Evangelism redefined

March 14, 2012 | Editorial | Number 6
Dick Benner | Editor/Publisher

“True evangelical faith is of such a nature it cannot lie dormant, but spreads itself out in all kinds of righteousness and fruits of love; it dies to flesh and blood; it destroys all lusts and forbidden desires; it seeks, serves and fears God in its inmost soul; it clothes the naked; it feeds the hungry; it comforts the sorrowful; it shelters the destitute; it aids and consoles the sad; it does good to those who do it harm; it serves those that harm it; it prays for those who persecute it; it teaches, admonishes and judges us with the Word of the Lord; it seeks those who are lost; it binds up what is wounded; it heals the sick; it saves what is strong [sound]; it becomes all things to all people. The persecution, suffering and anguish that come to it for the sake of the Lord’s truth have become a glorious joy and comfort to it.” (Menno Simons)

In my recent travels to area church gatherings of Mennonite Church Canada, I pick up from conversations something of a divide between those who consider themselves “peace people” and those who loosely identify with “evangelicals,” with the attendant emphasis on personal salvation and piety, a more literal interpretation of Scripture and an agenda that has come to be popularly known as socially conservative.

The so-called “peace people” are more concerned about an increasingly violent world and the threat that leads “empires”—especially in North America—to spend trillions of dollars on military might for security, are alarmed at the growing public rhetoric that feeds the flames of discrimination and hate against non-Christians, and are concerned about creation care in a degraded environment. They lift out of the biblical narrative Jesus’ “love of neighbour” command and make the prophetic call to “love kindness, seek justice and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8) their consuming mantra.

Both of these groups develop suspicions of the other, accusing each other of not practising the whole gospel. Let me suggest that this is an artificial construct, influenced first of all by our different Mennonite historical experiences and then enhanced in the present era by an increasingly polarized political environment in which “conservative” and “liberal” labels serve well the interests and goals of political parties.

As the sons and daughters of Menno, we have been caught up in this divide shamelessly and to no good end. It has fragmented us over and over again. The gap, even in a more enlightened age, is ever widening. That’s why it’s time to take a look again at just what Menno Simons said about “true evangelism.” Yes, he used that word “evangelical”—that label that has accrued lots of baggage for us over the past 500 years.

If you look closely at the text above, you will note that “evangelism” and “peacemaking” go hand in hand. They are an integrated whole in its dying to “flesh and blood” and destroying “all lust and forbidden desires” (personal piety), at the same time as it “spreads itself out in all kinds of righteousness and fruits of love” (peacemaking)—comforting, consoling, sheltering, healing, praying for enemies and persecutors—all for the “sake of the Lord’s truth.”

This was the original Anabaptist vision, forming a movement that, according to Stuart Murray, seems to be the perfect fit in today’s post-Christendom era. He is calling us back to our radical roots of making Jesus central to our theology and peacemaking the hallmark of our life in Christ. “Peace and evangelism go hand in hand,” he told pastors meeting in Abbotsford, B.C., recently. In fact, he chided, “You have been too passive about peace.”

To get away from the polarizing labels of the culture wars, he suggested a new name for peacemakers: “Shalom activists.” He noted the good work of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) and those working at restorative justice, in aboriginal work, and with the prison system. He called for a new language regarding our witness in this modern era, a time he characterized as “shifting values” since the Iraq war, in which a whole generation of young people have become disillusioned to the ways of war.

A new language, to be sure. But changing the label or the divisive branding only works at the symptoms of this religious divide among us. What we need is a change of heart, a change of attitude towards each other, an intentional turning away from old ways and irresponsible talk. It’s known as repentance, a turning around and walking together in a new life. Are we up to it?

Share this page:

Add new comment

Canadian Mennonite invites comments and encourages constructive discussion about our content. Actual full names (first and last) are required. Comments are moderated and may be edited. They will not appear online until approved and will be posted during business hours. Some comments may be reproduced in print.