4. Evangelism: A Few Thoughts on Why Not to Start the Discussion with (Sexual) Sin
The Micah 3:8 Approach
One approach that we could adopt would seem to take its cue from the Old Testament prophets, such as Micah 3:8, who said: “But as for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the LORD, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression, to Israel his sin.”
The ministry of John the Baptist fits this pattern. The idea behind this approach is that calling out sin would stir conviction and bring repentance.
The question I wonder here is this: Does this persuade people to become disciples of Jesus? In our context I don’t think it really does, although I am sure there are exceptions. It rather hardens lines between enemy ‘tribes’. Culture today is rather polarised against strong religious beliefs. This approach is more appropriate to a culture that has a stronger alignment to Christianity – such as much of European culture until quite recently.
Many prominent evangelists in Christian history preached to a culture that was largely Christianised. Wesley, Whitefield, Spurgeon, and so on, probably could use this approach (and it was not their only tone of preaching) because they worked within a culture that accepted the basic premises of the Christian gospel – a Creator who held humankind accountable, for example.
But this isn’t the culture we live in now. Through immigration from non-Christianised societies, as well as a continuing drift from our religious past has changed this. The people we live amongst find Christianity too alien to simply be rebuked back into what they supposedly know to be true. For Christians, New Zealand should be considered more a mission-field than a battlefield.
(In saying all that, just because something ‘works’ or not isn’t really reason to say it’s right. Maybe the Micah 3:8 approach is the kind of ministry some are called to – their call is to be faithful perhaps more than ‘successful’. The prophet Jeremiah is a good example of that – on all counts besides faithfulness he could be called a failure. Paul does seem to suggest this for the Christians living in the pagan city of Ephesus (Eph. 5:11). But there is plenty that Jesus and the Apostles said that would encourage us to be winsome in our evangelistic efforts)
It is still important to be firm on culturally contested theology. Christianity in every culture has its challenges. The prevailing culture will expect Christians to conform to it where it is in tension with Christian faith. Wealth and status is a complication for Christians in any culture and can provide points of difficulty. Faithfulness to the doctrine of Scriptural revelation in Nazi Germany got what were known as the ‘Confessing’ churches in a lot of trouble. Monotheism is an offense in multi-religious cultures like much of Hindu India. The suffering of Jesus was deemed pathetic in historic Viking culture, which made the portrayal of ‘berserker Jesus’ a popular approach for struggling missionaries.
What about our culture? It is naïve to assume our culture – whether the conservative or progressive end of it – doesn’t pressure Christians to conform to it on points.
So, we are left to navigate the tricky balance between holding the line where it is contested, but also thinking carefully about where is the best place to start any kind of evangelistic effort.
Remember the importance of love
Our culture is a particularly sensitive one, and so people need extra effort to make sure they understand that Christians do love them, even though they disagree on important issues. The question is working out how to show it rather than just say it. Remember the comment in 1 Corinthians 13: profound words without love is like a ‘clanging gong’ – a nonsensical annoyance.
I read somewhere that a gay rights activist once said: “The Bible is to gays what Mein Kampf is to Jews.” It is not hard to show that this is not the case, but there are certainly difficult texts that easily prompt genuinely hateful words and actions towards people with same sex attraction or identity. Because Christians who disagree with same sex marriage (or sexuality) are all too easily lumped together with this kind of aggression, the importance of showing love is paramount.