One of the chief motivations for building the present-day ecumenical movement was to give credible witness to Jesus Christ and his teachings. Giving credible witness has at its core the sharing of the good news that is the essence of Christ’s message — that God loves us and wishes us to “[…] have life and have it in abundance” (John 10:10 English Standard Version). The gospel includes the assurance that God is with the poor, the oppressed, the prisoner, the sick, and the despised. Love will triumph over all forms of evil. Joy will replace all suffering. God is with us (please see Revelation 21).
As the Era of European empires gave way, as the world shook off the subjugation of megalomania turned into World Wars, and as decolonization replaced systems of economic and political exploitation, Christians in many parts of the world became wary of the connection between mission and evangelism — and between ecumenism and the missionary movement that had helped birth the ecumenical movement that is still with us today. For very good reasons, many Christians reflected upon their message and upon the destruction of cultures that had been wrought by the symbiosis between imperial expansion and Christianization of much of the world. As one who realizes they have been driving over a cliff may well slow, if not stop, their course in order to avoid going over the edge, both Christian mission and ecumenical work done by many of the churches became reticent about proclaiming a evangelistic message that could be seen as a potential means of imposing further destruction upon cultures and, perhaps unfairly, undermining existing religions in other parts of the globe. Although self-reflective questions surfaced at various points during the history of Christianity, a period of true self-doubt has been in evidence since about the middle of the 20th century and continuing to the present (especially among so-called “mainline” churches).
The ensuing hesitancy about sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ (evangelism) has led some to make strenuous efforts at redefining the term, so as to make clear that sharing the gospel does not mean destroying culture — not necessarily implying that one wants a person to convert from one belief to another. Some formulations of these attempts suggest that we “offer Christ to the world.” Other speak of “inviting” those who do not already have a faith tradition. In the first of these two options I cannot help but have an image of someone walking about with a tray of finger sandwiches at a party. With the other, I see someone sitting at a lone table with a stack of brochures. Both attempts to remake evangelism (along with many other variants) are so laden with timidity or self-contempt as to make a meaningful conversation with people, who might want to understand the heart of the Christian reason for being, virtually nonsensical.
During my studies for both of my graduate degrees I devoted a considerable amount of time to studying evangelism (on the theoretical and philosophical levels). I was really quite dismayed when I moved into my own work in the church and academy and realized that Christians (United Methodists and many others) had been teaching themselves to be unsure of what to say when it came to sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. This reality presented itself most glaringly at one of the first gatherings I attended of a dialogue between Jews and Christians in the United States. In a room full of rabbis and representatives of Christian denominations (most of them theologically trained clergy), questions were asked again and again that began with something like, “What do Christians believe about ___?” This was usually followed by a long pause, no one among the Christians wanting to be the first to venture a reply. Once someone was overcome by the awkwardness of that silence, they would begin to say, in slow and deliberate (let us be plain and say “tentative”) words that Christians think such-and-such. The answer seldom engaged the question deeply. And the answer was usually quickly dispensed with by the speaker who would ask the rabbis to explain their position. The rabbis, by contrast, offered substantive thoughts that were clearly only the tip of the iceberg. The Christians’ answers were usually so broad and un-nuanced as to readily misrepresent the diversity of opinions in the room. Timidity led to shallowness. After a few hours of this, one of the rabbis let out a sigh of exasperation. “What do you Christians believe? You seem to always be avoiding saying anything you think we don’t want to hear. Since we started talking, you haven’t told me a thing about Jesus. Isn’t Jesus important to you people? Isn’t he the main reason for the existence of your religion? Why don’t you talk about him? Why don’t you talk about what he says?” I wanted to levitate out of my seat because I agreed so much with what he said. I was new to the discussion. I’d been keeping quiet because I really didn’t know what an interreligious dialogue was supposed to be like. But I certainly hoped it wasn’t supposed to be like what I had witnessed during those first few hours. “Please,” he said. “Stop smiling all the time and trying to agree with us. We know we don’t agree. So let’s talk about what we don’t agree about.” I had to fight to suppress a laugh. The rabbi’s criticism was right on the mark.
While this avoidance of talking about what we believe as Christians is common among many with whom I’ve been involved during my ecumenical work (and my work at the seminaries where I have taught), it seems especially strong among United Methodists. At a council of churches meeting at which I’d just introduced myself, a woman came up and said, “So you’re a United Methodist. You people are always smiling and so nice. But what do you believe?”
The fact is, if Christians are witnesses to God’s love as revealed in the teachings of Jesus, as witnesses we are expected to have something to say. If Christians (and United Methodists among them) have nothing more to offer the world than smiles and encouraging words that add up to “we think everything in the world is just great the way it is” then I seriously doubt we are not simply a means of wasting fresh air when we breathe. The novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, has a passage that sets the scene in time by saying it was “[…] nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change[.]” My concern is that this may actually be the sort of passionless and weak “good news” we Christians have been giving the world for awhile. Is that really what motivated Jesus, Emmanuel, to die on a cross — and then rise again? I doubt it.1
Whether it is in our individual lives or “whenever two or three” are gathered in Jesus’s name, the sharing of the gospel, the evangelistic mission of the Christian ministry, must be there. Without evangelism nothing Christians do can ever make sense.
It is a radical thing to say that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that everyone who has faith in him may not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, Revised English Bible) It is a radical thing to say that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28, English Standard Version) It is a radical thing to say that, through Christ Jesus, the whole world is being reconciled with God; that through him all sins may be forgiven; that through him God will “. . . wipe every tear from [our] eyes. There shall be an end to death, and to mourning and crying and pain, for the old order has passed away!” (Revelation 21:4) It is a radical thing to say that God died — and rose again — in Jesus the Christ to save all humankind (and all creation). Do we really have nothing to say? Smile, yes. Of course smile. Because this is good news! This is why Jesus calls people to be his disciples and his messengers to all the world.
The gospel of Jesus Christ cannot help but change the world. There has been no culture that remained the same after that message came into it. It is not about one culture taking over another. It is about the fact that no one can remain unchanged — because a world that does not love as it should cannot be the same once it begins to love. Going out to be nice to people and not sharing the full essence of the message that was entrusted to Christians to deliver is like being sent to a sick person with the medicine to heal them and then sitting by their bedside to smile and just watch them die.
One of the most basic ways in which anyone who is a Christian is united with all other Christians is that we are called upon to proclaim the gospel to all the world. We are not simply chosen to be the beneficiaries of God’s grace. Our rescue from slavery to sin and death is incomplete if we do not rush and share the love taught to us by Jesus with every creature we can. We are called to share that love and that hope with everyone in word and deed — in all that we are and all that we do.
We are blessed to have self-doubt and to reflect upon the mistakes we Christians have made. We are blessed to realize we have offered up our concepts of culture as substitutions for the gospel that favors nothing loveless in any culture. We are blessed to weep when we recognize that sometimes we have perverted the meaning of “being one in Christ” in order to justify violence, oppression, and death. We are blessed, especially, when we recognize that being called to life as a Christian does not mean that others are not also made to be children of the Living God.
People called to be Christians cannot help but be united — made one in Christ — when they receive and live the life shaped by the love and example of Jesus. People called to be Christians cannot help but be united with all humankind — and all creation — when they realize that God’s love is for everyone and everything. There can be no puffing oneself up, or looking down upon another, when we realize that we are all sick unto death on account of sin; and we are all so precious to God that he lived and died and lives again for our sake — for each and all of us.
What of evangelism? There is no Christianity without it.
1Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Kindle ed. (New York, NY: Del Rey, 2005), location 64.