Chapter 7: The Ministry as Evangelizing
Since the evangel is the good news, evangelizing is bringing that good news to those who need it and will receive it. What makes it evangelizing is not the method by which it is carried out, but the authenticity of the gospel in its relation to those who need and want it.
The fact that evangelizing cannot be defined by some particular method or methods does not mean that it can dispense with method. Like preaching and other functions of ministry, it must of course develop suitable methods and alter them according to circumstance. The great difficulty with the image of evangelizing today, however, is that it has become misjoined to a particular method and that, in reaction against this image, nothing very concrete has been put in its place.
In this discussion I shall first set forth and analyze the two dominant current images of evangelizing, and make a beginning on a third image that is emerging. I shall then use as a model or paradigm the biblical story of Jesus’ sending out the twelve to preach and to heal, with some attention also to the story of he seventy. I shall then attempt a new cartoon image of evangelizing.
Current Images of Evangelizing
The dominant image of evangelizing today is the huge hall or arena, an impassioned preacher sharply spotlighted, with arms so held that they entreat the hearers to decide for Jesus Christ and then come down the aisles. Even the most sophisticated American Christian cannot avoid thinking first of Billy Graham when evangelizing is mentioned.
Despite the fact that, at least in some respects, the Billy Graham Crusades have a sophistication unknown to Billy Sunday and the evangelizers of a previous era, the basic conception is still a residue of revivalism. And the essence of revivalism was never the size of the meeting, the number of "decisions," the folkways of the time, nor the passion of the preacher. As many of our ancestors saw clearly at the time, its essence was the conviction that methods of psychic and group pressure were both necessary and efficacious to evangelizing. Many of our forebears realized that the theological assumption involved a manipulation of the Holy Spirit. Today we also see the psychological concomitant, the "high-pressure salesmanship" that was involved in much revivalism of the nineteenth century.
Understood in this sense, "revivalism" is not properly to be associated with great evangelical leaders of the eighteenth century like Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, or John Wesley. Not even Whitefield tried to twist the tail of the Holy Spirit, nor did any of them count on the big meeting to do the job. It was only later on that revivalism assumed the theologically heretical pattern of which the Graham Crusades are a residue. I commend the story of the revival meeting in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Caricature though it is, it sees quite clearly the theological phoniness involved.
All real revivalists are too sure, too simple, and too herd-minded. Unlike Jonathan Edwards, they have not spent agonizing hours in their studies exploring what happened either in meeting or to this or that particular person. Unlike John Wesley, they have not created small groups for prayer, exchange, service, and action. Or if they have, these were gravely circumscribed — as are the Billy Graham "counseling" services, which have rigid rules in effect forbidding any natural interchange between the "counselor" and the one who has signed a card.
Some years ago I did a detailed analysis of a Billy Graham training course for "counselors." I was shocked even by some things I had not expected, such as an almost complete omission of reference to the Old Testament. I found the counselors being taught to memorize the "right" scripture verse to use in replying to a question; and I found the choice of those verses severely limiting the total message even of the New Testament. Perhaps it is the Graham organization, rather than Billy Graham himself, that is accountable for such distortions. But they reveal perhaps more clearly than the Graham preaching that, even with sophistication updated, there has been no change from the nineteenth century’s revivalistic attitudes that are out to make sales and are intensely suspicious of genuine human encounter.
Another way to look at revivalism is in terms of its suspicion of complexity. Is salvation in a man or a group to be wrought out through complex processes of insight and faith, doubt and backsliding, growth and regression; or does nothing count but a big moment? It takes no great imagination to see that revivalists are concerned only with what they can control. Psychologically this is unacceptable because it degrades the real complexities of personality and of interpersonal relationships. Theologically it is unacceptable because it pushes buttons and gives orders to God — always in disguised form, of course. Although this discussion is not an analysis of Billy Graham, it seems to me the time has come for churches that know better to quit taking orders from the Graham organization. If they want Graham’s speaking and his charm, let them lay down the conditions and not be dictated to by the ghost of Billy Sunday.
There is also a second image of evangelizing that is widespread. This came initially from "highbrows," who realized correctly the theological heresy and narrow-mindness in revivalism, but who believed profoundly in the relevance of the Christian gospel for all men everywhere. Let us not, they said, ever be guilty of seeing evangelizing as some separate or partial function. The whole church, they added, is "mission." The whole function of the church is to be "sent" with the gospel to the needs of men. The church approximates the true Church only when its members are aware that they are church for Mission.
As a matter of fact, so far as the statement has gone, I agree wholeheartedly. But from then on, I get a little itchy both with the highbrows and the lowbrows. The highbrows, from this point onward, tend to be positivistic. Whatever they happen to be interested in promoting and usually it is very good) is defined as obedience to the "mission." But if we ask, "What have you risked lately of your personal ego in dealing with someone who does not believe in Jesus Christ as you do?" the highbrows tend to let us down. Good works of proper kinds, ecumenical engagements, discussions with captive groups of Christian laymen of all kinds — yes. But serious encounter with any agnostics less dramatic than Communists? Especially when the other fellows know their stuff! Is evangelizing to be known by its "decisions" (i.e., scalps) or by the quality of its encounters?
This conception of evangelizing as the church in mission has also, owing to the highbrows, reached a lot of the lowbrows. Occasionally the response is with great imagination and subsequent service. But all too often it is. "Gee, I’m relieved that don’t have to talk about Jesus Christ. I can just live a Christian life, go to church, make my payments, and know that the church is engaged in mission." The highbrows have not so intended. But in their anxiety to change the image from an offensive, "Are You Saved?" to "The Church as Mission," they have come very close to gagging the lowbrows altogether from ever saying anything to anybody about Jesus Christ unless it is passive, pious, and programmed in advance.
The trouble with the church’s mission view of evangelizing is that it welshes on the analysis of function. And because of this fact, it has no image. Nobody is doing anything! People are in fact doing a great deal; but if the doing is valuable, the last thing in the world one can call it is "evangelizing." If someone healed in a missionary hospital, it is likely to be said that no effort was made to "evangelize" him. With the intent of the statement there can be no quarrel. But what a curious reversal at Christian values to assume that his being healed by a Christian institution represents something other than the gospel.
This position about evangelizing is a proper reaction against revivalism and its residues. But it has lacked the courage of its convictions, whether seen theologically or functionally. Theologically what it intends is obedience; that is, a genuine listening to the Word of God as spoken in particular situation; and always from the complexities of the human psyche or of human society.
Whenever that Word breaks through, then the gospel has been heard and evangelizing is at work. Thus, a continuous critique of the methods by which we are proceeding is called for by the theology. Such a critique is not the equivalent of paying no attention to methods, especially analyzing what has not worked.
Functionally this position wants to suggest that every genuine encounter may be for or against true evangelizing, and that is correct. But to use this fact as if it implied no analysis of encounters with those who are, in various degrees, not Christian is a shirking both of time intellectual task and of the personal ambiguity of realizing that the evangelizer too must change in his attitudes.
I find it impossible to create any image for this view of evangelizing. Since it has called itself the whole function and the task, the "mission," it carries a cryptic imperialism that is not susceptible to the humble partiality of cartoons.
A third conception — and perhaps image — of evangelizing has been in process of arising for some time. Although it is, conceptually, still in rudimentary form, it has great promise. The trouble with it at the moment is that the last thing any of its agents will call it is "evangelizing."
Consider, for instance, the ministry on college and university campuses. This ministry has gone through several phases. Originally, whether at Harvard or the University of Michigan, ministry was the function of the college itself. Then with tax support, the First Amendment, fair play, and increasing heterogeneity, such ministry became ‘off-campus." Added to this were "chaplaincies" or "religious coordinators." Of most recent date has been the great increase, even in tax-supported institutions, of elective courses in religious subjects. It seems cleat that the pattern and "mix" will have to change again in the near future.
But what chaplain, campus minister, theological teacher, or YMCA campus worker — even with the most creative program possible — would ever admit that he was out to "evangelize" students — and, above all, faculty and administration? In fact, his most creative efforts are dedicated to the encounter of the gospel with needs seen and confronted, whether personal or social. But "evangelizing"? Never! For so potent has the revivalistic image become that anything resembling the word by which it was principally known, "evangelism," is taboo. And yet some of the campus ministries are as creative in "evangelizing" as anything going today. With evangelizing, a rose by some other name seems always preferred.
Something very similar seems to be taking place in many overseas missionary projects, and indeed in some at home in areas of special need. No "decision oaths" in order to get needed service is a great fact. But do the workers giving service disassociate their service from "bringing the gospel"? Do they regard talking about the gospel as automatically impositional? I certainly want no reversions to decision oaths, which are as destructive of the real processes of coming to Christian faith as loyalty oaths are in the political realm. But who said that talk about the Christian gospel had to be impositional? Why should it not be honest, even about its doubts? Why should the evangelizer be the answer man? Can he not be the sharer of both faith and doubt?
In many missionary enterprises I see progress just as I do on university campuses. But there is a lot of what might be called "theological nonarticulation" — if you do not know the answer, say nothing. This is a travesty of Christian theology, which is not simply an answer system but is, instead, a way of connecting real life questions with fundamental and ultimate answers — which are by no means achieved or given overnight.
I have been trying to think of the image of this still nascent but emerging conception of evangelizing. The principal thing it has to suggest is dialogue. Dialogue means that, wherever you are, I am attempting to understand your situation and how you see it, but also that I too stand somewhere and am not the Great Stone Face; and that, with all my attempts to be empathetic about your situation, I have the key to a treasure which, in strange and surprising ways that I cannot fathom, may help you. I have both attentiveness to you and confidence, although with humility, in my convictions. I do not push, but I reveal as seems to me relevant, right or wrong.
What kind of cartoon image can show dialogue in this sense? One possibility is an interview situation, with both persons on the same level and with one showing need not too obviously.
In a cartoon, I do not quite know how we can show that each person listens to the other seriously. If they lean forward, it may suggest that one is simply waiting to speak until the other is through. If they relax too much, it may suggest lack of concern. Perhaps they had best sit upright, but not rigid.
Perhaps our image will have to be created situationally. On a college campus, for instance, the image of evangelizing may be a round table discussion with a leader who is unapologetic but democratic. On the mission field the image might be a class that, with the guidance of its teacher, has obviously done something creative and satisfying. Or it might be a group of hospital-gowned patients in round table discussion with a doctor-leader. Perhaps we cannot achieve a universal image. But real dialogue is the intent, although not without conviction on the part of the minister.
The Twelve and the Seventy
Every time I reread the stories of the twelve and the seventy, I am reimpressed with their realism. The twelve are to take nothing along, not even a change of shirts. When people receive them, they are to stay until departure time. If they are not received, they are to shake the dust off their feet as a symbol that those cannot be helped who will not receive. They are responsible for their part in the mission, but they are not accountable for the outcome, and they are not to worry about failure if they have done their stint.
The instructions to the seventy are more detailed. They are to go two by two; and, since they are sent to places where Jesus plans later to go, they are to have his agenda in mind and not their own private program. Again the realism is evident. They are to regard themselves as lambs in the midst of wolves, not expecting everyone to fall before them. They are to take nothing and to "salute no one on the road," which seems to be a symbol of remembering their central mission against potential diversions.
When they come to a house, they are to greet its inhabitants and say, "Peace," the universal Near Eastern word of greeting. If received hospitably, they are to stay for a time until their work is done, and not feel guilty about the free board and lodging. But they are not to be fussy about the food. They are to heal the sick and declare the presence of the Kingdom of God. Presumably, both jobs are equally the gospel.
When they are met with disdain, however, they are not to brood over it, but rather wipe the dust off their feet at the same time they declare that the Kingdom of God has come near even if the people will not believe it. They are to be sorry for such a community but not hang around it. God will have his judgment on it. Brooding is a form of judgment; so do not indulge.
When the seventy returned "with joy," they reported their astonishment that "even the demons are subject to us in your name." They had not known their own strength. At this point in the story Jesus revealed the vision that he had defeated the power of Satan and that their participation in this was only to be expected, since he had sent them out. But he concluded, "Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."
These two stories, in combination, seem our paradigm for evangelizing. Although the "two by two" ought not to be taken so literally as home visitation evangelism has often done, it seems symbolic of the fact that any Christian is always a representative, always more than himself, and always checked up on by his brother. He is thereby guided not to push merely his individual concerns. Perhaps, although a bit allegorically, we can suggest also that the "two by two" represents a kind of group concern and method.
Neither the twelve nor the seventy were to take anything with them. This point would seem to have two related meanings. On the one side, nothing was to get in the way of their central mission. They were not to consider homesteading. On the other side, they were to be entirely free, without vested interest except their mission to preach and to heal, in their actual encounter with the people to whom they came.
They were to bless those who received and accepted them, to get on with the preaching and healing, and to leave when their stint was finished. But if not accepted, they were to leave without brooding.
Upon their surprisedly triumphal return, the seventy were told not to be so astonished that their powers had worked. Why, indeed, were they so dumbfounded that it had happened just as Jesus said it would? Here is a useful warning that success, even in evangelizing, always tempts away from what made the success possible.
In a schematic fashion, I think we can take the following from these stories as cardinal principles of evangelizing:
1. You are not alone when you go about evangelizing — no matter whether you are literally two by two or by yourself, or whether speaking to a group or talking to an individual or a household. You are the Lord’s representative. Your brother may help you to keep this at the front of your mind.
2. While you are about the task, do not be diverted by minor things. "Salute no one on the road" if it means a diversion from your mission.
3. Your usual defense devices and resources will do you no good in this mission if you try to use them to hide behind. Make this clear to yourself by not taking an extra shirt.
4. If you are received (which does not mean that they agree with you), fine, go to work — and don’t forget that both preaching and healing are your task. Do your job and get out. You are not a permanent resident.
5. If you are not received, don’t be surprised. Who said everything and everybody would admire your charm and your message? Why be astonished that many people reject what could save them? It’s a fact of life. Be sorry for them, but don’t lose sleep over it. The judgment lies in God’s hands, not in yours.
6. But when it does work, do not be surprised at that either. You have the power of the gospel whether you realize it or not. Don’t get prideful when the gospel hits home through you.
7. Let your rejoicing be that your name is written in heaven — that is, that you have followed your Christian vocation, have proclaimed the gospel in both its verbal and its physical forms (preaching and healing), and that God has taken account of your stewardship.
Attitudinally speaking, I can think of nothing to add to this account of true attempts to evangelize.
A Constructive Image of Evangelizing
I propose the following as a proper image of evangelizing: a minister seated along with a group that is more than one other person but small enough to engage in discussion — and with the members of the group being quite varied as to age, sex, color, and other characteristics. The group is seated; no high pressure. They are all on the same level, but in the cartoon image the moderatorial function of the minister may properly be shown. He represents a gospel and is unapologetic about its authority.
Since we live in the kind of world we do, a good addition to the basic image would be one person seated directly beside the minister, obviously acting as a translator — since language too is a variant. The minister does not expect everybody to "speak English," nor does he resent the waiting, either way, in his communications. The translator is a reminder that the minister, whatever his resources, cannot get through to everybody by himself.
The fault of this image is that it stresses the verbal side of evangelizing and does not succeed in demonstrating also the healing which was equally important to the twelve and the seventy. The best I can do, in this single image, is to suggest that a couple of members of the group be shown with a east on the arm or a bottle of medicine in front of them. Beyond that, our single image would have to become a filmstrip.
The other fact omitted from this image is more difficult to deal with. It is the people who will not receive you. In a filmstrip the minister could be shown shaking the dust off his shoes. But how can we show him engaged in evangelizing and yet being entirely rejected? For it must be remembered that evangelizing is intelligent effort, and not necessarily success. We must simply keep in mind that our basic image fails to show this fact.
Despite its inevitable limitations, this image seems thoroughly faithful to the New Testament paradigms. Provided the image is genuine, and not something trumped up for the cartoonist, we may assume that the following things are true in the background:
1. On the part of the minister there is an empathetic or phenomenological concern for the attitudes of all the other people (and their conditions such as broken arms) to all serious things, including Christian faith but not confined to it, regardless of the existing content of those views and conditions. Judgment in a pro or con sense is suspended in favor of testimony through understanding, and that is the process taking place. The minister has full confidence in the treasure that has been accorded him. He knows it gains when he shares it. It is not a scarcity product. But if he gives it at all, he wants the real thing to be received, and not just some superficial imitation. Since he believes in it, he need not be a high-pressure salesman.
2. On the part of the group and its individual members there is great variety in several respects; but all have "received" the minister, i.e., are engaged in dialogue with him. Since they are still here, they know that they are seated on the same level as he, that they may speak honestly and do not have to follow a party line, and that he is attentive to them individually as well as in the group.
3. On the part of the whole relationship between minister and group it is clear that the movement is dynamic (energetic and in conflict), and is not wholly predictable in advance. What happens depends on the interaction, and not upon the prior attitudes of either minister or group. If negative feelings do not emerge, then there has been some secretly repressive mechanism at work. But if the interaction is open, then even the negative feelings should be received, and that reception contribute to the deepening of the relationship and thus to the chances that the gospel will be given and received.
In our own day virtually all evangelizing must be done in a "boundary" situation or it is not done at all. Finding candidates for the gospel who have never heard the name of Jesus Christ, but who are so ready for the whole Christian message that they simply fall at our feet — this never happens. Instead, we have the logical skeptic, or the one whom the evil in the world has embittered, or he who has given up serious things since life is a joke, or she who is dogmatic about something else. And many others. for none of them is "receiving" us likely to mean, "Give me the truth, brother, and I will accept it without question." It is, instead, the readiness to enter into dialogue. And a very large number are ready to do so if our attitude makes sense.
For a time "Christian apologetics" went out of fashion. Perhaps this was due in part to the debased meaning of apology as excuse rather than its proper sense of confident explanation. More of it, however, was due to the Continental emphasis on "proclamation," with the implication that "apologetics" is always trying to compromise the truth. I believe any such allegation to be a misunderstanding of the issue. There is no contradiction between one’s best and most confident grasp of the Word and his equal attentiveness to the attitude of the person with whom he is in conversation. If one’s interpretation of the Word cannot abide questioning, then it is defensive and not confident. If it is eroded by a breath of doubt from another, then it was not genuine to begin with.
There is another fact of our present cultural situation that bears heavily upon the image of evangelizing that has been presented. This is our Western, and especially American, suspicion of words without deeds. What the gospel is is what it does. Surely one must approve the rising interest in appropriate Christian social action in all its relevant forms. But beneath this there is sometimes an improper suspicion of anything but action, even a suspicion that service disappears if analyzed. Some of this is a by-product of anti-intellectualism, but more of it comes from a kind of idealism. Recently the great Hungarian Protestant theologian, Josef Hromadka, was quoted as saying that the Iron Curtain countries are realizing that there is a problem of man and not just of social organization. Learning the same lesson is not much easier in the West, even for Christians. Action is needed indeed. But there need be no shamefacedness for concentrating at the point where man in conflict may finally come to see the light. That is the proper business of evangelizing.
These samples are put in the form of one-to-one conversations. But the principles would seem to be the same in face-to-face groups and, with the minister mentally supplying the other side of the dialogue, in preaching and other large group presentations.
Mr. McCall: I know you ministers must be disturbed by these so-called "radical theologians" saying that God is dead or that we only need Jesus. But, you know, Paul van Buren has struck a chord with me. I’ve been skeptical for a long time about your whole series of Christian claims. Van Buren tells me that I may be right.
Pastor Green: I take it, then, that, in a backhanded way, van Buren has got you interested in theology?
Mr. McCall: I guess that’s right. I simply paid no attention to it before. Now I think it is important at least to take a look. Otherwise, I shouldn’t have bothered to attend that lecture by Bishop Robinson in your church last week.
Pastor Green: I take you as an honest inquirer, Mr. McCall. Obviously, I believe in God and am willing to tell why. Also, I think Paul van Buren makes some very important points. But I think what interests me most is why it took a statement that was apparently radical and negative to get you going on this interest. How about that?
Mr. Carnahan: It happened just before five o’clock, pastor. Apparently he was turning when the truck came along and hit him. The neighbors called Mary, and the ambulance; and fortunately nobody touched him until the ambulance came.
Mrs. Carnahan: It was ghastly. He had blood on his face (she cries).
Mr. Carnahan: When we saw the surgeon, just an hour ago, he had made his examination. And (he clenches fists and breathes heavily) we seem to face an impossible situation (he pauses).
Pastor Brown: What has happened is a terrible thing. Do I gather from what you say that Joe’s life is in danger?
Mr. Carnahan: Pastor, it’s even worse than that. Dr. McMurdo says that Joe’s brain is so injured that his chance of living would be increased if the tissues were removed. But if this is done, then, he says, Joe is less likely to be a "full human being," as he put it. He recommends that we do not operate.
Pastor Brown: That’s an intensely difficult decision. And I gather the doctor has asked you to make it?
Mrs. Carnahan: Yes, and he says that if there is to be an operation, it must be no later than tomorrow morning. Oh, pastor, what shall we do?
Mr. Carnahan: What does God say in a situation like this, if he says anything at all?
Mrs. Stroback: If it had been the Second World War, I think I might have stood it. But Vietnam — and he was only twenty-three.
Pastor Black: That is, it isn’t so much your questioning your son’s death in the war, but rather that this particular war is so hard to understand?
Mrs. Stroback: Oh, yes. So many brilliant people say we shouldn’t be there at all, and that even if we win, we will lose. But it was my son who was killed there.
Pastor Black: If you felt that John had really contributed to the future of our world, the burden would be less. But, as it is. . .
Joe: Oh, so you’re a minister. Slumming down here in our section; are you?
Pastor White: I’m interested in getting acquainted with some of you.
Joe: Sociological study, huh?
Pastor White: In a way, yes. I am puzzled by what many of you hope to get from this kind of life.
Joe: I’ll tell you one thing. I’m sure as hell not going back to those damned suburbs. Everything is tight and clean and well-knit — on the surface. And beneath it, the whole damn place is a seething sink. Whatever it means, I want honesty.
Pastor White: There is a lot of hypocrisy in American life, especially the suburbs. I gather you feel that living down here at least avoids that?
Mike Dumas: Gee, I’m sorry, reverend, I wouldn’t have swore if I’d knowed you was a reverend. But you hadn’t ought to’ve had the hind end of your car so close to my truck.
Pastor Blue: We’ve been over that and I agree that I shouldn’t. But you had your own mind on something else too, you know.
Mike Dumas: Yeah, guess I did, reverend. But anyhow, I’m sorry I cussed.
Pastor Blue: I’ve heard cussing before, and I suspect the Lord has too. But I gather it does bother you a bit that you let loose before a minister?
In precisely such boundary circumstances as these does the minister decide as to whether he is evangelizing — successfully or otherwise is not his responsibility — and all consistent with his obligations of pastoral care, social action, self-protection, and the like. If he cannot do it in situations of this kind, he is faking it in the pulpit or arena.
Methods of Evangelizing
I have already given away my own conviction about methods of evangelizing; namely, that methods relate more to attitudes than to techniques. Whether in private conversation, group discussion, a sermon or a speech, or in the interaction within the community, the question is whether there is, on the one side, conviction about what the gospel means and, on the other side, unqualified readiness to hear the other people and see the world from their point of view. Without the attitude, no method in the sense of technique will accomplish much. At the same time, if there is the attitude, then discriminating attentiveness to method is useful.
The minister can and must of course help his lay men and women to see that they too are engaged in evangelizing. I agree with all the literature declaring the importance of this ministry of the laity to the world. There are two troubles with it. One is that a lot of conscientious laymen feel guilty when they don’t have the name "Jesus Christ" on their lips, and their teachers have not helped them to understand any better. The other is that many evangelizing contacts, just like pastoral contacts, need understanding at a professional level; and no ordained minister should get rid of his obligation for them on the ground that ministry is by all Christians. Helping many people to understand the gospel treasure is no more a business for tyros than is delicate pastoral care under pain and suffering.
As the constructive image suggests, my first focus of method lies in small group discussion. The image shows a great variety of people. Some of these may already be related to the church, so that meetings may be in the church buildings — whether conducted by the minister or by someone else. But if the variety is to be real and not overly limited, then the minister must get out from the apse and the nave and meet the small groups where he can — no matter what the starting subject. Once he gets a group, from there on he is on his own — hopefully with God’s help.
Pastoral contacts of all kinds, as suggested in the sample conversation snatches, are of very great importance. Even "routine calls" may be valuable if seen from this perspective. Many pastoral calls have evangelizing overtones if the minister is alert to them. And how do you handle that likable atheist at the Rotary Club?
The big question about evangelizing is: What kind of special events? I see nothing wrong with special events as such. The question is the attitude toward them, how they are conducted, and how people are taught to participate in leadership. I am partial to home visitation by teams of lay people, and have written somewhat about this. But I know quite well that the difference between a fake campaign and a vital ministry lies in the special education of the callers beforehand. Most ministers seem to despair of teaching their lay men "how," and consequently resort to exhortation and aphorisms. The results are usually poor. My impression is that ministers who get over their own reluctance about talking "how" with their lay calling training groups get excellent results.
There is a special realism about home visitation by lay teams in American culture. More than half our people, at least nominally, are church-related; and another big swatch think kindly toward the churches even if they do not belong. So long as there is no high pressure, few Americans heard a call from church representatives as invasion. Further, with all our groups and groupiness, we Americans are a lonely people. A fifth of us move our homes every year. We always feel a bit uncertain — despite our loud protestations to the contrary — that we belong. The first thing I would say to a group of home visitation callers is: If you don’t really want these people — whatever their color, national origin, and so on — then quit right now. On the fundamentals, you can’t fake. Why leave all the racial education to social action? Why not get evangelizing into the act as it should be?
As to special speakings, sermons, large group discussions, and so on, my general observation is that these are successful according to the degree: (1) that they are competently planned; (2) that they fit both fore and aft into the ongoing life of the organization, be it local church, college, hospital, or some other institution. I have long since discarded the prejudice that a lecture — especially followed by discussion — can accomplish nothing. The question is whether the special events respect the processes of human development and decision, or seek shortcuts through the residues of revivalism.
I have been fascinated by the number of secular institutions in these last years (often mental hospitals) who have asked me to do what would have been called in a previous period "religious emphasis week." To be sure, they would not have tolerated direct-down-the-sawdust altar calls. But so long as I did engage in perfectly honest discussion on the issues raised, I have found myself astonishingly free to be as Christian and as theological as I could. I doubt that any other nation has so many secular organizations with such openness to honest discussion from a Christian point of view — so long as it is informed, fair-minded, and of some interest. This seems to me our greatest evangelizing opportunity today. Perhaps, as a seminary professor, I am in a special position to be drawn into it. I often get the impression, however, that many ministers overlook precisely these golden opportunities in their own front yards.
Speaking of evangelistic methods, I should mention many other avenues, like the arts, the humanities, and the social sciences. In an increasingly secularized culture it always astonishes many people that Christian faith and Christian churches should believe in the arts, the humanities, and the sciences. Let us have no morality plays that tell how much one’s income is increased if he is a Christian. But on all other legitimate levels, just having these interests going in intelligent hands is itself an excellent method of evangelizing, of telling the gospel story to all sorts and conditions of men.
The Uneasiness of Evangelizing
I decided once that I could make up a testing instrument on the basis of asking ordained and lay Christians, "What do you think about evangelizing?" My guess was that the results would tell me a great deal more about the respondent’s personality, degree of organization-mindedness, vision and imagination, theology, and general good sense than he would realize when answering my question. Let me give some hypothetical samples to my hypothetically posed question.
1. "Why of course we do it through our Christian education program." I am all for Christian education. But unless this is an exceptional respondent, what he means is that his church is going about business as usual with no attentiveness to the boundary situations which may also occur with children.
2. "Our church is for it. We have a special week every year." No comment is needed. ‘Whatever the merit of the special week, the obvious fact is that it is a concession and not built in, fore and aft, to the total program of the church.
3. "We call on all new prospects." A good thing to do, to be sure, but somewhat lacking in New Testament enthusiasm.
4. "Evangelism? That Graham stuff? Our church is working for racial justice." A very good thing too. But the message of Jesus Christ is for all men regardless of color.
5. "We are exchanging this and that with a group over in the South End; and this has won us some people and lost others." Great program, results ambiguous — as to be expected with anything creative. But is this a substitute for evangelizing here, or in the South End?
6. "Our emphasis is on making the gospel more real to our own people." Great stuff, if it can be managed. But no church that focused solely within has ever made if for long. Are you afraid to talk to anybody who does not agree with you?
7. "Evangelism? We think that’s old hat. We think the church itself is mission! And laymen are the heart of the mission. Come to our hamburger roast for hippies next Friday evening at Hollywood and Vine." Unhappily, the hippies will only drop in to get the free goodies.
To be sure, there is a reasonable facsimile of caricature in the above samples; but I think they ring a bell here and there.
So massive has been the revivalist image of evangelizing (and its residues) that anybody with any sophistication tends to duck the whole business. This seems to me a grave error. For evangelizing, in its essence, is taking the authentic Christian gospel (albeit with the limitations of human understanding) through word or deed to those who need it and are at least prepared enough to take a look at it.
We have a great deal of creative evangelizing today — all under some other name. So long as we do not impede the creative activity, let us get our labels straight.
But we also have a lot of pussyfooting about Christian talk. Either — with all your quite human and legitimate and God-understood doubts — you think we have something, or you don’t. If you can’t talk at all unless you are too sure to be sensible, then by all means keep silent, to the benefit of everybody. But if, with more insight into your human ambiguity, which we all share, you nevertheless have some kind of Christian faith — then, as appropriate to the situation, how about getting it into the encounter?
It seems to me high time that we got evangelizing out of the theological basement. If we have a treasure to be shared with all men who will receive it (not without some intermediary discussion), then let us get on with it; and not refuse to call our most imaginative efforts by their right name.