As a graduate student at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, I have the privilege of doing some really heavy reading – some of which is more rewarding and engaging than others. Among my heavy readers, Bryan Stone stands tall as offering depth and breadth in his treatment of Evangelism while keeping me engaged in the subject and rewarding me with new hope for the church and its witness in the world. The following is just a brief foretaste of what you might get out reading his book, Evangelism after Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness.
If someone were to create a cartoon called “Evangelism is…” in the fashion of Kim Grove’s iconic “Love is…” cartoon from the ‘60s, Bryan Stone’s Evangelism after Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness would be a definitive guide for such a creation. If I were such a cartoonist, I would draw 12 images representing what Stone says evangelism needs to be today to be a credible and faithful witness to the world.
Image 1: Evangelism is… the church being present in the world. “Evangelism […] is not primarily a matter of translating our beliefs about the world into categories that others will find acceptable. It is a matter of being present in the world in a distinctive way such that the alluring and ‘useless’ beauty of holiness can be touched, tasted, and tried.”
Image 2: Evangelism is… essentially embodied in everything we do. “…evangelism is not so much a practice as an intrinsic characteristic of every Christian practice and of the comprehensive praxis of Christian faith itself.”
Image 3: Evangelism is… living God’s story in the world and inviting others to join in. “If Christian evangelism is the activity of proclaiming a story, it is also the activity of inviting others to make that story their own. This activity is performed by telling the story and also by living out that story imaginatively and openly in the world.”
Image 4: Evangelism is… announcing the reign of God here and now. “Jesus appeared announcing the reign of God as an actual state of affairs that was now breaking into history. For Jesus, God’s reign does not merely show up at the end of history. Rather, the end of history is itself now irrupting into the present, and Jesus’ evangelism both heralds and embodies the signs of that irruption.”
Image 5: Evangelism is… a social reformation. “Because of the new order present in Jesus and because of the social, political and subversive dimensions of that new order, ‘believing in Jesus’ is not a private mental assent to a set of propositions about his nature, an individual experience of his person, or a legalistic performance of his teachings. Apostolic evangelism is an invitation to be formed socially by the Holy Spirit into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus through incorporation into his body. Anything less can never be a full ‘offer’ of Christ.”
Image 6: Evangelism is… revolutionary love. “A postmodern and postliberal church may yet recover an evangelical and uncivil resistance to capitalism that originates in it’s worship and following of a crucified and risen Lord; is sustained by disciplines and practices such as breaking of bread, the revolutionary love of enemies, and the welcoming of strangers; and is energized by the transforming, egalitarian, and reconciling power of the Holy Spirit.”
Image 7: Evangelism is… a heart of acceptance and inclusion. “At the heart of the church’s identity, practice and outreach is a politics of gender, racial, and interethnic acceptance and inclusion.”
Image 8: Evangelism is… making room for skeptics and doubters. “The good news must always be expressed in such a way that its being understood by hearers is balanced with the possibility of its rejections. Weakness, vulnerability, incarnation, and refusability are all markers of faithful Christian witness.”
Image 9: Evangelism is… a Holy Spirit happening. “Evangelism is a participation in the work of the Holy Spirit, for it is only through the Spirit that Christ is made present and available in the world.”
Image 10: Evangelism is… a place prepared for all to come experience the reign of God. “If evangelism can be ‘measured’ at all, perhaps it can best be measured by how well a community prepares a place at its table for those who are not there yet, for those who have not even heard, much less heeded, its invitation.”
Image 11: Evangelism is… hope for the future. “Evangelism takes time. But for a people of hope, it is precisely time that we have been given. That is why hope is subversive in a world that is cynical and stoic about the way things are. That is also why an evangelism formed by hope will always stand fundamentally counter to an evangelism formed by that great impostor of hope, despair.”
Image 12: Evangelism is… a church that is shaped like Jesus in a world with a God shaped whole. “The very shape of the church in the form of its ordinary practices and patterns of social process constitute its witness in the world by providing a visible and material foretaste of God’s rule.”
My focus in this summary has been on the hope for the future of Christian witness, but Bryan Stone also deals with the realities of how we have not been faithful in our witness throughout some of our history. My view of evangelism has primarily been shaped by my training to be a foreign missionary and fits very well with Stone’s view of evangelism. Yet, for the last 20 years in American, I have struggled and often despaired in my local evangelistic efforts. My experience has been that the church in America has largely been shaped subtly and historically by Constantinianism and more profoundly and tragically by modernity. Though I may be tempted to despair as authors like Stone affirm and explain what I have experienced of the “dark side” of Christianity, I choose to have hope. Even though, like many in our culture, there are times when I have liked Jesus but not the church (Dan Kimball wrote a great book on this subject) and have been ashamed to invite friends to church, I continue hoping they will see Jesus in me and my family in spite of the distorted images presented by some American churches today.
You may have heard it said that three things remain – faith, hope and love, and so I say to you, I have faith in the global body of Christ to become a faithful witness to the world of the peaceable reign of God, I hope in the future Dan Kimball will be able to write a book about how the church has become so like Jesus that there is no discrepancy between the two, and I love the church – the visible body of Christ to and for the world.
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