What is evangelism? What is the message we try to communicate? How do we do it? Why are we so chary of it? I’ve come to the following analogy based on the last few years of reflection and writing on the question of evangelism.
Imagine an Army recruiter’s station. This greets you as you enter:
The recruiter in his or her crisp uniform welcomes you and begins to tell something of the glorious history of the Army and it great and incomparable mission in the world today: to defend and preserve the safety and boundaries of our country, support our allies in the world, defend and extend democracy at home and abroad, and so on.
He or she will then tell you of the Army’s need for young people like you. Young, brave patriots who have heard their nation’s call, felt its need and desire to give their life to its service.
Next comes some personal testimony from the recruiter about the values and virtues the Army has given them. A sense of purpose and belonging to something larger and more important than themselves, a way of life that compares favorably to the civilian life they left behind, training in skills they didn’t even know they had, a new “family” with their fellow soldiers, knowing that someone “had their back” just as they had theirs when danger arose, and things like that.
The recruiter then seeks to seal the deal by getting the potential recruit to sign up.
This, I believe, offers the nearest analogy to evangelism for our time. Not a perfect analogy, of course, but nearer than anything else I know. Let me spell this out briefly.
Evangelism is the announcement that God has won the victory over the powers of sin, death, and the devil through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God is empowering his people to implement and extend Christ’s victory throughout his world. In fact, this is what he created human beings to do – to protect and nurture creation to it full flourishing by his power! Evangelism invites/recruits human beings to take up again this primal dignity and vocation in the power and victory of the risen Christ. “The Lord Jesus Wants You” – is our evangelistic “pitch.”
Of course, like all recruits into the army who have rough edges in their life, dysfunctions, character traits that are not serving them well, etc., human beings are sinners and that stands in the way of them living in God’s service. So part of the message is that, yes, it is true that you have strayed and forfeited your God-given primal dignity and vocation. You’ve even become God’s enemy and worked against him. Yet, in Christ God offers amnesty to all and, even more, he offers us that original dignity and vocation back to us as a gift of Christ’s victory. Not only does God seek to reclaim us from where we have fallen, he also and ultimately seeks to restore us to who and what we are always meant to be – those who together protect and nurture the creation to its full flourishing. Only now this involves implementing and extending the victory of Christ over a defeated but not yet fully pacified world.
Within the company of those who “sign on” to serve as agents of God’s ongoing pacification of the world, we learn the skills, grow into the virtues, deepen our life ”in Christ,” so that we become ever more pacified ourselves and thus more effective agents of pacification in the world.
The bottom line here, theologically, is how we approach those we seek to recruit. Most evangelism in this country has worked off what I call a “Genesis 3 – Revelation 20” model where the primary issue is our sin and how God has acted to deal with it. We must acknowledge we are sinners and accept the solution God has provided in Christ.
I hope through my analogy you can see that such an approach is theologically stunted. I claim we should become “Genesis 1 – Revelation 22” evangelists and begin with what human beings are created to be (Genesis 1-2) and what we are pictured as doing through all eternity (Rev.22:5 – look it up!). Sin is drastic and ruinous detour, save for God’s grace which refuses to give up on us and what he intends us to be. But the goal for which “The Lord Jesus Wants You!” is not simply to accept forgiveness for our sin and be assured of life with God forever. This is, of course, an essential and most blessed and gracious gift for which we will be eternally grateful to God. Let no one misunderstand me! I intend no denigration of the gift of forgiveness; indeed, I seek to give it its full profile.
The announcement of God’s victory in Christ with its call for all to join up with God’s forces of pacification, that’s the goal of evangelism. Restoration to our ancient dignity and vocation as human beings, that’s God’s final aim in all that he has done for us in Christ. Forgiveness in the Bible is the declaration that in Christ has indeed set all things right. A whole new world has come into being through him (2 Corinthians 5:17) and the gospel invites us to begin even here and now to live out that reality amid our not yet fully redeemed world. The shape our new life will take in this kind of world, the way we will together protect and nurture creation to its full flourishing is to serve as God’s agents of his ongoing pacification of the world through the victory of Christ. This is why the imagery of warfare and armor continue to be relevant images for the church (if fully reinterpreted through the nonviolent life and ministry of King Jesus!).
In evangelism, I contend, we are not trying to get people to admit they are sinners and present Jesus as God’ solution to this problem. Rather, we are calling others to serve with us as the agents of pacification they were always meant to be. Our message is that God wants, needs, and through Christ has made it possible for us to be the people through whom he will bring this creation to its intended goal. It is all God’s work, of course, but it is work he has chosen not to do without us. And this, I contend, is the greatness and glory of the good news of Jesus Christ!