Saturday, December 24, 2011

Rethinking Christian Witness – Part One

Our relief team in New Orleans
In the past seven years I have been challenged in my thinking about evangelism—sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. My thinking has been reshaped by several things. First, in 2005 my church became involved in relief work shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. For the first time I experienced the combined witness of relief work and sharing the gospel. The witness came naturally as we worked to rebuild neighborhoods house by house. Through this I saw the value of walking alongside and serving people whether or not they were interested in the gospel message. What I found was that they became more interested. Second, my doctoral work in the history of Christianity reaffirmed that the church’s witness has come often by practicing Jesus’ teachings, not simply proclaiming the evangel. The lifestyle and actions of Christians opened doors for the verbal message. Christianity grew exponentially in the Roman Empire because Christians lived out Jesus’ teachings which gave credibility (ethos) to their message (logos). In new American evangelicalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a focus on the verbal proclamation of the gospel, in many cases, eclipsed Christian charity and social action.  In my dissertation research, I discovered that D. L. Moody’s early ministry in Chicago among immigrants involved considerable relief work but this was dropped almost entirely in his later ministry for a strategy of mass evangelism—an exclusive emphasis on “rescuing souls.” According to historian George Marsden, new American evangelicalism followed this trajectory of Moody’s later ministry.  Third, my teaching at the university level has increasingly exposed me to a population that is critical of Christians who are merely about “saving souls.” Such Christians are viewed as exclusive, judgmental, and irrelevant to contemporary society. One group was disappointed that Harold Camping’s prediction of the rapture didn’t happen, “hoping that the world would be rid of these Christians.”  The question to ask is: Is this a reaction to the gospel itself or to a form of out-of-balance Christianity? It appears that society has read correctly that “some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.”

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