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.