Reformed Evangelism in Our Culture
Is it necessary to build a bridge to the world, so that the gospel can land? Beside a clear image of your culture you also need to have a good image of yourself to find out where you are standing. What does it mean to be busy with Reformed evangelism?
Is our evangelism Reformed? That is a question that triggers irritation nowadays, also in Reformed churches. That partly is understandable, because it then just appears as if with evangelism it is all about “preaching for your own parish.” The command of Christ to the church to bring the gospel does not mean that we need to profile ourselves. It is not about self-confirmation but about advancement, namely, of God’s kingdom. On the other hand, the irritation about this question is dangerous, because we are in danger of throwing out that which God has taught us in history. Is that no longer important? Does the Reformed tradition have nothing to offer for contemporary evangelism? This question is not about self-confirmation, but about the advancement of biblical principles in the practice of working with evangelism.
I found some guidelines in the book of Dr. Paas, which in our own Reformed circles appear to have been overlooked, namely, the indication of the importance of Reformed principles for evangelism.
When we are dealing with Reformed principles that are important for the practice of work in evangelism, Dr. Paas correctly takes his starting point in the “Reformed emphasis on election and grace: God starts where we are.”1
That is a realistic start. It immediately permeates your work in evangelism. It is the basis for the impossible work of evangelism. For the impossible becomes possible where God’s Spirit is working. When you realize this, a measure of dependence will determine your reasoning. That goes against an activist trait that is also in my heart: “We will lead people to Christ.” The biblical doctrine of election removes the tension that many (liberated) Reformed folk have come to experience under evangelical influence.
The danger of this zealous tension threatens, that on the one hand you quickly switch in your method to manipulation 2of the other, and on the other hand you end up with a sense of frustration. For it is not in our capacity to lead people to faith. People drop out. That may be due to our inadequate presentation — undoubtedly — but it also does happen that people do understand the gospel very well and are unwilling to accept it. Then it is biblical to acknowledge “that the mystery of election is woven through this ‘rejection.’”3
“Faithful proclamation is the command, not effective proclamation.”4
Apart from the fact that this healthy doctrine of grace takes a critical look at ourselves, subsequently we also become somewhat more critical of everything that we are presented with as the new invention in the area of evangelism. I detect the inclination in our congregations to accept everything, without second thought, that smells of success in evangelism. But the biblical starting point of election does put all sorts of approaches under sound criticism. Concisely said, “The Truth will sell … itself, and we do not need to add any tricks.”5
One of the strongest chapters I think is the chapter that deals with “faith oriented” evangelism. What also is embraced by many of us when “the” method of Schwarz or Willow Creek is unmasked as a certain choice of marketing that focuses more on the physical needs of modern man than on the message of the gospel. A deformation of the message occurs as if the gospel were only about the care of God for a needy man, and no longer about the wrath of God over a sinful man. You also run the risk that you are manipulating people by (ostensibly) making their needs your starting point. The most notorious is that you keep track of obituaries in order to visit these relatives with the comfort of the gospel, which they at that point need the most and are thus receptive for. That kind of abuse of the situation is often done by over-zealous evangelists.
When we are anew learning to think from God’s perspective, things are changing: God creates new needs. We can with his gospel go out into the world and do not need to concentrate on weaklings. God’s power creates new life in a world where no one is looking for him,6 unless God looks for him or her. Paas says strikingly that we do not make any progress without a robust doctrine of election and grace.7
“Whoever evangelizes must therefore listen very well to the needs of people, but not only to join them. Listening also serves to assess those needs, to gauge them down to the bottom.”8
Both in evangelical and increasingly in Reformed theology the accent is shifting to therapeutically inclined theology “that connects to the postmodern need of personal identity and fulfillment.”9 God becomes the One who needs to confirm us in our identity and less and less the God who also condemns us in our sinfulness. This modern approach to evangelism is ever more gaining a foothold also in our denomination: God’s love gets emphasized so much that speaking about judgment and forgiveness, in short, the cross, is disappearing behind the modern horizon.10 Speaking about the cross does not work well anymore.
Against that trend, Paas takes his second starting point in the doctrine of incarnation of Christ. The goal of this approach is that you also present the gospel in a certain culture, in the way Christ entered into our world. Therefore, it is about entering the world and culture in the way that Christ did.
Sometimes people use that speaking about the incarnation of Christ as model for us to be neighborly, whereby then Christ’s work of atonement disappears from the picture. Prof. Dr. C. Trimp warned for this in his study Communication and Civil Service.11 But this is precisely not the intention in this book; the point is to introduce in the context of culture the topic of Christ’s cross and resurrection as the only way to salvation. In this way Dr. Paas is looking for a means to take our culture serious and let the gospel totally remain gospel. He expands on this by clarifying the concept “sin” in our era from rational reasoning what is “in”: with sin it is not only about trespassing some regulations; you are sinning against Someone. Sin takes place in the context of the relationship with God. Emphatically it is not to adjust the gospel, but to fit it into modern thinking — and modern man does not always appreciate this. The gospel then touches man in this culture….
Covenant and Church
Typical for Reformed thinking is thinking in relationship. That is the covenant. A consequence of what covenantal thinking is “that we are willing to evangelize personally, but never individualistically. People are in relations, in communities. When we are permitted to lead someone to Jesus, this person is also a gateway to his family and all other relations. God works in communities. Eventually evangelism from a covenantal prospect wants to bring people back into the community. Our God places lonesome souls in a household. It is not the aim that new believers remain independent. We are allowed to guide them in the direction of the Christian community. It is our responsibility to search out the ways in which these people can be accommodated (for instance small groups).”12 Therefore, evangelism cannot be separated from church (planting).13
In his plea for a church where grace dominates, Paas says very beautiful things about admission into the church, but goes too far as well, in my opinion. A church where grace rules should not put “graceless” demands on people before they are allowed to become members of the church. You do not need to work yourself up to the church of grace, but you are allowed to enter. This is the beauty in his (mission) approach.
“In our western society congregations demand not only conversion of each new member, but change of culture as well. He has to partly adapt his present behavior and accept the older patterns, which are prevailing with the majority of the congregation. The new Christian must learn the ancient hymns and appreciate these... In short, he needs to go back two generations and undergo what is called a painful cultural circumcision.”14
Where is it going wrong then? I will mention an example.
Two young people are going to live together. An elder is going for a visit. He wants to talk about that wrong lifestyle. One of the partners is a member of the congregation. The other has grown up outside of the church. How do you respond well to this?
In the first place you need to make a good distinction. The one who is a member of the congregation is expected to know the gospel, as well as the sound message about marriage. It is wise, nowadays especially, to determine whether this is still the case, as that happens to be the framework within which we operate in the church. But the other one? That person does not know this way of thinking. You should not start right away to reprimand this person, but go to instruct. Thus that puts a different spin on it to both of them.
In his book Paas shows very well how you need to understand why people are doing things the way they are doing them. There are convictions behind it. That is instructive. But in my opinion he is going too far when he writes that you cannot make behavioral change the first condition for church membership. You should, I think, do just that, as proof that people have understood the gospel of grace. It is the responsibility of the church of Christ to accept only those members who not only have understood the gospel (and then will receive special aftercare through instruction), but show that in their lifestyle as well. In short, the emphasis on an attitude of understanding and empathy is justified, but this should not result in the abandoning of conversion on admission.
When Paas is pleading anyway for a quick admission, with the argument that in this way church entrants (newcomers to the church) are included in the community where the gospel takes shape, he neglects the calling of the church as a gathering of believers, who, even in being different, are the body of Christ in this world. When you weaken this, you take away the power of the testimony: “If salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is not good anymore except to be thrown out and trampled by people.”15 He is forgetting as well that the Christian church for centuries has recognized this point, by giving people the status of “catechumen,” “guest,” or something similar without incorporating them right away.
I do not believe we need to follow up on the plea of this book for quick membership, but we need very much the lesson that first we need to understand people, teach and support a long time, before all kinds of admonitions are handed out that in such a situation only hurt and estrange from the gospel: “…how good a word is in its time.”16
Reformed in This Culture
The book from Dr. Paas is an invitation to reflect carefully about who you are, where you are coming from, and where you now stand. It remains our task to be Reformed in our time, to recognize our identity, and at the same time in the right sense of the word to be modern churches. Because Christ’s church does not live outside, but within time — with all possibilities and threats. That is a way to go — under the direction of the Guide, God’s Holy Spirit.