Rethinking Evangelism in America
*Robert Schmidt served as a missionary to Nigeria in the 1960s, a campus pastor at several universities, and a professor of theology at Concordia University in Portland. A fuller treatment of “The Coming Kingdom” was recently published in the Nov. 2013 issue of Missio Apostolica – The Lutheran Society for Missiology.
The first worship service I conducted in Africa, I baptized over fifty and confirmed another thirty. We did a preaching, teaching, reaching mission in some unreached areas and the initial house calls turned into proclamations of the Gospel with fifty to one hundred people listening in at every house call. Evangelism services brought in hundreds of villagers and in giving out tracts so many people surrounded me I wished I had at least twelve helpers for the distribution.
Needlessly to say, evangelism in America is not like that, at least in most Lutheran churches. Christmas homilies told us to be like the shepherds and make known what they had seen to tell others about Jesus. Jesus is our Savior; he died on the cross and was raised from the dead, for our salvation. Well…. yes, of course….but America is not Bethlehem at the beginning of Anno Domini, nor is it Africa in the 60’s. People have heard the story, maybe they have not believed it, digested it, or applied it to their lives, but they have heard it. So what is the “good news?”
Whom Are We Addressing?
In the preparation of foreign missionaries at mission school, some time is spent in acquainting new missionaries with the people they will be talking to. Heading off to India, missionaries need to know something about Hinduism and Islam. Going to Africa or New Guinea, you will have to understand something about animism. For China and Japan, is it Buddhism, Confucianism or wait…. is it something else? Maybe they are much more influenced for good or ill by capitalism, raw, undiluted, unchecked capitalism which has raised their standard of living, polluted their air, and set their sights on empty heavens.
Who are we addressing in America? Many of us are concerned about the growing “secularism” of America. But is “secularism” really the best term for it? Secularism implies an absence of religion, a naked public square. With the first commandment in mind, Luther would likely be uncomfortable with term. Who is the secularist’s god? What shapes the imagination, the desires and dreams of life? What are the fears? Where is there despair, where is their hope?
Evangelism brings good news to people who have false and foolish gods. Might not “capitalism” be the false and tempting god of most Americans, in church and without?
Through advertising, capitalism sets the agenda for life. It declares winners and losers. It rewards those who cut jobs, who finance political campaigns, who consume the world’s resources, and who destroy nature. It automatically relegates to the periphery, the world’s hungry, poor, immigrants, vulnerable, ill-equipped, undereducated, permanently unemployed, and disposable people. Yes, it has raised the standard of living, provided more choices for those who can afford them, and increased the return on investment. But in its wake, flow the flotsam and jetsam of broken dreams and wasted lives.
What’s The Good News?
The good news is Jesus’ announcement that the kingdom of God is at hand. Wrapped up in that “kingdom” were the promises of the prophets. Sins would be forgiven, the hungry fed, the thirsty have water, and slaves and prisoners liberated. People would sit under their own vine and fig tree with housing and employment. The sick would be healed and nations would beat their swords into plowshares and not learn war any more. Jesus said that the poor would have the good news (of the kingdom) preached to them. Those on the periphery, lepers, blind, whores, and even the convicts, would have their dignity and respect restored by none other than the God who made them.
Good news was brought home as Jesus fed the hungry, healed the sick, forgave sins, restored the dignity of prostitutes and sinners, and even reconciled rulers like Pilate and Herod. Even greater things his disciples would do. Finally our faith would be judged on how well we have fed the hungry, given water to the thirsty, and visited the sick and imprisoned (Matt. 25).
This cornucopia of kingdom promises come as people repent and believe the good news that this kingdom is a hand (Mark 1:15). For the unemployed and vulnerable, repentance means ending destructive personal behavior and hopelessness. Even harder, however, is believing that a better life is near both personally and for society as a whole. Here the message to those at he edge of despair is that there is hope for themselves now and in the resurrection to come.
Repentance for the wealthy and even for the middle classes means shedding off the self-righteousness of having made it or even having survived in the capitalist world. It means a deep contrition for benefitting from the unequal distribution of wealth, the ruination of the planet, and actually believing that the present capitalist system is somehow “divinely ordained.” For the wealthy and the middle class “believing the good news” means that their worth is prior to their wealth or accomplishments. Indeed, they are free and significant people without having to show what they have or to acquire more.
Is There a Hell?
How do the well-to-do view life after death? Do the richest of the rich go to church? Churches may indeed enjoy the largesse of their donations. Some of the wealthy may indeed be profligate in their support of good causes, charities, and non-governmental organizations serving the sick and vulnerable. But what are the percentages? Jesus also saw the wealthy making their contributions but commended the widow for giving one hundred per cent. Certainly a few good works should erase from the rich any fear of the after-life, if, indeed, there is such a thing
In a lot of Lutheran churches, hell is not mentioned much. Accenting the positive, we speak of Christ’s redeeming love, his sacrifice on the cross, the forgiveness of sins and the hope of heaven. But the dark side, hell, is pretty much left out of the equation. Afraid to be lumped together with those who threaten hell for gays, false theology and wrong religion, hell is pretty much left on the shelf. After all, we do not want to scare people into heaven.
Yet, a closer look at hell in the scriptures might be very instructive for evangelism. In Matthew 25, those thrown into outer darkness are the ones who did not recognize Jesus in the hungry, the thirsty, the ill clothed, the sick, and the imprisoned. The most graphic account is in the parable of the rich man, Dives, and the poor man, Lazarus. Just a drop of water would have helped the one who enjoyed all the good things of life while the poor man rested in Abraham’s bosom.
Before and during the time of the Reformation, many of the rich kings and nobles feared hell and did curb their desires not to end there. Might contemporary preaching to those of us who enjoy a life style for more comfortable than the one they enjoyed, have a similar effect? Yes, there is a hell and it is designed for those of us who enjoy the good things of life and turn our back on the vulnerable all around us.
To those seduced by the promises of capitalism, its material rewards, its political power, its elite status, hell awaits. Not only can’t we take our wealth with us, it will testify against us. Is there no hope? When Isaiah wrote, though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow, he was writing to those who had no mercy on the fatherless, the poor and the widow (Isaiah 1: 17,18). As we, the rich, look into the threat of hell, the mercy of Christ for the forgiveness of sins is real good news, real Gospel. We are saved by Christ’s death and resurrection through faith in his redeeming love.
The hope of our salvation from hell is now the Zacchaeus “pivot.” Zacchaeus will now give back more than he has taken. From the forgiveness of sins comes generosity and help for those who for so long have done without. No longer will wealth use its power to protect the interests of the rich and their ideology. Now it will be devoted to aid the poor directly or work politically to level the playing field and provide both opportunity and help for the less fortunate.
Do You Have Any Hope?
This is evangelism question for Americans today! The far majority of Americans feel that the country is going in the wrong direction. The unemployed black teenager, the undocumented alien, the heroin addict, those who have quit looking for jobs, the exhausted middle class family trying to keep up, pastors with dying congregations, teachers with impossible class sizes, all are looking for some relief, some hope.
And Jesus’ “good news message” is that the promises of the coming kingdom are at hand. There is hope… not through conquest, not just winning elections. Hope comes from God and is accessed through repentance and actually believing that good things are happening and that things can get better. It is time to stop taking refuge in “original sin” to demonstrate that things will not improve. That is simple faithlessness. If we believe it, the good news of the kingdom trumps original sin every time. Like a mustard seed, the kingdom grows slowly. Like a sower throwing seed, not all of it comes up and bears grain, but it is so valuable, you can sell whatever you have to possess it. That is good news; that is evangelism.