Monday, December 23, 2013

Preaching the Gospel in the Paradigm of Religionless Christianity

I have been writing on the subject of how I believe that Christianity is not supposed to be like religion - that is, a system of insiders and outsiders where we are the right side and everyone else is on the wrong side.  This post will be a continuation on this theme - if you have not read my other posts in this series, I recommend you do so:
  • Part 1 explores 5 reasons I believe Christianity is not supposed to be a religion in the sense I described.
  • Part 2 explores the balance between Orthodoxy (right belief) and Orthopraxy (right action)
  • Part 3 explores how one could go about analyzing their belief structure to find out if it was poisonous
The theme of this post is how "preaching" or "evangelism" works within the paradigm of a "religionless Christianity".  But before I get into that, I think I should explore some concepts a bit more first.  Up to this point, I have been exploring this idea of "religionless Christianity" - that is, what Christianity is not supposed to be.  But is there a word for what it should be?

Religion Vs. Spirituality
I've been reading Diana Butler Bass's book, "Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening" - a book I probably should have read before beginning this series.  This book, in my opinion, should be required reading for every faith leader out there - Bass puts together a remarkable amount of data from numerous studies and questionnaires, as well as history and personal stories, all having to do with the changing face of religion in America.  And she is able to put all of this together into a coherent narrative - a bird's eye view of what is happening, why, and where we are headed.

In one section of the book, Dr. Bass talks about an exercise she would do as she went from church to church and from denominational meeting to denominational meeting to present her material.  She would ask the people at these events to do a word association exercise where they would list all the words that they associate with religion versus the words they associate with spirituality.  No matter where she was - regardless of denomination - she found surprisingly similar results.   

Religion was always associated with words like "structure", "rules", "building", "order", and "authority".  These words are rigid, unmoving, strong, but lifeless words.

Spirituality, meanwhile, brought to mind words like experience, connection, transcendence, and energy.  These words have a sense of life to them, of being open to change and able to roll with the punches.

Dr. Bass writes that some congregations were skeptical of the word “spirituality”, and would describe it with a few more negative terms.  But even so, she remarks:
..."religion" got the worst of it: "cold," "outdated," "rigid," "hurtful," "narrow," "controlling," "embarrassing," and "mean.” And those words came from people who were church members!  No matter the region or denomination, all of the groups associated spirituality with experience and religion with institutions.
So it seems that "spirituality" is more apt to capture the sense of "Christianity" that I am going for - a paradigm that transcends boundaries, and is willing to cast off structure if it presents an obstacle between oneself and a neighbor.  Spirituality, in this sense, is about inter-connectedness and relationship.

But this may bring about a perplexing question - what does it mean to "preach" to others who do not adhere to this form of Christianity?  How does one "evangelize" from within this paradigm?

First, let's examine the way evangelism all too often works in the religious paradigm.

Marketing 101
In the paradigm of religion, evangelism ends up looking a lot like the sale of a product.  There are 5 basic steps to marketing - you can notice this in every single commercial and sales pitch.  They are:
  1. Demonstrate a need
  2. Demonstrate the consequences of failing to meet this need 
  3. Show how your product meets this need
  4. Define the price, but do so in a way that makes it look comparatively thrifty
  5. Create urgency
You can look at any effective commercial or sales pitch and find these elements - maybe not in the same order, but they are there.  And the weird thing is, this is how evangelism seems to be taught inside the religious paradigm of Christianity.  Take a look:

Step 1: Demonstrate a Need
I can remember being taught basic evangelism techniques in Sunday school when I was in High School.  The first step was always to demonstrate to people that they were full of this thing called sin.  Sin was very bad, and there was nothing you could do to get rid of it.  And this was a problem because when God looked at you, all He could see (according to the marketing plan) was this sin!  There were two basic techniques for this step - one was to ask the question: 
If you were to die tonight, and God asked you "why should I let you into my heaven?"  How would you answer?
We were taught that if people started to talk about how they had been basically good people, we were to use the "three egg omelet" analogy.  The analogy works like this: imagine you're making a three egg omelet for someone.  But when you crack the third egg, you smell something rotten - this egg is bad.  But hey, the other two are good, so I'm sure your friend won't notice, right?  And then what you do is to describe how we're all like that omelet, and we all have sin, like the third egg that is rotten.  

So there's nothing you can do about your sin, right?  We're all disgusting omelets made with a rotten egg!  


Ah, now you're ready for step 2!

Step 2: Demonstrate the Consequences of Failing to Meet This Need
Ok, so we're disgusting omelets and we can't do anything about it.  Why should I care?  Why don't I just try to be happy anyways?

Hell!  Oh yeah, buddy.  Hell is really scary, man!  Worst consequences you could ever possibly imagine!  Whatever torment you can concoct in your mind?  It's going to be worse, and it's going to last for ever, MUAH HA HA HA!  

(Note: I have written a lengthy defense on why this idea is not Biblical and it starts here.)

So what can we do about this problem? 

Step 3: Show How Your Product Meets This Need
So then, the evangelist in the religious paradigm presents the product: Jesus!  That's right!  Jesus will solve your problems!  You just need Jesus and your sin problem goes away!  And Jesus can get you into Heaven, man!  Heaven is like the opposite of Hell - we're going to live forever, and we'll sit around on clouds all day and sing hymns to God! 

"Um, I don't really like hymns - an eternity of singing them sounds kind of like Hell to me...."

You need to repent, sinner!  You don't want to end up in the eternal lake of fire, do you? 

", that sounds pretty crappy.  So...what do I do?"

Ah, now we're ready for the next step. 

Step 4: Define the Price
So guess what!  All you gotta do is say a magical, I mean a prayer...and invite Jesus to come into your heart! 

"Um, how can a person fit inside my vascular organ?"

Heretic!  Repent and believe!!!  You don't want Hell, do you? 


Ok, so it's settled.  You need Jesus.

Jesus doesn't seem much like a person any more....
 Now we're ready for the final step!

Step 5: Create Urgency
So you might notice that a lot of commercials and sales pitches have this thing called a "limited time offer", right?  They put an expiration date on this awesome, thrifty sale.  The whole idea is that you want the customer to buy now.  Because marketing experts know that the minute the salesman walks out the door, the chances of making a sale go down drastically.  So what do you do?  You say "hey, this price is great, right?  It's not going to last forever, so you should buy now while the offer lasts!"  Here's the weird thing:

The religious paradigm of evangelism works the same way.

They have their own limited time offer going on and it actually comes in two forms.  The first form is this: you die, the deal is off.  Simple as that.  And that's a great way to create urgency, right?  Because dude, you never know when it's gonna happen!  You might be crossing a parking lot and BAM!  You get hit by a car, you know?

The second form of the limited time offer is THE END OF THE WORLD, MUAH HA HA HA!  Yeah, apparently when Jesus comes back we find out that he's bipolar and went from being meek and mild to a kick-ass Rambo type of guy who is going to destroy everything.

I'm your worst nightmare....
The fact that religious evangelism often ends up looking like the sale of a product is pointed out by Diana Butler Bass in another section in "Christianity After Religion":
Other than the fact that denominations offered religion as the product, they differed little from other corporations that dominated America in the last century. As a Presbyterian elder once sighed to me, “Our church is like GM, only we sell faith.” And if the Presbyterian Church - or any denomination, for that matter - is like GM, that is not a good thing.

Now, besides the fact that the marketing 101 strategy of evangelism turns Jesus into a ticket that you put in your pocket so you can bring it out and show the train conductor in the sky after you die and gain admittance into a place that honestly doesn't sound all that fun in the first place, there's a major problem with this way of doing evangelism: Jesus never did it like this.

Peter's Three Confessional Moments
I think that the best model for the evangelism of Jesus comes in the form of the Apostle Peter.  We see a very different model when we follow Peter's story - basically a three step model, which I will refer to as Peter's three confessional moments.

The first confessional moment came when Jesus introduced himself to Peter.  We see this story in Mark 1:16-18 and in Matthew 4:18-20, and you might notice something interesting about these stories: there's never any discussion of religious doctrine.  Jesus doesn't go to the brothers Simon (who was later given the name Peter) and Andrew and discuss 5 tenets of his new religion, or tell them "dudes, I'm God!  And if you accept that, you can go to Heaven!  Otherwise - Hell, bro!  You don't want that!"

No, he says something very simple: "Follow me."  That's it.

And this comes with a promise: "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men!"

There's something interesting about this metaphor - Jesus is giving Simon (Peter) and Andrew a new purpose.  This purpose uses their talents in a new way that is enticing to them.  One of the popular terms for describing this is "calling" - people use this term to describe all kinds of things these days.  When you notice that someone is really good at making things look good, you might say they have a "calling" in the world of art or design.  By promising a future of being "fishers of men", Jesus is appealing to a sense of a greater future ahead.  Jesus is saying: "we have common goals to make this a better place - let's work on that together!"  He's promising that they can be part of a plan to do great things - and this is enough for the two disciples to drop what they were doing and follow Jesus right then and there!

This is a remarkable contrast to the Marketing 101 strategy of evangelism, because rather than appealing to fear in order to manipulate people into accepting him, Jesus instead appeals to an innate desire to be part of something grand.  This is the complete opposite strategy!

A Question
So Jesus takes Peter along with him, and Peter witnesses Jesus healing people, feeding the hungry, being a friend to outcasts, and challenging prejudices.  And after a period of time where Peter repeatedly witnesses Jesus doing these incredible things, there is a second confessional moment.  

We see this moment paralleled in Matthew 16:13-20 and in Mark 8:27-30.  Jesus asks his disciples: "Who do you say that I am?"  And Peter declares his belief that Jesus is the Messiah.

Now there's two ways in which this contrasts with the Marketing 101 strategy of evangelism.  The first way is in the timing.  In Marketing 101, you push people to declare their belief in some tremendous claims about Jesus right off the bat.  But this isn't how Jesus works - this confessional moment of Peter occurs after he has already had time to see who Jesus is.

And the second way this contrasts Marketing 101 is that Jesus is asking a question, not making a declaration.  He opens up the discussion - he says "who am I to you?  What do I mean to you?"  He doesn't insist that there is only one meaning and everyone should accept it - he allows his disciples to form their own interpretive views on his meaning and then poses the question after they've witnessed how his actions have played out in the world.  This is a very different model from the manipulative insistence of Marketing 101.  Rather than declaring who he is and then invalidating anyone who doesn't agree, Jesus leaves the question up to his disciples!  And Peter makes quite a bold claim about Jesus as a result of being given the freedom to think for himself!

So that's it, right?  Evangelism is over now.  We've gotten someone to "believe" and now we are done with them, right?

No.  After this event, we continue to observe Jesus being a good friend to Peter, and we see that Peter is still a work in progress.  Declaring Jesus to be messiah doesn't solve all of Peter's problems like some kind of magical incantation - it's only through relationship that he begins to grow into the great man Jesus always knew he could be.  And this is where we find the third confessional moment.

Forgiveness and Reaffirming the Calling
Peter's third confessional moment comes after he faced his own weakness and came to grips with his own limitations.  You see, Peter had always been a little headstrong and rash.  He always seems to be telling Jesus how things could be done better, too.  And before Jesus' death, Peter declares that even if everyone else deserts Jesus, Peter never will.  (See Mark 14:29 and Matthew 26:33)  

But rather than standing up for Jesus, Peter ends up denying that he ever knew Jesus in order to protect himself - not once, but three times.

So after Jesus' resurrection, we find Peter facing up to this failing in a remarkable scene in John 21:15-19.  In this scene, Jesus asks Peter three times: "do you love me?"  And each time, Peter says "you know that I love you", and then Jesus says "feed my lambs."  There's a lot going on in this scene that you might miss if you're not observant.

The first thing that is all too often missed has to do with the original language this passage is written in.  The Greek language had more than one word for the concept of love.  And in the original language, when Jesus asks Peter the question the first two times, he uses the word agape.  Agape is perfect, unconditional love.  But when Peter answers, he uses the word phileo, which has a sense of affection and is often thought of as "brotherly love."  

So Jesus asks: "do you agape me?"  And in his response, Peter is showing that he is now more aware of his limitations, and his response communicates: "Jesus, you know that I don't agape you, but I do phileo you."  

So Jesus says "feed my lambs."  

Then Jesus repeats the question: "do you agape me?"  Peter is probably a little confused, and maybe a little upset at this point.  The repeated question is probably making him uncomfortable.  But the last time Peter rashly insisted on his own virtue, he ended up failing Jesus, and he can't risk doing that again.  So once again, Peter responds "you know that I phileo you."

Jesus says "take care of my sheep."

Once again Jesus asks Peter a question, and the moment he begins the question, I imagine Peter's heart is breaking - it's like he is reliving the moment of his denial all over again, and facing his betrayal.  But Jesus does something remarkable this time - he asks: "Peter, do you...phileo me?"

In the English translation, we miss what's going on here.  By changing his wording from agape to phileo, Jesus is showing his acceptance of Peter's limitations.  He's meeting Peter where he is.  Rather than demanding what Peter does not feel able to give, Jesus is saying "I'll take what you offer."

But I think there's something else going on here.  Because once again, Jesus repeats the command: "feed my sheep."

I think that this is a map for Peter.  Peter was a fisherman, and when he was called, Jesus said he would make him a fisher of men.  But Jesus often used the analogy of a shepherd to describe himself.  So when Jesus tells Peter to take care of his sheep, I think that he was saying: "you want to know how to get from phileo to agape?  Follow in my footsteps."

And then Jesus repeats the very first thing he said to Peter in verse 19: "follow me."  Jesus is reaffirming Peter's calling here.  He's communicating to Peter that just because there was a failure does not mean he's out of the game.  Jesus doesn't bench Peter because he messed up: he says "get back out there."  The relationship Jesus offers is a radically persistent one that does not fray at the first sign of trouble, but continues to endure after failure on Peter's part.

And that's the model of evangelism that I believe the spiritual paradigm should follow - the model of building enduring relationships.

I think the world renowned scholar Marcus J. Borg summarized what I'm getting at best in "Jesus: A New Vision":
Images of Jesus give content to what loyalty to him means. The popular picture of Jesus as one whose purpose was to proclaim truths about himself most often construes loyalty to him as insistence on the truth of those claims. Loyalty becomes belief in the historical truthfulness of all the statements in the gospels. Discipleship is then easily confused with dogmatism or doctrinal orthodoxy.

The absence of an image - the most common fruit of biblical scholarship in this century - leaves us with no clear notion of what it means to take Jesus seriously, no notion of what loyalty might entail, no direction for the life of discipleship. But the vision of Jesus as a person of Spirit, deeply involved in the historical crisis of his own time, can shape the church’s discipleship today. For us, as for the world in which he lived, he can be the light in our darkness.

In an earlier section of the same book, Borg had written of Jesus:
As an epiphany of God, Jesus discloses that at the center of everything is a reality that is in love with us and wills our well-being, both as individuals and as individuals within society. As an image of God, Jesus challenges the most widespread image of reality in both the ancient and modern world, countering conventional wisdom’s understanding of God as one with demands that must be met by the anxious self in search of its own security. In its place is an image of God as the compassionate one who invites people into a relationship which is the source of transformation of human life in both its individual and social aspects.

Next: Paul and the Greek Poets


  1. I'm left asking the obvious, which you seem to assume: why preach or evangelize at all? Because there's a rule that we should do so? You jumped from a nice distinction between religion and spirituality into Marketing 101. Genuine spirituality in action is its own argument. No one needs convincing that righteousness, peace, joy, and love are desirable when they see them in action and see how they work. Jesus' marketing strategy was to put a little leaven in the lump and let it live. It spreads on its own without a marketing plan.

    1. Good points. I think that "evangelism" is as much for our own benefit as it is for others. When we embody love to others, all parties benefit.