Rethinking Evangelism (Jan-Feb 2008)

By Matt Dabbs

by Michael Gose
January – February, 2008

“Evangel” means “bringing good news” but being “evangelistic” often seems more like recruiting for a fraternity or sorority rush.

The clock is ticking and you must persuade your neighbors to join your organization. After rush week, presumably, you need not concern yourself with anyone who has not taken the opportunity to pledge. The decision time to join has passed. Time to start working on new people for next year’s pledge class.

My perception that we evangelists sometimes confuse sharing the good news and “rushing” potential recruits is based on personal experiences. Here’s one example.

A very good friend of mine once asked me about the agenda Christians have. He had had a Christian couple in his neighborhood who seemed to enjoy his company, and they visited regularly to see him at his house. He enjoyed their visits and looked forward to them. Thus he was dismayed when these visits suddenly ended.

My friend had the strong impression the visits had stopped because he had not joined their church. I believe that this was probably the case. If so, there’s something quite wrong with that scenario, and I have a strong suspicion that his experience is not all that uncommon. Doesn’t this sudden lack of interest in him suggest that my friend was seen as only a “means” (increased church membership) instead of an “ends” (someone to be valued regardless of their decisions about joining up)? If so, how truly Christian does this seem?

The hurt my friend felt bothered me deeply. And there’s more to the story that I’ll reveal later.

This experience and much thought leads me toward a proposal for a “new” face for evangelism.

First, I think we need to take much more seriously Jesus’ dictum that no one goes to the Father except through the Son. I find that we often seem to have more in common with the legalistic Pharisees than the bumbling apostles. We may be “in the world” but “not of the world,” but in the world we still are.

Look at the example of Jesus. He hung out with a lot of seemingly unsavory characters from tax collectors to Samaritans, from prostitutes to adulterers. He created more than a little secret suspicion among us evangelicals for His promising one of the criminals on another one of the crosses that he would be with Jesus that day in Paradise. Luke 23:43 says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

In “my book,” this suggests that Jesus apparently gets to take those he wants to Paradise. If that’s true, it seems we ought to expend less energy and talk less about who “lost souls” are. Instead, we ought to spend much more energy on simply spreading the good news for those with ears to hear. Jesus decides, not us. My thought here is that we need to be very humble about assuming we know best what Jesus should do. We simply must stop speaking of “lost souls” as if we actually know which ones they are. That’s the work of Jesus; He decides who goes to the Father.

Second, I think that we evangelicals need to take on the role of Abraham as set forth in Genesis 18. In the Genesis account, God had decided to “go down (to Sodom) to find out whether or not the accusations which (He) has heard are true.” Worried that some who were innocent might be destroyed Abraham, playing the defense attorney, told God, “Please forgive my boldness . . . I am only a man and have no right to say anything . . . but . . .” and he proceeds in his role as an advocate for the people of the city of Sodom.

Given the depth of corruption of Sodom it may seem strange to us that Abraham would seem to be arguing with God about His plans. I find, however, something exemplary here on the part of Abraham. By his example I think we also need such boldness to stand before God and make our best case for those we would hope God would spare. Given the fact that without Christ we would also be condemned, it seems the least we can do is to be willing to make the best possible case for others.

In fact, it strikes me that we are hypocrites to do otherwise. We should have generous hearts because of the Grace of God; fallible people that we are, we should be so grateful that we would try to put the best spin possible in our advocacy of others. Such behavior on our part would make our own appreciation more genuine. Leave the apparent conflict of grace and justice for God to be God.

In Matthew 25:31-40 we are told by Jesus that He will come as a King and sit on his throne and that all the nations will be gathered. That He will put the righteous people at his right hand. At least for that scriptural moment the (also very human) apostles weren’t arguing with Him about His right to make such decisions about who was with Him. Perhaps the apostles were remembering Jesus’ earlier admonition in Matthew 7, to “judge not that ye be not judged.” We are warned not to judge, so the implication is that we should be very careful in even using such terms as “lost souls.” At best it sounds judgmental; at worst it is judgmental.

Thus my argument is that, if we really do have “good news” to share, we should want everyone to hear it, and test it for themselves. We have no idea how the Lord may harvest these seeds, so we cannot weigh the worth of our efforts by membership registers, or cut off anyone because they did not join our church despite our efforts.

People have to be ends, not means.

Meanwhile, we would probably do a much better job of this sharing of the good news if we focused more on befriending the peoples of the world. I suspect our evangelism would be a lot more real if we never again thought of saving lost souls (which presumably only God can do anyway) and put our emphasis on trying to become such friends with the people of the world that we could stand before God, boldly and somewhat knowledgeably, and make our best case for each one to be included in Paradise.

How great it would be if Christ’s disciples had so permeated our world that there would not be a single person who could not have a Christian to argue on their behalf. God knows we don’t really deserve to be in Paradise either. How much happier I think we would all be if we assumed such a role. Meanwhile, I am suggesting that we should be most disconcerted that there might be those in the world who not only had not heard the good news, but who had not had a Christian friend to be their advocate. Thus I am proposing that the “new” evangelical will share the good news so thoroughly that all in God’s creation will have encountered both a friend and an advocate.

Over the years, this “proposal” or “argument” has become a vivid reality in my life.

Remember my friend who suspected his evangelical neighbors abandoned the friendship because he didn’t join their church? He has passed on.

And on the basis of everything I know, this was a very good person. Concerned for the environment. Socially responsible. An advocate for special needs.

I witnessed his compassion. A person who rescued a blind pit bull that was going to be put “to sleep.” When the pit bull also developed diabetes, followed the dog around each morning until it urinated, tested the urine, and adjusted the dog’s insulin shot accordingly. The stuff of “sainthood.”

So I find myself of two minds. In my moments of Christian faith, I am planning to defend before God the inclusion of this great soul in Paradise. In what seem like even saner moments, I am very hopeful that that person, already with God, has prepared to argue with God on my behalf.

Like Abraham, I want to be an advocate—even as a sinner—for God to forgive my neighbors . . . and me. New Wineskins

Michael GoseMichael Gose has been a professor at Pepperdine University since 1980. He has also been the minister at the Westside Church of Christ in Los Angeles, Kairos Youth House, the University Church in Malibu, and the Chaplain of San Mateo County Jails in California. His books include The Teacher’s Game Plan, Getting Reel, and What It Means to Be a Teacher. He had the good fortune of studying with Frank Pack, Carroll Pitts, Michio Nagai, James Priest at the former Los Angeles campus of Pepperdine University, but exonerates them from culpability in any of his own missteps.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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