A guest post by David Matcham
The following is an excerpt from Dr Robert Knowles’ newly released book ‘Relating Faith – Modelling Biblical Christianity in Church and World’.
Much of what the Church does for evangelism isn’t. It thinks it is because it is locked in to a way of doing that ignores content and context. In other words, relational wisdom is sidelined for a program. Here’s what Rob Knowles says on the matter, and it is just one point within a much larger framework:
“The church confuses evangelism with infantilisation. It is assumed that ministers and elders are mature and can take profound biblical content, that seasoned churchgoers are almost as mature and can take moderate biblical content, but that most Christians can only take ‘the basics’, and that non-Christians – well – Thomas the Tank Engine is too advanced for them. What a load of old patronizing and offensive drivel.
It is shameful that I and many others even have to point out that many non-believers have degrees, read text-books, do professional jobs that involve technical language, are familiar with current affairs, and are – quite frankly – very, very often much further on in their thinking that the Christian sloganeers are (by ‘sloganeers, Dr Knowles means the oppressive pseudo-evangelistic sloganeering activism that is devoid of interesting/rich/knowledgable content).
But the sad fact is, these days, many of us do have to point this out to the church. Worse – when I and many others do point it out, what we say is often rejected as being irrelevant thinking ‘by intellectuals’ who ‘only have academic knowledge’.
[Earlier on in the chapter], we linked infantilisation to the standard strategies of those in power who wish to keep people immature so that their power bases and systems of privilege are not challenged. Such abusers need to mislabel people who think as ‘mere academics’ so that they can falsely cast aside the genuine criticisms that thinkers bring to the table. Moreover, such patronisation even assumes that academics or thinkers actually have ‘less real-life experience’ from which to contribute, which is also false and an abuse of power.
Furthermore, it is a genuine breach of etiquette, register and of politeness generally when evangelistic mission deploys speakers who sound like nursery-school teachers. Frankly, this is insulting to those unfortunate enough to be listening. Every day, people hear what some sloganeering believers think of as ‘the dreaded long words’ on television. And yet, I have been rebuked in some church contexts for using vocabulary that would be commonplace on Blue Peter.
Only anti-intellectuals and power-hungry infantilisers resist vocabulary, however, for an extension of vocabulary often brings an extension of wisdom and an exposure of sin. Indeed, it’s funny how anti-intellectuals and power hungry infantilisers are happy to learn a compound word like ‘video-recorder’, which has six syllables; but if one dares to articulate a three-syllable word such as ‘redemption’, then suddenly it’s ‘a long academic word’. Oh, grow up!
[So what we are saying] for encouraging mission and evangelism, then, is to take the infantilisation out of evangelism and put some cognitive content and some vocabulary back into it. I’m not saying that we should read out a paper on post-structuralism – I’m just advocating that we say something interesting that doesn’t insult people’s intelligence.
It is often the church that has become infantilised, not the world.”
Relating Faith, p.167-8
Christians should be encouraged in their gifts and then their “evangelism” as it happens naturally in the lives, their circles of influence, etc, would become a joy and not a burden. It would be natural, not forced. I’m afraid the office of “evangelist” has got bad press down the years, and from what I’ve often seen, rightly so. It is often left to the wildly inarticulate but enthusiastic extroverts who love to chat to strangers and lob cliché and scripture bombs into peoples laps and run away shouting the loudest!
What I guess I’m afraid of, is “doing” things in ministry that have an appearance of “that’s what evangelism/mission/proclaiming…[fill in the blank] looks like” but in reality, both true to the individual person, their gifting, calling, strength’s, etc, no one group of people should ever do a preconceived standardised model of anything. It’s like putting round pegs in square holes, or lighting a candle in a room with the oxygen slowly being sucked out.
So I think, theologically and biblically, that the church, historically, and especially since the so-called Great Awakening, has made a catastrophic error of judgement: it has standardised church, ignored individuals; particular gifts and strengths, and simply enforced a model of operating that is life to the very few.
This for me is one of the reasons why people squirm in their seats when anyone talks of “doing evangelism” or going on a mission. Part of it is, admittedly, sinful resistance. Part of it is embarrassment and shame; part of it is timing and calling; part of it is seasons of gifts; part of it is the right person, at the right time in the right place – and they go, because it’s right for them. And part of it is surely because they intuitively resist having one model being imposed on them.
For example: Why should Dave go door-to-door when he’s shared his faith with 8 blokes this week? It just doesn’t make sense to me, not least for time, family and other reasons. Dave is in his natural working environment, exercising his gifts of God in the workplace, and not ashamed to proclaim Christ. I say, let the person who wants to go door-to-door go door-to-door. They will have my support and blessing, but I will be the first to say this isn’t the only way to do evangelism and I won’t impose that on anyone. “Let each one be convinced in his own mind.”
So for me, I do not want to fall into the same cultural trap with all the assumptions that come with it. Let the teacher teach; the minister minister; the prophet prophecy; the generous give; the evangelist proclaim. Let them all proclaim Christ as they do what God has gifted them to do, but let no person do what God has not called them to do – and this last bit is more a reflection of contemporary church life in the UK and the West than anything else. I.e. people being pushed and coerced into roles and functions because that’s the shape of the church rather than the shape of the church being flexible enough to excel in releasing people into their particular and specific gifts.
What does this mean? In the words of theologian Dr Rob Knowles (author of ‘Anthony C. Thiselton and the Grammar of Hermeneutics, the search for a unified theory’ and a 2014 published book called ‘Relating Faith’) – just so I can convince you I’m not just inventing clever ways of avoiding a particular way of doing evangelism:
“(i) each church has different individuals with different gifts in it; (ii) therefore, each church-community is a unique combination of unique individuals, and is thus—wait for it—unique!
But this means, surely, that leaders have to: first look at who they have got; second ask what is it that those unique individuals are uniquely good at and actually want to do; and third submit to the unique historical factuality of what their church will then have to look like. Imposing a standardised model is oppressive, gift-suppressing, ministry-killing, relationally-alienating, and turns church-community into a total charade.
In fact, imposing standardised models of church on uniquely-shaped groups is one of the causes of “churchianity”. Churchianity is that rather fake discourse-world—that pseudo-fellowship—that arises when people suspend their identities to speak the received language of a pseudo-community built upon suppressed individuality and ministries. This differs from a true community—i.e. a community that accepts, promotes, and benefits from each person’s cherished uniqueness and true ministry—which will not conform to the a priori categories of a standardised model.”
One reason I think that evangelism is a difficult subject to teach others about, is that it is done as standard, that fails to recognise gifts, it simply induces levels of anxiety that the only way to deal with them , are to “fake” it. Every Christian is a teacher, in that their word and deed teaches others, but not everyone is called therefore to teach from the front. To make the mistake of making everyone teach from the front, is the same. While every Christian is to bear witness, not everyone is an evangelist, and more specifically, not every evangelist does door-to-door.
Dr Knowles goes on with another well made point:
“Relax! God has it under control. Think of Jesus asleep in the boat. Remember that it is God who created and who redeems the universe. Stop confusing your modernist system with righteousness. Learn to relate to people. Have a cup of tea, take some time to reflect. (And, if necessary, see an exorcist). Christianity is faith expressing itself in love, or, trust in God that learns to relate to people properly. It’s not about becoming Robo-vicar [or Robo-Christian]; God has already got the whole “justification” and “predestination” thing covered.”
Of course, Robo-vicars will say that I’m falling into the old ultra-Reformed trap of using the doctrine of election as an excuse not to do evangelism.
Actually, though, I’m using the doctrine of election as an excuse not to do their kind of Robo-evangelism, which is not evangelism anyway, but a heart-attack trying to win people to something un-relational, un-Christian, unbiblical, and unlike Jesus.
To wrap up, I am not against door-to-door per se. I am against the assumption that everyone should do evangelism [and specifically door-to-door] regardless of their gifts. As an evangelist myself, I’m not very keen on unrelational cold calling door-to-door work anyway. What I am keen on, is relational teaching and preaching and discipling others so that they are mature and effective where they are [Paul says stay where you were when you were called – be fruitful there!].
Confident in the Gospel; confident in the Christ of the Gospel; exercising their gifts and being faithful with the field God has planted them in; faithful with the treasure they have received; and bold enough and wise enough to know when to speak and what to say.