I was raised in a ruthlessly pluralistic Episcopalian congregation, and yet I was converted—yes, I was “evangelized”—to the Christian faith through some sort of multi-part prayer and alter call at age 11 at camp. I both loved the inclusivity, mess, and diversity of my home congregation and the real relationship with Jesus that was offered to me through my camp experience.
Because of these competing influences, I’ve had a great deal of internal conflict when it comes to defining evangelism.
I believe a culturally honest definition carries baggage. To me, it sounds like a demand for conformity driven by fear. A spiritually vigorous definition—one that I’d prefer to claim—might be something like Diana Butler Bass’, where the edges of the Christian community are porous and the gospel—the good news—is one of shared faith and the call of belonging, many under one God. Evangelism here is an acting out, a rubbing of shoulders, a sharing of means.
However, I struggle with believing either of these sorts of evangelism, as the act of spreading the Christian gospel, is honest about the kind of radical discipleship that I believe is necessary in a world where the politics of shame and oppression issue death threats to Christ’s message of love and grace overcoming sin.
Put more simply, as Buechner wrote (somewhere), “The good news of the gospel is bad news first.” While Buechner may have meant this for our human selves, that we are messed up but God loves us anyway, I hear it as the Gospel’s unbreakable promise of hope and potential built into humanity and the world and lived out through radical discipleship.
The bad news is that pain and sin are real. The good news is that God’s power, love, and mark on humankind are far more powerful and this good news offers a way, manifest in many forms, forward.