What Should "Reformed" Evangelism Look Like?
It's often claimed that whereas the strength of mainstream evangelical churches lies in the realm of evangelism the strength of Reformed churches lies in their emphasis on and aptitude for education. I'm inclined to agree with this assessment, but only with a measure of shame and embarrassment. We ought to be devoted to, excited about and equipped at both education and evangelism, teaching and reaching.
If evangelism consists of taking the message of Scripture and specifically the claims of Christ to people of a certain culture, it's imperative that we be acquainted both with Scripture's teaching (the message of evangelism) and the culture's identity and particularity (the object of evangelism). These two variables lead me to surmise that our evangelism today should be narrative-minded (more than abstract-minded), communal (more than individual) and holistic (more than intellectual).
In suggesting that evangelism should be narrative-minded rather than abstract-minded I'm suggesting that we prefer, as an evangelistic medium, (historical) story-telling to (abstract) philosophizing. This has both biblical warrant and tremendous appeal for postmoderns.
I've indicated before in this column that I find postmodernism in some ways to be far more amicable to the claims of Scripture than modernism. At the heart of modernism was promise of science and the accompanying notion of human evolution and progress. All the problems of the world could be solved if only we put our minds to it.
Having far more respect for the biblical doctrine of the fall than moderns ever did, postmoderns reject the arrogance of modernism and concede the evil impulses of humanity, but do so, sadly, with gloomy cynicism and without moral judgment. Nothing will get better, there's nothing you can do about it and there's no one to blame.
In the past Christians would address the so-called problem of evil, for example, by philosophizing. Evil was seen as a puzzle to unravel and philosophizing was the way to unravel the puzzle. The postmodern distrust of this methodology has implications for the church. Hosting an evangelistic event, for example, in which a speaker promises to resolve the problem of evil would strike postmoderns as suspicious, if not presumptuous or outright senseless. People can't be trusted, especially if they purport to have the answers.
Telling the story of evil is not only far more palatable to postmoderns, it's a far more biblical approach to the so-called problem of evil. Though the Bible records the entry of evil into the world, it does not explain its origin. Nothing is said about how the serpent got there or, more generally, how precisely evil could arise within a good created realm.
God has not given us an explanation of the origin of evil, and His silence speaks volumes. To understand something is to provide a rationale, to give it a sense of legitimacy. God doesn't want us logically to integrate evil into our world-view the way Job's “modern” friends did, but to see it as an ugly intrusion, alien and illegitimate. The Bible compels us to accept the mystery of evil, and “we will not curiously inquire into farther than our capacity will admit of” (Belgic Confession, art.13).
The Bible redefines the problem of evil so that we see it not as a philosopher's puzzle requiring a human solution, but as a tragedy in creation requiring a divine intervention. While we try to make sense of evil, in other words, God determines to destroy it.
That's what the entire Bible story is about. From Genesis to Revelation we see God's plan and purpose to bring about not simply the defeat of evil, but its complete eradication. The decisive moment in this great plan is the cross of Calvary where Christ bruised the serpent's head and triumphed over powers and principalities. N.T. Wright's Evil and the Justice of God and Christopher Wright's The Mission of God are tremendously helpful in this regard.
Simply telling the story of evil with God's determination to eradicate it through Christ enables the Christian to confront the postmodern without unnecessarily offending him.
Some years ago Sinclair Ferguson spoke at our Reformed ministerial meeting here in Kansas City. My friend and then parishioner Lynn Marshall assigned him the topic, “The Local Church and Evangelism.” In characteristic fashion, Dr. Ferguson tweaked the title to read, “The Local Church Is Evangelism.”
In his presentation Dr. Ferguson pointed out how there's little one-on-one evangelism in the Bible (the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is a noticeable exception, which Ferguson granted). The church in the book of Acts does evangelism as a community. What's descriptive in the book of Acts is not necessarily prescriptive, though powerfully suggestive.
In too much Christian literature, being evangelistic sadly assumes being an extrovert. Introversion in these formulations is necessarily sinful. The Bible does reprove us for being ashamed of the gospel, but nowhere are we chided for being shy.
This is why I believe there's something ingenious about Vacation Bible School and similar models. With a communal program like VBS the entire church can be involved in the enterprise of evangelism. The extroverts can be the front-line teachers and the introverts can work behind the scenes, but there's no excuse for not being involved somewhere. Everyone has an evangelistic calling.
Rousas J. Rushdoony argues in The Flight from Humanity that under the influence of Greek thought, Christians began to insist that man is divided into various parts and that the most important of these parts is the intellect. This doctrine of the primacy of the intellect was eventually embraced by Christians such that the church's evangelistic calling was reduced to communicating intellectual information to the brain, whether distributing tracts, for example, or broadcasting a message over the radio, etc. This was especially the case in American revivalism.
Without denying the propriety and occasional value of tract distribution and radio broadcasts, I would want to argue for more holistic evangelism, of which Christian hospitality is a wonderful example. Why not invite a neighbor family over to your house and display for them Christian hospitality so they observe the gospel in action. Let them see the dynamics of a Christian family and hear the gospel in your devotions at the end of the meal.
The Lord Jesus redeems us body and soul. Analogously we care for people, body and soul. We're interested not simply in winning a debate, but in winning a person, not simply in convincing the mind, but in converting the soul, not simply in filling the mind, but in feeding the belly. Given this biblical anthropology holistic evangelism makes a lot of sense.
Because we take the Scriptures seriously and endeavor to be “all things to all men” (1 Corinthians 9:24), let's implement evangelistic methodologies in our postmodern age that are narrative-minded, communal and holistic.