On July 30, my brother was getting married in Williston, N.D., and I was the officiant. It was a lovely celebration, with little kids taking over the dance floor at the reception, and I’m delighted to have my brother’s partner join the family.
But the wedding meant I couldn’t take part in the nationwide church’s Gathering in Edmonton. As I’ve chatted with folks who went and I watched the available recordings, I can’t help but feel I missed out on something else very good.
The Gathering’s theme, “We declare what we have seen and heard,” leaned into a topic difficult for many of us. A pastor friend calls it the 10-letter dirty word: evangelism. Doug Klassen, MC Canada's executive minister, reflected on the “disastrous and traumatizing” effects many of the church’s evangelism efforts have had. His conclusion: “I think we’ve gotten lost.”
My friend Charles Kiser tells something of the same story in a forthcoming book he’s coauthored with Elaine Heath, Trauma-Informed Evangelism. Building from interviews with folks who’ve been on the receiving end of heavy-handed, spiritually abusive evangelistic efforts, Charles and Elaine reflect on where we have indeed “gotten lost.” But they don’t leave us lost. Nor do they write off evangelism as a complete loss, a mistaken, shameful bit of our histories we try to put behind us. Instead, they ask, "How can practices of evangelism become means of healing rather than tools of harm?" That, to me, sounds more like good news.
Trauma-Informed Evangelism rejects all the strong-arm approaches, formulaic presentations of spiritual laws, and proof-texting doctrinal debates that seek mostly to increase our religious market share, enforce ideological conformity, or prop up flagging attendance numbers. Instead, it offers us a theological vision of “witness.” This isn’t just a product endorsement for our experience of God. Rather, together we become part of God’s good news by becoming like Jesus. Evangelism, if it’s really good news, makes the revolution of God we’ve seen in Jesus’ flesh once more visible, touchable, available. We again embody Jesus’ own gentle and bold witness to God’s healing.
Evangelism that heals joins Jesus as he joins the pain of our world. Jesus becomes God’s good news to us as he comes alongside our hurt in compassion and solidarity. These are, I think, some of the Jesus stories we love most. The cast-out man asks Jesus to heal him, and Jesus embraces him. Mothers bring him their children, and he pushes the self-important out of the way to bless them. Mary kneels weeping, and Jesus weeps with her, and then speaks life back to the dead. And Jesus’ tender solidarity accompanies the hurt we suffer at the hands of the powers and principalities all the way to a cross and a grave—and then out the other side!
In evangelism, we join in this same committed, active compassion.
I’ve seen this: communities that truly are good news to their neighbours, to one another, to all the world. If I’m honest, it’s their witness that’s kept me a Christian. Not their doctrinal correctness, not their perfect morality or position statements. It’s been congregations who become family for the abandoned, offering regular meals for the food insecure, providing housing for refugees, sharing childcare with overstretched parents, being companions for the dying. What the church has so often lost, these folks have found, and that’s good news.
Josh Wallace is Mennonite Church Saskatchewan's interim executive minister and church engagement minister.
Many years ago I preferred to go by the title of Evangelical-Anabaptist rather than Mennonite. I studied church planting at seminary (AMBS) and while a pastor I worked hard at trying to understand how to reach the community more effectively.
Healing and hope in the name of Jesus--that's what I wanted. It went nowhere.
From my vantage point now what I see is that the Church (and not just Mennonites) is oriented to fleeing the presence of God rather than embracing it. We flee God through acts of devotion, worship, prayer, good works, and community service, naming God but not looking hard at what we name.
I have learned that God is not a blessing to guide but a chasm to be avoided. God is the Holy Fire who burns at the heart of life and that is just more than we can take. We flee because we must. We don't really want to be like Jesus because it would destroy us. Instead God captures us despite our resistance.
Despite protestations by Josh Wallace, I think evangelism remains a "10-letter dirty word." It is extremely difficult to transform the historic pig's ear of evangelism into a silk purse. The church has had too long a history of disastrous and traumatizing evangelism efforts.
One approach which I think might be helpful is to re-envision what it is when we speak of evangelism. Traditionally when we speak of evangelism, we "declare what we have seen and heard," as a spreading of the Christian gospel by preaching or personal witness. If we re-imagine evangelism, away from the "spreading of the Christian gospel" and rather towards "acting upon what it means to be a human being," then we reduce the focus on promoting Christianity and strengthen the focus on humanity.
We know that becoming a "better" human being requires action—actions of kindness, caring, generosity, love, etc.—and these actions in turn profoundly affect humanity in a positive way, as opposed to our traditional "evangelism for Christianity," which is often disastrous.
Through the years I've had conflicting experiences and opinions about evangelism, but I cannot erase the indelible influence of the "missionary-minded" evangelical Mennonite congregations of my pre-teen years — even those excessively emotional revival meetings.
The less overtly evangelical, but thought-provoking, influences of RJC High School and Canadian Mennonite Bible College helped me to see the wholeness of Christ Jesus and God's self-giving message to humanity. Scholars like John Howard Yoder, David Schroeder and Willard Swartley opened my eyes to many implications of being an unapologetic disciple of Jesus. Sara Wenger Shenk's book, "Tongue Tied," helps to address our current struggle with verbalizing what we have experienced.
I remain grateful to what I consider to be these balancing influences in my life.
I wonder what the author of this column would tell a person who is dying and wants to know how they can be with Jesus after they die.
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