June 18, 2009

Part III: Proselytizing

Too Political

To proselytize is the act of converting (or trying to convert) a person to your way of thinking. The word comes form ancient Judaism, where a proselyte was a Gentile who was undergoing training to be a Jew. Indeed, the act of conversion started, not with Christians, but with Jews (Michael Green, Evangelism in the early Church, (Guildford, Surrey; Eagle, 1995), 29-31).

In Christianity, we have a different name for proselytizing: Evangelism. The two different names deserve comparison. To proselytize refers to what you are trying to get the other person to become: a disciple. To evangelize (or to good-news) refers instead to a message. Indeed, to good-news someone would have brought to mind early the concept of a military report, i.e. the nation's victory in battle. It is interesting in that the words themselves represent different attitudes toward the conversion process. With this in mind, let us look at what Kinnaman says about how our culture is viewing our efforts to good-news them.

Reaching the Unchurched?

I think one of the biggest points that Kinnaman makes is that there are very few in our culture who are literally "unchurched". Most have been churched, and have decided that it is not what they want.

Based on his research, Kinnaman seems to be saying that the number one issue most "outsiders" are outside was because being inside didn't do anything for them. This is important for two basic reasons. Number one: the Christianity that we practice is too shallow to transform people's lives. Number two: when we talk to them, we shouldn't just try and tell them the basics.


Matthew 28:19-20: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
A lot of times when we evangelize, all we do is declare the good news. This is all well and good, and we need to start there, but the problem is that we often stop there. This isn't entirely our fault since usually the person who told the good news to us stopped there as well. Kinnaman points to this as the primary problem. Because so many Christians are immature in their faith, that no one really knows what a mature Christian looks like anymore.

Kinnaman talks about Christianity as something that transforms you; that it is our job as Christians to guide people in transformation. I'm not sure if this is entirely accurate. It is true that we are supposed to be transformed, but that's not the goal. The goal of Christianity is reconciliation with God, not just individually, but all of humanity. As such, both salvation and transformation are merely a means to an end.

As such, the church is supposed to be a community devoted to the Father, lead by the Son, and saturated by the Spirit. It is to be a community defined by God. But its not. Instead, we are a people who are obsessed with ourselves, and use God to achieve our own goals. To many who try this, it doesn't work because God doesn't play along with that game. Therefore, they see Christianity as ineffective.

However, Kinnaman is right that the best solution to this problem is better discipleship. We need to train Christians to be Christian, and we aren't doing that. Here we are, inviting people into the church, but we never bother cleaning up the place. Naturally they are unimpressed and often offended when they come. And naturally many leave because they are sick with it.

The Inside Scoop

The other problem that I mentioned above was that many "outsiders" have experienced the church. The "just preach the gospel" technique doesn't work because they've heard the gospel before. They are not Christian because of experiences that they have had with Christianity.

One of the things that I find the most frustrating is that I believe very strongly in the need for Christian fellowship. As such, when I talk to people about Christianity, I know that I need to point out to them where they can go to get such fellowship. But as I've grown older, I've become more and more aware of how little I trust churches to do it right. I'm nervous sending someone to a church because I'm worried that their experience might push them away. But I also know that I can't just leave them there, because I don't believe that all I need to do is just get them through the door. That is a very sad testimony I think.

However, the point I want to make here is that most of the Evangelism techniques, like Way of the Master or the Romans Road, don't really work because they have the wrong idea about who they are reaching out to. Let's take Way of the Master for instance. Think of the name. Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron named it this precisely because they believe that it aptly shows what Christ did. But there's a problem with that concept. Jesus was talking to 1st century Jews. We're talking to 21st century Americans (well some of us ;) ). What worked for Jesus won't necessarily work of us because our audience is different. The same thing goes for people preaching on street corners to emulate Paul, even though Paul was emulating Greek philosophers' techniques.

We can't just do something because it is the way that someone in the Bible did it, no matter how great that person was. Instead we need to think in terms of communication. We have a message; how do we get the message across? A technique isn't good because it's biblical; it's good because it works!

Kinnaman mentions an expression that goes around, "do whatever gets the message out." It reminds me a bit of what Paul said in Philippians 1:18: Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. However it is important to realize that Paul is saying that he is tolerating the arrogance of others because at least the gospel is proclaimed. He is not advocating it. Paul is talking about being humble enough not to harass the person evangelizing poorly, and this much is true. Once I ran across a really obnoxious street preacher. I didn't harass him, but instead I prayed for him, asking God to turn his foolishness to something good.

This concept of "whatever gets the message out there" is so clearly foolish. Imagine a pitcher who's just "getting the ball out there", yet never makes it across the plate. Yeah, he's doing a good job. We have an aim, we have a goal. We need to think in those terms.

In this case, this means that we are dealing with people with a prior experience with Christianity. Instead of introducing Christianity to them, like introducing calculus to a person who gave up on a physics major, we instead need to talk to them about their experience, and speak into that. Speak life, humility, and sometimes apology if necessary (both senses of the word).

And don't do it defensively, as if you are attacking the person's misperceptions. Their experience is real and needs interpretation, not explanation. You can't explain why their experience was illegitimate. Instead, you need to probe into the situation, consider it, and then and only then point out where God was and wasn't. Be personal and real, not methodical and pragmatic.

But I want to remind you of the first point before I finish here. Remember that before we can remove the speck in our brothers eye, we need to remove the plank from our own. In other words, make sure that before you start trying to tell them our powerful the church can be, you better make sure your church is an example of that. Make your church a place that is worthy of inviting people to. It doesn't have to be perfect, but it does have to be Christian.


Dan Martin said...

Useful insights, Martin, and I'm tracking with you. Two thoughts occur to me:

1) I often find myself hesitant to invite someone to my church because I'm not convinced that what's there would do them any good. Why would I invite others to something I can barely stomach myself? I have yet to figure out how to develop that positive model that I would actually want to invite others into. . .

2) What would happen if we who claim to follow Jesus would BE the good news instead of just PREACHING it? If the world saw that Jesus' people were good influences/partners/advocates to have around instead of pains in the a**? Or perhaps I should say if we were pains in the a** of the powerful instead of the suffering?

Just wondering. . .

Jc_Freak: said...

1) Yeah, I've often had the same issue, and I really like my church! I invite people to my small group (which I lead along with a friend), but even then, there are some people who I wouldn't think would be helped.

2) We really need to be both. I believe St. Francis said it best: "At all times preach the gospel. When necessary, use words."

However, I think a disagree with you a little here. I agree that we shouldn't be pains to the suffering, but I don't really think we should be pains to the powerful either, at least not as a goal. To some degree, if we frustrate the powerful by our righteousness, then so be it, but we should not target them either. Could you elucidate more on what you mean?

(P.S. Though I appreciate your editing of certain words, and though such words do not really bother me, I would rather you refrain from using them or suggesting them for the sake of others that me read this blog.)

Dan Martin said...

Martin, I apologize. There are different sensitivities on language and I did not mean to be offensive.

I do not think that as believers we should make it our goal to be discomforting (for its own sake) to the powerful; however, I think the gospel is pretty clear that if we are living as Jesus lived, and standing for the kinds of things he stands for, we will be. It's inevitable that the oppressor will feel threatened when someone ministers to those he's oppressing...particularly if he doesn't believe he's oppressive, and our actions show the true ugliness he's been denying. Put another way, if we are BEING good news to the people Jesus and Isaiah listed, then those who are responsible for the preceding BAD news are going to get upset.

So when we work against debt oppression, for example, the creditors who profit from the ongoing debt are going to be mad that their income stream is being curtailed. They will probably scream epithets like "socialism" and "welfare" and fight to defend "free enterprise" against us.

And when we release the slaves of human trafficking, whether prostitutes or laborers, the pimps and businessmen who profit from their labor are likewise going to be very angry.

And that's what I'm getting at. Very few oppressors do what they do because they're basically mean people. Most do it because they have a vested (usually economic) interest. You interfere with those economic interests, and those who benefit are going to cry foul. To the extent they see us as allies and not enemies, we're probably on the wrong side of justice.

Dan Martin said...

And "being on the wrong side of justice" is one of those labels that the "unsaved" frequently throw at those who are trying to proselytize. . .and you know what? Historically speaking, they're right.

Jc_Freak: said...

I definately agree with you that Christianity should make the oppressors uncomfortable. For me, I don't believe that power and oppression go hand in hand, though there is a tendancy for that, of course. I just wouldn't combine the two concepts and I guess that's where I really wasn't sure about what you were saying.

However, if you're talking about oppression, I agree with you 100%