Evangelism – to What?

I have been struggling for some time to find a way to express some impressions I have regarding the status of the church of Christ and its role in American society today. What I see happening in the United States today in terms of the disintegration of morals has been equaled only by the period of 1860-1900 and the years 1914-1945. What differentiates those epochs from today is the crushing circumstance of three wars (the “Civil” war, and World Wars I and II). The rapid and, I would argue, unparalleled evaporation of Christian ethics today is unique in that we are not being faced with a military enemy (foreign or domestic); we are being destroyed by our innate human capacity for self-destruction. As Pogo so famously observed, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Enough of the political and economic lecture – what of the church? Is the church not focused on the kingdom of God, of setting things right, on the most basic Christian duty of evangelism? I think in some convoluted kind of way the answer is yes, and therein lies the problem. I simply do not have any confidence that the church knows what it is evangelizing for.

Over the past few months I have been been trying to come to grips with the concept of evangelism. I am not by nature an evangelist. I am hoping that by nurture I could possibly be made one. But I have been utterly unable to discover a source that addresses the twenty-first century situation on the one hand and the message of the New Testament on the other. In other words, what I find is either a complete sell-out to contemporary culture on the one hand, or a hackneyed, right-wing, reactionary, escapist Pharisaism on the other. As I see the New Testament, neither is healthy, sound, or Biblical – however you want to describe it. If followed to their logical conclusions, both will kill the church.

If I can summarize my understanding of evangelism it would be this: the word itself means “sharing the good news.” If you see the gospel as “good news,” that means by definition that the gospel is confronting, or overcoming, “bad news.” The bad news is that, even though God created the world good, through man’s rebellion it (and mankind) has become evil. Thus the gospel is the good news that overcomes the evil. The key word that both the left (cultural accommodationists) and the right (reactionaries) want to avoid is the word sin. The cultural accommodationists want to deny the word outright, and the reactionaries see it everywhere but in themselves.

To understand evangelism aright, we must all, every single one of us, admit to ourselves and confess to others that we are utterly incapable of good in-and-of ourselves. “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” (Romans 3:10-11) “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:22-23). This is the admission that neither the far left nor the far right can make. The left dismisses it as absurd, the right cannot take it upon themselves. Therefore neither the church of cultural accommodation nor the church of the self-righteous can properly evangelize. 

It is at this point that I turn, once again, to the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I know, I know. Some of you probably have to grit your teeth when I mention Bonhoeffer. I cannot help it though – I am drawn like a magnet to the clarity of his vision and the honesty of his writings. Born in 1906 he was old enough to be aware of the events of WWI (one of his older brothers was killed in action) and he died just weeks before WWII ended. Therefore, few men have had a more “up front and center” position from which to observe, and critique, the world and the church’s reaction to it.

One aspect of Bonhoeffer’s response was that he relentlessly attempted to get the church to confront the sin of both the eroding German culture, and the complete refusal of the church to oppose the Nazis. Modern readers love to quote Bonhoeffer as he stood up to Hitler (yea, Dietrich!). But how many sermons have you heard, or how many memes have you seen on Facebook, that repeat Bonhoeffer’s blistering attacks on a naive, complacent, and even complicit German church (boo, Dietrich!). Too many people want to turn Bonhoeffer into some 19th century American evangelical. To be sure, Bonhoeffer would not be welcome in many American church buildings today. He knew well the meaning of the word, SIN.

I just wonder today, as I ponder what it means to be an evangelist in the year 2017, if the church is not killing itself by trying to do something it totally misunderstands? My main question is this, “What does it matter if people are being baptized into a church that no longer believes in its core message?” What good is evangelism if there is no sin, if there is no “bad news” to destroy? And what good is a church that cannot admit to, that cannot confess, its own sin? If we say there is no sin, or if we say that we are not sinners, do we not make God out to be a liar? (1 John 1:10)

It seems that everyone today is mourning the decline of the church in America (and, indeed, in most of the industrial “West”). This, I believe, is good. We cannot change something that we do not recognize is wrong. But we cannot change something by mindlessly repeating the mistakes that got us here. We must go back to the core message of the New Testament – of the Bible even. We are, every one of us, miserable offenders. Only if we begin here can we move toward evangelism.

“Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred and strayed from thy wais like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults. Restore thou them that are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter life a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy Holy Name. Amen.” (A general Confession to be said by the whole congregation, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, 1662, emphasis mine, PAS)

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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