By BIll Mefford
I have always loved evangelism. I really have. People are usually surprised because I think people tend to associate me with railing against injustice or institutionalism - and yeah, you know I love that too. But I love evangelism because of the amazing stories you hear when you talk to people. Virtually every person in the United States has some kind of experience in relation to the church or Christianity. Most, sadly, are fairly negative, and I get so angry hearing how people have been and still are hurt by the church, and especially by abusive leaders. But I love listening just the same because I think even just a small measure of healing comes through listening.
I have actually spent a lot of time doing various forms of evangelism, including street evangelism. Surprised? But since I was never “trained” to be a street evangelist I was often told by those who were trained that I didn’t know what I was doing. However, after watching those who were “trained” and seeing how they bullied people into “making a decision;” a decision they didn’t really understand and had no intention of living out, I decided my ignorance was bliss for other people.
At least several times a month I get to talk to and listen to folks tell me about their experience with the church and easily 95% of the time that experience was somewhere between cringe-worthy and horrifically abusive. In fact, one of my big hang-ups with liberals, especially institutional liberals (liberals whose identity is tied in with denominational institutions), is that they refuse to do evangelism. They associate evangelism with cultural appropriation or colonialism. I think they are right, but every spiritual discipline and practice has been used to abuse other people. Does that mean we don’t engage in these disciplines anymore? No! It means we do it better and for the purpose of bring healing and reconciliation. I want every person I meet to know the love of Jesus - in whatever way that happens.
But by and large liberals have almost completely ceded the ground of evangelism to evangelicals, most of whom practice a form of evangelistic cultural colonialism. That is why I call them Evangelical Nationalists. The abuse Evangelical Nationalists heap on individuals is horrific and only getting worse. We need a helluva lot more evangelism happening from people who follow the biblical Jesus, which discounts Evangelical Nationalists (and to be honest, many institutional liberals). But, as I have learned over the past 30+ years, our evangelism needs to shift from “winning people to Jesus” to rescuing people from the North American Church. Here is why we need a shift in evangelism.
What we have now in a preponderant number of churches in the United States is a syncretized form of Christianity that reflects a hyper-individualized full-on embrace of capitalism and and affluence and a rejection of the biblical community created by Jesus and practiced by the early disciples, especially in Acts. Three writers I have read, Rodney Clapp, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon make the claim that between 313 A.D. and the latter half of the twentieth century the interests and purposes of the church were intertwined with those of the state. They call this Constantinianism (Clapp 1996:17, 23-27, 38-39, 45-46; Hauerwas and Willimon 1989:17, 30, 42, 72). The church in much of the North has gone from a marginal movement challenging society’s predominant values in the first few centuries to a state-approved institutional presence whose task seems to be to preserve and maintain the state’s values as well as the political and economic status quo.
The church’s fall into Constantinianism has shielded the state from a prophetic critique, thus ushering in the ugly fusing together of Evangelical Nationalists and the state, most recently being, the trump movement. The church fails to be prophetic because it has such a large stake in the preservation of the success of the state, and for Evangelical Nationalists, this is in the current administration.
One enormous result of the Constantiniazation of the church has been the inward-focus on the church. This negates much if not all of the intended missional focus of Jesus in the world. When issues of justice are abandoned and the higher purpose becomes so aligned with the preservation of the state and the predominant culture, the church turns inward and becomes a tool of personal therapy rather than an agent of individual and societal transformation. Thus, the church is focused on Jesus saving souls and the state is charged with accomplishing the Lord’s work in the public and political realm. As a result of this inward turn and allowing the state to accomplish a just and safe society, issues that impact the poor, oppressed, and marginalized are seen through the lens of state preservation and this lens has been adopted by Evangelical Nationalists. If the state can help the poor then all the better, but if it can’t, then it knows what is in the best interests of everyone. All the while, Jesus loves me this I know.
What is good for the United States is good for me. What keeps the United States secure keeps me secure.
It is ok then that the United States overthrows a democratically-elected government in 1954 in Guatemala with a regime that goes through a murderous genocide of indigenous people for the next fifty years (and counting). What is good for United States interests is good for my interests. Jesus loves me this I know.
It is ok that President Reagan so drastically cut the budget for domestic spending (though raised it for military spending) because his focus on helping the super rich will somehow magically trickle down and help me. What fills the coffers of the United States treasury (and defense contractors) will magically fill mine as well. Jesus loves me this I know.
It is ok that President George W. Bush preemptively entered into two illegal wars, one of which - the invasion of Iraq - had absolutely nothing to do with the terror attacks on the United States. And its ok that his administration broke international law by committing torture. What keeps the United States secure and promotes United States access to resources like oil in others countries, keeps me secure and lets me drive my Hummer on cheaper gas. Jesus loves me this I know.
It is ok for the man currently in the Oval Office to demonize “illegal” immigrants, and use them as pawns in political fights with your opponents, and repeatedly make the baseless claim that walls will make us safe, while he blames every ill and problem we face as a nation on immigrants, Muslims, and even refugees, because when the United States feels safe, then I feel safe. Jesus loves me this I know.
Evangelical Nationalists love to spend hours singing hyper-individualized and inwardly therapeutic harmful praise songs about Jesus. I have been to hundreds of evangelical worship services and the music can be mesmerizing - which seems to be half the point. We get so caught up in the power of the music and repetitive choruses (and I mean repetitive), that we are whisked away from the cares of this life into a cocoon of almost orgasmic sentimentality where the only ones that exist in the universe are me and my own personal Jesus.
And this is just what a state that is aimed at world domination wants. Keep the Christians “preoccupied” with their own individual welfare instead of following the biblical Jesus who was put to death for ushering in a rival Kingdom meant to undermine and ultimately overthrow oppressive kingdoms and empires like the United States. The church should have an innate distrust of everything that takes us out of the world solely because God the Creator made this world and has called us to reflect God’s nature in the world.
We don’t need escape from the world, we need to be fully and contextually incarnated among the people mistreated in the world. That is the basis for our evangelism.
Instead of allowing the CIA to ruin all over the world “protecting” US interests by destabilizing foreign governments so that US corporations can raid the indigenous resources of those countries, what if Christians marched, protested, and committed civil disobedience until the workings of state agencies like the FBI and CIA were made plain so that there could be greater oversight and in turn, greater protection for the poor of the world?
Instead of taking tax cuts from the government while crucial social services were robbed from the poor, homeless, immigrants, refugees, the incarcerated, and other groups in need, what if Christians marched, protested, and committed civil disobedience until the state was forced to spend less on enriching defense contractors and spent more on caring for people in genuine need?
Instead of standing silently by and offering only thoughts and prayers for those suffering from an epidemic of gun violence and then blindly “supporting the troops” while they are forced to go to wars and conduct military actions to protect US military bases in all parts of the world, what if the church “studied war no more” and committed itself to denouncing all wars as failures of leaders to actually lead and find peace?
Yes, what if. These what ifs seem so beyond where we are that they seem fantastical. But the what ifs are not meant to be beyond where we are. This where we are called to live and to live into. What is fantastic are not the what ifs, but the fact that both the left and right wings of the church have gotten it so incredibly wrong. Especially the right wing.
Evangelical Nationalists and the Institutional Liberal church have become so identified and entrenched with North American culture and society, that the mission of the church has become fused with the goals of the state. Thus, if we want to see the church that Jesus started and that existed in the New Testament, then it is time for us to no longer win people to Jesus. It is time to rescue people from the church. That is the evangelism that we need.