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Evangelism in the age of stupid

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.

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.

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.

Comments

Thank you; this is helpful.

For most of my life within (but now exiting) the evangelical thought collective, I have been wondering “how does one interest people in ‘the Gospel’ when they don’t believe ‘the bad news’ that ‘the Gospel’ is reckoned to be the answer to? Do people have to become Infernalists before they can become Christians?”

In the last decade, my meditations have taken a darker turn. North American (certainly US) evangelicalism is widely characterized by various kinds of softer to harder forms of denialism regarding climate science. And even among some (not naming names here, but I have a specific well-regarded ministry in mind) who are not science deniers, there seems to be an attitude like that of the inhabitants of Jerusalem threatened with siege, that God will not allow anything really bad to happen to His people.

But sometimes God sets His face against His people; I suspect that we are entering another period like that. A century from now, if things turn out poorly in terms of the habitability of the planet, how credible will the testimony be of the ‘descendants’ of those who ignored the problem when there was still time to address it?

I don’t see much of a future for these churches.

Thanks, Andrew. This article was helpful and the questions you outlined toward the end are the right ones. I’m not entirely sure how to go about answering them. I wonder if I’d recognize a real prophet if I saw one.

As Samuel mentioned, we also have an extreme credibility problem in the US above and beyond the objections of secularism, not the least of which is our tendency to lag far behind everyone else in various matters of being a blessing to the world. In fact, we’re commonly associated with being a prop and bulwark for the very things that are destructive forces.

My hope is that secularism will end up being refining fires from which a better church will emerge.