A question I have been asking myself lately is, “Does evangelism have a place in Cooperative Baptist Fellowship life?” I couldn’t help but feel the passion around so many issues at this year’s CBF General Assembly. LGBTQ, women in ministry, gun violence, the New Baptist Covenant all had their passionate champions. Good stuff. No problem. But evangelism? Not so much. Despite the much-noted rise of the “nones,” evangelism wasn’t even an afterthought. It was a pretty much a no thought at this year’s GA. Why?
I have some hunches. However, before I share them I want to explain that I write from, what one writer has called, “the edge of the inside.” David Brooks, a New York Times op-ed columnist, borrowing from Richard Rohr, talks about three types of persons found in any organization. The first are the organization’s insiders — the decision makers in the organization. The second are the outsiders — untouched by internal loyalties to the organization. The outsiders are the bomb throwers who criticize the organization indiscriminately. The third are people at the edge of inside. They love the organization, but, while being loyal, they are also critical of the organization. Having served, once upon a time, as CBF Virginia’s moderator and as a member of the national CBF’s coordinating council, I see myself in the third group. The CBF is my spiritual family and my theological home.
I would like to see the CBF more openly welcoming to evangelism. Not only would I like to see the door opened more widely to evangelism, but I would also like to feel evangelism had an honored place at my spiritual family’s table. Honestly, at this year’s GA I sensed evangelism had been relegated to the children’s table of vendors and outsider led workshops. Let me hasten to add that vendors and those who led workshops are important. Yet, like them, evangelism found itself at the edge of inside.
Why has evangelism been marginalized in the CBF? As I mentioned, I have some hunches. One of those hunches is that evangelism, as practiced in the 1960s and ’70s, has left an ashen taste in the mouths of older CBFers like myself. Bill Leonard has written two articles recently distancing himself from evangelism’s excesses. In one article Leonard cautions against the glib use of the word lost being exclusively applied to non-Christians. In the other article Leonard seeks to distance himself from the word evangelical due to the over politicization of the word.
Frankly, there is much about which I agree with Leonard in both articles. I agree that Jesus never intended the word lost to make of a human being “the other” worthy of disdain and that evangelical has lost much of its theological currency due to over politicization. And yet Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. Christians like Wilberforce and Newton worked tirelessly to reach both individuals lost in personal sin and a nation lost in the sin of slavery. I get Leonard’s point. The past excesses of Evangelism Explosion, Jerry Falwell and Southern Baptist Convention politics have no place in today’s CBF. But why, after reading articles like Leonard’s, do I go away feeling neither does evangelism — evangelism … well, being so yesterday?
My other hunch as to why evangelism has been marginalized relates to the concerns and passions of young CBFers. Many of the younger CBFers who attend CBF General Assembly share the same generational concerns and passions of young progressives throughout society. They are passionate to see the hostility toward the LGBTQ community within their churches recede; equality for women, especially women in ministry, be given more than lip service; and racial hatred in society ended. They are also passionate to be missional, to join Jesus in his ministry to the poor, to society’s outsiders, to the hurting. They are an incredible generation possessing an empathy we older generations would do well to emulate.
But I do sometimes wonder if younger CBFers have considered that good deeds and right politics do not equal good news. Good news for me is Jesus. Yes, good news is also the Kingdom. Yet, before the Kingdom can be established, the good news of the King’s arrival must be announced. That is why Jesus came preaching. Preaching the good news of Jesus is the essence of evangelism. Jesus came preaching that his arrival would usher in the Kingdom. Jesus came evangelizing.
So here’s the deal. I want evangelism to have a place at my family’s table as honored and respected as politics, social concerns and missions. Of course, some might argue the CBF’s vital commitment to missions is indicative of a similar commitment to evangelism. Really? Is this even worth an argument? Within CBF life, missions — which the CBF does very, very, well — focuses primarily on meeting the physical and social needs of those on the periphery. Evangelism, understood as the proclamation of the good news, is rarely if ever at the leading edge of the CBF’s mission efforts. Yet, as a famous comedian once noted, “All my sentences end in, ‘But then again I could be wrong.’” But after years of participating and observing in the CBF, I don’t think so.
Here are some simple suggestions that might bring evangelism into our CBF home:
• Provide a slot for a speaker doing evangelism in a manner acceptable to our tribe at General Assembly. It really doesn’t matter if evangelism is addressed from a creative, traditional, personal or churchwide approach. Just move evangelism from the stoop to the stage.
• Assign an existing CBF staffer with the responsibility of becoming aware of evangelistic resources acceptable to the diverse faith communities that make up CBF. This person would not need to focus exclusively on evangelism but simply know enough to point persons and churches to relevant evangelism resources.
• Honor those who share their faith in the context of a post-Christian America for both their courage and their love. Even atheists do as much.
Ed Stetzer, in a Washington Post article titled, “Call yourself a Christian? Start talking about Jesus Christ,” tells how “famous magician and outspoken atheist Penn Jillette once talked on his video blog about an encounter with a Christian who gave him a Bible as a gift. Rather than be offended by it, Jillette recognized the gesture for what it was — concern for him. ‘How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize?’ Jillette asked. ‘How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?’” The quote is powerful enough, but when I watched the video to confirm the quote … well, wow!
So just how do we tell others such everlasting life is possible? There are many ways. Me, I find myself drawn to the relatively unfamiliar words of Paul in 1 Thessalonians 2:7-8. Paul writes, “Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.” There is a surprising tenderness here perhaps unexpected of Paul. Evangelism is envisioned in images of feminine nurture, life together, and the gospel told.
With words we tell God’s good news of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection. With both words and shared life together we invite a decision. That decision involves pivoting away from a solely self-directed life toward a life directed by Jesus through Word and Spirit. Whether such a decision occurs instantaneously or is nurtured over time is irrelevant. What is relevant is that there is a growing trust in Jesus as savior and, yes, as Lord. And a journey begins — a journey out of lostness, however one defines it, and toward both the abundant life and the hope of life everlasting. But none of this happens without evangelism.
So heeding Penn Jillette’s words maybe it’s time for our CBF family to bring evangelism out of the cold and into our house. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to restore evangelism to a place of honor reserved for a King.