Tuesday, May 30, 2006

value? without no value?

Can something valuable come out of something that is not valuable (or considered less valuable)?

I had coffee with a friend of mine today and we got to talking about authentic community and the issues involved with postmodernism and modernism. He sees major issues with postmodernism (and for that matter modernism as well – but thinks it is better than PM) because he thinks that it eliminates the regions that modernism creates in such a way that makes it so individual that no one can say anything that stems outside of their own context (if you want to argue about if postmodernism says that or not, that’s another argument).

This got me to thinking (because we were talking about authentic community) in such a way that community needs events in which generate transformative experiences but is not reliant completely on the context of those events. For example, you go drinking with 3 of your good buddies for an afternoon and hang out. You then at a later time have a deep conversation with one of these individuals. Would that deeper conversation happen if you had never gone drinking with them before?

Can you have a conversation that stemmed out of a context without the context that you had? Would it even be the same conversation? Would you have ever had the ability or awareness to know that that person is capable of having this deeper conversation without the prior event?

Can you have something valuable grow out of something else that is less valuable and then separate it off? Can postmodernism have benefits once modernism is no more? Can authentic community be created without some form of less "valuable" community?

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Evangelism (a few thoughts)

When it comes to evangelism I often feel we act like teenagers stuck in a van for a long road trip when we are trying to decide what CD or radio station to play. When teenagers decide what music to listen to it is typically followed with a series of shouting, ultimatums, and shame-based negotiations. We all talk about the way others do evangelism in the way that teenagers refer to the types of music each other listen too. We often attack and critique the way others do evangelism (or not do evangelism).

Evangelism is both a modern and postmodern issue, but it is imperative that we recognize that we are a part of a postmodern world. We need to work hard to demonstrate the implication of evangelism to our congregations. There are many ways to do evangelism and many definitions of what it means for each of us to be the resident evangel. A definition of evangelism is faith sharing with the unchurched, a way to introduce a person to Christ. The PCUSA defines evangelism as joyfully sharing the good news of the sovereign love of God’s calling people to repentance, to personal faith in Jesus Christ, to active membership in the church, and to obedient service to the world. Each definition brings clarity to evangelism but isn’t limiting it to one idea.

As pastors and leaders we work hard to demonstrate that the severity of the choices that we make in the way that we personally and professionally do evangelism. They affect people and the world. Ways that we do evangelism often stem too much from the entitlement of an entertainment-based society, rather than from any biblical or spiritual mandate. This is not to say that we can or should just drop all the forms of evangelism that represent society but it is important to identify where our motivation or sense of entitlement stems. We have become indoctrinated with the idea that our faith is part of this affluent, consumer driven multi option society and that the answer revolves around finding the right kind of marketing scheme for the good news. It doesn’t. We can’t just participate in this market economy of possibilities providing outlets to suit each preference on how and when evangelism should be done. Evangelism is not about how you choose to share the good news but rather that you do it.

The style of evangelism that we choose is not just a pastor issue but an issue relevant to each congregation in its own unique and context. There is an ongoing debate about which is the best form of evangelism. It is often just banter of philosophies that think they have it figured out. This debate is not a new debate but it is an essential issue. There are many philosophies, principles and values that inform the practice of evangelism in our postmodern world but there is no one model that simple works.

The essence of evangelism is not a well thought out approach, event or path to enlightenment. It is not as simple as implementing and teaching the right technique to the right people in order to grow the church. Better strategies and new styles are not the answer. Our pluralistic postmodern context is not going to be won over based on event savvy churches that are targeting specific audiences. This culture does not need churches that major in offering the right kind of faith or right kind of product for them to join. What this culture desperately needs is to see God’s story and kingdom as a good, plausible, and an embodied reality.

The theology behind our practice of evangelism is the most important part of evangelism (not excluding doing something). Missiologist Bengt says “Theology is, in the last resort, translation. It is an ever-renewed re-interpretation to new generations and peoples of the given-Gospel, a re-interpretation of the will and the way of the one Christ in a dialogue with new thoughts forms and culture patterns.” Our theology is the way that we choose to represent the Gospel in our culture. I believe that evangelism is a part of our theology and is best represented by missio dei (God’s sending of the Son and the Holy Spirit into the world for the healing of creation). God is a missional God who calls the church into being and sends the church into the world on God’s mission of healing. At the end of the day evangelism is about love. As Rob Bell talked about in the Bullhorn Nooma video we watched in class, often the Christian loves people and build relationships in order to convert them to the Christian faith. That’s love with an agenda, and if we think about it, and there is an agenda, then it isn’t really love. Our goal is to then rediscover how to truly love people, because that’s what Jesus teaches us to do. We have to realize that we will never convert them and if they choose to not to become a Christian there is nothing we can do about it. We have to trust God to be at work in that person.

Evangelism is about sharing the good news with people around us; simply put loving God with all our heart and our neighbor as ourselves. It is not some perfect blueprint or twelve step process. Anne Lamott in Traveling Mercies talks about faith saying “I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox, full of shinny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life hands you these rusty bent old tools – friendship, prayer, conscience, honesty – and says, do the best you can with these, they will have to do. And mostly, against all odds, they’re enough.” Evangelism is not a shinny wrench that you apply to a person and they magically twist them into a life of faith. We are left with our tools like friendship and honesty to share our story about how God has affected our lives in such a way that this rusty old tool actually does work and is important.

This still leaves us to figure out how evangelism works in the congregational context. It is important to realize that each context is different. What is a meaningful way to evangelize and love people in one context may not be affective in another. You don’t need to take soup to the millionaire and you don’t need to tell the poor to give up their possessions. Craig Cross has an interesting point of view on this topic. His book The Gutter has made a lasting impression on finding where it is that God is calling us to help. “The gutter can be described in different ways with different terms. Put simply, my gutter is not necessarily your gutter. The gutter is the place where we discover that we need God most.” The goal for evangelism is then to find the gutter in which you can go and where you can help. You need to realize that their really isn’t a big difference between ourselves and the people in the gutter and the biggest mistake is not going to the gutter. We can identify and meet a need there.

The interesting thing is evangelism in this form is not just about the person that we can help, but in some magical way it helps us relate to God. Cross puts it this way “When we go to the gutter, we aren’t just changing gutter-dwellers; they’re changing us. We’re all being changed for the better. Too often we sit through church, and when it’s over, we think we’re done with our work for the week. That is wrong, wrong, wrong. You cannot live out your faith based solely on what other people tell you; you can not be okay with merely consuming information. You must be convicted to take action for God.” Jesus said that what you do for the least of my people, you do for me.

The last portion of evangelism to consider is those who have gone before us and the good/bad that they have done. There has been plenty that was done in the name of Jesus that I’m sure Jesus didn’t want a part of and it’s important to realize that many people have many legitimate reasons for bailing on this whole Christianity thing. That there is a choice involved. But in the same way we have a choice as well, when we encounter a disgruntled individual that has been hurt by Christianity in their past that we can either turn away from them or we can embrace them. I think that most people can identify with the fact that the church has caused some hurt in people’s lives (haven’t we all?). But we have a choice to not become bitter, suspicious, and fed-up, because anybody can do that, we can choose to reclaim the Gospel message as good news, we can insist that the hope is real, and the world can really be changed by it.

It is our job as pastors and evangels to never stop believing that God can and does redeem this world. That Jesus has lived and died for us to have a better way. It’s important to not stop talking about evangelism in terms of the ongoing process that we are still all a part of. Evangelism and faith are not destinations but a journey. And our conversion or our works as an evangel are only road markers along the way. We need to realize that while we may be stuck together in this van that we don’t need to take it out on each other. We can take this thing called evangelism and dust it off. Talk about in real, honest, and loving ways to both those who have Jesus in their lives and those who have yet to recognize his face. The two things that I am absolutely sure of; one, that others out there are capable of thinking about evangelism in ways I haven’t even thought of and two, that God is driving the van.

ps. i stole the kids riding in the van thing (although it wasn't originally about evangelism) from Tim Conder's great book "the church in transition" but it's fair because im a former youth pastor too ;)