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January 21, 2014

The Eclipse of Worship and Evangelism – Part 2 (June 1993)

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The Mooring which Transforms Culture

by Andre Resner
June, 1993

The Danger of Reductionism

16Perhaps the greatest issue at stake in the eclipse of worship and evangelism by their collapse together is one of the most insidious: reductionism. The reduction is noxious enough to encompass both the nature of worship and evangelism. By collapsing the stages of religious conversion into a religious “one night stand,” and evicting the traditional worship of the church to make room for the pragmatic “make the most of every opportunity” evangelistic service, both evangelism and worship become loosed from the biblical, historical, and theological infrastructure, and if not lost altogether, seriously impaired.

It remains important for conservative churches to biblically justify what they do. In the case of justifying church growth methodology, Carl Holladay has shown that the modern church growth theorists, in their quest to provide biblical rationales for their modern methodologies, have been guilty of a “special pleading” in the use of New Testament texts. Uncritical sifting and organizing of a litany of texts causes such statements as this from Donald McGavran: “The New Testament is a series of Church Growth documents. The Gospels, the book of Acts, and the Epistles were written by missionaries for mission. These were written by Church Growth people to Church Growth people [sort of puts a twist on Paul’s ‘from faith to faith’] to help the church grow”1

Holladay goes on to illustrate from a more judicious reading of the New Testament documents that there is by no means a singular understanding of “church growth” in the texts themselves. Holladay shows well that the contemporary concern for church growth does not really find a specific taproot in the New Testament. He alludes to the fact that the gospel may, even in its evangelistic form, serve both a fueling and critiquing function in the church’s mission.2 The gospel fuels the mission of the spread of the message, but it also stands over against the church in its formulation of both message and method. This critiquing function of the gospel itself on its promulgation by the church has remained an unexplored topic by the church growth theorists and their children in both the “mega” and “meta” church phenomena.

Placing Evangelism in its Theological Framework

William J. Abraham has done the church a great service in his The Logic of Evangelism. After critiquing views of evangelism which reduce it either to “proclamation”3 or “church growth,”4 Abraham goes on to place evangelism within the context of the eschatological Kingdom of God. Placed in this context, evangelism is to be defined not narrowly as simply “soul-winning,” shared testimony of one to another, or making disciples. These all focus on one facet of evangelism and attempt to make that one facet the center or essence of what evangelism is supposed to be. Rather, evangelism which takes its basis from the biblical and theological witness is to be understood as “that set of intentional activities which is governed by the goal of initiating people into the Kingdom of God for the first time.”5 This is to do nothing less than shift the focus of what we are doing and thinking about evangelism from a focus on humanity to a focus on God; it is a shift from an anthropological to a theological starting point. Pragmatism suffers a withering fate under the intense gaze of such a shift of focus.

We begin by asking what it is to be initiated into the rule of God, which has been inaugurated in Jesus of Nazareth and in the work of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and thereafter… this takes the primary focus away from external admittance into a particular organization and relocates it in the sweep of God’s action in Christ… We shift from an anthropocentric horizon, where the focus is on what we do or on what is done to us… we move to a theocentric horizon where the focus is on the majestic and awesome activity of a Trinitarian God whose actions on our behalf stagger our imagination and dissolve into impenetrable mystery.6

With this focus removed from ourselves and placed on God’s inbreaking, now-but-not-yet Kingdom, we see that evangelism’s place is “to see people firmly grounded in that rule so that they can begin a new life as agents of reconciliation, compassion, and peace.”7 The initiation into God’s rule is thus to be seen as unique in contrast to any other institution in the world. Even though the sociologist, psychologist, or anthropologist may be able to identity within the process of conversion certain processes which could be extracted, “understood and mastered,” such extraction is reductive and manipulative.

To repeat, the activities of the church are unique. They are not simply something the world might do, but with the label “Christian” appended. This being the case the insights from the human and social sciences, through by no means neglected in the church’s work in the world, are not allowed to become the dominant voice in the theological conversation. What worship and evangelism are, and how they are done, are determinative for how they are related to one another.

Evangelism, defined as we are attempting here, is rescued from the shrunken “one-night-stand” experience and is understood “polymorphously as any activity governed by the intention to initiate people into the Kingdom of God.”8 “Any activity” is perhaps an unfortunate phrasing, and must be understood within Abraham’s larger argument. He certainly does not mean this in a pragmatic sense. “Any activity” highlights the difficulty of reducing the many-varied activities of evangelism down to generic techniques or programmable methods.

A position such as Abraham’s on the nature of evangelism complicates the contemporary situation in America almost guaranteeing that Abraham’s views will not be popular. This is because on the American religious scene what sells is what is simple and authoritative. Ambiguity and mystery don’t “work” well in a culture which deifies the “Popeil” approach to gaining adherents to one’s product. The marketing concerns of the American church would have us take the mystery of the gospel and package it in a way that its distributors can easily peddle and the consumers can easily purchase. Thus, rather than retaining the biblical picture of people entering a great mystery that they will never quite have a purely cognitive handle on, we have the contemporary picture of people reducing the mystery to a commodity of social exchange. The life in Christ is a mystery to be lived in, not simply a set of propositions to be memorized.

Popularity, though, is not Abraham’s true concern, and neither is it the primary concern of the gospel. Even a cursory review of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels and of Paul’s through his letters reminds us that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not inherently commercial, nor can it be forced into a popular format in order to be more attractive, more “successful,” or so that it will “work” better. Paul Tillich’s words are still instructive here:

We are asking: How do we make the message heard and seen, and then either rejected or accepted? The question cannot be: How do we communicate the Gospel so that others will accept it? For this there is no method. To communicate the Gospel means putting it before the people so that they are able to decide for or against it. The Christian Gospel is a matter of decision. It is to be accepted or rejected. All that we who communicate this Gospel can do is to make possible a genuine decision.9

Tillich goes on to conclude that there is a genuine stumbling block to the gospel that cannot be removed without something of the nature of the gospel itself being removed. If the gospel is intentionally cut and shaped so as to achieve numerical growth (for whatever reasons!) a sacrificing of the integrity of the message, of the inherent infrastructure of the Kingdom of God has taken place, and we might well exclaim with Paul, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!” (Galatians 1:6-8). Paul was unequivocal in his critique of those who would make the gospel a commodity for the open market (e.g., 2 Corinthians 2:17; 1 Thessalonians 2:3ff). In fact, he went so far as to make claims for his own role in evangelism and ministry that the church has often wished he had not. “I thank God that I baptized none of you….For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel…” (1 Corinthians 1:14).

Tillich describes two kinds of stumbling blocks: (1) those of our own construction and, (2) that which is genuinely inherent to the message of the gospel. The danger of reductionism in evangelism is the exchanging of stumbling blocks, our placing one of our own production, whether it be one of method or personality or whatever. Such an exchange of the “scandal” does not allow the confronted to make a genuine decision for or against the gospel of Jesus Christ.


The cost of a reduced gospel is too high. It can only result in a reduced worship of the Holy God, a reduced community life (while often ironically creating a larger community, numerically speaking), a reduced presence of justice in the world, and a reduced spirit of compassion among the broken.

The third and final part to this series will explore more closely the relationship of worship and evangelism with the hope of recovering each on its own terms.

1D. A. McGavran and W. C. Arn, Ten Steps for Church Growth New York: Harper and Row, 1977) 24. As quoted by C. R. Holladay, “Church Growth in the New Testament: Some Historical Considerations and Theological Perspectives,” Restoration Quarterly 26 (1983) 86.

2 Holladay, “Church Growth,” 94-95.

3 He suggests that the influence of revivalism reduced the notion of evangelism to simply proclamation. See Logic, pp. 40ff.

4 Abraham maintains that a fierce pragmatism which relies primarily on sociological, anthropological, and psychological data for its means and methods inordinately pilots the church growth “strategist” in his/her theological decisions. “What I wish to argue is that both our conception of numerical growth and our practical operations to achieve this end must, logically speaking, be governed by the kind of crucial theological concepts that are either ignored or hopelessly diluted in the church growth tradition” (Logic, p. 82). See Logic, pp. 70ff.

5Abraham, Logic, p. 95.

6 5Abraham, Logic, p. 98.

7 Logic, p. 101.

8 Logic, p. 212. This understanding of the church’s mission extends to its worship and its educational life. The theological grounding of the Kingdom of God sets our agenda. John Westerhoff III has stated that “Jesus taught us the way of perceiving reality (faith), God’s way of relating to us (revelation), and how to act personally and socially in the world (vocation). The aim of Christian education is to do likewise so that the church as the body of Christ might continue to transform culture. As such the church is judged by the degree to which it becomes a sign and witness in the world to the reign of God.” [See Social Themes of the Christian Year, edited by D. T. Hessel (Philadelphia: The Geneva Press, 1983) 19.]

9 Theology of Culture, edited by R. C. Kimball (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959) 201. One is reminded here of the apropos words of Marcus Barth: “The only method of ‘preparation for the evangel of peace’ (Ephesians 6:15) and for the corresponding evangelism is not a study of ‘methods of evangelism,’ but an acquaintance with the Gospel itself.” The Broken Wall (Chicago: The Judson Press, 1959) 27.Wineskins Magazine

Andre Resner

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