So I was talking with my friend Jeff Spiehs (as I often do, living in the same house) and talking about different approaches in faith and ministry and such things, and I said something like, ‘I think a lot of differences come down to whether or not one is an Evangelical or not.
This begs the question, what exactly is an Evangelical Christian? So to answer that question, I would like to enlist the help of the globe’s most trusted resource, Wikipedia. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evangelicalism) The beginning of the article uses Larry Eskridge’s definition of Evangelicalism as being four key, defining commitments. (Also see: http://isae.wheaton.edu/defining-evangelicalism/)
These distinctives are as follows:
So I would like to take a look at these key Evangelical commitments and talk a bit about how my understanding and beliefs on these key ideas have grown and evolved over the years. I am by no means saying that I have all of these ideas figured out or that I am somehow above your standard Evangelical, but I have learned some stuff and matured (in some ways, I think) over the years and want to share some thoughts on the matter (’cause that’s what a blog’s for, right?)
This first blog will be about the first two marks of Evangelicalism, conversionism and activism. I decided to write about them together as they are quite intertwined and interrelated. The following two marks, biblicism and crucicentrism will each have a blog devoted to them. So, here we go…
Conversionism, to go back to the definition given by Wikipedia is “the need for personal conversion” On the surface, one could ask, ‘How could you have a problem with converting to follow Jesus?’ When stated that way, of course I would not be opposed to “conversionism”. One issue I would take with conversionism is that it functions from and produces a binary way of thinking. The world, when viewed through the lenses of conversionism, consists of two kinds of people, “saved” and “not saved”, them, and us. And while the Bible itself does at time draw some fairly clear lines between the people of God and those on the outside, this mentality can be taken to level that is far past healthy. A binary approach leaves little room for the idea of journey. In my experience, the idea of a faith journey reflects the reality of most people’s experience far more than an in or out way of seeing things. That is to say, that “being saved” is more of a process than an event. While in a sense I was at one point “saved” and forgiven of my sins, I am continually being saved of my selfishness and pride and greed and lust and general lack of virtue. Salvation is not just an abstract legal fiction that happens in some cosmic court room, but a reality that is worked out in my life every day. Every time I think I have it all figured out, and that I am on “the inside”, in the sense that I’ve got it all right and don’t see my constant need for grace, I need to here Jesus’ words to the religious insiders of his day, “The tax collectors and the prostitutes (the “outsiders”) go into the Kingdom of God before you.” (Matt. 21:31, ESV) Again, this is not to say that there is never such a thing as a moment of conversion, but that a binary mentality of “saved” and “not saved” poorly reflects reality for most people, and that salvation is a journey and a process, not just a one time event. Throughout the Gospels, we see God’s grace bursting outside of so many of the categories and boundaries that we understand. Salvation is something that becomes a reality in our lives.
This leads me to my second main issue with conversionism and activism. This mentality of conversionism leads to the problem of activism. Why would I call activism a problem? It is precisely a problem because of how this mentality effects the lives and practices of Christians and of the way they approach and interact with other people, especially those outside of the Christian faith. This, coupled with a theology that has a primary, nearly exclusive focus on the afterlife, as much of Evangelicalism and Protestantism does, leads to an approach where the primary goal of a Christian to use whatever means necessary to bring as many people as possible from the “not saved” to the “saved” category, to convert as many as possible. Conversion is the goal. So why could this be a bad thing? It’s easy to point out bad methods in service of this mentality, like the guy on the street corner preaching in a bullhorn quite angrily, or the guy handing out tracts and trying to approach strangers to ask them where they would spend eternity if they died that night. But could the problem be not just with methods that lack tact and understanding, but with the entire mentality and theology of conversionism and activism itself? Could placing getting people to join and accept my religion and religious group above all else be the problem itself? What other options are there? I recall when I was an intern at a church one summer in college, we had a staff meeting with all of the ministers and discussed whether or not it was worth investing time and energy in people’s lives if we knew, or could know, that they would never convert. Should you move on to the next person who may be more receptive to the Gospel message of Christianity or stick with people just to stick with them. Was that a waste of time, or was getting to know people and spending time with them something good in and of itself. That, I believe is the real question at hand. Is converting other the highest good, or is loving your neighbor (i.e. all those you come into contact with) the highest good, with conversion as a subcategory of that? I have come to believe that love, in and of itself, and for itself, has to be the center of the Christian faith. After all, God is love. Love may lead to a desire to share the Christian story which has changed our own lives, but love does not manipulate, love does not interact with ulterior motives, and love does not reduce people to “potential converts”. Love is the goal, not the method.
Now, thankfully methods within Evangelicalism have come a long ways. Realizing that brash methods of confrontation tend to alienate people, make them feel uncomfortable, and think Christians are creepy maniacs (maybe that’s just me), other methods of conversionism have been developed and utilized. Methods like relational or “friendship” evangelism have become more common and “missional” Christianity is all the buzz. However, even with different strategies, these methods all share common aspect of conversionism/activism, which is that those who are outside of our faith tradition are viewed primarily in terms of potential converts or projects. If you approach everyone else with the agenda of converting them to your point of view, however good that may be, you still have an agenda. This approach still treats people as projects, and the good things we do to help others are done with the thought of how it may help to “sell” our faith, rather than just doing them because helping people is the right thing to do.
So what is another option? One common alternative to ulterior motive is apathy, but that doesn’t seem to be a viable option for anyone who wants to take seriously the things Jesus taught. But the best option that I’ve heard of is one that is well articulated in a book (that I have not finished reading as of yet) by Christ Heuertz, called Friendship at the Margins (http://www.amazon.com/Friendship-Margins-Discovering-Mutuality-Reconciliation/dp/0830834540), which makes the claim that making friendship the center of Christian mission is what will prevent us from objectifying others. Would I love to share my faith with every one of my friends and have them see things a bit closer to how I see them? Of course. But is that my motivation for being their friend? No. Is that my motivation for hanging out with them and doing friend things? Not at all. Placing friendship at the center of Christian mission prevents us from trying to manipulate others “for their own good”. It helps us to be more authentic in our relationships and lives.
So all in all, do I hold to this key commitments of Evangelicalism that are conversionism activism? Not unless they are radically redefined and re-articulated. In my view, love is at the center of my Christian faith, not conversionism/activism. Love must come before all else. In those situations where I discuss my faith with those who hold to differing beliefs (as well as those who hold similar beliefs), getting them to see things my way is not the goal, living a life that expresses love to all is. If talking about my faith is a part of that, great, but love in and of itself is the goal, not conversion. Love is never a waste of time, even if the recipients of that love never, ever come to hold to my beliefs and practices of faith.
Look for more blogs to come. Up next are the blogs on biblicism and crucicentrism.