My official title is “Executive Director” but my true vocation is that of a Christian pastor. My particular call is in equipping and empowering people of faith to live their faith in the world especially through relational ministry with those in our city who are economically disadvantaged.
I ran across an article this week that addresses an intersection I often find myself in as I seek to bridge the inner city and the church. It is the intersection of social justice and evangelism. Because of my strong call to social justice ministries, some may think I am anti-evangelism. However this article captures why I find the traditional evangelistic tactics unacceptable within a social justice ministry. Dan Kimball writes in a blog titled Social justice/evangelism dichotomy and NT Wright after-thoughts, “I think we need to redefine what evangelism is in terms of how we go about it. I think some of the pendulum swing is that we haven’t been rethinking forms of evangelism (through words). So the older non-relational, overly reductionist ways grew embarrassing and emerging generations didn’t want to be associated with those forms (understandably so). But we now need to reclaim the urgency of evangelism, but doing so in ways that speaks to our culture.”
In unpacking the challenge faced by Christians who want to share their faith while also seeking justice for the impoverished and oppressed, we have to understand why “evangelism” as defined by traditional Christian teaching has been rejected by those who like myself, seek to minister in this context. However, I agree with Dan Kimball that we can not simply reject the old without replacing it with something new.
Dan Kimball defines the traditional form of evangelism as “non-relational” and I think this is the key to the problem. Evangelistic techniques that seek to “share the Gospel” outside of authentic relationships are not only ineffective, but these tactics actually harm the work of social justice which is built on trust. My former pastor used to say “People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” If people perceive someone’s motive is simply to share what they know instead of showing how much they care, the message will be rejected and trust will be broken. Gone are the days when ‘tracks’ and a quick trip down the ‘roman road’ will suffice.
Any new form of evangelism must reflect more fully the life of Christ, whose motive in healing the sick was not conversion but compassion. The place to start in defining any new form of evangelism must start with the heart of the believer. If the believer is simply engaging in social justice ministries because they want to share what they know, they will never be effective. If, however, their primary motivation is to care for others, then any words you speak will have power, because the heart speaks louder than words.
Kimball’s second point that traditional evangelistic tactics are “overly reductionist” also needs to be addressed if we hope to formulate an evangelistic message that reflects a heart for social justice. The traditional reductionist message, “you are a sinner, you need Jesus to forgive your sins, so pray this prayer and all will go well with your life and you will get to go to heaven” has been exposed as false and dangerous. It basically leads the unbeliever to think that if they make this one decision, all their problems will go away. I think this message is particularly troubling when working with severely impoverished individuals who see Jesus as a quick fix when the gospel is presented this way. The life of a Christ follower is far more complex than this reductionist view of the gospel.
When we make being a Christ follower sound like a simple exchange, we rob the gospel of its power to transform lives. Becoming a Christian is a journey — not a transaction. It is not the easy road. It is not about the life to come but the life we live here on this earth. It is messy, challenging, and often disappointing. The gift is that we are never alone and the rewards of this journey lies in the fruit; the fruit of peace, love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness and self-control. This fruit is not automatically gained by praying a prayer, but formed through trials and perseverance. When we short change the message and make it all about sin, forgiveness and heaven, we create Christians who may end up in heaven but are of no earthly good. We rob people of the power of the gospel that is only found as we follow Jesus into the pit and up on the mountain tops of life.
The early church got it. They met together in homes, broke bread, shared what they had, wrestled with the teachings of the apostles. In other words, they did life together. Evangelism and discipleship were done through relationship, modeling, and taking the time to wrestle with the teachings of the faith in safe spaces where people were allowed to have doubts and questions.
If we are looking for evangelistic tactics that are quick and easy, we will never find them. If we simply live as Jesus and embrace those around us, the message we speak will not only be heard but accepted. And those who follow Christ will not simply look forward to “cashing in their ticket to heaven” but will take up their own cross and help usher in the kingdom of heaven here on earth. We may not end up with as many “converts” but we will see more “Christ followers” which I assume is the goal of evangelism, right?