“Do you have to build IKEA’s furniture, or do you get to build IKEA’s furniture?”
In other words, is putting together, say, a bookshelf from IKEA an integral piece of the experience of purchasing the bookshelf or is it a chore that is passed along to the customer?
This is a good question and it raises other thoughts about the words “have” and “get.” About obligations and pleasures.
This all comes to mind as I ponder the issue of evangelism.
Two things have helped raise this issue anew for me. The first is the ever-commented fact that church attendance throughout the West is in decline—even among mega-churches and evangelicals, groups that have touted their supposed “growth” as evidence that their vision of the faith resonates better with the culture than the vision of places like The Episcopal Church.
And despite all the think-pieces and commentary about these facts, there is only one simple truth that is going to reverse the tide of church decline:
Christians must be evangelists.
The second thing that has caused this issue to come to my mind is from a quote by Kosuke Koyama, a Japanese theologian who worked as a missionary in Thailand in the 70s. In the newly written epilogue for the 25th anniversary edition of his important book, Water Buffalo Theology, he writes:
“I believe we we can speak forcefully and intelligently about Christian faith only when we are in engaged in the common battle against violence. Christian speech on the uniqueness of Christianity would speak to the world if the world had been impressed by Christian work toward the elimination of violence.”
Koyama writes this while asking why civilizations are so violent—particularly the West, which is shaped by Christianity. It stands to reason that “Christian” civilizations (meaning, those shaped in response to the Christian Church) ought to be the most non-violent and peaceful civilizations on the planet.
Somewhat related to this is a line from a review of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option where the reviewer, Michael Baxter of Regis University in Denver, challenges Dreher’s ideas that the Sexual Revolution of the mid-20th century and the expansion of LGBTQ rights in the early 21st evince a “point of no return” from which the Church’s privileged status in America can no longer return (thus opening up an era of either compromise or persecution). He states that he would rewrite Dreher’s timeline to reflect that American Christianity already passed the point of no return by founding a nation on slave labor and the massacres and forced relocation of indigenous peoples (something that is true of practically all moves of Western colonialism).
Years ago, just a week or so after I graduated college, I went to Thailand to teach English in a Christian village out on the Laotian border, on the banks of the Mekong River. There were five of us, dropped out in deeply rural Thailand, the first time I’d ever travelled somewhere where I did not speak the language.
While there, I was reading Martin Palmer’s The Jesus Sutras, a book about the rediscovery of a Chinese Church begun in the 500’s, a Christianity deeply influenced by Taoism and Buddhism. It was, one, remarkable to read about a Christianity that took seriously the culture in which it was being preached, a Christianity that synthesized the folk beliefs of the people—a Christianity that didn’t look Roman or Persian (it was Persian Christians who brought the faith to the Chinese at this time), but thoroughly Chinese.
It was, secondly, shocking to compare it with the Christianity I was experiencing in Thailand—which was thoroughly American but translated into Thai.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I'm not blaming the pastor for any of this. He planted a church as Liberty University taught him to plant it. The same way any number of missionaries have done. It’s just a simple fact that we lack the critical eye to notice how much of our Western culture has become intertwined with the Christian gospel.
And, indeed, this helps explain the violence of which Koyama speaks.
Our ideas of evangelism have become intertwined with imperialism and we seldom stop to think about that fact.
After Constantine converted to the Christian faith—a watershed moment that cannot and must not be denigrated—the Christian faith became the official religion of the Roman Empire and an indelible mark was made on Christianity for the next several centuries: Christianity became the new Pax Romana, the new ideal through which to spread the imperial ethos.
In short, the Christian message was spread less to save souls and more to save an Empire.
I get that this is an over-simplification and that historians who read this may very well prove me wrong here, but I want us to stop and think about the fact that most missionary endeavors throughout history have looked more like state-sponsored actions than the sorts of proclamations made by Saint Paul in synagogues and public squares.
In my head “the gospel” was the “plan of salvation” (either the Romans Road or the “Wordless Book”) and I was more or less told to imagine that Saint Paul and the other apostles were engaged in something quite similar in the first century. But I never saw that in the Bible and always wondered what their “plan of salvation” was. It seemed to me that if “the gospel” was a “plan” then that plan would be plainly laid out somewhere in the Bible, not assembled piecemeal from various references cobbled together.
This was all the more frustrating because the word “gospel” in the New Testament carries an assumed definition. Whenever it’s used, its used in such a way that indicates the reader already knows what the word means.
It took me a long time, but I finally was able to construct a simple and straightforward explanation of what “the gospel” is all about and it is this:
Thanks to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead we no longer have to try and save ourselves—salvation has already happened—and now we are free to live a life no longer encumbered by the stress and uncertainty of trying to achieve salvation.
See, here’s where things went wrong with all my previous understandings of evangelism: I was told that people have to believe in Jesus, not that they get to believe in Jesus. (See? That IKEA bit in the beginning finally came back around.)
Having to believe in Jesus is something rooted in Imperial thinking. It’s conquest, a “do this or die” approach. And it winds up concerning itself primarily with behavior. This is because it is trying to make imperial citizens.
Getting to believe in Jesus is something else altogether. It is truly liberation. It is not an obligation, but an opportunity.
Obligating someone is hardly good news. And in our current multi-religious landscape all it does it make Jesus an option among other religions, with evangelism becoming a sales-pitch concerned with the superior features over other methods of belief.
But the good news of Jesus is the very thing that satisfies the religious longing of the human race. We’re all interested in being saved, in doing the right thing so that we can find liberation and avoid damnation. The problem is that we keep trying to do that work ourselves and keep failing at it. That Jesus has already done the work of salvation for us completely changes the game and completely re-narrates the human story.
So, the reason why Christian nations have not stamped out violence and why The Church is in decline has much to do with the fact that the message we’ve been proclaiming has been caught up in the wrong kind of medium.
The gospel is not the tool of the Empire. The gospel is the truth, a truth that passes our understandings, and subverts the ways of the world.
We don’t have to believe in Jesus because having to believe in Jesus misses the whole point. Since Jesus is the savior and has effected salvation by virtue of the cross and His tomb that stands empty to this very day, then there is no longer an obligation. Rather, there is the opportunity to live the life we have spent so much time struggling to achieve.
And because of this, we get to believe in Jesus. Because God sent His son into the world to save the world we are given the opportunity to live a liberated life.
This is the message the world wants to hear, indeed, needs to hear. When they hear it, then a new world will begin to come into existence. Not the world of Empires with their obligations, subjugations, and violence.
Rather, the Kingdom of God.