X-Rated Evangelism

November 5th, 2007

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Evangelism as sex.
The best sex is the fruit of a marriage, not the focus. It’s a thermometer not a thermostat. In fact, we have words to describe those who make sex their primary focus or solicit it outside of marriage, but they’re X-rated. All of this isn’t breaking news. Yet it does explain why so few Christians today share their faith.

Let’s start with the sad, sad truth – the dirty lowdown, as Boz Scaggs put it. Other than a few paid professionals, the average American evangelical will never lead another person to faith in Jesus Christ according to pollster George Barna. How did this come about? It’s sadly simple. We forgot that evangelism is like sex – it’s the fruit of a larger story but never the focus.

For thousands of years, evangelism was only a sub-plot in the story of human flourishing. Beginning in Genesis, our focus (our “human job description”) was to collectively rule over all living things on earth so that we flourished.1 It was known as the Cultural Mandate and has never been rescinded – even after sin entered the story.2 It’s still supposed to be our focus today.

Evangelism was added as a sub-plot in light of “chapter two” – the fall. If we had never fallen, evangelism wouldn’t exist. Nor will we evangelize in “chapter four,” the final restoration. Evangelism is a hiccup because we mucked up. Please don’t misunderstand – hiccups are a necessary aberration in an otherwise consistent pattern of breathing. But we don’t live to hiccup and breathe. We breathe to live. This is why human flourishing is our focus, not sharing our faith. Just look at how Christ shared the gospel with a woman at a well.

The story starts around dinnertime with Jesus taking a seat by a well while his disciples went into town for take-out. A Samaritan woman approaches, yet Jesus doesn’t ask her about “spiritual things” or where she’d go if she died that night. He listened to her story, which included her faltering ideas about worship. Jesus described to her how worship can flourish. “Believe me, woman… a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”3

We get our word worship from the old English word “worth-ship,” meaning to embrace how things ought to be in God’s world so that humans flourish. This woman came to faith because her life fit inside a larger story about how she was worshiping the wrong things in the wrong way – including her relationships with men – and could begin worshiping the right things in the right way.4 When the focus is human flourishing, everyone’s story connects with the good news – whether we’re talking about worship, work or working out. Is it any wonder that this Samaritan woman scurries back to town to share her new story with friends? Hmmm… this smells like enthusiastic evangelism.

So where has our enthusiasm gone? For hundreds of years, plenty of Christians evangelized. Yet it was part of the larger story of human flourishing. Evangelism became disconnected from this story in the 19th century with the introduction of a “two-chapter” gospel. It cut out creation and the final restoration, leaving us with two chapters – the fall and redemption. The Cultural Mandate was edited out. The Great Commission became the focus – but not as it was originally understood. In the “four-chapter” gospel, the Great Commission was a reiteration of the Cultural Mandate – humans made to flourish in the image of God. With creation edited out, the focus shifted to sinners being solicited for salvation. It’s X-rated evangelism. And that’s why so few Christians today evangelize.

The Apostle Paul describes marriage as part of a greater story: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church.”5 Paul said marriage fits into a larger picture of Christ and the church. In the same way, sex also fits into a bigger picture of marriage, not as the focus but as the fruit of love. Evangelism is like sex. It’s part of human flourishing by introducing new life or being “born again.”6

Evangelism is important. It’s a part of my life’s fabric. Returning evangelism to health and attractiveness only requires reframing it inside a larger story. My marriage to Kathy doesn’t flourish because we focus on sex but because we focus on love. If the sad, sad truth is that the average American evangelical will never lead anyone to faith in Christ, maybe it’s time we stopped soliciting salvation and instead fostered human flourishing.

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1 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1998), p.22
2 The Cultural Mandate of Genesis 1:26-30 is repeated in Genesis 2:23 and 9:1 (after Adam and Eve had sinned) along with being reiterated in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20).
3 John 4:21-24
4 The “four chapter” gospel of worship goes like this: (1) creation – how worship ought to be, (2) the fall – what is worship really like (often messed up) as a result of our shortcomings, (3) redemption – how we can worship better, and (4) restoration – what worship will be like some day, when the world is fully restored.
5 Ephesians 5:31-32
6 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. (I Peter 1:3)

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