faire people that good citizens are required to be.
May God raise up another John the Chaptist in Australia before the King arrives a second time.