The Devaluing of Evangelism

By Louis Showengerdt

For 175 years, we the people called "Methodist" were enthusiastic and evangelistic.

In the 1960s we stopped being both. A dramatic change took place. We became a different church.

What happened? Why did we change?

Be reassured that some United Methodist churches are still enthusiastic and evangelistic. The faith of those in the congregation is deepening, and they are reaching out with the message of Jesus Christ to those outside their church walls. If we could by some miracle clone those pastors, or persuade others to be like them in theology and commitment, we could once again reform this continent.

Professor Earl Marlatt used to tell his students at Perkins School of Theology that the poets of today are the philosophers of tomorrow and the politicians of the future. Ideas are tremendously powerful and ultimately life-changing. They can either establish a communist government or cause its collapse. Ideas can give birth to a democratic nation or destroy the moral foundation upon which a free society must be built, causing societal collapse.

Merely changing programs, altering structures, or even relocating General Board offices will not bring about the renewal we seek; because the forces that came into prominence in the 1960s have changed our souls, shaped our attitudes and even modified our vision of who we are and who we want to be as United Methodists. Only a major renewal can deepen the faith of those who are already sitting in the pews, and give our churches the spiritual energies that are needed in order to reach secular people with the gospel message.

Let us look at the first idea that led to the forces bringing about that tremendous 1960s theological shift. In 1932, William Ernest Hocking's book, Rethinking Missions: A Layman's Inquiry After One Hundred Years, argued that:

1. Christian denominations should not try to convert people from their ethnic religions. Hocking believed that Christians should help the Buddhists, Muslims or Hindus to be better representatives of their own religions. He further suggested that all religious traditions can learn from each other; that Christians should share the best of their religion, and accept the best from other religions.

This view of the goal of missions was taught in most United Methodist seminaries; it was required reading when I attended Perkins School of Theology from 1947-1950.

Arnold Toynbee, the world-renowned Anglican philosopher and historian, continued Hocking's argument in his book, Christianity Among The Religions Of The World. Toynbee wrote that it is vital for Christians "to try to purge our Christianity of the traditional western belief that Christianity is unique."

Dr. D. C. Mulder, a World Council of Churches (WCC) official, carried this idea even further by stating at the WCC's Vancouver meeting in 1983 that we should not evangelize at all, because it makes it difficult to have dialogue with people of other religious faiths.

The ideas of Hocking, Toynbee and Mulder are the dominant theological positions held today by the majority in the WCC, the National Council of Churches (NCC), and our own General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM).

Regardless of what we might wish, the majority in power positions today hold to Hocking's view of the equal value of all religions. The decline of overseas missionaries for all mainline Protestant churches from 1962 to 1979 was enormous, and was the direct result of a confusion in the need for evangelism brought on by the ideas expressed by Hocking, Toynbee and Mulding. The number of missionary volunteers declined in the Episcopal Church by 79 percent; the Lutheran Church of America by 70 percent; the United Presbyterian Church in the USA by 72 percent; the United Church of Christ by 68 percent; the Christian Church Disciples by 66 percent; the United Methodist Church by 46 percent; and the American Lutheran Church by 44 percent.

I witnessed the power of Hocking's position four months before I retired from serving as a bishop. For a number of years, the New Mexico Annual Conference has been a sponsor of a ministry to the Navajos called The Four Comers Native American Ministry. There are two GBGM missionaries involved in this work, and for a number of years this ministry has been approved as an Advance Special. United Methodists across America have been most generous in their support for this vital ministry, giving more than the cap placed on this Advance Special by the GBGM.

The Four Corners Ministry believes fervently in evangelism. Every summer Henry Begay, a Navajo pastor appointed to the Shiprock UM Church, takes his tent and holds revival meetings in the remote parts of the Navajo nation. To members of all the clans, Henry Begay has been an answer to their prayers, because in their Bible study groups-which are like the house churches in China-they have been praying that God would show them the way to relate to Christians beyond the Navajo nation. The UM Church is the fastest growing denomination in the Navajo nation, with six new congregations planted in the last seven years.

Early in 1992, a complaint was registered with the GBGM that the Four Comers Ministry was imposing on them the white man's standard, because the Navajo pastors were rejecting the ancient tradition of taking the drug peyote in worship. These pastors were also preaching that faith in Christ could free the Navajos from the fearful taboos of the night-time runners.

GBGM staff persons believing that the ancient religion was of equal value to Christianity decided to drop the Four Comers Ministry from the approved Advance Special list. This action was taken without consulting the bishop of the area or any of the conference representatives to the National Division of the GBGM, the Board of Global Ministries, or the UM Women. These representatives and others immediately met with all of the Navajos present at annual conference, stating their objection to the dismissal of the Advance Special listing. They requested that a consultation be held about the Navajo nation in the fall of 1992. Dr. Randolph Nugent, General Secretary of the GBGM, a man who does believe in evangelism and the saving power of Christ, was present. Thanks to his witness and that of other concerned Christians present, the decision was made to restore the Four Corners Ministry to the approved Advance Special list.

For those of us who are committed to evangelism, this story ends with good news. However, many of the decisions about missions are still being made according to the philosophy of William Hocking, the ideology which declares that it is not necessary to convert anyone to the Christian faith because all religions are of equal value.

The second idea that changed mainline Protestantism and the UM Church was:

2. The adoption of the Freudian ethic as the accepted moral code. When I was in seminary, the depth psychologists and the psychoanalytical physicians were the gurus who believed that they had a greater understanding of human nature than any theologians or biblical scholars. We turned to these doctors of the subconscious to heal us from all traumas and neurotic or psychotic behavior. Dr. Sigmund Freud, in his book Civilization and Its Dis-Contents, expressed concepts that were accepted by all therapists, both lay and clerical. An illustration Freud used to describe his attitude toward the Victorian moral code was one of a starving man seated at an elegant dinner table, waiting for each course to come, and being required to use the proper utensils for each bite. According to Freud, what the man wanted and needed to do was to take the food in both hands and devour it. Freud blamed the Victorian culture for repressing and controlling the instincts. He believed that repression caused the illness he saw in dreams and in psychoanalytical therapy.

According to Freud, another major cause of neuroses was the way parents treated their children, hemming them in with rules and regulations. He believed that if children had complete freedom to choose, and if they were allowed to express their subconscious desires, they would naturally develop patterns of wholeness and emotional stability. Many children growing up in this era came out of psychotherapy blaming their parents for all their emotional problems. "There are no bad children," the therapy said, "only bad parents."

In pastoral counseling we were taught that we should never ask any judgmental questions or use the word "sin" for any behavior. We were to hold up an emotional mirror before the counselee. When they saw their problem, they would correct their difficulties without any help from the counselor. We were not to use the word "sin," because the problem was the conditioning by society and the parents, not the action of the troubled one. Making a moral statement would impose a code of ethics on the counselee, blocking the inner search for the traumatic situations that were causing the behavior. From this theory came the popular phrases, "If it feels good, do it"; "Let it all hang out"; "Look out for number one"; "Grab all the gusto"; and "Go for it."

The influence of this philosophy on mainline Protestant churches was so powerful that we stopped preaching about sin, salvation, repentance and redemption. We removed the Ten Commandments from the Communion ritual. We decided that sins are forgiven before there was repentance, recompense for the sin, or a desire to rise and sin no more. Our preaching dropped the biblical language and concentrated on themes of tolerance, acceptance, affirmation and community building.

It was not until the Civil Rights movement that the word "sin" reentered America's consciousness. Now the sins are racism, sexism and ageism. We do not call promiscuous sex, breaking the Sabbath, coveting, or bearing false witness, sins. We talk of criminal justice, but not of justice for the victims of criminals. We do not insist that criminals make recompense to those they have harmed. A few judges are requiring this to be done, but they have had little support from Protestant churches.

Secular society has completely adopted the Freudian ethic. The tragedy is that so many of our church members follow suit. We see church members coveting, buying on Sunday, consuming alcohol and drugs, lying, ruthlessly climbing and using power just like secular people. Success in the ministry is measured by secular standards of salary and church size. We speak of church growth in terms of success rather than changed life styles.

The inculcation of the secular value system into Christianity has caused many believers to feel that the church doors are definitely open to visitors, but we do not want to impose our desires on them. If they wish to come, they will. Until we "offer them Christ," there does not seem to be much difference between those outside and those, within the church.

This thought leads into the third idea that brought about a significant change within the United Methodist Church:

3. The erosion of biblical authority for moral and spiritual living.

When people asked the late Carl Michaelson, "What is the difference between the old hermeneutics and the new hermeneutics?" his reply was clear. "In the old hermeneutics we interpreted the Scripture. In the new hermeneutics, the Scripture interprets us."

We need both the old and the new interpretation of Scriptures. We cannot have too much knowledge about the Bible. However, what has happened in our time is that we gain the knowledge, without then applying that knowledge. The new hermeneutics, according to Michaelson, has to do with the application of our biblical knowledge.

For example, we need to go beyond understanding the sociological and economic situation at the time of Jesus when he said, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be fed." We need to ask ourselves, "Do I truly hunger and thirst after righteousness, or do I just hunger and thirst for things, for power and praise?"

Knowledge about the Scriptures does not automatically make us spiritually alive. This comes only as we apply what we know about the Scriptures to our daily lives. You may recall the conflict Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer had with many Lutheran and Free Church pastors during the reign of Adolph Hitler. During his first year in office, Hitler decreed that he would not interfere with affairs of the church as long as the church did not interfere with affairs of the state. All churches would be free to evangelize, but not to criticize the Third Reich. This won him great support from the majority of the clergy, especially ministers of the Free Churches who had been harassed by the Lutheran State religion.

Bonhoeffer would listen to and read their sermons about the recent demythologizing theories, their fine descriptions, and their appeals to be loyal to the church. But he noted that they said nothing as Hitler began to invade countries and kill millions. He felt that they were leaving out a vital part of the gospel.

Bonhoeffer established criteria for evaluating a sermon which he believed every pastor should follow. They are as valid today as they were in his time:

Is it faithful to the Scriptures?

Is it faithful to the text?

Is it faithful to the confession?

Is it faithful to the congregation?

Does it establish a relationship between the Old and the New Testament?

Does it establish the relationship between the Law and the Gospel?

Bonhoeffer did not want his students to omit any Scripture when a question about the relationship of the Law and the Gospel was asked. One reason we are not evangelistic today is that most people in our church eliminate from the faith by which they live those passages that apply to being evangelistic. It is easy to do this when we put ourselves in control of the Scriptures, and use our Bible training to say that certain passages applied only to former times and have, therefore, no validity today.

An example of the selective use of Scripture to fit a preconceived idea can be found in a statement by the United Methodist committee appointed to study homosexuality: "The church cannot teach that all biblical references and illusions to sexual practices are binding today just because they are in the Bible. Specific references and illusions must be examined in the light of the basic biblical witness and their respective sociocultural contexts."

If the committee were to ask the questions that Bonhoeffer asked his students to make of every sermon text, they could not have made that statement. When we take all of the Scriptures seriously, we will have come a long way on the path toward establishing the Law and the Gospels as spiritual and moral guides. As long as we read the Scriptures with preconceived notions of what is valid and not valid, what we will follow and not follow, we have eroded the authority of the Scriptures, and taken the road toward making the UM Church a secular church.

The combined power of these three concepts is awesome. Hocking's view that all religions are equally good, Freud's practiced view that the only sins are the restrictions that culture and parents place on the developing child, and the current popular view that we can be selective in using and excluding Scripture passages so that they fit our own ideas have taken us down the path toward being a secular church. Some of our present members are comfortable in that setting; but there are others who hunger and thirst after righteousness, who want to be told how to change their lifestyle to become more Christ-like. They cannot be fed by a secular church, by a church that is just a center for good works and fellowship rather than a saving station.

We will never be an evangelistic church until our theology changes.

Louis Schowengerdt is a retired bishop of the United Methodist Church. This article is adapted from an address delivered to the 1993 Council on Evangelism in Houston, Texas.

This article was published in Good News magazine (March/April 1993).