Reflections on Evangelism 1: How the message got separated from the medium

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : December 18, 2006

Tonight I’m joining my friend Todd Hobart, who is an adjunct and PhD student at Luther Seminary, in his course on evangelism. He’s asked me to share my thoughts and experiences about evangelism.

I wrote down some thoughts in the past day or two–most of which I won’t share in class–that I want to share with you, my readers. If they strike you as comment worthy, I welcome your feedback. I’ll share them over the next three days.
* * * * *

In the West, we see an enculturated Christianity up until the late middle ages, where we see a shift away from enculturation to ascent to privately held beliefs. Evangelism is the process of enculturation–call it catechesis.

With the Reformation we see the rise of nation-states. As William Cavanaugh suggests, these nations used religious divisions and exploited them to break themselves free from papal authority…the so-called Religious Wars weren’t really about religion at all; religion was simply the thin veneer covering a thirst for power.

As nationalism rose, religion became privatized. The Church no longer had claim over earthly affairs and was left to be caretaker of an inner faith that has no direct political implications.

As religion becomes privatized, and abstracted from regular practices, religious fidelity becomes more about a set of privately held beliefs instead of the shape of one?s life.

This is modernism at its best-ideas separated from culture, things abstracted and fragmented, put into little boxes for analysis. During the Modern Era, religion continues to fragment and the Gospel is reduced down to a set of core propositional truths ABOUT Jesus Christ. Evangelism becomes about conveying this sets of propositional truths. Religion in the West has, therefore become a set of beliefs-rather than a way of life.

This takes on an interesting aspect as the West approaches the consumer age, where this boiled down Gospel is further reduced and abstracted-it is commodified and marketed.

In the modern era, the Gospel was abstracted and evangelism was purely about communication of propositions. In the late modern climate of consumerism, the Gospel is commodified and evangelism is purely about marketing of a message. Consumerism accelerated and brought a greater degree of “consumer choice” into the process of evangelism. It isn?t simply that one must decide whether or not to believe in Jesus; instead smart shoppers take their time to figure out which Jesus they want to believe in, and which church or ministry they ought to patronize for that ideal Jesus.

In our fractured, abstracted, consumeristic religious culture, evangelism is taken on by the marketing department of the Church. And if your church lacks the resources to handle marketing yourself, you can outsource it to one of hundreds of organizations that exist to customize their marketing materials for your church or ministry.

Thank God there has been a shift happening in the way in which we think about things like “church” and “gospel” and “evangelism” that seems to be genuinely critical of the commodification of our faith. The missional church movement and the emerging church movement, the Ekklesia Project-these movements are trying to de-commodify our faith. We?ve recognized that the message has been divorced from the medium. And therefore the message is reduced down and is communicated in profoundly trite ways-each one going for the “sale.”

Mark Van Steenwyk is the general editor of Jesus Manifesto. He is a Mennonite pastor (Missio Dei in Minneapolis), writer, speaker, and grassroots educator. He lives in South Minneapolis with his wife (Amy), son (Jonas) and some of their friends.

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  • Mark Van Steenwyk’s Blog

    December 22, 2006 at 8:54 am

    [...] Reflections on Evangelism 1: How the message got separated from the medium Reflections on Evangelism 2: The task of ...

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