From the moment of my call to discipleship I have had to grapple with Anabaptist theology and its implications for faith. My childhood roots were in North American Lutheran pietism, and as a young adult I had a dramatic conversion experience which brought me into personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I was baptised as an adult believer encountered charismatic Christianity, and became a convinced Christian pacifist. Four years after baptism my wife and I first worshipped in a small Anabaptist congregation, and there we found our spiritual family. I served as minister in a congregation that grew from forty to two hundred participants, studied at a Mennonite seminary, and eventually moved to England for evangelism and mission work here.
My sojourn has allowed me reflection on witness and radical discipleship in two different cultures – American and British. It is out of that sojourn that I share preliminary insights about evangelism I have gained thus far:
1. Evangelism is more a congregational matter and less an individual issue than we evangelicals traditionally have assumed.
The Christian congregation is to be a community of invitation. Perhaps this is a pastoral issue a much as anything, since it has to do with the ethos or spirit of the congregation. What makes one congregation hesitant to welcome those who are beginning the journey of faith, and another eager to do so? It is the task of leaders to shape the character and ethos of a faith community. They need to create an environment of security that makes it possible to integrate people coming to faith.
One of the main obstacles to such an ethos is legalism. This can come in different forms, but it always contains at its core a sense that “We’ve got it right; therefore, anyone who wants to join must learn our way rather than discover with us what it means to follow Jesus faithfully.” It is difficult to be both legalistic and evangelistic – unless you want to send all your new believers to some other congregation after you lead them to Christ! Legalism is the clearest indication that a congregation has ceased to be evangelistic in character. Congregational leaders need to guard against such an attitude.
Closely related to legalism is the matter of becoming isolationist. In other words, do members of the congregation have meaningful relationships with unbelievers? Sometimes new believers need to break off unhealthy relationships with past acquaintances in order to stand in their faith. But when this practice becomes the norm and all members of the church confine close relationships to like-minded Christians, the church loses its ability to share the gospel. Such isolationism needs to be guarded against. Congregations need to plan for mature believers to involve themselves with new Christians in their old friendship networks. New believers have found a life that is meant to be shared! If they don’t share their faith within a few months, the potential for positive witness largely is over. Some Christians isolate themselves from unbelievers because they aren’t sure their own faith is strong enough to keep them from being shaped by a sinful society. They fear that if God isn’t powerful enough to keep them, how could he help someone who is deeply affected by a fallen world? Seeing people come to faith has the effect of strengthening the faith of committed Christians and re-opening them to witness.
Traditional evangelicalism has tended to assume that evangelism essentially is a one-to-one conversation between a believer and an unbeliever about the matter of faith in Christ. This, however, leaves out the importance of the community of faith. We cannot make a congregation evangelistic just by having evangelistic messages or by inviting evangelists to hold special meetings. Nor is it enough to hold evangelism training courses. The real issue for evangelism is the character of a congregation. Many people need to experience acceptance, love and compassion – and to see the life of Jesus in others – before they are ready to hear about faith.
2. We need to re-evaluate the traditional evangelical gospel presentation.
After attending a number of evangelism training courses, I can give you the classic elements of an evangelical gospel presentation: I ) God is holy, 2) people are sinful, 3) a gulf separates people from God, 4) the cross of Jesus is a bridge that brings God and people together, 5) believing in Jesus is the ticket to heaven.
The primary Anabaptist critique of such a message is that its goal is heaven. The goal of evangelism in Anabaptist thought is discipleship – following Christ in life – with the assurance that believers will enjoy eternal fellowship with God. The early Anabaptist mystic Hans Denck wrote a sentence that modern Anabaptists often quote, “no one can know Christ truly unless they follow him in life.” To an Anabaptist Christian, the evangelical presentation leaves out the critical step of discipleship and thereby distorts the message. Jesus taught his disciples to pray that the kingdom of God would come to earth, not that the church would be taken up to heaven from earth.
It is possible, of course, for people to be committed to certain kingdom values and never know Christ is a personal way. Yet an ethical commitment, such as nonviolence, is no substitute for a spiritual encounter with Christ. Mennonites sometimes have experienced just such an outcome at times in our history. We have forgotten the second half of Hans Denck’s sentence…… and no one can truly follow [Christ] unless they first have known him.”
We need a holistic gospel message, one which includes both knowing and following. As Anabaptist Christians we need to think through that challenge and produce a clear, simple summary of the gospel that can be shared with unbelievers, and that contains the full sense of what we believe. Until Anabaptists do this, it is appropriate for a critic to say regarding traditional evangelism, “Although it is imperfect, I like what I am doing better than what you are not doing.”
3. Our understanding of sin affects our approach to evangelism.
An additional critique of the traditional gospel message is its understanding of sin. The traditional evangelical explanation of the gospel understands sin as volitional (related to one’s will or intentions). Sin is that which I have done (or not done) that is contrary to the will of God. The evangelical response is that an individual should feel guilty about such sin and repent (say “sorry” to God).
Such an individualised understanding of sin, however, is only one side of the coin. What we are learning from family systems psychology, for example, is that sin is progressive and intergenerational in its effects. Children of a violent or alcoholic father will be shaped by the sin committed against them. The children may grow up to repeat the same destructive pattern. Their adult behaviour is their own responsibility, but without healing for the sin that set them up, lasting change is exceptionally difficult.
How can I feel guilty for what was done to me, and how can I say “sorry” to God for it? We create emotionally damaging distortions if we try to force this kind of sin into the mould of repentance. We also do violence to the victim if we only focus on their attitudes toward the perpetrator of the sin. Which is more intolerable to God – that a twelve-year-old girl was violated by her father, or that, as an adult, she hates him for it? We evangelicals have tended to focus on her hatred and say “you need to repent.”
Anabaptists knew from their history the devastating effects of the sins of others. They were victims of persecution for their faith – not from pagans, but from those who called themselves Christian. Their descendants know intuitively that the church’s traditional message usually doesn’t speak to the victim. 1n response, many modern Anabaptists have opted out of evangelism and have given themselves instead to voluntary service. Yet Jesus’ life, death and resurrection have much to say to those who have been sinned against. Jesus was an innocent victim of the sins of others. He bore our grief and carried our sorrows (not just our guilt). He was despised and rejected.
We must include in our gospel presentation not just the truth of sins forgiven, but something of the power of God to set free those who are trapped in the pain and suffering of sin of which they are victims. It is not enough to call people to confession of faith and to assure them of forgiveness. We may need to take a page or two out of the “twelve step” groups (such as Alcoholics Anonymous) and examine on that basis the level of support and acceptance we offer within the faith community. For when we involve ourselves in a gospel of healing, we will rediscover a need for the faith community.
4. Our understanding of baptism influences our evangelistic efforts.
Becoming a Christian is a matter of responding to the love of God in Christ. How we respond to God has to do with the nature of love itself. There was nothing I could do to earn my wife’s love for me. If I were able to make her indebted to me and she had to repay me by showing affection, it would destroy the very character of love. Love must be freely given or it is destroyed. But if I simply accepted my wife’s love as a fact, and did not change my behaviour towards her, there would be no relationship. My response to her love and commitment was my love and commitment.
It is a distortion of the gospel to invite people to know Christ without cost, but inviting people to a cause without knowing Christ is equally incomplete. If there is a greater danger in our day, it is that much of contemporary evangelical Christianity focuses on a cheap passage to eternity with God. The doctrine of those of us who were brought up in Reformed Christianity is “salvation is a gift”. Yet there is a major difference between teaching that justification cannot be earned and implying thereby that discipleship is not required.
Evangelical Christianity puts emphasis on the conversion experience: “Have you been born again?” Baptism becomes the public symbol of that experience, and we practise baptism because Jesus commanded us to. But such a view of baptism essentially is backward-looking, pointing back to the moment of accepting Christ. Anabaptist Christianity, in contrast, views baptism as a pledge to follow Christ in life. Anabaptist Christians have a tradition of “baptismal vows”, in which baptism is forward-looking, expecting a walk of discipleship in the present and future. It is not the experience which sustains the commitment; it is the commitment which sustains the relationship.
5. Cross-pollination may release us to a Joyful experience of evangelism.
Can we once again bring together the two streams of knowing Jesus and following him in life? Can we invite people to all fe-giving experience and a lifelong commitment? To invite others to an assurance that them sins are forgiven outside of the context of a desire to follow Christ as Lord, is to wrench the jewel of conversion from its true setting. To offer assurance of heaven without the need to be a disciple and work for the kingdom on this earth is to distort the nature of divine citizenship that Jesus offers. To call people to follow Christ without leading them to know his grace and forgiving love is to ask people to start a journey they can never complete. And to call people into solidarity with the kingdom of God without introducing them to the healing love of its king is to reduce divine fellowship to an ethical standard. The time has come to crosspollinate, and to bring together the insights of Anabaptism and the evangelistic fire of evangelicals.
Walfred Fahrer is pastoral elder of the Cholmelev Evangelical Church in North London. He is the author of a book on Anabaptist ecclesiology entitled Building on the Rock (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1995).