Wednesday, February 29, 2012

On Evangelism as Coercion or "Love God...OR ELSE"

I've been struggling quite a bit with what it means to be an "evangelical" lately, or more importantly, what  evangelism even means. So, I decided to write a post (or seven, or thirty-seven, I haven't quite figured that part out yet) on my trying to figure it out.  I thought it might be helpful first to look at what evangelism it not. So, here goes.

Evangelism is NOT coercion.

Much of what I know of evangelism comes from being raised in a fairly fundamentalist environment (yes, I think there's room for degrees of severity here), where Evangelism Explosion was our go-to program, and our silver bullet was the line (I know you've all heard this one before):
 "If you were to die tonight, and you had to stand before God, would you be ready?"
Now THAT is a loaded question.  Beneath the already-confrontational surface, there is a bubbling cauldron of assumption and presupposition that essentially turns the question into a choice between two options:
  1. Be condemned to a place of eternal separation from God, probably everlasting punishment, and where you will probably be conscious as you may or may not suffer in a raging inferno that never destroys your body.
  2. Love God! Do it! Do it now! Or else (see option 1)
Forgive me for being a simpleton, but how is this not coercion? 

And now, a digression in the form of a story, after which we will, of course, beautifully and succinctly tie the moral of the story into the point of this whole post and our lives will be forever changed...or something like that.

My oldest son and I have really bonded lately.  Since the baby has come along, our family has settled into a nice rhythm where mom is putting baby down to bed right around the same time that the E-man needs to go down, so I've had the wonderful privilege of having an hour and a half or so of focused, one-on-one time with the little guy, and our relationship has really blossomed because of it.

I think he finally likes me.

He doesn't immediately run to mom every time he hurts himself anymore.  SOMEtimes he'll let me rub it away and hug him until it stops hurting.  He doesn't mind when we do stuff just the two of us anymore and he seems to be genuinely pumped when I come home from work.  He even likes my chocolate chip pancakes just as much as mom's.  He will often, unpromted, say "Daddy wook at me," and he'll take my giant melon in his tiny hands, squeeze my cheeks together, plant a big wet one on me and say "I wuv wu."

The hugeness of these things cannot be overstated.

Now, I'll admit, I've been looking forward to this for a long time.  Dad's, you know what I'm talking about. When they're babies, especially if they're nursing, there is just this seemingly impenetrable barrier between you and this new "them," and you long for the day when you can break through and be a part of the "us" again...or maybe that's just me and my raging insecurities as a youngest child...but I digress.  The point is, I have very much been looking forward to getting to pal around with my oldest for some time, and now the time has arrived, and it is awesome.

So what does this have to do with evangelism?

Perhaps you already know where this is going, but here it is: if I had to coerce my son into having a relationship with me, if I had to say "love me or I'm going to spank you" is it even possible for that to be real love and real relationship?  Or what if, before the baby was born and he was still in the "mommy-time" phase, his mom had begun to tell him that he "had better love his daddy or there will be consequences," indeed the most severe consequences that his little brain could fathom, then could what resulted possible be considered an authentic, loving relationship?

The obvious answer is no.  So why do we think that there are different rules for evangelism?  Our doctrine says that God is Love, but our practice says that God is primarily an escape from punishment, and oh yeah, also maybe a slice of Love on the side...but mostly the escape from punishment thing.

But what can we do?  Well, for our family, it means we have had to rethink our beliefs about God's nature, hell, justice and all of those other preconceived notions that drive this particular flavor of evangelism.  It also means that we've had to start looking at evangelism as a lifestyle instead of an event or action.  We're still trying to figure it all out, but in any case, I think it's certainly a discussion worth having.

So, mom and the internets, what say you?  Am I missing the point?  Have I gone off the deep end.  Talk to me, interwebs.  Don't leave me hanging like you did with the Lent post. :)


  1. Reading 'Surprised by Hope' N.T. Wright, highly recommended. What I have in quotes is from that book. The chapter I read last night included salvation and evangelism. Wright's point being that it must be in the context and a result of resurrection which points to new life and new creation. The Kingdom of God inaugurated at resurrection of Christ and the future full glory in a new heaven and new earth.

    Evangelism is therefore Christians and the Church revealing and proclaiming the good news which is "that God (the world's creator) is at last becoming king and that Jesus, whom this God raised from the dead, is the world's true lord." How you and the Church accomplish this really says everything about whether you are actually believing in this hope and living as a new creation.

    If resurrection conquered death both in this world and then one day in full then why do we so often hear evangelism phrased as 'what will happen to you when you die'? Where does that come from in a reading of the Gospels or from Paul? The N.T. is very clear that salvation is both in the present and for the future. To put an emphasis on death is really saying that your hope is only upon death. That's not biblical. Your new creation isn't in death. Your decision on salvation is a present one with present implications, perhaps the least of which to the world around you is that you were scared of where you'd go when you died. Not to mention that it might say more about the eschatology of the evangelist than about the full picture of salvation.

    I can only think that the emphasis on evangelism and salvation focused as a death issue arose from a time when Christianity and the Church were not acting as agents of the Kingdom of God, were not living and working in this world for God in the spirit and truth of new creation.

    The point of the gospels is that the Kingdom of God has been ushered into history, it has begun. Salvation means we are part of that, evangelism means we want you to join in, right now.

    ..."He (God) wanted to rescue Israel in order that Israel might be a light to the Gentiles, and he wanted thereby to rescue humans in order that humans might be his rescuing stewards over creation. This is the inner dynamic of the Kingdom of God."

    In the gospels Jesus was doing Kingdom work, people were being healed and being evangelized and salvation was being accomplished. It was a total picture. Jesus tells us then that we are to carry on that work. Jesus didn't say well here I am in front of you but just worry about what will happen when you die. "...Heaven's rule, God's rule, is thus to be put into practice in the world, resulting in salvation in both the present and the future, a salvation that is both for humans and, through saved humans, for the wider world."

    Such a great book for understanding what hope is and how that drives our work both for and in the Kingdom of God, present and yet to be.

    1. That theme of the Kingdom as both now and not yet is something that resonates deeply with me. Bell's multi-faceted take on heaven in Love Wins (here now, there now, here then, there then) captures a bit of that texture as well. So there is both an urgency for our "now" and a hope for what is to come, and the tension between the two is where we find ourselves doing the actual kingdom work.

      By the way, you sold me on this one. I just sold back some old textbooks and ordered my copy, so I hope to have some more thoughts for you soon. :)

  2. I get what you're saying. That is part of what ignited my interest in figuring out my thoughts around hell/eternal conscious punishment as well as the cross. I got started in books from Wayne Jacobsen (more palatable for a newbie not interested in THICK tomes) but Brian has helped me to round out those opinions with more theological understanding. I remember though, reading "He Loves Me!" by Wayne and crying almost the whole way through it. Just hit the part that was aching at the time with those questions.

    1. I've had folks recommend "He Loves Me!" before as well, and I started it once, but I've never made it around to finishing it. I'll bump it up the list on your recommendation. :)

      It really is all about love, and that's such a stronger, more meaningful message than "Turn or Burn!" Why is it, do you think, evangelical culture clings so tightly to that particular mindset of using vinegar instead of honey?

      On a related note, this post generated some pretty awesome discussion on my facebook wall that I think I'm going to turn into a post as it really lays out my views on God's love.

  3. I love your illustration of your relationship with your boys, and most importantly, your boys' relationship with you. I think the "turn or burn" aspect of Christianity is one of many things that had a place at a few clear moments in history (possibly during the great awakening in America, and at times in the Old Testament with the prophets laying down the old covenant law for Israel) but today unfortunately it has become more or less a staple of Christian culture in the last 40 years.

    What's most exciting to me is that we are seeing large groups of people who are seeking to really, really understand and better know the nature of God, His love and his character more than ever. Then making decisions in their lives to embrace these truths as their example, inspiration and identity as believers.

    A thought I've been dwelling on and challenged, is a few words by A.W. Tozer in "Knowing God"... that read, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”

    This I've found so challenging and inspiring, because it affects my prayer, my worship and my view of how big, vast and beautiful our God is, and my ability to attempt to comprehend how much He loves people in such a big, vast and beautiful way.


    1. Wow. That Tozer quote is great. It actually kind of parallels what we were talking about the other day, how we create an image of God, and then that image of God becomes our idol, dictating how we live and interact with the world.

      By the way, I find it hilarious that both Tozer and Rob Bell said essentially the exact same thing. :)


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