A radical rethinking of our evangelistic strategy

Brian McLaren | Aug 22, 2005

Photo by Rob Bye

Even if we are not in a time of philosophical and cultural transition characterized by “the posties” (postmodern, postcolonial, post-Enlightenment, post-Christendom, post-Foundationalism, etc.); even if we are still in late- or hyper-modernity; even if the growth of the church in the global south is encouraging (a celebrated “fact” which may be, in part at least, simply an emperor with new clothes—remember Rwanda); even if conservative religious broadcasting is more pervasive and profitable than ever and everything I and others have been writing about the postmodern transition and the emerging culture is a myth, a mistake, and a false alarm—even under such dubious circumstances, we are in need of a radical rethinking of our evangelistic strategy as gospel-oriented Christians, seeking to follow the Great Commission.

Statistics tell us that our strategy is failing: in America, where 40% claim to attend church regularly in a culture that shows little evidence of Christ-like presence; in Canada, where 19% attend church regularly; in England, where church attendance runs well under 10%; and finally, in Europe, with attendance generally under 5%. The church dropout rate of Christian kids in the first years out of high school (a stunning crisis about which we remain in denial, by and large) tells us so. The dropout rate of adults swelling the unchurched Christian category tells us so. The fact that so many Christians are mean-spirited, afraid, racist, and isolationist—often in direct proportion to their Biblical knowledge and accumulated “pew time” in church—tells us so. Even Scripture warns us, calling us neither to make “converts to Christianity” nor to count “decisions for Christ,” but rather to make disciples of Jesus Christ, a much higher and more ambitious challenge.

So many things tell us that our strategy deserves a rethinking that I won’t try to enumerate them all, but will only paraphrase Dallas Willard, who reminds us that our current system is perfectly designed to give us the results we are now getting.

I’ve gotten off to a negative start, but I’m not by nature a critic or complainer. At heart, I think, I’m an evangelist and mystic with a slightly above-average imagination, so I would like to offer five strategies which could lead us to a better place. The first may appear so ridiculous as to discredit the others, but I’ll take that risk:

1. Admit we may not actually understand the good news, and seek to rediscover it (or, Reboot our theology in a new understanding of the gospel of Jesus).

Christianity exists on planet earth in three main forms. Its two western forms, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, understand the gospel to be primarily information on how to get one’s soul into heaven after death. Although they differ on what constitutes that information, they generally agree on the goal. Its Eastern form, Eastern Orthodoxy, is, by and large, so accreted with cultural barnacles (Greek, Serbian, Russian, etc.), that those not born in the appropriate cultures—and many born within them—find it hard to penetrate beneath the accretions. There may be treasures there, and I think there are, but they are hidden and heavily guarded.

If Christianity is not primarily information about how one gets into heaven after death, then almost nobody on earth seems to know what it is instead. A tiny number of Christian leaders (including fine, bona fide evangelicals such as Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, Bill Hull, Len Sweet, Todd Hunter, and others) are making a daring counterproposal: Perhaps the gospel has something to do with the Kingdom of God, and perhaps that Kingdom is not equal to going to heaven after death, but rather involves God’s will being done on earth, in history, before death, in the land of the living.

Along similar lines, a few additional bona fide evangelicals (such as Mark Baker, Joel Green, and N.T. Wright) are suggesting that the gospel is not atonement-centered, or, at least, not penal-substitutionary-atonement-centered. Rather, according to these, atonement theology may be a kind of prelude to the gospel, or groundwork that prepares the way for the gospel of the Kingdom of God. Perhaps it is but one facet of a glimmering diamond—which suggests it is not centered in a proposition, but in a Person. This suggestion represents a Copernican revolution for Western Christianity, in both its conservative Catholic and Protestant forms. It may be judged erroneous—and likely will be judged so by many readers of this paper—but even those who dismiss it would be wise to consider the possibility that there is at least some small grain of truth to these ruminations on the nature and center of the gospel. A lot is at stake either way.

Evangelicals have historically considered battle lines to be drawn between justification by works versus justification by faith, but these authors suggest that the new battle line is rather between salvation beyond history from hell by grace versus salvation within history from sin by grace—with sin including both personal and social dimensions.

For reasons I have detailed elsewhere, I have put my eggs in the basket that suggests we need to rethink our understanding of the gospel—both for the sake of faithfulness to Holy Scripture, and for the sake of mission in the emerging postmodern culture.

What the emerging culture needs is nothing less than a radical new vision of what life can be, including personal life, family life, community life, social life, and global life in all its dimensions—cultural, business, political, economic, social, recreational, etc. This “vision of what life can be,” along with a way of life that helps bring that vision into reality, is at least a significant dimension of what I believe Jesus meant by the phrase “Kingdom of God.” It is a vision in the truest sense of the word—a gift of seeing that comes from God.

What I believe to be gospel, the gospel, is not just information on how one goes to heaven after death by whatever means (admitting that “by grace through faith” in Jesus is far better than by works, by luck, or by another other way), but rather a vision of what life can be in all its dimensions (not just individual). This is the Kingdom of God.

2. (Re)define what a disciple is (or, Change believers into be-alivers and be-lovers).

The term Christian is weighted with baggage, so let’s surrender it for this paper and work with the word disciple temporarily. Disciples, unlike Christians as they are perceived in the postmodern culture around us, are not haters of their neighbors. They are not withdrawers from the world, nor are they its critics and judges. They are not hoping to escape the world as soon as possible, so others are left behind to face destruction; rather, they are engaging with the world for the sake of Christ, being willing “to spend and be spent” as Christ was.

Discipleship in this sense is one side of the coin: it means being called to learn a new way of living, a way of life which pleases God and fulfills God’s dreams, a way of life characterized by love for God and one’s neighbor and one’s enemies. It positions one in the world as a servant, a doer of good works, and a friend to sinners, as was our Lord.

The other side of this coin is apostleship, not in an ecclesiastical sense, but in a missional sense: one is called to learn so she can be sent to teach, just as a violinist or artist becomes a student or apprentice of a master. After learning the art or craft, she can be sent to make music or art, and eventually take on students herself, in the tradition of the master.

In this sense, evangelism becomes not the recruiting of refugees who seek to escape earth for heaven in a flight of spiritual self-interest, but rather the recruiting of revolutionaries who seek to bring the good and healing will of heaven to earth in all its crises.

If this redefinition of what a disciple, or Christian, truly is catches on, evangelism will require a radically new approach—we will need to learn and unlearn much.

If this kind of redefinition does not catch on, I have little hope for evangelism in the postmodern world, so any less costly strategy would be useless.

3. Do good works, including reconciliation with other Christians (or, Recenter the Great Commission in the Great Commandment).

Earlier in 2004, Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ was touted by many Christians as “the greatest outreach opportunity in 2000 years.” I have not seen the film, but I imagine it is stunning and powerful, and I hope God will use it in unprecedented ways. But I find this assumption of many Christians disgusting.

What is needed is not the showing of a movie (no matter how great), but a revolution of Christians who are showing the love of Christ by moving into the world and loving their neighbors. In other words, unless disciples are following the Great Commandment, it is fruitless to engage in the Great Commission. If we replicate people who do not love God or their neighbors, we are not fulfilling the mission of Jesus.

Ah, some will say, but that is not evangelism! That is discipleship or social action or whatever.

Ah, I would respond, perhaps we need to redefine evangelism. If the gospel is intended to be more than words in air or on paper, and more than images on film or on movie screens—if it is meant to be a message that is embodied in good works by communities of people known as “the light” or “the salt of the world,” then there is no true evangelism without embodied action in these areas. If the Great Commission is about the making of disciples (and it surely is), and if evangelism is the proclaiming of the good news of the Kingdom of God that calls people into discipleship to Jesus, then if people aren’t being deployed into the world in reconciling and healing neighbor-love, evangelism isn’t happening. All that’s happening is the Great Commotion.

Along with a reappraisal of the importance of good works done in neighbor-love (not to earn salvation, of course not), we must reappraise the importance of reconciliation among disciples. This includes denominational reconciliation, yes, but extends to racial, economic, educational, and national reconciliation, too. If disciples don’t love one another, according to Jesus, no one has much reason to believe their message. I suspect this is a fail-safe mechanism Jesus built into the gospel: the only messengers who should be trusted are those who exemplify the message.

There was a time in Christian history when one could not become a Christian unless one actually knew a Christian. There were no books, church buildings, television or radio broadcasts, billboards, websites, tracts, films, or other “evangelistic tools.” The only evidences for the gospel were the good lives and good works of people who be-lived the gospel. The church did better in those times than it does in ours. Perhaps the reason we focus so much attention and money on films, books, broadcasts, and other tools is because our own example is so flimsy. Our lack of example in speech, behavior, love, faith, and purity may also explain why we must rely so heavily on arguments, many of them making claims that appear to postmodern people to be coercive and colonial, and therefore immoral, heavily laced with adjectives like absolute and objective to modify the noun truth.

4. Decrease church attendance (or, Deploy Christians into their neighborhoods and communities and world to build relationships with everyone they can, especially the last, the lost, the least).

This radical reconception of what the gospel, the disciple, and the Great Commission truly are will lead to a new missional conception of the church. Rather than measuring the church by its attendance, we will measure it by its deployment. Instead of trying to get more people to attend church more of the time, we will try to get people who attend church to do so only as much as is necessary, and no more, so they can spend more time interacting lovingly with their neighbors as an expression of life in the kingdom of God as disciples.

Church will decreasingly mean a place one attends, and will increasingly mean a community to which one belongs, a community that shares a common mission and a common spiritual practice, rooted in a common story of what’s going on here on planet earth. Whether the word church (like the word Christian) is abused beyond recovery, I don’t know. Let’s assume it is redeemable.

One of the greatest enemies of evangelism is the church as fortress or social club that sucks Christians out of their neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, and other social networks and isolates them in a religious ghetto. There it must entertain them (through various means, many of them masquerading as education) and hold them (through various means, many of them epitomized by the words guilt and fear). Thus Christians are warehoused as merchandise for heaven, kept safe in a protected space to prevent spillage, leakage, damage, or loss until their delivery.

However, if the church is otherwise imagined, it can be experienced as an open community, welcoming strangers as Jesus welcomed sinners. Thus it becomes the main highway of evangelism. And if unexpected people are loved there—people who would not be accepted were it not for the good news of the kingdom of God, the poor, the racially other, the politically other, and so on, then the church will once again flow with new wine that no old wineskins can contain.

5. Start new “hives” of Christianity, without blowing up or stirring up the existing hives (or, Create catholic missional monastic faith communities).

Relatively few churches will be able to change from fortress to anything else. The system that sustains “church as fortress” is strong and well funded. As many churches as can should be encouraged to be reborn, but expectations should probably be modest in this regard.

Meanwhile, new “hives” of this kind of Christianity must be nurtured. If even twenty percent of all our seminarians were trained in this direction as church planters, for example, a revolution would begin within a few decades, if not a few years.

The new hives of Christian vitality could thrive in all sectors, forms, styles, or “models” of the church. They would in this sense be catholic—honoring and receiving, rather than protesting and rejecting one another, with no sense of a “model” or “right way” of living as the church.

They would be focused on the belief that God loves the world and sent his Son not to condemn it but to save it, seeing the church as God’s agent or collaborator in that saving work. They would, in this sense, be missional.

They would know that in order to be a transforming community, they must promote individual transformation through practices of prayer, worship, service, forgiveness, solitude, fellowship, and the like. They would, in this sense, be monastic.

These communities may have names (like St. Peter’s Roman Catholic, or Immanuel Bible, or The Open Door), or they may be too ephemeral and illusive to have names (like the four people who meet in Jack’s living room, or the circle of friends Mary meets with at a pub in Glasgow every Tuesday night). Together, they become the buzzing hives of the gospel.

They must become these hives without antagonizing pre-existing hives that do not like these five strategies at all, and would rather stay with business or ministry as usual. Hornets’ nests of controversy do not need to be stirred up in times like these; such controversies will not further the gospel and the making of disciples, but will rather impede and frustrate both the considerable good already being done by the fortress churches which constitute the status quo, along with the potential good that could be done by new “hives” of Christian living. Perhaps then, a strategy like this should only be pursued in the strictest secrecy.

As I said at the outset, I am offering these strategies as dreams. They are deeply demanding, may be terribly impractical, and perhaps even humanly impossible—even if they are wise. And, of course, many will think that they are not wise at all.

Reflection Questions:

Brian’s paper presents some provocative ideas about church as we know it. Which of his ideas do you agree with? Which do you disagree with? Which are you not sure about?

Which of the five strategies are most relevant to your ministry? How would your ministry be different if you made some progress in that strategy?

Which strategies would you add, either for the church overall, your local congregation, or your youth ministry?

This article is a shortened version of a paper entitled “The Strategy We Pursue” that Brian McLaren presented at the Billy Graham Center 2004 Evangelism Roundtable and also appeared in the Fall, 2004 issue of Theology, News & Notes.

Brian McLaren
Brian McLaren is Minister-at-Large of Cedar Ridge Community Church, an innovative church in the Baltimore-Washington area. He is the author of a number of groundbreaking books on theological and ministerial issues in an emerging postmodern environment including, A New Kind of Christian, More Ready Than You Realize: Evangelism as Dance in the Postmodern Matrix, The Last Word and the Word after That, A Generous Orthodoxy, and The Secret Message of Jesus. McLaren is an adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary teaching in the Doctor of Ministry program.

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