Evangelism for Davis Square, MA: A Contextual Theology

This is post two of a three part project on Evangelism in Davis Square, MA, co-written with Ross Ponder.  I've made some final editoral omissions.   Part one on evangelistically relevant characteristics of residents is here.

A Contextual Theology of Evangelism for Davis Square, MA.
    Before proposing several practices that could constitute faithful witness to the jaded, progressive, educated, aspiring, and sojourning population of Davis Square, a grounding contextual theology of evangelism bears articulation. While evangelism is always, as William Abraham has stated “the polymorphous ministry aimed at initiating people into the kingdom of God” (Chilcote 19), the contours of this ministry should
appropriately morph to respond in relevant ways to the particularities of the context and its citizens. This report proposes understanding evangelism contextually as the call to a community of cause. As such, the gospel is taken to be the truth of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and the new reality that these have made open to all—namely that they may enter what Jesus called the kingdom of God, and what is here described as a community of cause.

Call to a Community of Cause
    The canonical evangelists quoted the prophet Isaiah to announce that in Christ the coming kingdom of God was near. They implore us to listen to the call, that comes as “a voice” that “cries out in the wilderness” (Matt. 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4; John 1:23). Announcing salvation’s imminent possibility, this evangelistic call is both an invitation and a demand.
     The practice of Christian evangelism always introduces individuals to Jesus Christ, calls for repentance and invites commitment to following Christ. In the words of Latin American evangelical Alejandro E. Costas, “to bring the good news of salvation is to call for a commitment to Jesus Christ” (Chilcote 42; italics original). Invitation to Christ occurs in two important ways: (1) believers share the gospel of Christ through proclaiming and embodying the incarnate Word; and (2) potential converts are given the opportunity to accept or reject the gospel. 
     First, Christians invite others to the faith in their proclamation and embodiment of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Vincent J. Donovan, a Catholic missionary to the Masai people of East Africa, favored proclamation, approaching each group as a tabula rosa, and offering “nothing, literally nothing, but the unchanging supracultural, uninterpreted gospel” (121). The naïveté of Donovan’s purist attempt at “first evangelization” would be intolerable among the residents of Davis Square given the strong presence of those jaded by familiarity with Christianity. Christian proclamation needs to be reimagined for those already familiar with it. 
     Furthermore, the evangelism requires more than just proclamation, believers must also witness through embodying the gospel. This embodiment, far from being an abstract theological concept, is grounded in the particulars of local reality. The gospel involves believers in an eschatological vision of the cosmos and its redemption. Again, Costas wrote, “calling people to commit their lives to Christ implies inviting them to be incorporated into Christ” (Chilcote 43).  Becoming a member of Christ’s body means belonging among the people of God, who are known by a distinct way of life and practices (Stone 24-27). Proclaiming and embodying the gospel go hand in hand. Words fall flat without action; likewise, our actions remain ambiguous without verbal interpretation.  David J. Bosch notes, “The best we can hope for is that people will deduce from our behavior and our actions that we have ‘a hope within us’” (Chilcote 11).
     The second key feature of faithful call is that potential converts are equipped and freed to accept or reject Christianity. Donovan stressed the temporary nature of evangelistic work; it has a definitive conclusion. At the appointed time, Donovan required each community to make their decision to convert and become baptized or not. Donovan inevitably faced the day when a group of Masai rejected the gospel, which was personally distressing (Donovan 75-96 and especially 80-82).  Other authors, as Bryan P. Stone, anticipate rejection by some. Conversion places demands on the believer to leave old ways/narratives in favor of Jesus’ (Stone 83-86). Not all will submit to these gospel demands. This reality does not suggest failure, rather it accompanies faithful evangelism. Indeed, the practice of open evangelism – with freedom to reject or accept Christianity – respects potential convert’s autonomy of choice.
     The importance of the gospel’s call is critical for the residents of Davis Square jaded towards Christianity. Already standing askance at Christianity, these residents suspect the motives of Christians, especially evangelists. Thus, the embodied presence of the gospel in Christians displays the freedom and transformative power of the gospel. Open invitation allows the skeptics to respond to Christianity based on its proclaimed and embodied witness.
     In addition, the open invitation of Christian evangelism can appeal to the aspirational and sojourning residents of Davis Square. Seeing the call and transformative power of Christ unfold before them, the aspiring may realize the purpose and value of the call to the Christian life.  Dissatisfied with the stuff-filled and success-driven life of a young professional, they can be welcomed to something more. Furthermore, call is not just “teaching” or the passing on of information as the highly educated have generally become acquainted with and numb to. The call to the Christian community creatively retells the people of God’s story in light of Christ’s redemptive work.

Call to a Community of Cause
    The fellowship of the Trinity is the primary community into which evangelism beckons.  Thus, evangelism is a call to reconciled, intimate relationship with God, made possible through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the immediate work of the Holy Spirit. This call to Triune fellowship is precisely an invitation to enter the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is a participatory reality, which believers “enter” and “receive” from God rather than “build” or “extend” (Chilcote 66-68). It is a gift freely given (Luke 12:32), “both a place to inhabit (Matt. 5:19; Col. 1:12) and a place yet coming that is to be inhabited (Matt. 7:21; 25:21, 23; 2 Peter 1:11)” (Chilcote 67). 
     The reality of the kingdom of God is primarily known through human relationship. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity provides an excellent model of the human community to which evangelism calls (itself centered in the Triune God). The Trinity is by its very nature relational: three divine persons co-existing simultaneously in one Godhead. Our Christian forbears from late antiquity understood the Trinity relationally, though they argued over the inner relationship of the divine persons (from Nicaea to Chalcedon and beyond). 
     Recently, Christianity has seen a shift towards understanding the Trinity (and the kingdom of God itself) as entirely relational. Jürgen Moltmann’s work reveals an open theological system, in which the divine persons have no fixed order; that is, the Trinitarian persons work cooperatively with one another. Thus, "the trinitarian [sic] persons form their own unity by themselves in the circulation of the divine life" (Moltmann 175). In the church’s doctrinal development of the Trinity, the vibrant relationship of God with humanity had been lost and is being recovered slowly. Indeed, if salvation is, by its very nature, a relational process occurring in community, a process that mirrors the very nature of God himself, then the evangelizing community is called to model it. 
    The Christian community models the kingdom of God through engaging a distinctive narrative and set of practices. The Christian narrative stands in contrast to others that compete for the allegiance of 21st century individuals, and would attempt to measure the church’s success by worldly gain or the individual’s freedom in the world (Stone 111-170). Rival narratives confuse the church’s true ecclesial home, the shared narrative of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Taking on the story of Jesus, believers release themselves from stories of imperialistic and modern forms of Christianity. 
     Moreover, one of the major parts of the evangelizing community’s work is to equip the saints for the work of ministry in their daily lives (Eph. 4:12). Church happens 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Church members are to be evangelists in their day-to-day lives. Lesslie Newbigin thus urges the church to “[t]rain and enable members to act as agents of the kingdom in the various sectors of public life where they work” (Chilcote 52).  He continues, “[i]t must become a part of ordinary congregational life that members are enabled to think through and discuss the ways in which their Christian faith impinges on their daily life in their secular work”  (Chilcote 53).  For Newbigin, the Christian life emerges from cultivating discipleship in a shared life, acting and living out this faith in public, and finally attempting to explain the catalyst of this unique behavior in words. Disciples are grown through the Holy Spirit’s empowerment and can be characterized by their shared practices. Indeed, as Newbigin aptly states, “the presence of a new reality will be made known by that acts that originate from it” (Chilcote 50).
     The Christian call to community appeals to the sojourners and politically progressive of Davis Square.  Lonely sojourners are offered a loving group to belong to and the gospel’s embodiment offers a meaning to their wanderings through a common path toward God’s reign.  Even further, the church’s model of equality and relationship will appeal to politically progressive sensibilities. The social and political action of College Avenue UMC’s own politically progressive members bases itself on the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.  Christians become evangelists by exhibiting lives of shared respect and mutuality, as the divine persons do. Indeed, the Christian community fulfills the Church’s mission and practices evangelism when it “is a radiant manifestation of the Christian faith and has a winsome lifestyle” (Chilcote 12).

Call to a Community of Cause
     The cause which constitutes the church is none other than the missio dei. Just as the Trinity is the normative community, the Trinity’s mission is the normative cause. According to Newbigin, the mission of the church constitutes the church as church (1954: 163). No mission, no church. A proper response to the evangelistic call, then, is the taking up of ministry (Chilcote 15). Bosch describes the grand mission of the church as “being involved in the redemption of the universe and the glorification of God” (Chilcote 9).
    The cause or mission to which the world is called is pluriform in nature but united by an eschatological vision. In the words of Newbigin, “the Church is not to be defined by what it is, but by that End to which it moves” (1954: 19). With a constitutive eschatological mission, the church is to be a “sign, instrument and foretaste of the reign of God” (1995: 110).
     One crucial dimension of the cause to which people are called in evangelism is the urgency of sharing the call with others. Simply stated, evangelism calls people to an evangelizing community. Donovan concluded that the goal of preaching the gospel, the proper response to the gospel and result of baptism was “a Eucharistic community with a mission” (115). This mission, says Donovan, reaches out in word and action “to the world around them to spread the kerygma of the good news” (116). This evangelistic call must be expressed in both verbal and embodied form; in word and deed. 
    A second dimension of the missio dei calls people to join communities involved in liberative work. Alejandro Costas, mentioned earlier, describes this dimension as becoming a
catalyst of God’s liberating action in the world of poverty, exploitation, hunger, guilt, and despair by standing in solidarity with people, by showing them with concrete actions that God cares and wills to save them and by helping them to understand the material and moral roots of their situation (Chilcote 41, italics in original). 
     The cause to which evangelism calls people includes divinely-powered engagement with all dimensions of human and creation “groaning” (Romans 8:22), and takes place primarily in the action of church members’ daily work (Chilcote 51-3). Joining this shared cause is not primarily a duty but a substantial part of the gift of the gospel.   Evangelism offers the promise of spending one’s life in service of the most significant cause of all, God’s cosmic work of redemption. 
    The significance of the cause-dimension of the gospel remains relevant to the aspirational residents of Davis Square. Joining a cause of cosmic proportions can infuse even the most mundane employment with redemptive significance. Baristas become witnesses to the goodness of the creation of caffeine and vessels of the God’s indiscriminate kindness to all. Davis Square’s “creative class” can be invited to understand their work within the divine cultural mandate to “fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28) infusing employment with a meaning that far exceeds personal gratification. As these young adults search for fulfillment and vocation the cause of the missio dei promises both, while simultaneously relativizing other pursuits. 
     Additionally, politically progressive commitments to social justice and human dignity take on even deeper significance when seen as participation in the liberative missio dei. Observing the church as community for others may even counter the impression among the jaded that Christians do nothing but huddle in self-righteousness, out of touch with the needs of the world. The highly educated can discover the telos of their learning, using it contribute words and actions to the embodied proclamation of the gospel.  Even the sojourning can find directionality and meaning to their wandering through participation in an eschatological cause.

You can find part three of this study, offering contextual practices for evangelism in Davis Square, here.

Adams, James R. So You Can’t Stand Evangelism?: A Thinking Person’s Guide to Church Growth. Boston, MA: Cowley Publications, 1994.
Arnett, Jeffery.  Emerging Adulthood: the winding road from the late teens through the twenties. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004. 
Chilcote, Paul and Laceye Warner, Eds.  The Study of Evangelism: Exploring a Missional Practice of the Church.  Cambridge, MA: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008. 
Donovan, Vincent.  Christianity Rediscovered.  Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1978.  
Eck, Diana. Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2003.
______. A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Became the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation. New York, NY: Haper One, 2002.
Frei, Hans. The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics. New Haven: Yale UP, 1974.
Hunter, George G.  III. The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West...Again. Abingdon Press, 2000.
Jones, Robert P. Progressive & Religious: How Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhists are Moving Beyond the Culture Wars and Transforming American Public Life. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2008.
Kimball, Dan.  They Like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations.  Zondervan Publishing: Grand Rapids, MI, 2007.
Kinnaman, David and Gabe Lyons.  UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…and Why it Matters. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997. 
Moltmann, Jürgen. The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God. Minneapolis,
Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1993.
Newbigin, Lesslie. The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission. Revised Edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.
Newbigin, Lesslie. The Household of God. New York: Friendship Press, 1954. American Edition.
Roxburgh, Alan.  Missional Mapmaking: Skill for Leading in Times of Transition.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010.
Stone, Bryan P. Evangelism After Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness. Grand Rapids, MI: Orbis, 2006.

No comments:

Post a Comment