Ruminating Around a Backyard Fire: Considering Evangelism

Every few days in the summer, I walk into our backyard, which currently opens up toward a couple dozen acres of soybeans–not the most inviting crop, I know, but I am not the farmer. I gather a few fallen branches, some dried out leaves from the past fall, and a scrap piece of paper or two from our recycling bin. Loosely piling them within a small collection of rocks that our daughter helped me gather in the overturned field last spring, I give a small spark to the lowest edges of the crumpled paper, sit back and watch the fire climb.

On this night, I watch as the fire slowly pulls itself up the sides of the paper and then moves toward the dry leaves and grasses and then onto the twigs and branches that our maple trees found to be too short, too weak, or too old for displaying their fresh green summer ensembles. As the fire steadily grows, I feel that soothing mixture of the fire’s warmth on my face and the cool breeze across the back of my neck. The sky turns from its dimmed, late evening blue to a dancing red and orange, as if reflecting the small fire pitted in our backyard. Then, with a subtle twinkle, it unveils the enchanting beauty, black and deep, that it managed to keep hidden all day. Somewhere between the fire crackling just beyond my sandaled feet and the fading sunlight, there is a fullness of life that catches my breath, inviting me to listen, to remember that I am not alone.

As I stare into this tiny fire, I notice how the fire seems to move within the pit. A gentle shifting at the base of the fire seems to respond to the breeze. I can’t quite tell if the breeze is pushing through the fire or just brushing past its edges. The random wisps and puffs of smoke at first tail toward our neighbor’s yard and then shift abruptly toward the soybean field, revealing how little wind it takes to coax the fire into moving in a new direction.

Watching carefully, I notice that it’s not just these wispy tails that move from side to side; the base of the fire itself is making its way from place to place as well. For a few minutes the big log on the right seemed to hold the attention of the fire, but then the fire moved over, burning a bit more intensely around the charred corncob (leftover from our son’s curious attempt to make homemade popcorn during our last fire). Then the whole fire seems to stand still, as if it were somehow content to simply rest for a few moments. Just when I wondered if I might need to add more wood to encourage the fire to keep moving, it stretched upward–like waking from a refreshing nap–and shifted with renewed vigor back toward the first log.

Random thoughts pop in and out, crackling across my consciousness like some of the twigs snapping in the fire’s heat. I begin to breathe a bit more deeply. And then I grow still. I am quiet in a way I have not been for quite some time. I slowly start to wonder. It’s a deeper wondering: more intentional, careful. I’m not as quick to pick up a new thought or to discard it so absentmindedly. It’s kind of like when the fire has consumed all the kindling and smaller, broken branches, and then turns toward the bigger logs–the main course that refuses to be consumed too quickly.

I slowly re-entertain a conversation with a former professor from a couple months ago. As a practicing Buddhist, she asked me about evangelism and proselytism: “Is there really a difference?” She raised this question rhetorically, implying that there is no real difference. I knew I could distinguish the two. Though admittedly simplistic, evangelism involves walking with others in a way that invites them to know and follow Jesus Christ. Proselytism, however, is about coercing others to make some sort of conversion statement and join our allegiances. Or at least that’s how I have come to frame them. Yet there is something about her question. She had arrived at an idea that both evangelism and proselytism belong to the same essence: manipulative and objectifying of others–a religious colonialism of sorts.

I poke at the fire with a leftover “marshmallow” stick. I remember being in Budapest, Hungary in 1991 for a mission trip. Our primary purpose was to present the truth of Jesus Christ to those we encountered so that they would accept him as Lord and Savior. I remember sitting in a McDonalds for nearly eight hours one day, striking up conversations with all sorts of people, while watching for that moment in each conversation where I could turn us toward spiritual matters, present the gospel, and hopefully they would pray to receive Jesus Christ.

For all the critique that short term missions have rightly received, I am still convinced that we saw God moving that week, even in McDonalds. God used that whole experience to transform me, but I am left wondering how our street evangelism differed from all the other western products flooding Hungary during the years following the collapse of communism. Some of us on our team had a friendly competition to see who could pass out the most evangelistic tracts, as if we were a marketing staff blitzing a newly discovered target audience with our most recent product. Was our evangelism any less damaging, any less immoral than the Playboy banner hanging across the street or the jeans being sold for close to a week’s wage in the new “American” store? We Americans had the spiritual answers and were determined to inform those who had been trapped under an atheist and communist government.

I know that my experience in Budapest was not unusual. I feel obligated to concede to my professor’s implication that evangelism shares some characteristics with proselytism. In my own life, this memory of Budapest reminds me that evangelistic practice often has been rather enmeshed with a self-righteous, North American, save-the-world mentality and deeply informed by colonial assumptions about others and ourselves. But how do we avoid these traps in presenting the gospel? Without question, the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ has been packaged and delivered in some rather offensive wrappings. That God moves through our offensive and often naïve efforts is continued evidence of God’s grace.

I pick up another log and place it in the fire and move a few smaller sticks away from the edge of the pit. I recall reading Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered. He gave voice to a growing uneasiness emerging in mission circles thirty years ago. Donovan understood that evangelism had been somehow sidelined, replaced with “a kind of ecclesiastical peace corps,” as he put it, more intent on improving the well-being of people’s lives here and now than on speaking the good news of Jesus Christ. We have often called these efforts at education, medical care, agricultural skills, and economic vitality “pre-evangelism,” as if they are a means of softening the soil of people’s hearts and minds so that they will be ready to receive the gospel.

But I wonder if that term–pre-evangelism–is just another extension of our colonizing thinking? The assumption being that the people we desire to share the gospel with are not ready to hear the gospel or are not capable of responding to it appropriately until they experience some of the fruit of the gospel. As I recall, Donovan wondered something similar. What are we really saying about others when we presume to know who is and who is not ready to hear the gospel? The whole approach seems to objectify others–people can be manipulated into accepting the gospel if given enough evidence and signs to believe. Donovan raised questions like these out of his work among the Masai in East Africa. But I dare say they could be raised just as easily among our churches in North America, as Donovan himself suggested.

I wondered the same thing when hearing of a “sportsmen’s club” at a local church. The emailed flyer invited people to come to a dinner in order to hear a professional fisherman speak. There would be all kinds of door prizes and giveaways during the evening. But the catch to the whole night, the evangelistic twist, was that there would be a short gospel presentation during the middle of the evening in which people would be given an opportunity to accept Jesus Christ. I couldn’t help but wonder if this approach was anything more than a religious bait-and-switch.

The log cracked loudly as the fire seemed to focus all its attention at the middle of the wood. Not only do these pre-evangelism and bait-and-switch methods make some rather objectifying assumptions about the people we are trying to reach, but they also depend on some rather disturbing assumptions about the gospel and the Holy Spirit. Aren’t we implying that the gospel is not accessible, that it is somehow dependent on certain socioeconomic circumstances in order to be understandable? In these ways, I wonder if we are reducing the gospel to little more than a kissing cousin of Gnosticism–in this case a salvation dependent on certain social conditions rather than of secret knowledge.

I wonder, too, when we wrap gospel presentations inside of other socially acceptable events and activities, like listening to a professional athlete or giving away door prizes and raffle tickets. Are we suggesting one of two possibilities? Either all the successes of the speaker can be yours too if only you would accept Jesus Christ, or the gospel is not strong enough to gain your attention on its own so it needs to be sugar coated before swallowed? Both options seem to reveal a distorted and deficient view of the gospel.

There is something refreshing about Donovan’s story with the Masai and his determination to present the gospel of Jesus Christ without all the trappings that we in North American Christianity tend to see as necessary precursors. Donovan’s audacity to believe that the gospel might be strong enough to stand on its own and that the Holy Spirit might be powerful enough to reveal God to those who have never heard the gospel before is inspiring, if not a bit unnerving. I wonder how few of us imagine the possibility of proclaiming the gospel to anyone apart from some program or a special event. We are often too embarrassed to invite people to worship with us unless we have something especially attractive to entice them. Could it be that our evangelism methods not only objectify others, not only imply that the gospel is too weak to stand on its own and the Holy Spirit too powerless to reveal God, but that they also reveal how anemic our faith has become, almost addictively dependent on the economic, medical, governmental, and other advantages we in North America tend to label as God’s blessings?

I turn over the few remaining pieces of the charred log. They’re mostly coals now. Gathering them together in the middle of the fire pit, I am left wondering if Donovan’s vision of a cultureless gospel would ever be possible, or even desirable. If the gospel is not interwoven within culture, what kind of news, much less good news, can the gospel really bring? I am sure few would say the gospel should be determined by the cultural context, as if the cultural context is the firm foundation upon which the gospel is built. No doubt there needs to be a certain transcendence to the gospel if its proclamation is to be anything more than news of a tribal deity.

Yet, without being intertwined within any given culture the gospel is nothing more than speculation about a distant deity, irreducibly irrelevant to us and our birth-through-life-to-death living. No matter how noble the desire to avoid passing along distortions and deformities from an evangelist’s own culture, if the gospel is to be good news for anyone, the evangelist must proclaim a gospel that has been, is, and will be inculturated again and again among an ever increasing variety of peoples, customs, and places. The gospel is nothing if it cannot grow new life in each and every culture through which and into which it is proclaimed.

The fire cracks loudly, pulling my attention back to my backyard. I stare through the fire, looking out across the soybean field. Wow! There are a lot of soybeans growing in that field. There does not seem to be a whole lot that the farmer needs to do after plowing the field and planting the crop. A lot of waiting and watching, I suppose.

My thoughts drift back toward evangelism. What does the incarnated gospel look and sound like to a middle-upper class people in North America? What about our Christian practices and priorities–often as intertwined as we are with sports, success, efficiency, economic well-being, individual rights, national identity, and safety? Is there, in any of this, still some of God’s word? If God chose to incarnate and embody the gospel within a Hebrew culture, and then to inculturate that same gospel within a Greco-Roman culture and in a multiplicity of cultures since then, I imagine that God intends for the gospel to be inculturated somehow even in the middle-upper class cultures of North America, too. It may not be the most inviting inculturation of the gospel, I know. But I am not the farmer.

I take a deep sigh. The night sky is much darker now. A few clouds seem to have moved in and blocked some of the stars that were out earlier. The fire is burning pretty low. I debate putting another log on, but decide that it’s getting too late to add anymore tonight. I walk to the edge of the field for a few moments and wonder how tall the soybeans will get this year. I wonder if we’ll get any rain. We’re a bit overdue. Turning back toward my house, I notice that a light is on at John’s house next door. Perhaps I should invite him to come ruminate with me around a backyard fire one of these nights. I know I wouldn’t mind the company and who knows, he might not either. I return to the fire pit to pour some water on what remains of the embers. Smoke and steam rise upward only to be moved along and dispersed by the wind. I head inside. It’s time to rest.

Chris Schoon lives in Hamilton, Ontario with his wife and four kids while he is working on a doctorate at Wycliffe College (Toronto) in theology of mission.