“I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
– Isaiah 49.6b
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
– Matthew 5.14-16
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
– Acts 1.8
So this past weekend I preached a message that was intended to significantly alter our paradigm for evangelism and Christian witness. It was wonderful to be able to dig into this during “Epiphanytide,” the season of the Church calendar that celebrates the fact that the gospel has been revealed to the Gentiles – that we “who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Ephesians 2.13b)
Two thoughts came to mind as I prayed about this topic of evangelism. First, in my experience and tradition, evangelism is the act of articulating the explicit theological and philosophical claims of Christianity in order to persuade people to surrender their lives to Jesus Christ as their “Lord and Savior” (hello, “Sinner’s Prayer”!). We do this because we have been convinced that if someone dies without sincerely praying the “prayer of salvation” they will spend eternity in the unspeakable anguish of the darkest, hottest hell. Secondly, evangelism (in this vain) has been presented as the responsibility of everyone who calls themselves a Christian. We love our neighbors by warning them that “the bridge is out” up ahead, and doing so boldly.
I wonder if this understanding of “evangelism” is the standard in evangelical and charismatic circles. If so, it presents several challenges that came to mind as I prepared to preach to my congregation communicate to my faith community on this subject. For starters, most believers don’t feel comfortable or capable of engaging in the intellectual enterprise of gospel-articulation, especially in our increasingly post-modern, pseudo-philosophical, pluralistic culture. Let’s be honest, this is “missionary” work and we need to learn the language if we hope to be effective. Not everyone has the time or ability to become fluent in the language of theology, philosophy, and metaphysics. Secondly, if we take the call to preach the gospel seriously on a personal level, we will almost certainly live with a tremendous amount of guilt because of our inevitable failure to be faithful to that calling. Thirdly, many “outsiders” have been repelled by the Christian faith because they’ve encountered this sort of “witnessing” and it leaves them feeling like a project more than a person (see Dave Kinnamon and Gabe Lyons’ work in unChristian). And finally, this sort of “evangelism” tends to reduce Christianity to mere mental assent, moralism, and escapism, when in fact it is a call to join God’s family, to have his image restored in us, and to partner in his work of restoring the world.
The fact is we do need people who have a gifting and calling to articulate the theological, philosophical and existential claims of Jesus and his Scriptures. Our culture needs to hear the voice of men and women who were created with the capacity and who have cultivated the character needed to make compelling arguments for the truth and beauty of God and his Kingdom. Also, there are some people who are ready to hear the clarion call to “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2.38) We need apologists and evangelists. And while I’m at it, we ALL need to be free from the crippling fear of the rejection or ridicule that can come when “outsiders” discover that we are followers of Jesus. Remember, the Greek word in Acts for “witness” is martys, where we get the word “martyr.” So I would suggest that we ALL do need to be willing to lose our lives of the sake of the gospel (Mark 8.34-36). But I am not convinced that everyone in the “Church catholic” is called to be orators, apologists, debaters, or small-/large-scale evangelists. It’s time to release the saints from this burden to walk in a certain “anointing” or calling that probably isn’t theirs in the first place.
This explains a lot. At least for me. Yes, we need boldness, but it’s a boldness to be more than it’s a boldness to speak. The early Church was (wonderfully) accused of turning the “world upside down” in Acts 17, but we don’t have reason to believe that this happened because ALL of these followers of the Way were pounding the proselytizing-pavement. The Apostles and their teams (think Silas, Timothy, et al) were certainly called to do this, and the deacons like Stephen and Philip seem to have joined in, but the overwhelming majority of the believers seem to have been focused on being seen (light) more than heard. They seemed to understand that the darkness was not going to be overcome with sound, but with light, and in his Sermon on the Mount Jesus described this “light of the world” as conspicuous good works. These good works led to mixed responses. Jesus referenced the fact that people would “glorify our Father in heaven.” Peter said the same thing in the second chapter of his first epistle, but suggests that the glorifying will only come after the outsiders “malign” the saints. In the next chapter, Peter goes on to say that the oddness/strangeness/holiness of the observed Christian experience will result in outsiders demanding an explanation.
So the release from the responsibility of being a mini-Billy Graham is not a free pass. We’re still to be “salt and light.” And we must “always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.” (1 Peter 3.15) But we absolutely accept that our first and universal calling as followers of Jesus Christ is to walk/live/make decisions that are worthy of the gospel. We must be led by the Spirit and consequently exhibit the Fruit of the Holy Spirit. We must be witnesses – by our relationships, our use of time and money, our attitudes, our language, our responses to evil – to a coming Kingdom. St. John Chrysytom (349-407) was convinced that virtue and patient suffering are our greatest means of witnessing. Not arguments. Not sermons. And certainly not the threat of eternal conscious torment!
The text I used for my sermon talk was Colossians 4, and look at Paul’s instructions to the general congregation of saints in Colossae: after asking them to pray for him and his ability to faithfully fulfill his apostolic calling to explicate the mystery of Christ clearly, he tells them to “Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time.” (verse 5) Once this insistence on wise living has been established the apostle goes on to say, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.” In other words, lead with your noticeably different sort of lifestyle and then be ready follow that up with language – walk then talk. And notice that the talk is not nasty, confrontational, argumentative, etc. The Message Bible teases this verse out beautifully, “Be gracious in your speech. The goal is to bring out the best in others in a conversation, not put them down, not cut them out.”
Imagine the healthy sense of freedom we could walk in, and the fruitful sorts of engagements we could have with “outsiders” if we all stopped trying to be mini-Billy Grahams or Tim Kellers (no disrespect there!) and instead, focused on living weird/holy lives as a “[Holy Spirit-formed] colony of heaven in the country of death.” (Eugene Peterson in Practice Resurrection). God’s glory and love of neighbor should, in some sense, awaken a desire in us to see the Church grow – locally and globally – as this makes the coming Kingdom more visible and the reach of Jesus more pervasive. Faithful Christian witness is integral to the grown of the Church. We should all be ready to say, along with the Samaritan woman, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” (John 4.29) Yet…outside of those unique opportunities we should intentionally “redeem the time” we have, living before “outsiders” in ways that serve as a plow, opening up their hearts to receive the words/seeds of the gospel and our testimony. Maybe this is why the Church considers “Ordinary Time” an extension of Pentecost…?