In my forthcoming book “The Incredible Shrinking Gospel: The Crisis of Evangelism in the 21st Century” I propose that we re-imagine the church as God’s “subversive counter-revolutionary movement”, the gospel as God’s announcement of his decisive victory over the powers of division, death, the devil in, through, and as Jesus of Nazareth. Evangelism, then, is God’s call to humanity to enlist in this subversive counter-revolutionary movement whereby Jesus is setting humanity and creation on the path to God’s primal design for them.
Thus evangelism has a number of similarities to “military” recruitment. Jesus doesn’t so much “offer” the gospel to religious seekers as call people to “follow” him and serve in his Kingdom (= God’s subversive counter-revolutionary movement). Baptism serves as an “induction” ritual into this service and their training (“Boot Camp”) in acquiring the skills and weapons of the “violence of love” (Oscar Romero) is their apprenticeship to Jesus as he makes his ways through Galilee and on to Jerusalem.
As with every recruit who enlists with the military there is much to be done to whip him or her into “fighting” shape, many rough edges to be smoothed out, a civilian identity to erase and a new one to inculcate, bad habits to eradicate and new ones to grow, and so on. But the goal of their enlistment is not this character upgrade or personal improvement. The goal is to produce a viable military unit to serve and protect the national interest. In other words, recruitment focuses not on who potential recruits are at the moment, but on who and what they can and will be under proper tutelage.
The appeal of military recruitment is finally to one’s sense of honor, pride in being a citizen of one’s homeland, and duty in serving something larger than themselves.
I think we can learn something important from this analogy. We should have learned this from our theology, but for a variety of reasons have not. The gospel we have embraced and the evangelism we have practiced have looked far more like a call to turn to God for forgiveness (thought of as personal transaction between God and each individual) and, hopefully that character upgrade and personal improvement than a gospel announcing Jesus’ victory over the powers of sin and evil and an evangelism “recruiting” women and men to become now what God intended they be all along – his “image-bears,” that is, those who bear the dignity, duty, and destiny of being God’s royal representative’s to protect and nurture the creation to its full flourishing.
I believe we must learn to do evangelism in the key of recruitment. We are not so much offering people something we have to convince them they need (though they do need the forgiveness and grace of God). Rather, we call them (“The Lord Jesus wants you!”) to embrace the dignity, duty, and destiny for which they were created. This means approaching others not primarily as sinners in need of individual forgiveness but as those who have forfeited their dignity, avoided their duty, and shunned their destiny, all of which, ironically, constitute their genuine humanity.
At its core, my proposal is that the gospel calls us to become who we are created to be rather than focusing on what we have become. Of course, what we have become must be dealt with, and is – decisively, once and for all as the writer of Hebrews never tires of repeating – by Jesus but this is only a part of the gospel. We must be reclaimed (forgiven, accepted) but the gospel reaches further embracing also our restoration to the dignity, duty, and destiny for which we were created. This restoration is ultimately what the gospel calls us to, which means in a still-not-yet-fully-redeemed world that we are called by Jesus to join his subversive counter-revolutionary movement to participate in God’s work to set all things right.
In an age when people in our time and place seem more attuned to issues of shame and alienation more than sin and guilt, the vision of evangelism I see growing out of the gospel ought to be able to meaningfully address them. “The Lord Jesus wants you!” Thanks be to God!