Saturday, 7 March 2009
Incarnation, Proclamation and Evangelism
I get to spend a bit of time later on today at the Urban Expression Teams day. I won’t be able to stay for the discussion in the afternoon though which is a shame. The topic is an important one, The relationship between incarnational and proclamational mission.
Put simply incarnational church planting (Urban Expression is a church planting agency) begins when a small group of Christians lives and grows church in a particular place, taking shape as it attends to the gospel, engages with the wider community and actively seeks the kingdom. The old approach to planting was for one church to send twenty or more people to start a service in an under-churched area and then arrange evangelistic events and activities.
The incarnational approach is a definite improvement. However, incarnational planters run the risk of repeating a mistake made so often by the church throughout history and especially in recent years. We see weaknesses in an established way of doing church, initiate change and in the process utterly overreact and neglect real strengths in the old approach. So for instance, the charismatic movement’s stress on experience led to a regrettable disdain for learning and serious theology; the early/mid 20C reaction against the Social Gospel led to an unbiblical exclusion of social and political action form it’s understanding and practice of mission. The examples are many.
My point is this: there is no reason on God’s earth why an incarnational approach to mission and church planting should neglect a deliberate, intentional and strategic approach to proclamation.
Evangelism is at heart about communicating good news, expounding the gospel, making it public, rendering it manifest, causing it to become apparent and present. I like to think of it as goodnewsing. I also find it helpful to remember that it’s about doing, saying and being. Now, not all of these dimensions have the communication of good news as a deliberate intent, at the forefront of our attention. Evangelism suffers when we reify it, turning it into nothing more than a thing that we do and distinguish it from the doing saying and being of following Christ. (See this from Steve Holmes for some wise words to this effect.)
We evangelise when the stuff we do in pursuit of peace and justice such as providing shelter for the homeless or campaigning against poverty, gives expression to the way of Christ but our attention is not directed to getting across a message but to the needs of the homeless and the poor. We evangelise when the way we are bespeaks Christ, when our churches are hospitable honouring the least and including the other. Our primary intent here is not an act of communication but the living of a Christ-faithful life. We evangelise too when we speak of our faith and the one in whom that faith is placed, when we explain to friends why we pray, when we offer a Christ-informed perspective to colleagues conversing about an event in the news. Even here it is not is not that we think, “OK, now I am going to evangelise.” Rather, because we live as Christians we also speak as Christians. All good incarnational stuff.
However, none of this is to say that this richer, more integrated, more natural understanding of evangelism has to exclude deliberate, intentional, planned goodnewsing when our primary purpose is indeed to get a message across. As long as such activities are appropriate to the their setting and faithful to the gospel, refusing imposition and resisting distortion for the sake of “success” then they absolutely have a place. Why not?
Of course the sine qua non of goodnewsing is that whether it be our primary concern or a gracious by product given as we pursue other priorities, whether it is doing, being or saying it has to arise from lives given over to knowing and following Christ. Otherwise our doing is so much busyness, our saying mere words and our being an empty shell.