A recent conversation on evangelism makes plain the conundrum. Simply put, we speak in the patois of an immigrant when we apply the modern, business controls model to the evangel's art.
We had not talked long before the presenter began to speak of the networking, propositional approaches we once worked to perfection and now find so enervating. Evangelism as product placement, as repetitive presentation, as the means to quantitative accomplishment, all made the rounds of the room.
The men in the room (and they were all men, mostly white and mostly over fifty; Freudians, start your engines) are all right when they look for the comfort of something to count. There is so much to this sacred calling that is intangible, one longs for the simple arithmetic of recruit, train, commission. There is so little time or interest in asking the questions that have little or nothing to do with human knowledge or learning. That is, the Sacred Monster, the church, demands production, as would any good institution, and if all we lose in our productive effort is the essence of real religion (which is, after all, the humble ability to ask questions that arises at the end of human knowledge) it is a small price to pay.
If the essence of real religion begins at the question where human knowledge ends, and we never actually ask that question, or allow others to ask it of us, we prostitute the religion we love. If we allow the uncomfortable question, without manipulation, we may do the very most difficult thing a person can do; evolve in public and take the public captive in our spiritual thrall.
Evangelism, after all, is done in public, where at least two or more are gathered together. Devotion is done in private, in the deeps, or it is superficial. Devotion is worked out in public, in the agora, or it is empty. Markets exist to cleanse the system of ambiguity and nothing quite clears away the ambiguity of one's devotion as the gentle query from smiling lips that ask, "But how do you know? How do you know if you are right?"
This is the question of human knowledge announced to the religious, the believer who would begin his argument where all Scripture begins its thesis, at the assumption of God's existence, devoid of verifiability. If the essence of real religion, that which we dare not lose, is the question that starts at the point where human knowledge ends, then it is necessary to get to the unanswerable interrogative.
The problem with evangelism in a skeptical sphere is simply put this way. How do you get the one who wants to know God from a human view to ask the unanswerable question and accept the answer?
A theologian, someone said, is like the fellow who is bound hand and foot, gagged and hooded, in a completely dark room and there told to find a somnolent black cat. All the other disciplines, placed in a similar situation, immediately admit they are struggling in the dark. The theologian asserts he not only struggled but found the cat and asks you to believe it is so even though he can neither free himself nor produce the cat.
Yes, I know this is getting too long. Do what I do when I read a long book. Read it one word at a time. It will seem shorter that way.
So, we ask the unanswerable question(s).
Is there God?
I am going to say there is God, not if the Scriptures say there is God and certainly not if the church announces there is God, but there is God if the most disinterested, apathetic contrarian shows the least spiritual sense anywhere in his body of thought.
The ancients tell us that those who please God are those who believe that God is and that God is the beneficent of those who seek God. A first year psychology student would aver that those who seek God may indeed find what they seek, regardless of its existence in fact. The door we rap upon until the knuckles' skin be torn away will naturally open to us, finally, if we admit of no other.
We have to turn, then, to the disinterested contrarian. That is, we need not the seeker to show us the way (or even a way) to God, but the most religiously apathetic fellow we can find. If, in fact, we can find a scintilla of spiritual imagination in him, divorced from church, removed from God, hateful to Holy Writ, we might meet that fellow who can show us the Stations of the Cross.
Such a fellow must be approached with some confidence, which is faith, which is trust, which is hope, all in the same bed and snuggled warm together against the cold prairie wind of February. In fact without confidence in God (faith/trust/hope) we will not approach the disinterested contrarian at all.
We who think we believe might better approach the contrarian with confidence and with humility. We have the right to introduce our story and ask for human evaluation but we have not the right to ignore the other fellow's story. In fact, we ought to look for God in his story, for God lives there as often as God lives in Heaven, if there is God.
I am not talking about tolerance. Tolerance is well and good if you are the one accounted intolerable but few there are who are converted by it. I mean, rather, the kind of confident humility that allows for the presentation of our story with the imminent proviso that we may not have the story right or we may not tell it as it was intended.
Alright, the accomodational question now comes; what shall we do?
- Then, embrace your powerlessness. John the Baptizer is as a lone voice crying in the wilderness, Jesus is crucified, Peter is crucified upside down (at his own request), so that their very powerlessness becomes the core of their presentation. Don't ask for bold power to witness. Cherish your powerlessness.
- Now, accept the community of the unchurched as not necessarily ungodly. In fact, their society may be not so less ungodly than the church itself. Look for where God is already at work in those who just won't come to your building yet and make your building a place where they could come without great discomfort. This has more to do with attitude than with architecture.
- Later, rethink the confessional aspect of conversion. To walk an aisle and greet the preacher is the Free Church version of the confessional booth. Repeated too often, any form of confessional becomes a caricature of itself, by which one might erect an idol of groveling self-pity.