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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Evangelism and Evangelical: An Answer to George Bullard

George Bullard, a blogger for Associated Baptist Press, has written a post addressing the use of the words “evangelical” and “evangelism” among what he calls “moderate to progressive” congregations. He concludes his article with these questions:

“Is it [the dropping of “evangelical” and “evangelism”] a type of cultural and religious prejudice or myopia on the part of moderates to progressives? Are they no longer evangelicals themselves–people of the Good News of Jesus the Christ? What do you think is going on here?”

Since Mr. Bullard asked, I’ll answer.

I am involved with two of Mr. Bullard’s “moderate or progressive” churches in central Mississippi. These congregations do indeed seem to be outposts of a particular version of Baptist life among a sea of Southern Baptist churches in the area. They both support women in ministry, progressive social programs, and have a very high regard for orderly, well-done worship based upon the liturgical tradition of Charleston Baptists.

Mr. Bullard claims that such churches have all but eliminated the word “evangelism” and are on the way to eliminating “Evangelical” from their identities.[1] The churches he is imagining have been “turned off by the aggressive models of conservatives who engage in what a friend of [his] calls “confrontational evangelism.” The position taken is we do not want to be like them.” In this regard, Bullard is exactly right. “Evangelism” stirs in my mind images of street-corner condemnations and proclamations of Jesus’ love and salvation to people who are just on their way to class. It reminds me of the various strategies and methods employed by congregations to spread the Gospel: “Here’s Hope: Jesus Cares for You,” “Celebrate Jesus 2000,” “What Now?,” “Who Cares?,” “GPS,” FAITH, Friendship Evangelism, etc.[2]

Mr. Bullard says, “To engage in “evangelism” is to proactively express the Good News. That’s an extremely warm and faithful activity for those who call themselves Christians or followers of Jesus the Christ. It is not something that ought to be diminished, marginalized, or eliminated.” Unfortunately for many Baptists in Mississippi, evangelism means something more than this warm activity of proclaiming the gospel - it smacks of manipulation, bad salesmanship, and the marketing of the Gospel.[3] What is going on here is that so many of the aforementioned approaches to sharing the Gospel have been modernistic and industrial in nature that they did nothing to make true disciples, only shallow converts. What is happening here is that the word “evangelization” has become as baggage-laden as “Evangelical;” both represent the confusion of our calling to be and make disciples with social influence, political relevance, and the ideas of market competition.

I don’t need “evangelism.” I don’t need “Evangelical.” I am convinced that the making of disciples is more complicated than sharing the Gospel via the Roman Road or handing out tracts or flyers. I am convicted in my soul that broad generalizations about churches miss the point that we’re dealing with people, not customers, not clients, not students. We are not “in the business” of making converts. We are called to be the Body of Christ in our city, to be known by our love for one another and the world, and to be witnesses of what Jesus Christ has done for us to all we meet.

At the heart of all of this is the way in which we use words. “Evangelical” has all but lost its usefulness already by becoming too amorphous to describe any church or individual with specificity. So, too, has “evangelism” become cumbersome thanks to its use as something to be done. One does not “do” friendship evangelism; we make friends and meet people because it is good that we do so. Our sharing of the gospel is made real in the way we carry on our lives within that friendship.

What is going on here is that the “good old days” of the evangelical movement have long passed away. What has replaced it is a less-defined atmosphere of Protestant Christianity that still evangelizes, still preaches the Gospel, and still shows the love and grace of God to the entire world. What is missing is the objectification of that Gospel. My little congregation tries to live the Gospel without explicitly training anyone in a certain method of evangelism or starting anything resembling a crusade.

This is not the cultural or religious prejudice or myopia of which Mr. Bullard speaks. It is an attempt to live the Gospel rather than to sell it. It is an intentional decision not to contribute to the confusion over the term “Evangelical.” Being a Baptist is confusing enough.

[1] I cannot go on without accusing Mr. Bullard of using inappropriate generalizations in his article. “Some” and “many” are indicators of speculation and assumption and shouldn’t be used to describe movements, traditions, or people without evidence.
[2] These are all strategies and evangelism plans I’ve lived through at various SBC churches.
[3] See Wigg-Stevenson, Tyler, “Jesus Is Not a Brand.” Christianity Today, 53 no 1 (January 2009), 20-26.

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