Tom Habib’s recent article; Wonderful Times: On Not Getting Spooked And Forgetting What We Are Here For, has much to commend it when it comes to the joy and truth of the gospel message that we proclaim. I certainly enjoyed reading it, was warmed by what it reminded me of concerning the gospel, and was instructed by it in my own evangelistic endeavours. It reminded me that the same Holy Spirit who transformed lives in the first century, is still doing so today. And we must never allow ourselves to forget that.
But I do have some concerns with what I believe is a slight glibness in Tom’s article in terms of what the evangelistic task is faced with in our current Western context. And I say that offering the caveat that Tom’s article was presenting us with the “big picture” of what the gospel task is and always has been, and I found that encouraging.
I was certainly encouraged by Tom’s reminder that we live in this new age which has eclipsed the old. But, I am thinking about the smaller picture; what pertains to us living in the first part of the 21st century in the West.
Hence it’s a both/and situation in which “in these last days” the gospel is being proclaimed everywhere, but at the same time we also see the other feature of apocalypse times: a falling away and the love of many growing cold (Matthew 24:12).
It’s a both/and situation in which, “in these last days,” the gospel is being proclaimed everywhere, but at the same time we also see the other feature of apocalypse times: a falling away and the love of many growing cold (Matthew 24:12).
Both are true at once. Yet my concerns remain, largely for the fact that most articles that call us to go out and evangelise fearlessly are written by those who are concerned about the music on Sunday night, but don’t have to face it on Monday morning.
This is not a slight on Tom and the work of paid ministry (I am, after all, part of that paid ministry system), but it is to acknowledge the reality that the problem has not been that Christians have simply stopped evangelising because they either could not be bothered or because they did not believe the gospel was God’s power for the salvation of all who believe.
Old Techniques Are Failing
The primary reason for the current reticence is the simple fact that the methodologies employed over the past few decades have stopped working. The promise back in the 80s was that if we just manage to do the water cooler conversations long enough, or start to talk about “the God stuff” as if it were a natural part of our lives (all the while feeling somewhat embarrassed doing it and trying to avoid a clunky segue), then it would pique interest.
This has, anecdotally at the very least, proven less effective than we were led to expect by our predecessors. And those highly gifted evangelists who did it naturally ended up being the ones who promoted the method to us. Which is a bit like asking the gifted Shane Warne to give you tips on wrist spin, who’d probably just put down his mobile, take a puff on his cigarette and say “Just try and take wickets.” You’re better off asking the grafter Stuart McGill.
And coupled with this is the growing realisation that while we were preparing for a return to a pre-Christian, almost genteel, curiosity towards the gospel among the unchurched, what we have actually experienced is a hostile and sullen silence. As Tom writes, it has always been Babylon, and a certain level of hostility is to be expected. But the current context, in which the gospel person has moved from being a do-gooder to being a do-badder has caught people by surprise.
Tom makes this point, quoting Dominic Steel:
I am profoundly concerned to see so (relatively) few evangelistic efforts, so little emphasis on evangelism in our conference agendas, so little priority on evangelism from our leaders, and such a heartbreaking mission progress report at our recent Sydney Anglican synod.
There is truth to that. But at the same time there is also an emphasis on church planting in Australia like never before, and the statistics demonstrate that new churches reach more people evangelistically than mature churches do. Or to put it even more positively, if you want to see gospel fruit, plant a church!
Nones on The March
Ten years ago a staff member and friend from an iteration of Sydney style Anglicanism here in my home town of Perth asking why I was going to plant a church and I said “Because no one’s walking past your building thinking ‘If I never go to church, that’s the one I’m never going to.’”
In other words, it’s just not on the radar for people any more. Not only do vast swathes of the population no longer accept the Christian faith, they don’t define themselves against it either. The Nones are on the march.
My friend’s reply? “Yeah I know what you mean. We organise another guest service and no one turns up.”
To which I commented that if there’s no water in the ocean, then best to check up river.
In other words the ministry culture of mainstream evangelicalism and its presuppositions about the evangelistic process often depends on the myth of a solo evangelist making a mark in the office or the staff room and befriending people to the stage where he or she could have specifically spiritual conversations with them often enough to matter. The gospel conversation water would flow downstream to the specially prepared guest service to which we would invite our friend (who somehow lived in within driving distance of our church).
I’m convinced that, in the current climate, that’s not as viable as it once was—if it ever was the reality. Yet we still put our eggs primarily in that basket in terms of evangelism.
Which brings me back to my point about facing the Monday morning music. Tom clearly demonstrates that he is pastorally concerned for the reality of people’s day to day lives when he states:
Harvest time doesn’t mean that we should burn ourselves out. We’re still regular, weak people who need to clean the house, pick up the kids, have a rest and enjoy themselves from time to time.
The missing ingredient in this list is, of course, work. The huge—and growing—chunk of time that we spend making our way to work, working and making our way from work. And it’s the workplace that is proving to be a battleground for many Christians.
They’re finding that the simple indifference towards the gospel that the evangelistic methods of the ’80s and ’90s touted as being the problem to overcome is no longer the problem. Indeed the workplace is becoming increasingly interested in what we believe, but in a far more hostile and complex manner than we ever imagined. The once supposedly neutral space of the work place is now being co-opted to promulgate the new post-Christian sexual ethic.
The workplace is becoming increasingly interested in what we believe, but in a far more hostile and complex manner than we ever imagined
So the concerns I hear are along these lines:
“I’m being required to sign up to ethical statements that I don’t agree with, and if I don’t it could mean losing my job. What should I do?” (a surgeon)
“In my senior role it gets harder every year to avoid having to promote and celebrate a sexual diversity program in my department that I don’t agree with. Sooner or later it’s going to force me out.” (a design team leader in a national retail chain).
And the spectre of litigation is present, in which any gospel presentation can be viewed as hostile proselytising, and may be accused of doing emotional and psychological harm to one’s fellow employees. It’s instructive that church workers are not on the front line in the current battle. Even the submissions to the current Religious Freedoms enquiry in the wake of the marriage plebiscite demonstrate that those hard secularists who will allow a discrimination hall pass for churches, have every other religious based organisation in their sights.
No Return to Rome
This is not to say that we should not evangelise for fear of persecution. It’s just to recognise that, as sociologist Philip Rieff observed as far back several decades ago, this “third culture” of late modernity is a highly zealous and evangelistic culture that is light years away from the taboo culture of first century Rome.
This is something that C.S. Lewis also picked up, and conveys in his usual imaginative manner. Lewis was concerned that we not make a category error in assuming the new paganism was just like the old paganism, and therefore could be approached by the gospel from exactly the same vantage point. Rather than a field in which no houses had been built, the new situation is like a street where houses had been demolished some years ago. The bushes, weeds and grass conceal a plethora of household items and utensils, providing a memory of somewhere once lived, and a shape to the land that is not quite the virgin territory we might expect. The gospel changed something about us that just won’t change back to what it originally was.
Perhaps the recent Barnaby Joyce situation bears this out. Faced with a scandal that could not be named as such purely on the basis of adultery being against God’s moral command, the post-Christian scuttles around in the weeds looking for forsaken utensils in the weeds in order to attach its still-held outrage to them. Utensils such as “power disparities” or other post-Christian concerns that signal our disapproval of the “sinner” without having to use the discarded and deconstructed theological terms or frameworks. As my associate at our church often reminds me, “Secularism is simply a Christian heresy.”
As my associate at our church often reminds me, ‘Secularism is simply a Christian heresy.’
Hence there is a radical alternate gospel being promulgated through the culture via the workplaces that many of us inhabit, which purports to be the good news which liberates us from the bad news of the Christian Gospel and its harsh, binding strictures. The older evangelistic methodologies did not anticipate being blindsided by this terms of its speed and force.
Looking for a Breather
What many of people in our churches are looking for is a breather, a place to reconfigure, and reimagine the gospel framework for this strident context. They’re looking for a plausible expression of church and of the gospel which takes the challenges of Babylon seriously. They’re looking for Bible teaching that equips them for that task in the context of a Christian community that is being shaped by a strong liturgical frame. They’re they’re looking for that community to provide accessible entry points for their friends who express gospel interest, and a church context that—if their friend does attend—takes their questions (indeed their lack of faith and their suspicion) seriously.They’re they’re looking for something that demonstrates a visible and viable alternate good news to what the culture offers.
In other words, people are not looking to avoid evangelism. They are looking to their church leaders to show them a way forward in the midst of tumultuous times. And they’re concerned that they’re being sent over the top of the trenches to fight 21st century wars with 20th century tactics.
That’s not a statement about the power of the gospel, but an observation about the method. If those who wrote Two Ways To Live fought hard for the use of the word “rebellion” to describe our stance towards God instead of “sin”—arguing that it conveyed the true meaning in a culture that had lost the true understanding of what “sin” meant—then they should not stand in the way of the next generation re-evaluating the most effective methods for gospel proclamation.
To summarise, I don’t think that the modern Christian should be preaching the gospel with the Bible in one hand and A Secular Age in the other. But a copy of James Smith’s “How (Not) to be Secular” just might help.
For as Smith states at the beginning of that book:
You’re a pastor or a church planter who has moved to Brooklyn or Berkeley or Boulder … You’ve left your Jerusalem on a mission to Babylon. You came with what you thought were all the answers to the unanswered questions these “secular” people had. But it didn’t take long for you to realise that the questions weren’t just unanswered; they were unasked. And they weren’t questions. That is, your ‘secular’ neighbours aren’t looking for “answers”.—for some bit of information that is missing from their mental maps. To the contrary they have completely different maps.”
Maybe, just maybe, the pause in evangelistic effort at the moment is the pause of those regathering their bearings, exploring the map, and tracking a pathway forward that will enable them to reach the same destination as their predecessors, but through the type of terrain those forerunners had never encountered. It’s not so much a case of forgetting what we’re here for, but of recognising just exactly where we are and what the next stage of evangelism will look like as we go forward.