by Isaac Petty
The word evangelism scares me.
In the minds of many today, evangelism comes with connotations of preaching at people, trying to coerce them to pray a prayer to avoid the fires of Hell. It gets someone’s attention, compels them to conform, then challenges them to continue the cycle. The focus is on converting others and the primary driving force is fear. It is a scare-tactic.
Is this the delivery system which best matches up with the Good News of a God who is self-giving, uncontrolling love?
If we use the Scriptural language of the Church as the Body of Christ, then it would only make sense to say the Church fulfills her duty when she is being the active hands and feet of Jesus in the world. In other words, the Church is most herself when she is fully Christlike in thought, word, and deed. If the Church believes Jesus is God Incarnate, then the Church is to be the tangible sign of Emmanuel, the God-with-us. The mission of the Church is to show Christ to the world.
If we follow the arguments Dr Thomas Jay Oord makes in relation to God’s nature, we would conclude God gives God’s self for the existence of creation, God is not manipulative, and God is wholly and eternally good. If the Church is to embody the attributes of this God, then the Church is called to give of herself for the sake of all creation. She is to function in such a way as to exist for the outsider through love without coercion. If this self-giving, essential kenosis model is followed, then the Church’s task of Christlikeness, the Church’s mission, is to love and give as if she has no limits or liabilities.
The Apostle Paul prayed for this kind of ministry in Philippi. Philippians 1.9-11 calls for an overflowing love which leads to righteousness through Christ Jesus, the virtuous state of corresponding with the will of God in thought, word, and deed. To describe this Christ, Paul employs the Kenosis Hymn (Philippians 2.6-11), the early confession that Christ was self-giving and others-oriented. This is where we hear that Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2.7-8 NRSV) This is the Christ whom the Church is to model and serve.
The obedience of Christ to the Cross shows the greatest model of self-giving, uncontrolling love. However, if the holy Body of Christ is to wholly embody Him, then the Church must remember that death does not have ultimate power. The Church need not have fear nor be compelled by fear. After the ultimate act of self-giving, uncontrolling love on the Cross, Christ was raised to new life through the power of resurrection. As Dr Oord argues, the Resurrection of Jesus flows from the self-giving, non-coercive love of God.
When the self-giving, uncontrolling power found in the Resurrection is factored into the task of Christlikeness, the Church can love and give as if she has no boundaries and nothing to lose. Even death does not stop this Love.
The entire dynamic of evangelism, the bringing of the Good News, is transformed when the Church’s ultimate aim is to model the self-giving, uncontrolling love of Christ. No longer is the strategy to convert souls, but to proclaim and usher in the Kingdom which our Lord revealed to us through spoken word and acts of love. When the Church embraces Christlikeness, then the Church actively participates in the Kingdom of God healing this world in non-coercive ways.
With this in mind, the Church can explore her practice in fulfilling her mission in the self-giving, uncontrolling task of Christlikeness. No longer does evangelism have to be a fear-filled word. Manipulation will find no room in the proclamation of the Gospel. There will be no more deceptive gimmicks to get people into the doors of the Church. No longer will we risk losing our neighbors’ trust by inviting them over with a deceitful motive. Sunday morning services can focus more on the praise of God and less on compelling people. We will no longer count conversations in a dehumanizing manner, but rather tell the stories of healing and redemption that happen in our very midst. That is what self-giving, uncontrolling love does.
Does this mean the Church should no longer desire to have new members? By no means! The Church should long to include more people. The message of God’s love should still be proclaimed to those who need to hear it. However, if the ultimate aim of the Church is not in converting but being faithful disciples, then our methodology changes. Evangelism has always been a crucial aspect in the role of the Church. Methods may change, but the task of Christlikeness is always the same.
When our primary focus is being the hands and feet of a self-giving and uncontrolling Christ, the Church partners with God in the justification of the world, the making-right of that which is not as it should be. Salvation is tangibly displayed for the world to see instead of written on warning signs along the highway. The poor are clothed, the hungry are fed, the orphan is sheltered, and the widow is comforted. The lost sheep is brought into the fold because the Church follows Christ, the Shepherd who lays His life down for all sheep. This is self-giving, uncontrolling love.
If the Church embodies the self-giving, uncontrolling love of Christ, then the Church has no room for fear.
Isaac Petty has served in church development in Poland and is currently a Master of Arts in Intercultural Studies candidate at Nazarene Theological Seminary.