Evangelism When Certainty Is an Illusion

by John Shelby Spong

John Shelby Spong was Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey. Among his bestselling books are Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, and Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. He retired in early 2,000 to become a lecturer at Harvard University.

. This article appeared in the Christian Century January 6-13, 1982, p. 11. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org.  This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


A church that talks of salvation but does not battle for social justice will be dismissed as phony. A church that shuns controversy for fear of upsetting its membership has ceased to be the church and has become a club. No program of evangelism will save it.

Some years ago, when Episcopal Church leaders thought they were experiencing a communications problem, an elaborate plan for consultation with diocesan decision-making bodies was undertaken. At that time there was a noticeable decline in the number of Episcopalians in America. This program was designed to let “the grass-roots people speak” and to set future priorities for our church.

The results were published in a pamphlet titled “What We Learned from What You Said,” and evangelism and Christian education were the top two priorities listed. The denomination’s Executive Council then moved to respond to that survey. One step involved creating a position for a staff officer for evangelism in the national church structure and launching evangelism programs and promotion.

Interestingly enough, no one in that process sought to determine whether the vote for evangelism was a positive one, or whether it was a vote against programs of social involvement. Evangelism was a familiar word, and it had a pious ring. No one asked the people in the several dioceses what they meant by it or why it was their first priority. The definition of evangelism officially adopted by a later General Convention reads as follows: “Evangelism is the presentation of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, in such ways that persons may be led to believe in him as Saviour and follow him as Lord within the fellowship of the church.”

The resolution setting forth this definition of evangelism passed with a unanimous vote, which invariably means that it falls into the category of a “motherhood” resolution. Since not one of the terms in the definition was defined, they obviously were not debated. This would indicate either that a common understanding of the meaning of these words was universally assumed or that no one considered the resolution to be of great import. I suggest that the latter is the case.

It also seems obvious that many people concerned with declining church membership and attendance saw evangelism primarily in terms of church growth: anything that added sheep to the flock had to be good. Grass-roots church leaders, reeling under budgetary cuts and declining congregations, seemed sure that growth was their biggest need. But was it? Is it? And if so, what does evangelism mean?

We are faced with a number of assumptions that need to be examined. It is assumed that the one doing the work of evangelism has something which the one being evangelized needs, or wants, or should want. Historically, the motive for evangelizing arose from the altruistic concern of Christians to save the souls of the lost from perdition. Those who believed they knew Christ and therefore possessed salvation felt that they had a duty to make Christ known to those who did not know him and who were therefore without salvation. Evangelism efforts were fueled by the promise of a heavenly reward both for the newly converted and for the one who brought the message of salvation. The status of the missionary was both romantic and genuinely admired.

The cultural milieu of this evangelization was “Christendom,” that peculiar word which meant that Christianity and the social order were identical and inseparable. In “Christendom” there was a cultural assumption that only Christianity was true, and therefore the Christian church had not only the right but the obligation to share -- even to impose -- its truth on those who did not have it.

The great period of evangelism and Christian missionary expansion was the 19th century. Following the flag of colonial nationalism, missionaries fanned out across the world, determined to save the pagan savages whether they wanted to be saved or not. It did not occur to many people in the 19th century that there might be truth, integrity or value in a religious tradition other than Christianity. The world was neatly divided into Christians, Jews and pagans. This division, a product of both insensitivity and ignorance, fueled missionary activity directed toward the pagans, and it kept virulent the anti-Semitism that reached its climax in 1930s Germany.

In 19th century America, Christianity was identified with social respectability. Dominant community pressure made church membership not only a necessity but also the mark of civilization, good manners and decent living. The Episcopal Church was perceived in that era as the best church for educated, cultured and refined people to attend. Episcopalians deliberately cultivated the image of exclusiveness. This was our power, and our growth was almost totally among those who were upwardly mobile. Overseas missionary work was supported, but active programs of local evangelism were not encouraged in the Episcopal Church; they did not have to be. We had social prestige going for us, and that provided us with all the new members we really wanted.

Not many people in that day agreed on what the truth was, but they all seemed to agree that Christians had “the truth” and non-Christians did not; and so the Christian had a responsibility to give the truth to the non-Christian. That was an unquestioned presupposition of organized church life.

Evangelism as a working concept was born in this kind of world, and it was defined by this kind of world. It has not yet fully escaped either the definition or the preconceptions of that context. Evangelism by and large still assumes that there is a single definition of God, an exclusive Christian truth, and that the end of sharing that truth justifies the means, no matter how imperialistic. For these reasons active programs of evangelism flourish most in those churches in which the provincial consciousness is still in vogue, while in the mainline churches evangelism tends to reside in splendid isolation as a special interest of a limited group who are more subjective in their approach to God. It is difficult to oppose evangelism, for no one wants to oppose the spread of Christianity. So it is simply not engaged, or is kept peripheral, or is tolerated or ignored.

Nostalgia for the religious traditions of rural and small-town America forms part of the appeal of popular evangelists from Billy Sunday to Billy Graham. That nostalgia is also operating in the recent alliance of evangelical groups with right-wing politics which has linked religion with patriotism and yesterday’s family values with Christianity. These new devotees of evangelism are imperialistic, attacking those who deviate as secular humanists (read pagans) and demanding conformity of its adherents under pain of excommunication (read being targeted for defeat in the next election).

Evangelism as an activity of the church seems to require for its very existence a sense that those who evangelize possess certainty. Its vital nerve is cut by relativity. Its appeal is inevitably limited to those who share particular attitudes and convictions. Many people who are strong on evangelism tend to have a strong bias against intellectualism; they frequently encourage Bible study, but they seldom accompany it with serious biblical scholarship.

Inside the church establishment, evangelism is usually given more lip service than real commitment. Seldom making a serious impact on the life and policy of the church body, it consumes its energy in planning conferences on evangelism or on prayer and encourages the new packaging of old revival techniques in such activities as the charismatic movement or the Faith Alive movement.

Evangelism offices and commissions gather and affirm the various groups that identify themselves under their broad banner; they sponsor workshops on church growth, offering helpful techniques for how to make church life more inclusive, how to bring back those who drift away, how to incorporate new members more quickly, how to set up and carry out community-building activities such as lay visitation. But at the deepest level this program of evangelism is, I believe, addressing only the Christian “in” group or fanning the religious nostalgia of the past. The vision of Christianity to which it calls people is by and large a narrow view of the way things used to be. Evangelism as it is presently constituted does not address the central missionary and evangelical questions of our post-Christian world, questions which are far more radical than those who are committed to evangelism seem to recognize.

These questions pour forth in a spate: How can we talk about Christ in a pluralistic society in which “the truth” is not believed to be the possession of any person or tradition? With the exclusive claims of Christianity surrendered, can we still proclaim the gospel?

Can evangelism, growing out of a simpler world, ever become sophisticated enough or refined enough finally to escape its basic attitude of imperialism? If there is no “unchanging truth,” what do we evangelize about? If we admit that we do not possess the whole truth, can we be evangelists for our partial understanding of the truth of Christ? If we admit that our truth is partial, not whole, will we not sink into a hopeless sea of relativity? Is not our power as a church directly related to the myth of our certainty? The only churches that seem to be growing today are the churches that claim and proclaim certainty.

What reward do we offer to entice nonbelievers into believing? Is that reward legitimate? Do any of us really believe that heaven is reserved for those who think and believe as we do? Even if we say that believing in Jesus is necessary to be saved or to gain heaven, do we agree on what believing in Jesus means? Do we dare limit God’s grace or God’s action by our creeds, our Scriptures, our theology? Yet if we do not so limit God, will the unique revelation of the Christian gospel disappear? In our day of an expanded sensitivity to the religious yearnings of the world’s people and an expanded consciousness of the variety of their religious experiences, must we revive the power of yesterday’s limited religious certainty as the only means to avoid having Christianity join the gods of Olympus as a footnote in the religious history of the human race?

There is ample reason to believe that these questions have been answered unconsciously by the institutional church, but they have not yet in most instances been faced consciously. The conviction that fueled yesterday’s evangelistic efforts sounds like religious bigotry today. To the degree that evangelism is rooted in the certainties of yesterday, it will always be an ineffective and even discordant tool for the church eager to enter the world of tomorrow.

Look for a moment at three specific examples of the questions that missionary strategy in our age raises about evangelism.

A new Episcopal church is founded in a community where one has never been. Other Christian churches are active, so why do we locate a branch of our tradition there? We may believe that our church offers something unique, but we are frequently hard-pressed to define that uniqueness. On an-other level we are not immune to empire-building, and, like every business, we cannot resist the temptation to open yet another branch office in an area that looks promising.

A second question arises in the inner city, where old churches must struggle to find new reasons for existence. Why do we stay? Whatever is unique in the Episcopal Church would be even more difficult to define in the inner city; not many residents here are worried about apostolic succession, valid sacraments or Henry VIII’s sex life. So rationales abound. We stay in the city to make a witness, we say, to offer hope, though hope for what is not always clear. We announce our intention to identify with the poor and dispossessed, but frequently the poor and dispossessed are not aware that we are identifying with them and seem uninterested in identifying with us. We state our desire to build through the church a sense of community, though sociologists tell us that effective community in the inner city is usually built around an issue, not a building or a tradition.

We see sincere people claiming Christ but still manipulating others with fear, superstition or the promise of heavenly peace and glory in another world. They have an appeal, but in all honesty we want to avoid that image. We are fearful of being guilty of the Marxist charge that we are an opiate for the people. Sometimes we meet that fear by pretending, at least verbally, to take the cause of the people as our cause, to be a voice for the voiceless. We also want to avoid the charge that we are producing “rice Christians,” bribing into church membership those whom we can win with promises of material help.

In the inner city we quickly go deeper than the culturally conditioned concepts of the Episcopal Church, or we do not survive. Christ must be incarnate in that world, indigenous to those people, or he will be, as he has been before, another agent of colonial oppression. In the inner city, the evangelical style from another century with its promise of glory, its anthropological view of human depravity apart from Christ, its respectable definition of Christianity, becomes part of the problem, not the cure. The questions we need to address here are not generally addressed by proponents of evangelism. What is Christ’s essence? What will Christ be like when he is indigenous to this world? How is Christ met? How does Christ love, forgive, feed, nurture, encourage? Can Christ be real in the city, and if he can, how does that reality relate to the Christ whom evangelism groups talk about?

Consider one more situation. A declining church sits in the shadow of a massive high-rise apartment building which brings hundreds of new residents to that community each year. They are a cross-section of the secular society of our generation, for the most part rootless, transient and highly mobile. Some are singles living in formal and informal relationships, with wide ethnic and cultural diversity and equally wide sexual and social mores. Others are married (perhaps divorced more than once) and oriented not at all to the community in which they sleep but rather to the city in which they work.

These people are not church-related and are not even nostalgic about a past that may have included the church. The evangelistic tactics that would call them back to the world view of yesterday, a world view they abandoned ages ago because it no longer made contact with their lives, are doomed to failure. They listen to the new religious conservative movement calling for “a return to the traditional family,” which seems to include the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment and the banning of abortion. In this call, they hear organized religion affirming a stereotyped view of women that collides with a new feminine consciousness. They live in a world organized in a radically different way, and the suggestion, for instance, that women are biologically incapable of being priests strikes them as quaint at best, ludicrous at worst.

These modern, secularized apartment-dwellers could not care less whether we are Protestant or Catholic, to say nothing of whether we are Presbyterian or Methodist. They are engaged in trying to make sense out of their lives, and in that effort they hear the traditional church speaking only in the accents of yesterday. A church dominated by its own institutional struggle to survive and grow simply does not touch their lives. A church clinging to a narrow certainty is not appealing to the churning, insecure world they know.

Yet they are looking for something. Underneath the busyness of their lives is an echo of emptiness. It is experienced when the endless variety of sexual partners gets boring, when the alcoholic consumption rate gets heavier, when the depression cannot be crowded out by crowds. What does evangelism mean here? What is the essence of the Christian gospel that we might offer in this world?

In these three vignettes of the church confronting the world, we are forced to think anew about what we Christians have to offer and how it can be offered in a pluralistic, increasingly alienated and empty world. How can we offer the gospel to secular people who are less and less nostalgic, less and less inclined to take seriously traditional religious claims?

First of all, the proclamation of the gospel must be honest. It is not a sin to be wrong, especially since truth is so vast that no one can possibly embrace it fully. All that any of us can do is point to truth. We cannot capture it, package it or claim it. To be religiously dishonest is to be unforgivably manipulative. And religious dishonesty is rampant in the institutional church today. It occurs every time any religious body claims infallibility for any idea it presents.

Christianity itself does not and cannot embrace the whole truth of God. So I can make no claims for God that are ultimate, and if I do, I am dishonest. I cannot limit God to my understanding of God. I cannot limit salvation to those who share my vision, no matter how broadly I draw that vision. I cannot act as though God works only in those ways which I understand or with which I am familiar.

To be honest in our day is to embrace relativity as a virtue and to recognize that absolutism is a vice -- any kind of absolutism, whether it be ecclesiastical, papal, biblical or the absolutism of sacred tradition. Embracing relativity will end for all time the religious imperialism that has far too often been a mark of evangelistic and missionary endeavors.

In the short term, I am convinced, this honesty will cause the church as an institution to lose power. Our purpose will be blurred and, in the opinion of many, our credibility will be diminished. I am also convinced that churches that give up the claim of certainty will decline, and that church leaders who dare to face these issues openly and publicly will be attacked and abused by people who need what an honest church cannot give.

We cannot give what we do not have. Certainty has never been our possession, but rather, our illusion. We offer companionship on a journey and the hope that the reality of God will be at the journey’s end. But in this life the journey will never end.

Yet as soon as all that is clear, we must quickly say our most positive word about evangelism. When we say that we do not have the whole truth of God, that must not be taken to mean that we have no truth of God. St. Paul said, “I see through a glass darkly,” but he did see. And so do we. And what we see we must share because love demands that we share with others the gifts that bring meaning to our lives.

There is a note of reciprocity about the word “share.” I share only with someone with whom I already have a relationship. There is a receptivity in the other which makes sharing possible. If I try to share with a stranger, he or she would experience not a gift but a burden. If I try to give another what he or she has not requested or does not want, I am clearly meeting my needs, not the needs of the other. If I imply that I have something the other needs in order to become a better person, I am playing the “I’m OK, you’re not OK” game, which cannot be received as anything other than hostility. If what I have to share limits the choices to only rejection or conversion, it cannot be loving, no matter how pious or holy my rhetoric might be. If I seek to force another to acknowledge the meaning I have in my life without being sensitive to the meaning by which he or she lives, I am not proclaiming the gospel. In my opinion, then, many forms of evangelism are not good news but bad news.

But when I have been touched by a fascinating book or enjoyed a good movie or read a penetrating editorial or been delighted by a new recipe or been moved by a provocative sermon, the people I know learn of these enriching moments. In the course of human relationships, I share these joys with excitement and enthusiasm. They are not only offered but also received. True sharing requires both actions.

The experts of Madison Avenue tell us that the most effective advertising is by word of mouth. So it is with the sharing of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It must be given as an offering in love, not as a manifestation of my superiority -- offered without calculation or ulterior motives and without any hint that my word is the final word to be spoken on the subject.

My Christ may not be ultimate, but he is real. My Christ may not be definitive, but he is operative. And for me this must be the most distinguishing mark of evangelism in our day -- one which, in my opinion, will come very close to rendering every planned and contrived program of evangelism deficient at best and negative at worst.

So I am suspicious of those who have to isolate evangelism and concentrate on it as a separate activity of the church. If it is not related to everything the church does, then the church is suspect. But when the church isolates evangelism into a separate program or emphasis, then evangelism is suspect. Sharing Christ finally is of our being, not our doing.

If sharing our being is the primary means of doing Christian evangelism, then the life of the one who would be an evangelist must be radically open and unthreatened; he or she must be capable of listening deeply, be enormously sensitive, be able to risk, and possess the ability to embrace vulnerability and uncertainty as inseparable from life in Christ. The one who will witness to Christ must be marked by the gifts of Christ: love, joy, peace, patience. The pious certainty, the ready and unquestioned definition of evangelism, the thin smile that so often covers the hostility of the insecure Christian who seeks to impose Christ, the words of love that scarcely veil the attitude of judgment: these are the marks not of Christ but of human brokenness.

The only reward Christ offers, I believe, is the Christian life of openness, vulnerability, expansion, risk, wholeness, love. Nothing else: not success, not heaven, not an escape from hell, not friends, not security, not peace of mind. I feel I must beware of evangelistic Christians who come offering rewards. I am frightened of those who want to do something to me or for me “for my own good.” I am apprehensive when I meet those who suggest that we have to “carry Christ” to someone or someplace as though Christ does not dwell there already and is somehow limited.

Churches need to help people in the art and practice of prayer, but not by denying the reality of the world we live in, not by calling us into patterns or practices we cannot possibly adopt without serious mind-bending exercises. Prayer must be part of the definition of evangelism, for I cannot share a presence of God I have not personally experienced, and this is the essence of prayer.

Churches need to help in the task of community-building so that lives might be attracted to the quality of love, acceptance, forgiveness and inclusiveness that I believe must mark the people of God. When people touch the life of the church, they want to feel the power of those qualities that will cause people to inquire into their source and meaning.

Churches need to be teaching centers where faith and tradition can be explored, where truth can be pursued without the employment of authoritarian cliches like “the church teaches” or “the Bible says” to stifle the questioning process. The bearers of our deepest understanding of the gospel inevitably both capture and distort it. The Bible, the creeds, the sacred traditions are only pointers to God which must be transcended, explored in the light of each new day.

The church’s prophetic word must be heard in the public sector, searing in judgment against those actions, both individual and systemic, which continue patterns of oppression based on strength or race or sex or tradition. A church that talks of salvation but does not battle for social justice will be dismissed as phony. A church that shuns controversy for fear of upsetting its membership has ceased to be the church and has become a club. No program of evangelism will save it. And the church’s prophetic word needs to be turned on itself as well as on the world. I look to the church to address its own idolatries and prejudices.

Effective evangelism, therefore, is the all-embracing thrust of the total life of the church. It cannot be reduced to a program or an emphasis, or belong to a narrow sliver of church people who like to witness publicly. It cannot be based on an assumption, conscious or unconscious, that we have the truth and others do not. It cannot be arrogant or otherworldly or ignorant of the vast new insights and realities of the modem world. It cannot be a nostalgic attempt to return to yesterday’s religious security.

I do not believe a church grows in worthwhile ways by trying to grow. Church growth, if it is to have integrity, must be a by-product when the church is true to its deepest calling to be the body through which the infinite mystery of God is confronted and all life is freed from bondage and expanded to its fullness. It must be achieved in the willingness to live in risky vulnerability without defense or security. I am confident that a way can be found for such a quality of life to be shared and received. Thus, evangelism in the modern world might be done with integrity, with effectiveness, and above all without planning to do evangelism.