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Evangelism on the Way Out, Part 2: Verbal Witness

Wednesday, 7 December 2011  | Steve McAlpine

Death-by-Powerpoint, Weasel Words, ManagementSpeak, Spin: So bereft of life are words in this hubristic, self-proclaimed The Information Age, it is a wonder anyone uses words at all anymore. Why waste oxygen resuscitating words when art, music and dance are full of life? Would that words belonged to The Iron Age, ringing clear and powerful, or The Bronze Age, strong and battle-hardened, or merely to that runt of the litter, The Stone Age, blunt, to the point, and useful for felling an opponent with a swift blow to the brain.  Information Age words are limp not limpid, pallid not powerful. They exist not so much to reveal meaning, but, as Paul Keating’s former speech writer, Don Watson observes, to obfuscate.

If words have been drained dry, slogans pimped out to the point of exhaustion and  once-linear sentences overwrought by advertising, management and politics, what hope is there for the euangelion and its proclaimers?  If, as Part One explained, Christianity is “on the way out” in our culture, how can we withstand the double blow of an unacceptable message and an unpopular method?  The waxing of the word “missional” has been accompanied by the waning of the terser “evangelism” and all it connotes. “Look,” they say, shaking their heads, “Two hundred years of misdirected zeal, religious junk words, and the odd Rob Bell Nooma DVD, prove the point; mere words have had their day.”

The irony of course is that the word “missional” is both abused and abuser. It is victim to a lost confidence in proclamation as the primary means by which Jesus is declared King to those rebelling against his rule.  But it is perpetrator in that we have allowed it to break free from its semantic field and roam the wilds with the pack gathering meaning at will.  Quite simply “missional” is being stretched to cover what it was not intended to cover. It has become a funnel down which we pour meaning. However, to paraphrase the evil Syndrome in The Incredibles, “When everything is missional, then nothing will be.”

The text of 1 Peter is an excellent corrective to this tendency towards meaningless words. The communities’ lives and practices are centred around King Jesus and correlate, in my understanding, to what we really mean by the term “missional”.  Likewise, the call to be prepared to give a reason for hope (3:15) is clearly and linguistically “evangelism”.  Neither idea is exclusive: each is mutually supportive of the other. For Peter, hope proclaimed springs from hope practiced. Likewise hope practiced leads naturally to hope proclaimed. The missional tree is not simply ornamental; it exists to bear evangelistic fruit. But neither can the fruit grow independently of the tree.

What does this mean for verbal witness? Simply this: just as Peter cannot countenance a situation in which proclamation is devoid of practice, neither can he countenance one in which practice displaces proclamation. Peter would neither approve of nor recognise as valid any missional movement that did not prioritise evangelism. Indeed in 1 Peter silent witness is a concession, a last resort wherever words are not allowed.  By theological conviction and practical observation Peter is convinced that God saves and restores through words.

Proclamation birthed the Christian communities (1:12, 23). Fading humanity is contrasted with the eternal word which is the “good news that was proclaimed to you” (1:24-25).  The communities were chosen “to proclaim the excellencies” of God (2:9). Unbelieving husbands may well “be won without a word” (3:5), but the impression is that these wives are constrained by strict social convention rather than any view that silent witness is superior, or even equal to, verbal witness. Indeed, following this concession, Peter again turns to words: “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you...” (3:15).

At the same time, the linguistic link in 1 Peter between silent witness and verbal witness is strong. If the common problem is fear (3:6, 3:14), then the common solution is hope (3:5, 3:15).  Wives of unbelievers lose fear when they, like Abraham’s wife Sarah, discover that they are heirs of a hope in God.  They are able, therefore, to live with their husbands and stay true to Jesus.   All believers, likewise, are able to speak of their hope when they realise that God turns suffering—in their case hostility from unbelievers—into blessing (3:14-15). Hope practiced is the set of lungs from which hope proclaimed is exhaled. Not proclaiming one’s hope, although in some extreme situations unavoidable, is as unnatural as holding one’s breath.

Why does this matter today? Because hostility that was once primarily focussed on hope-in-practice has today turned its attention almost entirely to hope-through-proclamation.  Our culture, marinaded as it is in individualism and ‘free choice’, celebrates alternative communal practice as the very flowering of its values. To that end, missional practice in the West does not confront our culture as starkly as it did the rigid social strata of Peter’s culture. Proclamation, on the other hand, confronts today because the gospel, by its very claims, universalises Christian practice in a context in which universalising beliefs are blamed for so much bloodshed and strife. Even the act of proclamation, not simply the content, is perceived as a threat to our culture’s baseline values, “gentleness and respect” (3:16) notwithstanding.  Words are seen as the tools of the powerful, employed to further disempower the powerless.  The recent ‘Occupy’ protests are a manifestation rather than a manifesto precisely because of this fear of words. The call for the movement to stop occupying places and start occupying arguments is anathema to its adherents. So deeply ingrained is this suspicion of words that the very tools that could give the movement shape are rejected out of hand. 

In an era suspicious of words, will we fall silent for fear of being labelled aggressive, arrogant or rigid?  In an age of flabby words, will we  stretch “missional” to cover more than it was designed to cover? Are we able to map a path forward in which our proclamation and our practice are in harmony? 

The gospel made great gains “on the way in” to the culture because the first Christians, putting fear aside, pronounced Jesus as Lord, then went and lived as though he were. May our hope lead to the same harmony of practice and proclamation “on the way out”.



Rob Haskell
December 7, 2011, 3:16AM
His Steve -- Thanks for this very interesting article

While I kind of agree with your approach here, it is ironic that in "missional" discussions it seems that words often take the place of action (in a sense, this empowers them, I suppose). Talk about what it means to be the church becomes a substitute for the steps required to acheive this. The goals and agendas of "missional" are so much work to state that once this is accomplished, one can sit back and feel that something has been achieved. But this is perhaps not a problem limited to the emergent scene or even something different about our era.

Anyway, I do disagree with the popular adage that "if everything is mission nothing is mission." I actually think that is the sort of empty sloganeering you are criticizing. The legitimate question for discussion is whether mission is the overarching theme of the history of salvation. If this is the case it can be said that "everything is mission." That is to say, everything the church does and is has a "missional" motivation or outcome. I think it's a bit of a logical fallacy to say "too much of something means nothing of something."

Andrew Kulikovsky
December 18, 2011, 3:11PM
My thoughts exactly Steve!

Great article. It is a pleasure to read such sensible, logical and well argued points.

You're spot on about the use and abuse of the word "missional". Indeed, disagreements over what this concept entails destroyed a church I used to attend. The pastor resigned in frustration because he thought "missional" meant bringing the lost to Christ through preaching and serving, but a small, vocal and influential minority in the church thought it meant whatever Rob Bell and Brian McLaren said it did...

I fear that too many leaders in the church think Christians should be social workers instead of ambassadors and missionaries...

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