Thursday, January 14, 2010

Book Review: Evangelism after Christendom by Bryan Stone

So I've said it before, but I'll say it again: this is a very good book.

The vision of evangelism presented in this book is deeply challenging to both conservative, mainline and liberal Christians. The basic premise is that evangelism is not about giving an intellectual message, nor coercively persuading people of that message, and neither is evangelism about church growth. Rather evangelism is about witness: the shape of life that the church presents to the world.

He makes a compelling case that that witness is about equality and moving beyond old divisions (in Christ there is no Greek or Jew), enemy-love, the sharing of material goods, care for the poor and forgiveness. It is these practices that show to the world a pattern of life, and invite it to that life.

In a large part this is a work of ecclesiology (= the study of the church). He is deeply critical of modernity's concentration on the individual (and this is a characteristic of modern conservatism as much as modern liberalism) - where evangelism is seen as an individual's "decision for Christ" and where the church is an afterthought. Rather he argues that evangelism is all about the church, evangelism is what the church looks like to the world, evangelism is an invitation to a communal way of life patterned on certain virtues and practices.

Another central argument is that evangelism should be judged not on "effectiveness" in getting bums on pews or the number of conversions - but rather should be judged on its faithfulness to the gospel. The gospel may in fact be abhorent to some, but that doesn't mean the gospel should be changed to be more "appealing."

In the final chapter he gives more concrete examples of what this kind of evangelism looks like. He says that evangelism is characterised by the virtues of presence, patience, courage and humility. His examples from Latin and North America talk about communities and people who show solidarity with the poor, and courage to stand up against oppressive powers.

When talking about evangelism it is inevitable that your conversation patners are more likely to be in conservative Christianity, and North American conservative Christianity certainly comes in for a bashing here. But equally as a liberal I find this book very challenging and it gives me a huge amount to think about. I'll probably be thinking about it for some time yet.

I love the concentration on the community and not just the individual. I love the idea that evangelism is about people looking at my church and saying "can I see a distinctive way of life within this community that seems transforming and powerful?" I love the concentration on an entire way of life, not just intellectual doctrines. I love the insistence that evangelism has to come from a place of weakness, and never from a place of power and coercion.

What I still find difficult is that too little space is given for dialogue. This is hardly suprising as my theology of evangelism has always been about dialogue. Yes, it's true that evangelism should come from a deep connection to one's own tradition and it's life-transforming power, but it should also be about an openness to the other. It's true that Bryan Stone does say that evangelism should be about listening as well as speaking, and he does say that kingdom of God is bigger than the church. But for me he still does not acknowledge enough the possibility of the holy spirit working beyond the confines of the church, and that other communities may be building the kingdom of God too. Evangelism for me has to be open to the possibility of receiving something of the divine in the encounter with the other. We are not the sole possesors of God.

He makes truth claims about the work of God in Christ and in the church, and takes a post-liberal position that such truth can only be understood within the church, and cannot be justified on the world's terms. But as a liberal I kept coming back to same point, "How do you know? How do you know that God only works within the Christian church? How do you know that God's purposes are best expressed in the Christian story? How do you know that the Christian story really does capture divine truth?" As a Unitarian I have to keep coming back to mystery and agnosticism. I don't know these things for sure, and I'm not prepared to make bold universal truth claims like that. (If you read back on this blog and find me making bold truth claims, sorry, I'm not always consistent)

So my quarrel is largely philosophical. The pattern of life and way of the church described in this book is one I want to be a part of. And his description of evangelism as presence is a very good description of what we do here as Street Angels. We are a simple presence being alongside those in need in our neighbourhood. It would not be politic to describe what Street Angels do as evangelism, due to most people's understanding of the word, but understood as Bryan Stone understands the word, it is definitely evangelism: it is presence.

So probably the best book I've read in the last two years. Plus I had a pint with Bryan once, and he seemed a bloody nice bloke.


Blogger Yewtree said...

I'm reminded of several stories I heard about the Greek & Russian Orthodox style of evangelism, for instance the story of the first Orthodox missionary in Japan, who went and waited patiently, praying and so on, and after about twenty years a samurai came to kill him, but he just stood there praying and waiting for the sword to fall. The samurai was deeply impressed that this man was not afraid to die, so he didn't kill him, but asked why he was not afraid to die. He eventually became the missionary's first convert.

Whilst I disagree with trying to convert people of other religions to Christianity, I can't help but be impressed by this story.

The other story is how the Russians were looking for a new religion, and they went to various places to try out their religions, and then went to Byzantium and went into an Orthodox church there, and chose Orthodoxy as their religion because they felt that heaven had come down to earth in the Orthodox liturgy.

Again, not sure why they would want to make everyone follow the same religion, but still it's a good story.

Also, the Orthodox see salvation as being in the church and community, not an individual thing. There's a bit in the liturgy where they pray for everyone else to get to heaven first.

And I think Unitarians could do worse than look into the theology of theosis; a mystical doctrine that is very interesting and helpful.

Anyway, the Bryan Stone book sounds interesting! I'm a fan of dialogue too, but it sounds as if he is well on the way towards that view of evangelism.

I guess we could also try to articulate what the Unitarian gospel (good news) is: the Universe loves you as you are; you're already home; all you have to do is relax into the loving embrace of the Divine (no sacrifice necessary).

12:20 am  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...

The idea of praying for everyone else to get to heaven first reminds me of this:

I think Orthodox ideas of theosis are what influenced Michael Servetus in his thinking. So I think its there at the root of Unitarianism for me.

I completly love your gospel. The only think I'd add would be in accepting that we are loved we are commissioned to love the world. Bryan Stone would say that that love, that gospel, has to be obvious when people see the church, otherwise the "message" is empty.

1:46 pm  
Anonymous Tim said...

That's an interesting observation from the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Yewtree. I do think that "salvation" and spiritual transformation have become highly individualised in Western culture. Christians will often talk of how God "ordained" (mixed-sex) marriage and the nuclear family, but never about how God ordained community. I feel there needs to be more debate about how both the church and people's neighbours (near and far) become more than just an add-on or an opportunity to earn credit for an individual's good works, and instead become essential to spiritual transformation.

9:52 pm  
Anonymous a said...

'The gospel may in fact be abhorent to some, but that doesn't mean the gospel should be changed to be more "appealing."'

For me, the off-putting thing is that if I have to choose between accepting the whole thing, or none of it, I definitely go for none of it. I'm not likely to just get over the bits that are awful. It's not *that* true.

10:02 pm  
Blogger Yewtree said...

I love the Peter Rollins story. It reminds me of the story about the man who wanted to take his dog into heaven, which has a similar moral. My spirituality is about embracing life on Earth, so I really like this story.

Yes, I agree with your addition to my "gospel", and don't know why I didn't list it myself (I usually insist on the practical application of spirituality, also known as social justice).

I wouldn't be surprised if Servetus was influenced by theosis - according to E M Wilbur, he had read the Hermetic texts, which were Neo-Platonist. Or it may be that the Orthodox Church derived their ideas about theosis from Neo-Platonism too.

4:54 pm  

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