I have a few loosely related comments to make about an article on the Christianity Today site by the missiologist Ed Stetzer: “Headwinds in Evangelism: New Challenges Secularism and Pluralism Add to Outreach.”
1. Having watched the new Attenborough documentary Climate Change: The Facts and Franny Armstrong’s The Age of Stupid last night, and with London’s streets currently blocked by Extinction Rebellion protesters, who are now threatening to shut down Heathrow Airport over the Easter weekend, I don’t think Christians should be too blasé about telling their flying-around-America stories. The actress Emma Thompson was criticised for flying back from Los Angeles to join in the demonstration. A spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion said in her defence that her flight was an “unfortunate cost in our bigger battle to save the planet”. Can high profile Christian leaders even claim that much?
What mainly struck me, though, was that no Christian voice was heard in either documentary. According to Stetzer evangelicals—people who claim to serve the creator God—make up nearly a quarter of the American population. But seemingly evangelicals have nothing to say on a matter of such grave consequence… nothing to say that secular society considers worth listening to. And the sad thing is that most evangelicals will express no surprise at that.
2. Stetzer attributes the current reluctance to evangelise to a “transition in a cultural moment”. I think that is right. “We’re still trying to figure out what the future should ultimately look like as we continue to share the gospel.” The commitment to evangelise, in the traditional sense, is undermined by a deep existential uncertainty over whether the church has a future—as illustrated precisely by the first point.
3. From a European perspective Stetzer’s analysis is a long way behind the curve of history, but he rightly highlights the significance of the shift from a “nominally Christian to a more pluralistic and secular society”. This is an epochal transformation, on a par with the conversion of pagan Europe 1800 years ago. Until the church grasps the enormity and scope of this change, it will struggle to define a place for itself in the Western context, and therefore will struggle to formulate a message that sounds remotely like good news.
4. Stetzer assumes a traditional model of personal evangelism. He means “proselytization”. Set against the backdrop of the larger story of cultural transition—and indeed of climate change—this approach appears woefully inadequate, in two respects.
First, it fails to capture the scale and reach of the messages that were proclaimed as good news in the New Testament: that the God of Israel was about to judge and restore his people, that the God of Israel was about to judge and annex for his own glory the nations of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē.
Secondly, it offers no comparable large-scale, far-reaching message for our own times. Evangelism has personal and private relevance only because it first has public and political relevance. The missiological question is not: how can we persuade secular-minded individuals to believe in Jesus? It is, first: what is the God of our fathers doing to judge and restore his own people? And secondly: what is the living creator God saying about, doing about, the current crisis of global humanity?
If we do not have clear answers to those questions, then biblically speaking, we simply have no gospel. Ironically, what the climate change protesters are doing looks much more like the pattern of New Testament “evangelism” than what Stetzer appears to have in mind.