Evangelism reconsidered

John Stackhouse of Regent College has written a marvelous article for the latest Books & Culture answering the timely and important question: What must we learn, and unlearn, to be agents of God's mission in the world? His response is summarized in the title, “A Bigger—and Smaller—View of Mission.”

Mission must be bigger in two important ways: (1) first, individual conversion to Christianity is not the only way a person can be saved, and (2) second, evangelism is not the only form of mission. The first point is the most significant argument in Stackhouse’s article. He argues for an inclusivist position on salvation, one that recognizes the centrality and priority of evangelism and conversion, but refuses to limit the scope of God’s salvation to those who say Yes to God in this life.
Does this mean that other religions are salvific? Certainly not. No religion is salvific: not Hinduism or Shinto or Islam, but also not Christianity. God is salvific. Practicing religion, however correct it is and however correctly one practices it, will not save you. That is basic Christian conviction. It is trusting God that will save you—that also is basic Christian conviction.
The second point is a rejection of the notion that salvation is about getting people out of hell—fire insurance, as some put it. Salvation along this line of thinking involves a gnostic separation between body and soul, ignoring the fact that God “wants human beings, body and soul. Furthermore, he does not settle for saving human beings, but the whole earth.” Stackhouse goes on to argue that mission must involve “education and environmentalism, and cooking and cleaning, and farming and family life. God cares not only about eternity but about the welfare of his creation now.” The gospel does not merely concern spiritual, invisible things; it rather embraces all of creation. The Christian story encompasses the whole of reality, because God seeks to redeem everything that God created “very good.”
The Christian gospel therefore is not a narrowly spiritual one, but literally embraces everything, everywhere, at every moment. Every action that brings shalom—that preserves or enhances the flourishing of things, people, and relationships—is the primary will of God for humanity. Christians ought therefore to recognize and affirm anything our neighbors do to make peace, whether those neighbors intend to honor God or not. Indeed, we can cooperate with them in those ventures, since we see in them the divine agenda of shalom.
In the second half of his article, Stackhouse addresses the ways in which our mission should be smaller, i.e., more humble: (1) first, Christians need not feel that their witness to the gospel requires a corresponding rejection of all other religions, (2) second, Christians need to drop all binary thinking and adopt a more humble stance toward others, and (3) third, Christians need to unlearn their reliance upon techniques for conversion. First, on a practical level, it’s impossible for any person to know that Christianity provides the best possible existence. Nor are Christians called to act this way. The early apostles did not attempt to demonstrate that Christianity was better than the pagan religions in the Roman empire. On the contrary, they simply witnessed to the reality that Jesus of Nazareth is in fact the promised Messiah in light of his resurrection from the dead. We are called to testify to the truth, not denounce other competing claims of authority.

Second, on a more theological level, Christians must abandon a binary view of the world which divides everything into pairs: “lost/saved,” “darkness/light,” “paganism/ Christianity,” and so on. Such thinking easily leads to the subjugation and colonization of other cultures at the hands of the white missionaries come to bring light into darkness. We need to drop the black-and-white thinking that views the Other as utterly lost and views Us as wholly right, bearers of truth in a world of complete darkness.
As Solzhenitsyn reminds us, furthermore, the dividing line between good and evil runs right through our own Christian hearts. And as recent events remind us (as recent events always do), we are individually simul justus et peccator (simultaneously justified and yet sinners) and our own churches and cultures have plenty of lostness, darkness, and paganism in evidence.
Third and finally, we need to avoid the adoption of techniques for conversion that employ whatever means necessary to get someone to convert. I experienced this myself as a high school youth group leader. The adult leader of our youth group was trained in street evangelism, and he would spend hours with me, training me in the best rhetorical techniques to get someone from ignorance to conversion in five minutes or less. Seriously. I soon realized how manipulative this was. Stackhouse warns against this as well.

I find Stackhouse’s article a breath of fresh air. He articulates much that needs to be heard in the evangelical world today. I can only hope his article finds a wide readership.


Anonymous said…
Couldn't agree more. I, too, came across this piece and was both challenged and encouraged by it.