Why does every generation seem to think they are the first to deal with problems that are age-old? We love to analyze current trends and hypothesize about cultural developments. Call it pride or arrogance, but in our half-blind sense of self-importance, we decide that time-honored principles are no longer relevant. We then assume the pressing responsibility to reinvent” those wellestablished principles and the practices that spring from them. In the process, an entire industry is created: books and videos are sold to help us live in “today’s world.” Certainly study and observation can be helpful. But we need to recognize what is not.
Thanks in part to the current evangelical obsession with our “postmodern society,” the wheel of evangelism has been reinvented so often that it’s a wonder it can turn at all. Perhaps you’ve heard this one: In our postmodern era, proclaiming the gospel as absolute truth is no longer relevant or effective. The good news must be communicated “holistically” as “incarnational” rather than “informational” truth.
At the heart of that philosophy is the notion that what we do and how we live matters more than any message we might proclaim. Claims to truth falter and fail, but a life that is “authentic” is necessary for evangelism in our postmodern society. At first blush this sounds holy and smart and kind of biblical. The problem is, it creates a false dichotomy between words and deeds, as though we need to choose one over the other to be effective. This is certainly not biblical. (For more on what the Bible says about evangelism and the spoken word, see page 6).
Some like to quote St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”
The wheel of evangelism has been reinvented so often that it’s a wonder it can turn at all.
Encouragement to live our lives consistently with our faith is right. As much as possible, our lives should always demonstrate the truth of our words, our actions underscoring and reinforcing our convictions. But dismissing the importance of proclaiming the message—as though our lives are the message—is wrong.
Whereas the gospel is God’s perfect plan and the Messiah is His perfect Person, we who are commanded to proclaim His message are far from perfect. If we think the best we have to offer is ourselves and our lives, we are sadly, sadly mistaken. Jesus lived the most perfect, authentic life possible. That did not relieve Him of the burden of talking to people about their sin and need for salvation.
To declare our approach “incarnational” is a serious undertaking. When we use that word, in what way do we compare ourselves to the Holy One who became flesh and dwelt among us?
Do we actually believe that God became incarnate in order to be relevant to society? He is the Creator! He didn’t come to this earth hoping to gain a hearing or “earn the right” to speak into people’s lives. Jesus’ Incarnation was a radical intrusion. God interjected Himself, uninvited, into the human race. Nor did He come to be voted Man of the Year. He was born to die.
If we want to be truly “incarnational” in our evangelism we have to realize that we, too, are intruders. If we dare to use the concept of Incarnation in our thinking, we must recognize where the Incarnation leads us—to endure the mocking and ridicule of those who do not welcome our wonderful Jesus, to endure the rejection He endured, to be crucified with Christ. If we expect anything less, we cheapen the word with vain sentimentality.
It’s important to see that we are being tempted to think that the truth and effectiveness of the gospel somehow depend upon us and our good works, without much reference to God’s Word, His grace and the power of the Holy Spirit.
The gospel, by nature, takes us out of conformity with the world. And the world always stands ready to punish those who don’t conform and reward those who do. It is easy to begin responding to that pressure without even realizing it. The notion of incarnational evangelism over and against direct gospel proclamation feeds the unconscious tendency to fashion our own pride and our own fear of discomfort or rejection into some form of holiness.
Frankly, the rejection, the vulnerability, the constant pressure and tension that follow when you are committed to preaching the gospel can make even the most idealistic of God’s servants wish for a different way to serve. Long-time mission leader John Orme confided in me his amazement at how many missionaries have told him that God had called them to evangelism, but when the going got tough, suddenly discovered they had actually been called to teaching instead. I understand that struggle very well. Like any evangelist, I have to guard my heart against looking for the easier path. Some will avoid direct proclamation, which is their choice, but when they try to institutionalize their choice as THE correct or effective way to reach the unsaved, something is not kosher.
Believers need to encourage each other to do the difficult thing rather than draining one another of the will to boldly proclaim the power of salvation. In their controversial book titled Changing the Mind of Missions: Where Have We Gone Wrong?, James Engel and William Dyrness say that an incarnational approach, or as they call it, a “Kingdom approach,” must be different from what we are practicing today. In a Kingdom approach, they insist, “…those we considered unreached are not viewed as candidates or customers for the gospel. Rather, our objective is to invite others, believers and nonbelievers to join us in a pilgrimage to discover the reality of a risen Lord.”
This sounds great if we assume that the invitation is a clear-cut explanation of who Jesus is and what it means to follow Him. Yet the authors seem to contrast a loving and inviting approach with a clear-cut proclamation of the gospel—as though one excludes the other.
Perhaps this false dichotomy is based on the mistaken notion that people will find a loving invitation to the gospel irresistible. When people resist, it’s assumed that we are doing something wrong. But the reality of evangelism is that many if not most to whom we speak are “gospel resistant.” We invite the many, but it is the few who are drawn. Each person who rejects the gospel brings us one person closer to the one who will receive it.
Moishe Rosen has said, “Evangelism is not a public relations job where we get people to like God.” The harder the times, the deafer the people, the clearer and more persuasive our proclamation must be. John Calvin wrote, “The more determined men become to despise the teaching of Christ, the more zealous godly ministers must be to assert it, and the more strenuous their efforts to preserve it entire, and more than that, by their diligence to ward off Satan’s attacks.”
The ways of this world tell us to forsake the way of the cross. Sometimes those ways affect us and we don’t even realize that we are bringing them into our churches and our Christian literature. “Whenever the Biblical faith becomes unpopular, ministers are sorely tempted to mute those elements that give the most offense,” says John Stott. So, are all of our attempts to “keep the gospel relevant” really about the gospel, or are some about us and our desire to avoid the discomfort that talk of sin and repentance bring?
Forthright evangelism involves discomfort. It is tempting to try theologizing our way out of that discomfort with ideas and approaches that relieve us of the responsibility Christ entrusted to us. It is particularly easy if the idea or approach is expressed in holysounding terms.
In this season when we remember the passion of our Lord, we need to renew ourselves to the task of true discipleship. Refusing to sugarcoat the gospel puts us on the path of true vulnerability. Like the Incarnation, it puts us on the road to Calvary. There the nails of popular opinion may pierce us, there we may be held up to ridicule, mocked and yes, declared irrelevant. But we need not fear because another has gone before us. His Resurrection is proof of His relevance and the relevance of our message. Yes, the Incarnation leads to the cross; let us embrace them both and continue to stand.