Essay / Misc.

Evangelism: The Very Idea!

In a 1998 article in Pro Ecclesia, Richard J. Mouw undertook a defense of “Evangelism: The Very Idea!” (Pro Ecclesia VII.2 (1998), 172-185). He begins by saying, “It has never been difficult to find people who take offense at the very idea of evangelism. The Christian community has always been criticized by those who have thought it outrageous that Christians would engage in evangelistic activity. What makes this sense of outrage especially poignant in our time, however, is that it is being openly expressed these days within the church.” And Mouw is right: you don’t have to be in one of the poor old mainline denominations or be an executive at Fuller seminary to run into Christians whose gut reaction to the very notion of evangelism is negative, or at least deeply conflicted.

After all, the objection goes, isn’t it a narrow view of the Christian faith that thinks it can be transferred from person to person in mere words and a single prayer? (hey, this stuff writes itself!) Isn’t that an overly-intellectualized, rationalistic way of picturing salvation? Doesn’t “witnessing to people” presuppose an atomistic, individualistic (insert other -istics here for fun) version of cheap grace easy believism, tailor made for a consumerist culture, privatized (it’s really hard to stop this stuff once you let it start flowing!) and divorced from structural evils? Isn’t it an unbiblical reduction of the gospel (can’t… stop… critizing… evangelism… postevangelical… spirit… got control…. kryptonite poisoning… weak as baby…) to present it as a message about a change that takes place in an individual soul rather than as the epochal victory of God (bonus points for false dichotomy!) that transforms all things? Don’t all current methods of evangelism encourage an “US” versus “THEM” mentality and lead to triumphalism and religious imperialism? Huh? Don’t they? Huh?

(can’t stop there!) And St. Francis said preach-the-gospel-at-all-times-but-use-words-sometimes-if-necessary! (gasp, gasp) Oh, he didnt? Well, anyway, he must have suggested it using body language, which, come to think of it, would be a more appropriate way to make the point, if you could make it that way.

In the face of all these Christian objections to evangelism (or whatever forms of them were current about ten years ago), Mouw undertakes the task of stating the objections fairly and then defending the very idea of evangelism anyway. And when he says evangelism, he wants it to be understood that he means an activity that is “conversionist in its aim, experiential in its spirit and cognitivist in its emphasis on the message.” Argh, evangelism of the worst kind! Could Mouw possibly mean to be caught publicly embracing the stigma of these things? Yes, he argues that by its very nature, as derived from the nature of the gospel, evangelism includes these three things. Mouw says “that evangelism aims at conversion, that conversion must be experienced, and that the experience of conversion includes the acceptance of some cognitive claims.”

Having troubled the waters, Mouw spends the bulk of the article doing the smoothing-things-over routine with his characteristic graciousness and civility. He states counter-arguments fairly, freely admits when some of the charges actually stick, distances himself from indefensible evangelistic methods, and genuinely seeks to learn from critics. But he also digs in his heels and refuses to budge whenever he perceives that critics are really seeing what true evangelism is and are objecting to it for precisely those “right” reasons. Any one of Mouw’s sub-points (Us versus Them, Intellectualizing the Faith, Individualizing Focus, A-Political Strategies, and Evangelism as Imperialism) is worth the price of admission, partly because his reactions are so unpredictable. But I found the extended descriptions of his three presuppositions about the nature of evangelism (conversionist, experientialist, and cognitivist) so illuminating that I will just excerpt them here:

Evangelism has to do with conversion. This is to say that evangelistic activity necessarily aims at the incorporation of individual human beings into the church of Jesus Christ, a process that necessitates a transformation of their lives by divine grace, so that they move from a pattern of unbelief to belief, of disobedience to obedience, of alienation from God to a reconciled relationship.

Mouw notes that mainline churches rejected conversionism in the 60s, “although they often insisted on maintaining a formal commitment to evangelism by construing evangelistic activity in non-conversionist terms.”

Second, I will assume that evangelism places a high value on the experience of conversion. Here I mean to emphasize a point that has always been central for those of us in the pietist tradition: that a very important part of being in a positive relationship to God in Jesus Christ is being aware that you are in that relationship.

My third assumption is clearly implied by what I have already said about the first two: evangelistic activity is incomplete apart from the communication of cognitive content. Evangelism is the announcement of the “good news” of God’s gracious offer of salvation in Jesus Christ. If there is no articulation of the “news,” then the evangelistic task has not been properly pursued.

Mouw’s little article accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is “to dislodge a few of the barriers and to encourage a free flow of the gospel’s good news.” He concludes with: “Questions about how we do it are very important, but the conviction that it must be done is non-negotiable. Evangelism is not an option for Christians; it is included in the very idea of the gospel.”

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