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What's the point of sharing your faith in a postmodern world?
I care about evangelism, so that’s why I’m not an Evangelical
If you want your faith to grow, you have to share it. That was the central thesis of my penultimate semester at Palmer and what I’m taking with me on the road. I have recently distanced myself from the term Evangelical, but I have not done so because I am not committed to evangelism. Rather, I’ve done so largely because of the impediment the term itself poses to evangelism, which is what I consider to be the main job of the church. As Jesus ascends into heaven, and as we approach Ascension Day in this spring season, I am aware of his final commission to his followers, as Matthew records it. We have come to call it the Great Commission and it is Christ’s charge to go and make disciples of all nations. The Matthean account is written primarily to Jewish people, and Jesus’ call to make disciples of all nations expands this very idea.
At its core, the Great Commission is about ministering across the world to diverse groups of people. One cannot remove oneself from his or her culture. We are encultured people, inevitably influenced by our surroundings. There is no pure form of Christianity that does not have any trace of syncretism in it. But Christians themselves need to be aware of and, as much as they can be, in charge of how the culture influences them. This is not because cultural influences pose a great threat, although too much assimilation without awareness is dangerous. But rather, we need to become experts in our culture so that we learn how to minister to it.
The Great Commission is the number one job of the church
Seen this way, the Great Commission is about becoming disciplers of all nations, even one’s own. That overwrought distinction between local evangelism and overseas mission work points out a flaw and a prejudice, in not only how we see the other, but how comfortable we have become in our own contexts. We need to be aliens in this world, radical invasive separatists. As an Anabaptist, I am cautious to become too much like the Amish, but we need to have the awareness of what parts of the culture we are wearing (as opposed to simply wearing none of it like my aforementioned technophobic siblings do). With consciousness of our true citizenship, we need to learn to become like the world to win the world. It is a very Pauline idea, right from 1 Corinthians 9: “I am indeed free from everyone; but I have enslaved myself to everyone, so that I can win all the more...I have become all things to all people, so that in all ways I might save some.”
In order to enact the Great Commission, we must become all things to all people. For me, in my context, I become like a postmodern Philadelphian in order to save postmodern Philadelphians. The overriding principle here relates to the incarnational revelation of the Gospel. It is not a novel idea, it is rather one that is rooted in the life of Jesus Christ. Among the most mysterious aspects of the Christ event is the incarnation itself. I do not wish to get bogged down in the doctrine surrounding the incarnation, the virgin birth, and the Immaculate Conception. It is almost as if in those lofty ideas, we have lost the essence and the importance of the Incarnation—some of our theology around it distances it from us and it loses its meaning. The Incarnation is about relationship. It is about God becoming like us. It is about radical humility, radical inclusion, and radical community. Jesus becoming like us, to perhaps save us. It is the example that sets forth Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 9. We become like others to win them over.
Too often Christians are influenced by purity and otherness. We seek to prevent ourselves from getting harmed by the culture, touching it too closely, as if the sin it contains might be contagious. We protect ourselves, guard ourselves, and sometimes even create our own subcultures at best and Empires at worst. Too often, we fuel our ministry by sin and fearing the other, which engenders hatred and separation and a near-opposite expression of the radically inclusive, incarnational Gospel. The fundamentalists that dominate the airwaves and represent Christianity to the world are creating a hostile and fear-based religion, one that is not reminiscent of the one we find in the New Testament.
An incarnational community is the best place for Jesus to be known
Rather than fear our neighbor because of how he or she might pollute us or influence us in a negative way, we are moved to love our neighbors because in love Jesus is known. The only agenda at hand is that of Jesus. As Paul tells the Galatians, “the only thing that counts is grace expressing itself through love.” In fact, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul goes to great pains to ensure that arbitrary measures of culture do not divide the church (like he does in Corinth when it came to arbitrary measures of religious piety). It’s not in compelling sermons, coercive revivals, or even good apologetics that souls might be saved, but over a table of food, in an intimate gathering of sharing and prayer, in hospitality and compassion. I do not mean to dismiss good teaching, exciting and reflective worship, or even intellectual arguments—for those things do attract another group of people, but what unites human beings together is our need to connect, bond, relate, and commune. An incarnational community is the best place for Jesus to be known.
If that sounds like a loose-form idea, it is because it is. The heart of the Gospel is the incarnation of Jesus, and it is not expressed in rigid catholic doctrine, but rather in our time and place, in our contexts. This is why it is so important for us to listen to contextual theologians; and to create our own contextual theology for our time and place. The Gospel is not expressed in the doctrinal teachings of Nicaea and Chalcedon. Those famous Councils are not barriers to our prophetic and spiritual imaginations, but are launching points. Rather than offer a strict definition, they offer vernacular and language of our faith. They are a color scheme in which we can paint a new landscape.
We paint not just with the colors of those Councils, but also with those of the Old and New Testament, and the Great Cloud of Witnesses that has followed, to create a new image of the Gospel. It is an image that can and must be brought into the present with great flexibility. Combining both the importance of making disciples and incarnation, missionaries need to become culturally competent enough to imagine what expression and form the Gospel needs to take in order to impact the very cultures in which they live and are a part. It is true, some will feel called to go to other places, all over the world, but the same question poses itself: how does the Gospel fit into this world? It is an increasingly interesting and universalized question in our globalized world.
We need to bring the Gospel to the present with great flexibility
The Reformation was largely a product of the individualism of the Renaissance, and a sort of precursor to the Enlightenment and the radical individualism of existentialism and postmodernism. But the power of the Reformation was in taking the paintbrushes from Rome, its glorified Bishop, and its authoritarian Magisterium and giving them to all the priests, to all the believers. Such an adaptation and an accommodation was simply a necessary step in the individualizing world. No longer was a central headquarters for Christianity tenable for evangelism, especially the form of evangelism that the Prince of Peace would advocate, one that won over hearts with peace and not violence, with inclusion and not imperialism.
In that time of individualism such a radical departure from Rome made sense. But in our ever-globalizing world (one that Trump will ensure the U.S. stays out of with his protectionist and isolationist trade and foreign policy), such individualism may be less necessary. The questions that plague all Christians about how to bring the Gospel to the present with great flexibility are becoming much more universal. I am overstating this now because the world is not nearly as flat as I hyperbolically posit, but I believe a time is coming when information, resources, and technology will be so rapidly shared that the progress and direction of the whole world will be much more in-sync than they were in centuries past.
In the meantime, we do have to grapple with the reality that there is a significant cultural difference between the regions of the world (no matter how one chooses to name them). Because the Gospel can be and should be brought into the present with great flexibility, we need to see one another with grace. Rather than trying to control the dialogue or the direction of Christianity in regions that are much different than our present one, it makes sense to stay within our contexts and become experts in adaptation and flexibility (not assimilation, however).
We are changing hearts and minds, but also the whole world
Of course, that is another aspect of the work of missionaries. We must not just convert people to become followers of Jesus, but convert the world itself, and even the creation in doing it. We are not just interested in a world where evangelists and missionaries are just reacting to trends, but setting them. Christians need to be cultural leaders, ones that progress the whole of society, instead of using their platform and powers to simply hold back society to what it was—to conserve what it was. And Christians need to do this because they need to set the tone for how progress is happening. They do not do this for power or for influence, but because they have discerned the Sanctifying Holy Spirit, who seeks to sanctify the whole world. They do it because they serve Jesus, who is reconciling all things unto himself. They do this as vessels of God and agents of God in this foreign world. A world that is becoming in touch with its out-of-placeness and moving toward its fullness and wholeness in God. God desires to be saved, and in God’s sovereignty, God will employ all people to bring about this mission. The need to evangelize is about a palpable improvement to life, an alleviation of suffering, and a better world for all. It is not about some distant land in a cloud that we will all get to when we perish. It is about bringing about eternity now! Christians then are not just reactionary missionaries, but proactive ones that change the world and make it better. The Gospel needs to offer real, tangible changes to the world and the people living in it. Christians who model that, will have a universal Gospel, freely adapting to its context and freely expressing the incarnational love of Jesus Christ.
Christians are charged with doing this—all of us, not just those who name themselves as missionaries—because we are equipped to do so in a unique way. We do it in a way without getting caught in statecraft and imperialism because we use alternative methods to create alternative communities. It is elemental and critical that we form authentic communities that can adapt to their culture without becoming their culture. Peace-loving communities that willingly and humbly learn from the people around them, without imposing their will, but model the very nature of Jesus. Doing so in a way that a mere relationship with a member of such a community moves someone to want to follow Jesus. That is precisely the fruit of an incarnational, adaptive, universal mission to share the Gospel. People get to know Jesus because they got to know you.