This article was originally published in the ACR’s latest journal, which contains lots of helpful reflections on evangelism. You can access the journal in full here.
For someone who enjoys American politics, the last year and a half has been both enthralling and exhausting! It seems such a long time ago, given how many things have transpired between then and now, but in January this year I read an article that attempted to offer an evaluation of Trump’s first year in office. There were many such pieces at the time. The perspective of this particular article was that whilst much of American life had continued as usual—stocks went up, taxes went down, the ATMs still dispensed cash—the chaotic nature of the Trump presidency was something that Americans could not afford to grow used to.
Agree or disagree with that as you choose. What caught my attention, however, was a distinction the article made between two different clauses of decline: decline by crisis and decline by corrosion. The author wrote:
When we worry about democratic decline in the United States, it’s important to be clear what we are worrying about: corrosion, not crisis. In a crisis, of course we’ll all be heroes—or so we assure ourselves. But in the muddy complexity of the slow misappropriation of the state for self-interested purposes, occasions for heroism do not present themselves. On the contrary, the rhetoric of “resistance” comes to seem disproportionate, strident, cranky.
As I read this paragraph, I found myself considering how the same point is true with respect to the Christian faith, and to the ministry of the gospel. Decline by crisis will readily be met with heroic resistance. Or at least, that is how we like to imagine things. Decline by corrosion, however, can be much slower, much more subtle. It can, therefore, be harder to combat. In the face of incremental decline, heroic resistance can easily seem narrow-minded and uncharitable, strident and cranky.
At the level of the local church, for example, consider a scenario where an enthusiastic music leader has introduced a new song. The musicians love playing it; the melody is easy to sing; the rhythms are strong; it builds to an anthemic chorus; the congregation responds positively from the first. The lyrics do mention Christ repeatedly. But on closer examination, the way they talk about our approach to God through Christ uses almost entirely Old Testament categories that are completely overturned by the New Testament. Or they do mention Christ repeatedly, but in a way that directs our focus not to the love of God in Christ’s atoning death for sinners, but only to our love for him, our devotion to him, our following of him.
To regard the introduction of such a song as a crisis could easily seem like an over-reaction. After all, it’s clearly a Christian song. It’s not as if it advocates salvation by any way other than Christ! It’s just a matter of slightly misplaced emphasis, is all. If anything, it’s corrosion, but certainly not crisis. And at the end of the day, there’s still plenty of other good songs on the roster that can cover for it.
How should such a situation be responded to? Heroic resistance, which in this case might look like pulling the song out of circulation and meeting with the music leader to explain the decision and set parameters for future song choices, may just feel too heavy-handed, too narrow-minded, too lacking in grace. It’s that old problem of defining ever-narrowing circles that we Sydney Anglicans are so good at.
In many instances, therefore, it’s not hard to imagine a church continuing to sing such a song, even in spite of a misplaced emphasis. If there was a crisis, the resistance would be swift. But faced with corrosion, the response can be much harder to get right.
In the local church, such hypothetical scenarios can be multiplied almost without end. But what about at the level of our diocese? Can not the same dynamic be at work? In this issue of the ACR, we’re going to think about one area in particular, namely, evangelism and gospel mission. The question is: have we lost our way? To use the categories we’ve established so far, is there any sense in which we run the risk of decline by corrosion?
Just about everyone acknowledges how difficult evangelism has become in our current climate. The opposition seems to build constantly. There is now enormous pressure on Christians to keep silent rather than unashamedly to testify to Christ. Yet this is not new. From the very beginning Christians have faced such pressure. Are we teaching believers to respond in our day with the same boldness to proclaim Christ as the first believers did in theirs?
With mounting pressure to keep silent can come subtle shifts in how we think about the mission of the gospel. Very easily apologetics can start to dominate evangelism, so that our voice in the public square now pursues respectability through finely woven arguments about the reasonableness of Christian faith and ethics, rather than gladly accepting the dismissal as fools that comes from resolving to know nothing among people but the message of Christ crucified.
If the New Testament recommends bridge-building for gospel proclamation through Christian character and thoughtful communication, what does it mean if we start to find ourselves striving to build bridges by other means? Say by improving the world and community renewal? Or by striving to establish deep, ‘incarnational’ communities? Or by reducing the gospel to merely a gospel of love and avoiding any mention of God’s judgement or the reality of hell?
Do we prioritise prayer, and call our people to prioritise prayer, in the way that we should? If we speak spiritual truths in spiritual words, how could we not? And what an indicator this would be to our own spiritual state. After all, given that the ‘fear of men’ largely disappears when we pray, it is surely harder to be dishonest in prayer than in preaching! If there is any sense in which we have lost it, we must believe again in the power of God to save.
Alongside all of these challenges are the many, many distractions from the mission of the gospel that come from administration and legislative compliance. Such things need not be in direct opposition to the mission of the gospel. In fact, if done well, they will often do a great deal to enable it. Yet still, what risk do we run if we allow such things to crowd out the priority of evangelism and gospel mission?
These are all important questions to ask, for through trusting in Christ one of our greatest joys, privileges and responsibilities is to be servants of the gospel. And the Scriptures are plain: This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem (Luke 24:46-47).