I having a recurring argument with a musician friend. In a songwriting class he teaches, he tells students that songs should sound less like sermons and more like prayers. As a sermon preacher, I’m always slightly offended, even though I understand what he means.
The lesson is “show, don’t tell.” When it comes to art, wrestling with questions is more compelling than telling someone the answers. It’s not for nothing that contemporary Christian music is often criticized for its rush to resolve problems prematurely.
My reply is that there are certain truths that cry out to us, answers that provide stable ground on which to stand. The Christian faith requires us to show And say, particularly because the Gospel of Jesus is a message to be proclaimed.
My friend generally agrees with my point of view. But it also reminds me that living the truth is a complicated project and that people who speak the truth are often not as sure as they seem.
The tension between the sure response of the Gospel and the sometimes questionable nature of its proclamation came to mind as I read Evangelism: learning from the past by the late Michael Green (1930-2019), who wrote prolifically on the theme of sharing the Good News. Published posthumously from a draft manuscript, the volume is emblematic of Green’s passion.
gReen’s legacy is evident from the first page: “My purpose in life has been to convey, as best I can, good news.” This is the best news anyone can hear: that there is a living God, who cares enough to become one of us, who confronted the evil in the world at great personal sacrifice, who is alive to make us a renewed people. community, and who invites us to share his home after his death.
“The best news anyone could hear” was entrusted to every follower of Jesus, and Green recounts stories of evangelism throughout Church history. He notes at the outset that he tells a selective story, focusing on “the evangelical tradition and particularly its application in Britain”. Rather than creating a composite picture of evangelism from the many strands of church history, Green is particularly interested in highlighting the historical precedents of the evangelical model that has come to characterize the evangelical movement.
In other words, Green is interested in evangelism that leads to conversion: an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ who reorients the lives of individuals and, through them, society as a whole. As he writes: “The test of authentic evangelism is not whether it increases the membership of the church, nor whether it makes a person more moral, but whether it has a positive impact on the Company. »
My fellow evangelical Protestants will resonate with many of these insights. But those seeking a more complete account of the history of evangelism should look elsewhere. Green shows little interest in the medieval period and moves quickly from the Church Fathers to the proto-Reformation movements, reformers and 18th-century revivalists like George Whitefield and John Wesley, before ending with the Crusades of Billy Graham. Green’s story, then, focuses on what we might call “evangelical evangelism,” and two themes emerge that reveal tensions in the broader movement that Green sought to serve.
First, there is a tension between proclamation and incarnation. “For what we preach is not ourselves,” Paul writes to the Corinthians, “but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor. 4:5). Jesus, Green notes, is “the good news of God himself…who proclaimed and embodied the kingdom of God.” In the early Church, the person of Christ became the message, even as the Church continued to witness to the Kingdom of God within communities of radical disciples. In recounting the history of evangelism from the second to fourth centuries, Green notes how often the lives of Christians served as proof of the power of the gospel. As the Greek philosopher said Athenagoras say it: “They do not repeat speeches, but display good works. »
And yet, the struggle to contextualize the Gospel in the face of new challenges leads to failures in terms of cultural sensitivity. Green laments, for example, how early evangelistic efforts “failed to make it credible to the Jews that they were in fact the community of the Messiah.” As Church history continued, this pathology took tragic forms, as in the anti-Semitism of Martin Luther.
Green recounts a similar failure in the history of Celtic evangelism (drawing on George Hunter’s book). The Celtic Way of Evangelization). For a time, “the gospel was not presented as something entirely new, but as the fulfillment of all that was best in indigenous culture.” But imperial (Roman) Christianity “crushed the free initiative, imagination, and cultural sensitivity of Celtic Christians.”
Green could have gone further and associated the failures of cultural capitulation with the failures of contextualization. Whitefield’s evangelistic work is celebrated without reference to the labor of slaves in his orphanage. (The book’s publisher, Eerdmans, added a note that Green could have explained recent research, including one of his own titles, Peter Y. Choi’s George Whitefield: Evangelist of God and Empire.) Along the same lines, Green could have said more about the compromise of racial segregation in Billy Graham’s early crusades before crediting Graham for his later work on integration. The goal is not to undo the work of these evangelists, but rather to complicate the story and humiliate us as we continually seek to become more aligned with the Gospel.
Of course, we can also complicate the story in positive directions, and Green does that. He notes how the early monasteries were very effective in evangelization and how Calvin’s Geneva generated extraordinary evangelical activity: “He and his colleagues sent no fewer than eighty-eight missionaries (to France alone ). … It is high time that this myth about Calvin’s disinterest in evangelism was abandoned.”
This brings us to a second tension in the history of evangelical evangelism – between the work of secular evangelism and that of “superstar evangelists.” Green celebrates the “ministry of every member” of the early Church as the heart of its mission. Ultimately, he writes, “evangelization is not complicated. This comes down to a person who knows Christ versus a person who does not.
And yet the larger narrative sometimes reads like a collection of hero stories. This characteristic can lead us to devalue the little-known work of anonymous Christians, as when Green contrasts the work of Whitefield and Wesley with a low regard for eighteenth-century clergy in general.
Indeed, telling the stories of great evangelists can make us think that the work of evangelism is primarily done by charismatic individuals who are willing, in Green’s words, to “exhaust themselves for God” – and who do. almost always. I worry about descriptions like that of Evan Roberts, the notable name of the early 20th century Welsh Revival: “God picked up this man, used him phenomenally for less than a year, and then put aside. Evangelists must remember that they are useless, and that is a painful lesson. » Does our Lord really treat his ministers in such a disposable manner?
There is undoubtedly a place to remember the heroes of Church history, as demonstrated by the “hall of faith” in Hebrews 11. But the “great cloud of witnesses” ultimately draws our eyes to Christ, the “pioneer and perfecter” of the faith (Heb. 12:1-2). Our problem, as Katelyn Beaty’s recent book reveals Celebrities for Jesus has shown is that we often fail to raise our eyes high enough.
Any narrative of evangelism in the digital age must take into account the media-fueled phenomenon of celebrity. Evangelicalism’s fervor to use new media tools to share the message has embroiled it in celebrity from its earliest days.
Green makes this connection while reflecting on one of Billy Graham’s crusades, in which 52,253 recorded decisions for Christ resulted in only 3,802 people joining a local church. He asks: “Has the focus on large, exciting crusades tended to encourage churches to pay too much attention to the special event, at the expense of year-long local evangelism? The jury is out on these issues.
More than 3,000 new members in local churches is still something to celebrate. However, the habit of seeking an ever-wider audience thanks to new technologies always runs the risk of trivializing the message, fueling the culture of celebrity and losing sight of the daily work of evangelization.
Green, whose best-known books include Evangelization through the local Church, would no doubt agree. His other writings give a more complete picture of the larger project of evangelization. He wants us to look to the past, not to praise those who came before us, but to learn from them. In fact, this desire is evident on almost every page. Each chapter ends by asking questions, not only about the historical figures in question, but also about the person reading the book. (“Am I glad,” one example reads, “that God does his own work his way, not mine?”) It reminds us that even as we look at the work of those who came before us, we must examine ourselves. as we continue this work.
The last time I spoke with my musician friend about writing songs and sermons, he reminded me of a quote from Flannery O’Connor: “People without hope not only don’t write novels, but , more importantly, they don’t write novels. I don’t read them. They don’t look at things for long because they don’t have the courage.”
It takes hope to look deeply at something, and that is true of the history of evangelism. As we follow Green, we see things we have forgotten as well as things we might not want to remember. And yet, the same hope that helps us cope with this story also compels us to continue sharing—as imperfectly as ever—the best news that can be heard.
Justin Ariel Bailey is an associate professor of theology at Dordt University. He is the author of Interpreting Your World: Five Goals for Engaging Theology and Culture.
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