Can evangelicals evangelise?

Miranda Threlfall-Holmes

There is an excellent article on liberal evangelism by Miranda Threlfall-Holmes in Friday’s Church Times.

She is organising a day conference on the topic for Saturday 2nd February: if you’re interested book here.

The article is behind a paywall but here are some snippets.

So much of what we think of when we hear the word “evangelism” has been shaped by conservative theology.

One of the gifts that liberal Christianity brings to the table is a willingness to learn from secular experience and from its liberation-theology heritage.

The best evangelism is always about real relationships and real conversation, in which both parties are open to the other and willing to learn, grow, and change. There is a natural grammar of evangelism among friends — you will recommend a new coffee shop, gym, or experience to each other because you know your friend, and thought that it was something that he or she would appreciate. You don’t recommend the same thing to everyone.

Real relationships, real conversation

In the past I spent a lot of time as a university chaplain, struggling to negotiate with student-led Evangelical groups. From them I learned how it is possible to throw oneself into frenetic evangelistic activity, without ever evangelising.

Characteristically – I’m generalising here, I’m sure it wasn’t true of everyone – evangelistic activity was a distinct, artificial process, the kind of thing you wouldn’t do to a friend.

Identity and elitism

Here’s what I mean. At Sheffield University, in the late 1980s, there was a major debate within the Christian Union about residents of the halls of residence. The question was: should the Christian students sit next to non-Christians at breakfast? The argument in favour was that they might evangelise the non-Christian. The argument against was that they might be led astray by the other person and lose their faith.

From the outside, one can only wonder what kind of hot-house ghetto the local Christian Union was driving its members into.

In effect real, normal conversations were being banned. What replaced them was an artificial construct, an elitist dualism. I am a converted Christian and you are not, so I do all the talking and you do all the listening.

In context it is easy to understand. They were already in an artificial context: thrown at the age of eighteen into an ocean of other eighteen-year-olds, deprived of parental oversight with all those boundaries to acceptable teenage behaviour. They needed to forge a new identity for themselves.

Student-led religious groups offered it. With a strict dualism they insisted on a hard and fast distinction between their true Christians and everybody else.

Their system of attracting converts was to focus on selected individuals, let them know that they were being passionately prayed for, and pave the way to an emotional crisis.

The emotional experience would then be interpreted as a conversion. Once you have become a Christian, you have a new identity. You belong to the elite and can look down on outsiders. The price you pay is that you have to believe and do what your new religious leaders tell you.

I saw all this at close quarters over and over again. Of course not all student-led religious groups are like this, but it has had immense influence. Most church leaders today have gone through this experience. Many of them are still heavily influenced by its values.

This is why I ask whether Evangelicals can evangelise. That conversion process, with its emphasis on the emotions, is not really evangelism at all. It’s manipulation. Over the last 30 or 40 years, since it became popular, we can now see how, for every one person converted in this way, a far larger number were driven away from Christianity.

Liberal evangelism

By contrast, Miranda argues that true evangelism works through real relationships and real conversation. Normal ones, not artificial ones. Relationships and conversation attuned to the specific occasion.

This becomes easier when we are realistic about the stakes. Sharing our faith is not about saving people from eternal damnation in Hell. It is not about whether God loves them. It is about exploring how we relate to a God who loves us anyway – and how, in the light of this relationship, we can best live our lives.

Jesus, as far as we know, never engaged in emotional manipulation. Characteristically he told stories about everyday life and ended them with a question. His hearers were left to think it through for themselves.

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9 Responses to Can evangelicals evangelise?

  1. Pingback: Opinion – 16 January 2019 – Thinking Anglicans

  2. Bob Edmonds says:

    Evangelism is simply talking to people (friends, colleagues etc) about Jesus, giving a reason for the hope that we as Christians have. That is how the gospel (the good news of Jesus’s death and resurrection, and the offer of new life in Christ) is spread. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to convince people of the truth of the gospel. Christians will naturally wish to share their faith and invite others to share in all the benefits of knowing Christ as Lord and Saviour. That might include inviting them to church, to an encounters course, to a social event with a talk about becoming a Christian. It is certainly not emotional manipulation.

    • Thanks Bob.
      I very much like your first and last sentences. The middle part contains wording which needs explaining (why is Jesus’ resurrection, and even his death, good news? What is new life in Christ like? What does it mean to know Christ as Lord and Saviour?). Of course you had no reason to do the explaining here; my point is that contrasting explanations can be found.
      Here’s my question for you. Evangelism is simply talking to people about the Christian hope (sentence 1). This is how the gospel is spread (sentence 2). But then, convincing people that the gospel is true is the work of the Holy Spirit (sentence 3). How can mere humans give those sentence 1 reasons while leaving it to the Holy Spirit to convince people that it’s true? When I talk to atheists about my faith – as I was doing last night – giving my reasons, and responding to their criticisms, is precisely my way of trying to convince people. Isn’t it a bit artificial to carve up the jobs the way you have done?

  3. Bob Edmonds says:

    Not at all, for it is the Holy Spirit working in and through the believer that is the power, not the mere words of a person. The disciples were not educated, gifted speakers, trained evangelists. Of course, like the apostle Paul, we aim to explain our hope, to convince the unbeliever of the truth of the gospel, but it is the power of the Holy Spirit that convicts a person of their sin, brings about true repentance and belief in Christ. I am sure that we agree that each believer should be able to explain their faith. My local church St Lukes Lodge Moor is about to start a course called Talking Jesus for just that purpose.

    • Okay Bob. I’m not disagreeing with what you are saying, but that’s partly because I’m not sure what you mean. One essential principle of evangelism, in my view, is to speak the ordinary language of the people you’re addressing. A very common feature of Evangelical discourse is the development of a jargon which isn’t shared by others. So here you distinguish, if I understand you correctly, between the abilities of the human speakers and the power of the Holy Spirit. But everybody’s abilities are gifts of God. So I’m not sure what the distinction adds up to: it’s as though the Holy Spirit is intervening into God’s world to alter God-given humanity. Historically this has a distant ancestor in early Christian Gnosticism, where the world was made by evil gods and human souls are redeemed by another god. I don’t suppose for one minute that this is what you mean; I just don’t know how you relate these concepts.
      Another contrast: you say that the human evangelist aims to explain and convince about the gospel, while the Holy Spirit does the negative stuff: convincing people of their sin (singular: was that intentional?) and bringing about repentance and belief in Christ. Is the conviction of sin/repentance/belief sequence the same as the gospel? I hope not. ‘Gospel’ is supposed to be ‘good news’, not making people feel guilty.
      So again I’m not sure what your Evangelicalese language really means, and I’m left with the impression that God has set up a rather artificial system in which evangelists do one thing and the Holy Spirit does another.

      • Bob Edmonds says:

        Sorry if I have expressed myself poorly. Since all who acknowledge Christ as Lord and Saviour receive the Holy Spirit, that same spirit’s power is at work within the believer. Yes the gospel is good news but how do you explain to a non-believer that Christ called for people to repent and believe, that Christ had to die on the cross and on the third day be raised to life, and that, as it says in Romans, all have sinned, and that the wages of sin is death. The gospel is good news because through the death and bodily resurrection of Christ our relationship with God is restored. But only through repentance of our sins.

        • Thank you for this. Yes, I do think I now have a clearer idea of where you’re coming from – a version of Christianity with which I strongly disagree. I have written about it in my blog posts and a couple of books. Of course I may still be jumping to conclusions about you, but here is a quick summary.

          ‘all who acknowledge Christ as Lord and Saviour receive the Holy Spirit’.

          In my experience, acknowledging Christ as Lord and Saviour can be a cheap and easy affirmation of a statement that Christ is Lord and Saviour, without having much idea what it means. What the New Testament means by giving Jesus these titles (‘Christ’ was one of the titles) is a defiant act of denying these titles to the Roman emperor. The Roman way of governing was an extreme opposite of God’s way of governing, and Jesus expressed the Kingdom of God.

          Unfortunately, over the course of the centuries, the idea of Christ as Lord and Saviour has been individualised and detached from the real physical world and its exploitative relationships.

          ‘Christ called for people to repent and believe’.

          The meanings have changed. The Greek word for ‘repent’ doesn’t have any implication of feeling guilty. It means more like ‘change your way of thinking’ or ‘have a different mind about things’. The word ‘believe’ has come to mean something like ‘assent to a statement’. The Greek word for ‘believe’ can equally well be translated ‘trust’. Jesus was inviting people to trust that God (as expressed in the Scriptures of the time, mainly our Old Testament) has designed the world to provide enough resources so that everybody can live well. Since starvation was a major issue in his time and place, the point was that despite the heavy Roman taxes, Galilean villages could get together and make sure everyone had enough to eat. The beginnings of the Eucharist!

          ‘Christ had to die on the cross and on the third day be raised to life’

          I know this is a common claim among both Catholics and Evangelicals, but I think it’s one of the reasons why so many people have turned away from Christianity.

          It’s absolutely barbaric. How many fathers do you know who would do that to their child? It only makes sense within a polytheistic system where the creator God is constrained by other gods (usually the devil) and has to devise unfortunate techniques to rescue a system that has been messed up. It is as far removed from the monotheism of the Bible as anything could be. The fact that, centuries after the Bible was written, theologians could pick out biblical texts, take them out of context and interpret them in this way is no justification for turning the monotheist God of the Bible into the victim of a polytheistic tragedy.

          ‘The gospel is good news because through the death and bodily resurrection of Christ our relationship with God is restored. But only through repentance of our sins.’

          This would only be good news to someone who already believed that their relationship with God had been destroyed, and hadn’t been restored.

          Today, very few people believe this. In the sixteenth century, however, it was a very common belief, because theologians had been publicising Augustine’s statement that the vast majority of the human race would, after death, be tortured for eternity. You are fighting the battles of 500 years ago!

          In my experience, most of the people who make this claim are motivated by a conviction that they themselves have had their relationship with God restored, but most people haven’t. This is one of the ways modern Evangelicalism gives people a cheap sense of superiority – the kind of thing Jesus criticised the Pharisees for doing.

          Sorry to have gone on so long! It wasn’t such a quick summary after all. I’m happy to continue the dialogue if you like, but I’ll quite understand if you don’t want to.

  4. And what did Jesus himself say about this topic? Was it not this ?:
    “They will know you’re my disciples by your love”

    Evangelism is simply exhibiting the love of God towards the other. It is not the delivery of the threat of hellfire uynless you do what I tell you.

  5. I’ve been doing some work lately with groups about seeing evangelism within a Missio Dei paradigm and (borrowing the insight of Ben Campbell Johnson in his book ‘Speaking of God’) as initial spiritual direction. Basically the presupposition in this approach is that God is at work in the hearts of those we encounter (this has roots in John’s gospel) by the Spirit. Our task is to listen and to relate deeply enough that we might start to gain insight into what God might be doing and then we are in a position to ask ourselves (and God) how we might help. This is all perfectly articulatable within an evangelical paradigm, as it happens, but I find that the Tradition of evangelicalism can make some people suspicious -though others get it especially when you root it in biblical theology (John’s gospel, Acts and some of the epistles do actually suggest this approach).
    I entirely agree with your characterisation of the artificiality and ‘unorganic’ nature of what I call ‘set-piece’ evangelism.

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