Let’s begin with the class I just attended: Pastoral Leadership and Evangelism.
After class some of us ended up staying around for an extended conversation with the professor about the problems we see implicit in the idea of “evangelism” as it is usually presented – or maybe even at its core. I don’t want to go into an attempted transcript, but here are some major issues that came up:
1. The concept of “evanglism” assumes and even creates a power dynamic, which is as follows: I have a message that you need. My life is somehow satisfactory in a way that yours is not because you have not accepted this message. In a sense, because you have not received this message that I have, you are less than acceptable, your life less than worthwhile. This isn’t necessarily what is actually going on in the heart and mind of the evangelist, but it is implicit in the process. The Message is brought to a (supposedly) hungering/thirsting/suffering world and will (supposedly) transform it, and the Message is carried by an evangelist, who is presented as one already in some way transformed, as somehow empowered to go and convert people.
2. The language (we talked a lot about language) of evanglism, as presented by the Church (in this case the Presbyterian Church, but others are guilty as well), is first-century language. It assumes that the Church is one body and the World is another, distinct body, and that the job is to bring the Church message to the world. The problem is…there’s been a Church functioning for two thousand years in some form, and it has wielded tremendous power for most of that time in one way or another. The language of bringing the good news to a godless world doesn’t mesh with our actual, lived experience. More often than not, people have heard more than they ever want to hear about the “good news” through televangelists, pseudo-religious punditry, negative church experiences, being accosted at the mall and asked if Jesus is their Lord and Savior, etc.
3. The Churches have not even begun to tangle with the problems presented by a mulitplicity of ancient, revered religious traditions in the world as it pertains to any scheme of evangelism. The fact is, there are other incredibly powerful religions that represent very distinct ways of being human and that also make powerful claims on their adherents. What about our message gives us the right to assume that we are superior, that the way to “save” a Buddhist is to convert him or her to Christianity? Also, if we take this process to its logical conclusion, we see the destruction of all non-Christian traditions. The world, frankly, loses much of its beauty and ‘color’. Sure, some traditions and customs will be (and obviously have been) carried over into Christianity, but in a way it just amounts to “window dressing”.
We talked a lot about language, as well as how language both arises from certain ideas and also fosters certain ideas. Regardless of our high levels of empathy and sympathy, our good intentions, our humility, etc., if our language implies that we are the superiors bringing the Message to those who need it, we are putting ourselves in a position where hubris, and not service, will be the rule. Especially considering that most people are not priviliged to have the education that we’re having – they just have the language and concepts we use to contend with, and won’t necessarily see any nuance behind it unless we make it explicit.
So, how do we deal with these problems? How do we envision “evanglism” in terms that foster humility, respect, and the idea that in going out into the world, it is more likely that we will be learning rather than teaching, that we will be changed by our encounters rather than changing those we meet? Should we do “evangelism” at all? Is it fundamentally an arrogant and imperialist process? And if not, what is the Church? What are we doing here? What does it mean for the Church if, in going out into the world, it is prepared to be transformed?