Evangelism after Christendom: Review and Reflections Pt. 1

If you haven't read Bryan Stone's Evangelism After Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness, consider these next three posts a primer to this significant contribution to the theology of evangelism.  

Stone’s overarching thesis is that faithful evangelism is most fundamentally accomplished in the “beauty of holiness made real in the church” (12). Laying the foundation for this thesis, he identifies evangelism as a veritable practice—a virtuous activity whose ends are intrinsic. Moreover, evangelism is a constitutive Christian practice (47); the whole Christian life can be described as evangelism and the absence of evangelism, broadly defined as witness, is effectively the absence of Christianity. Stone asserts that most of what has been written in recent decades on evangelism is misguided due to a focus either on pragmatics or apologetics, both of which are grounded in non-Christian narratives. The primary logic of evangelism is that
of bearing witness, not production (18) and its nature is thoroughly non-violent and non-manipulative in every sense (12).

Understanding the nature of evangelism requires locating it within the proper story (39). This defining narrative develops over the span of biblical history. Israel, God’s elect people are chosen to bear global witness to God’s shalom, prophetically expressed as a social reality and particularized in messianic hope. Jesus announced the presence and availability of the kingdom, or reign, of God and manifested this reality in himself. The apostles message continues the narrative not by mimicking the message of Jesus but by focusing on Jesus himself as fulfillment of the long-promised reign of God’s shalom now made known through his body, the church (108). As “enacted narrative,” evangelism must be assessed in relation to this story that calls for it to be, above all, faithful, virtuous witness to God’s peace (52).

Stone’s contribution to the field of evangelism even in these early pages is, as attested by the back cover, substantial. This decidedly theological work nonetheless makes sense of the contemporary scene. Not only does it provide an effective summary of the two dominant groups of contemporary literature on evangelism, the pragmatic and the apologetic, it also offers cogent reasoning for why these are both the misguided outpourings of narratives which are foreign to the gospel. Similarly, these rival narratives are precisely what fuel the “creative reconstructions of evangelism” in vogue today that consider success to be simply “making the church more relevant to the tastes, expectations, preferences and quest for self-fulfillment” (13).

By attending to the biblical narrative Stone builds a case for a logic of evangelism as primarily embodied witness rather than a merely declarative witness. Though this logic could be derived from the incarnation and teaching of Jesus, it is less clear that this order of priority is a fair reading of early church’s experience. While he argues persuasively that the very existence and nature of the early Christian community was a notable means of witness, the narrative emphasis of Acts is arguably centered on the witness of proclamation and miracles performed by individuals. Such an emphasis on community-embodied evangelism might lead churches neglect outreach until it “gets its house in order.” While Stone does caution against this, he does so very briefly and only before proceeding to repeat the virtuous marks of the evangelistic community (106). Stone’s focus on the beautiful, holy community of embodied witness somewhat under-represents the central function played by the beautiful, holy declarative and demonstrative witness of individuals and imperfect communities.

Evangelism After Christendom: Review and Reflections, Part Two
Evangelism After Christendom: Review and Reflections, Part Three

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