Perhaps the word “missional” is more appropriate to the emerging sense of evangelism, and I suggest the following are some of the major complaints against traditional evangelism. We can all give some bad examples of evangelism, and the best way to do the work of the kingdom is to get beyond criticizing traditional faith by appealing to bad examples. Still, there are some issues for many of us:
First, there is the issue of reducing the gospel to a marketable simplicity. Many are concerned that the gospel is so profound, so comprehensively transforming, and identity-forming that reducing to some simple few steps truncates the gospel to a formula not discoverable in Jesus or the early Church.
Second, some contend that many evangelists are downright manipulative. Some of you may know of my work on conversion (Turning to Jesus). In that piece we discuss “encapsulation theory” which is the isolation of a person — sometimes innocently, sometimes not — and this can occur at the level of the social and the rhetorical. And it is not always easy to discern the line between genuine care and persuasive force and the manipulative. Many of us in the emerging movement steer a wide berth around anything that smacks of manipulation — and rightly so.
Third, a clear issue is what I am calling termination, and what I mean by this is the goal of the evangelist: when is it “over”, when has the evangelist accomplished his or her goal, when is the person “saved”? Because traditional evangelism has often made a clear distinction between decisions and disciples, and since the emerging folks want to create disciples and those who follow in the way of Jesus, then the termination is not so clear and thus the dividing line is not so clear — and this creates an entirely new dynamic. [Response to Comment below. What about baptism? If an emerging local church practices adult immersion by profession of faith, then the “termination” of evangelism would be here, but baptism would also be understood as the commitment to a life of dying and rising with Christ.]
Fourth, many understand evangelism as rationalization of faith in Christ — and many in the emerging movement think faith transcends the rational, is profoundly relational, and is therefore transpropositional (Stephen Shields’ expression I like). If faith transcends the rational, then “evangelism” can’t be limited to the rational and that means it is deeply personal — and how does a person measure when someone loves another person? Well, that is central to many of us in the emerging movement.
Fifth, a major, major issue is colonization — the goal of leaving one’s station (say your local church) and gathering more who will be colonized in your group. Well, local churches are fine and good — they reflect the kingdom in God’s plan. But, scoring folks for your group is not what genuine evangelism is about. It is getting folks to follow Jesus and that means wherever they might be and at whatever level they might be following Jesus. The line between “us and them” and between “in and out” is not so clear sometimes.
Sixth, an issue I hear about all the time is arrogance. Whether you like the pomo generation or not, that generation simply can’t stomach those who think they know all the answers. When evangelists come over as “I’ve got the answer” many will turn them off. The emerging movement wants to create a form of evangelism, if it calls it that (and I am loathe to give up a wonderful NT word), that is genuinely conversational and authentic and natural.
Seventh, a final issue is agenda. When the emerging generation thinks someone is being friendly, or striking up a conversation, or showing an interest, simply to create an opportunity for evangelism emerging folks fly to the other side of the room. It is embarrassing, they argue, to use friendship for the sake of evangelism: we ought to be friends of others because we love them not simply so we can “lead them to Christ.”
Well, these are some observations. You may have more. Chime in, please.