Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Why Don't Progressive Churches Do Evangelism?

One of the oddest ironies of contemporary Christianity in America is the inability-- or unwillingness-- of progressive churches to evangelize.

These are the churches with the most excellent values of inclusiveness and empowerment. It is axiomatic that openness of heart and mind to all people is a principle ingredient to congregational growth.

But, it is precisely these churches that are not only not increasing in membership but are actually in clear decline.

This is puzzling.

The core enterprise of original Christianity was to extend to the world an invitation to gather together in a New Community of Love.

It was the kerygma of that euanggelion around which the first disciples came together: the life, ministry, death, resurrection, and return of Christ. The very nature of news calls for it to be disseminated and announced. The very purpose of this news is to create something “new,” that is, the community of crucified and resurrected persons called the Church of Jesus.

The word we translate “evangelism” was initially used to herald the coming visit of Roman ruler to a far-flung province. The church, subversive movement that it was, co-opted that secular term to convey the arrival of the only true King, and the establishment of the only exhaustive and eternal kingdom. The concept at the point of its inception connoted a town crier, a communal notice, an open announcement, a public address.

There are old arguments for why progressive churches aren't evangelistic:

1.) Evangelism has been done so coercively and inauthentically by the fundamentalists, that progressives want little to do with it.
2.) Progressive churches have a style and methodology-- liturgical worship, scholarly Scripture study, etc.-- that do not appeal to the zeitgeist of of our day.
3.) Faith is an intensely private matter that is not properly addressed in public ways. Evangelism requires a necessary intrusion into this privacy.
4.) Demographic forces have adversely affected the progressive churches of our cities more than the conservative churches of our suburbs. "Red state/blue state" now means "red church/ blue church."

These strike me as tired dichotomies that are increasingly irrelevant. First, we no longer have a "Christ-haunted" culture, as Flannery O'Conner described the South of her day with its slam-bang, hard-boiled religious fervor. Second, it is precisely the historic, rich traditionism and symbolism that is increasingly attractive to emerging generations. Third, the old public/private divide is all but erased in our day of Oprah and reality TV. Fourth, it seems the election of President Obama reflects a growing dissatisfaction with the polarization of our hyper-sorted national community. Furthermore, economic dynamics are bringing families back into the centers of our cities and away from the sprawling suburbs.

So, why can't churches like ours be evangelistic? Is there some other reason?


Anonymous said...

I am afraid that many progressive churches disregard the nead to share the good news as a bad reaction to heavy handed fundamentalism. We have such a tribal mentality that seeks to alienate those different from us, and liberals are JUST as guilty as conservatives about this.

I think that we need to look across the isle and see what the other side has to say, and realize that BOTH sides bring something important to the table.

Thats a very traditionally Baptist view.

Good word Charlie.

-your old TBC pal, Ben.

Unknown said...


I cannot answer your question...I have been pondering this same thought for the past few months. Why am I so hesitant personally to talk about my faith? Why is my church more concerned with inter-faith dialogue than we are "liberal" Christian-to-"conservative" Christian dialogue? You have offered several thoughts and reasons, but I am held to know that evangelism starts with me.

You're a good man! Thanks for pointing me this direction.

Unknown said...

Maybe I'm off target but maybe we should be looking at the definition of "evangelize" - it seems to have changed over the years from spreading the Good News to beating people over the heads to accept our beliefs. Every major religion has some degree of exclusivity. Why then does Christianity have the worst reputation? My students have commented that they tire of being condemned to hell because they don't agree with someone who believes they have the Only Truth, whether that is salvation through Jesus Christ or certain church membership, or even baptism a certain way. While I do believe we have the Only Truth in Jesus, I think some of us have lost the most important part of sharing it. We are supposed to be salt and light, to be God's hands and feet. We should be reaching out to everyone we meet with the redemptive love of Jesus Christ. He did not condemn the adulterous woman at the well. He was kind to her and offered her the living water. I have no doubt that had she declined his offer, he'd have smiled anyway and continued on his way. No thumping, just "dusting off the sandals" and moving on.

Evangelizing is relational. Perhaps progressive churches have allowed a poor public image to cow them. No one wants to be associated with those who constantly condemn and berate those who need love the most. I think oppressive conservatism at its worst is at least partly responsible for the political agenda of the gay community. Had the reaction to the sacrilegious acts of the 70s in San Francisco been an outpouring/outreach of love and kindness instead of outrage and anger, we would have a very different society today. Christians have been reactive instead of proactive for a very long time now. I'm not saying we should condone sin; we should just not overlook the sinner.

Perhaps progressive churches could do the most to repair this sad image of the Christian Church.

Anonymous said...

If we would live our lives as "little Christs", I believe that evangelism would come naturally. (1) People would ask us to share why we live the way we do, rather than our initiating the conversation; or (2) we would meet people's needs, and perhaps be able to naturally tell them how Christ meets our needs through his Body. Our progressive churches need to be reminded that we are commanded to make disciples, and then taught how to do it relationally, authentically, naturally without being offensive. We also need to be taught do sow the seeds and leave the results to God. That takes the pressure off of feeling like we need to win souls for the Kingdom. I hope and pray that we can discover how to truly be salt and light to our world.

Cindy McBrayer, Lubbock, Texas

Unknown said...

Hi Charlie,

Good to connect with you again. Hope you are well. On facebook, you asked me to comment on your current blog. I don’t have an answer to the evangelism question, but I do have a couple of observations.

First, I agree whole heartedly with your description of evangelism, “The core enterprise of original Christianity was to extend to the world an invitation to gather together in a New Community of Love.” Unfortunately, the modern (vis-à-vis postmodern), Western understanding of evangelism – even among progressives – tends to focus on “getting individuals into heaven or into church membership” rather than inviting people into inclusive community. The ancient practice of hospitality – defined in the broadest biblical terms – is closer to true evangelism than the Western, individualistic approach. When I observe postmodern, progressive college students, I have a lot more hope for genuine evangelism in progressive contexts. They understand community.

Second, fundamentalists are motivated to evangelize by an “eternal hell” that, in my opinion, doesn’t exist and is irrelevant. Progressives have grown past the punitive motivation but, in some cases, haven’t grown past modern, Western individualism. We have to get past Cartesian individualism and embrace community as the essential mode-of-being-in-the-world for humanity. Again, the key is to experience genuine community and long to include others. That is good news! That is evangelism!

Finally, some progressive congregations are beginning to thrive as noted in Diana Butler-Bass’s three-year Lily endowed study published under the title, CHRISTIANITY FOR THE REST OF US. They are learning to connect ancient practices such as hospitality to contemporary life. This is a Christianity that focuses on practice rather than belief, narrowly defined. The practice of truly inclusive hospitality in loving community leads to genuine evangelism.

Mark Waters

Lyn said...


I agree with some of the answers you have gotten here - overreaction to the fundamentalists, shying away from "beating people over the head", etc... - but I think there is another possible cause.

I think we progressives can easily fall - and have often fell - into the trap of mistaking spreading the "good news" about our church for evangelism. We can find ourselves needing numbers - both of bodies and of dollars; too, we genuinely love our church and want folks to join us there. But our message too often becomes "let me tell you about First Church, or about Broadway, or about whatever..." instead of "let me tell you about Jesus."

That, in turn, cannot be sustained. In the first place, I don't really think it is what Jesus and Paul had in mind when they call us to evangelism, and I don't think it is Spirit-blessed. In the second place, we all get fed up with our local churches at time, and so our energy for recruiting naturally wanes.

Frankly, I am not concerned that we invite non-Christians to our church. I think we should be inviting them to Christ, and if it happens that they follow Him to our steeple, that's great. But if someone in my Sunday School class shares the gospel with someone who subsequently accepts Christ and joins another fellowship, that is great. I am quite concerned that we reach out to new Christians, to Christians who are new to the community, and to Christians who are unchurched for whatever reason; we should actively invite all of these folks to our church family as the Lord leads. But I don't think that is "evangelism". That is what we used to call "outreach".

I think a lot of Progressives have forgotten the difference.

Unknown said...

Wow, Lyn, that's a really good point. Instead of packing the pews, we ought to be trying to pack Heaven. Thank you for that.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading a book titled Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. The book chronicles how evangelism was used to keep people under oppression (i.e. slavery) and that few used advocacy to "rock the boat". I learned that it even took Billy Graham a while to no longer accept segregated seating at his evangelism crusades. The question for me is how can we be evangelistic while being willing to "rock the boat." Role models for me include John Perkins, a minister of reconciliation. This book is a must read for anyone living in a post civil rights era.

Norma said...

To evangelize, to tell the good news, you do have to mention sin, the bad news, and the cross. That's probably why many contemporary churches, not just progressive, don't evangelize. Paul calls it a stumbling block, and so it was 2000 years ago, and so today.

Lee Prophitt said...

This question has been rattling in my brain for over a week now. Lyn, I don't know you, but something tells me I would like to. I agree that many times, the only context in which many Christians know Christ is within the walls of OUR church. As well intentioned as it may be, OUR church may not the place for many of the "lost" today. It is hard to hear, especially for many who have grown up with OUR church being the sole source of spiritual guidance and nourishment in our lives. We want to share our faith and it is wrapped up tightly in OUR church.

The key here, as I coyly use OUR in caps, is that it is not OUR church. It is the Church of Christ, the ecclesia and the gathering of believers. Necessity makes us have walls, denominations, first churches, etc. I am of the opinion that in this consumer religion, one church cannot fulfill the needs of all. And yet it can be a trap to assume that OUR church is the only one who gets it right. Certainly the "lost" will find their way in OUR church.

I use the term "lost," not to refer to those who don't wear suits to church or who eat with their elbows on the table. We get social norms and local proper behavior all wrapped up into our vision of OUR church. The "lost" are those who do not know the peace, love, hope and joy of which we speak at Advent. They do not know the dignity giver, which is Christ the Lord. And the reason is that we stay so pinned in, our 4 church walls narrowly defining the breadth of God's goodness.

Evangelism, the telling of the good news, the offering of the relief of peace and the giving of hope, happens outside those 4 walls. The celebration of the good news together, that happens inside. What will happen if we throw open our doors to the homeless woman who has been given a new life? How will her celebration add to the joy of a great congregation of the faithful? Ideally, it would be a joyous time indeed.

In reality, what I see in the limited church contexts (professionally speaking) I've experienced, are those who look alike, coming together to receive comfort, so they can make it through the muck of the week ahead. I've often wondered: Where is the celebration of the Sabbath day? When do we share with whom we've shown the love of Christ?

I love the local church. It is a good place. But I feel evangelism happens outside of it, so that we can come inside for the celebration of God.

Anonymous said...

I think there are several reasons "progresive" chruches don't evangelize.

1. They have been taught not to. They have theologically reasoned it isn't necessary and may even be sinful. They are basically true believeing universalist and unsure if Jesus is really necessary for life and salvation. Kind of a post modern twist on Calvanism that God is always redeeming so they don't need to wory about anything or anybody. Sin doesn't really keep people from God so no need to have people repent of sin and look for redemtion. Every already has relation with God so why bother?

2. They are mobidly afraid of criticism by their peers if they do something that could be criticized. (Basically they have been captured by their culture). Honoring of cultural codes of privacy and individualism is more important than any imperative to evangelise. (Makes it attractive to come accept a number one postition. Many "conservatives" are equally guilty of this one even though they preach something else.

3. For those progresives not quite so shallow where 1 and 1 don't apply, perhaps they have seen enough shallow christianity (maybe their own) and know that offering christ to someone really is serious business and is (or should be) offering ones complete self to someone at the same time. All the body of christ stuff applies here. They don't know if they can really do that. They know from reading of Scripture and from their gut that true evangelism in the incarnational sense is dying (like on a cross) to themselves for the person evangelized sake and that may be awful messy. In the early church people gave up all they had for the church and fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. People were willing to die for each other. We need help to do this, that is what the church should be, help for offering ourselves to others. That brings us to reason number 4.

4. Unsurity about the christian community. The way we do Christian community (almost don't do it at all some would say, just waving at each other on Sunday for many) makes it really hard to invite someone into something that the invitee knows barely exists or is very unhelathy sometimes. Hard to compel somoene to come to christ and the chruch if you don't really think it is very healthy and don't know if you yourself are a good believer or not. Basically Bonhoffer's arguments against cheap grace. The old catholic theologians used to say it another way of saying the same thing. "There is no salvation outside the church". Offering Jesus is offering oneself and ones community. The state of community of the church directly affects how "evangelism" is seen in the church.

Evangelism is both sharing the story and sharing the life (and death of christ). When both are done evangelism naturally happens I suspect. Don't worry about "evangelizing" worry about taking up your cross and following Christ and loving him more than family or kids or job or nation, or political postion or anything else and then evangliation will probably happen automatically.

One final thought. The first evangelist to be massivly successful and change a culture hung from crosses in Rome under Nero's persecution. People were "evangelized" by seeing believers comfort their brothers and sisters as they slowly died on crosses. Love is the key to evangelism, Love as shown by the cross.

Sorry to go on so, but a good question for all believers, and not just for "progressives"

tommy said...

Well, how excited can you get about evangelizing when the only religious experience you have is the warm fuzzy feeling you get in your brain?

There have been no observable verifiable supernatural events at any point in history, only sketchy accounts in ancient texts.

I contend that few modern people really believe literally in the biblical stories. Thus they feel foolish going door to door telling how God traveled down the birth canal of a virgin, and ultimately committed suicide for the sins of mankind.