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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Evangelism and Evangelicalism

I read an interesting post on the "Call and Response" blog from the Faith and Leadership program at Duke Divinity School. Louis Weeks wrote about the accessibility and usefulness of the term Evangelical among Presbyterians and mainstream Protestants. He took note of what he sees a changes in the way that many Protestants view the word.

To some extent, he is describing a certain blurriness of the previously demarcated border between more conservative and more liberal Protestants, Presbyterians in particular. I agree that this concept is in flux among Protestants (and among some of a new generation of Catholics, too), so I offered my own thoughts on the way that Baptists (should I say baptists?) have use and understood the terms evangelism and evangelicalism during my lifetime. Here is what I had to say.

Growing up among Baptists, there was ambivalence about the term evangelical because it implied certain views of church and state which depart from the free church tradition. They liked the term evangelistic, however, and pressed us all to learn to tell our testimony and the plan of salvation whenever the grace of God presented the opportunity.

Yet in both uses of the term, one describing a verbal witness seeking a verbal response (evangelism) and the other describing adherence to a version of Reformed confession with a biblicist or fundamentalist flavor, seem to me to be theological misdirections.

What is evangelism? We all know to answer that it is sharing the good news. The next question which arises must be, "What is the good news?" I would offer that like much of modern North American theology, the concept of evangelism has been domesticated and perverted by modern Western culture.

As John Perkins noticed in the 60s and 70s, most churches he encountered had a very narrow view of "the gospel." One thing that was certain in the dominant streams of theology, especially among many evangelicals, was that the gospel was NOT about the social conditions of human existence. Jim Crow and widespread poverty were something else, perhaps related to missions, but not to the gospel. The "real" work of the church was the gospel of personal forgiveness and eternal life.

This is only a piece of the gospel. Perkins says we must bear the whole gospel to the whole person and the whole community. To see this holistic picture, I recommend looking to the Gospels to see what Jesus was talking about when he used the word "euangelion." Luke 4 is one of the key examples: good news for the poor, liberty for the oppressed, a path to wholeness for the marginalized lame, blind, and vulnerable, and a troubling challenge to the injustices of the day. This kind of good news makes clear that God is at work for the good of humanity whom God loves, in this life and the next.

We need to recover these words for the church, but we need a richer, biblical understanding of them or recovering them will merely perpetuate the shortcomings of the domesticated, malformed churches of the age of the modern nation-state.

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