A couple of items got me thinking about evangelicals and our emphasis on evangelism. After some reflection I think we really need to expand our context for engaging others.
One of the things that made me pause again to reflect on this question came last weekend as I watched an edition of Hate Thy Neighbor on VICELAND. If you haven't seen the show, a comedian travels the globe and interacts with people who hold to various forms of prejudice and extremism. The clips of his observation and engagement are interspersed with brief comedy bits touching on his reactions. It's an interesting concept for a television program, and the places he visits and people he talks to are unsettling.
In the episode I watched recently there was a focus on Ruben Israel, an infamous "street preacher" who travels around the US with his small group in order to shout messages of hellfire and damnation to Muslims, Mormons, Catholics, even Comic Con geeks, and many more targets of his brand of "evangelism." (If you haven't seen Israel in action you can sample his preaching here.) I was all too familiar with Israel's incendiary brand of preaching previously, but what caught my attention was the end of the program where he asked the show's host to share his feelings about what Israel does. The comedian shared his disagreement and some criticism, and Israel responded with "Well, a decision was made." In other words, in Israel's view, his message is a form of gospel proclamation and the only valid feedback is acceptance or rejection. Given this reductionistic binary of acceptance or rejection, heaven or hell, there is no ability to consider things like audience reception, sensitivity, empathy, a contextualized message, empathy or understanding the other, let alone whether a critique might have validity that would necessitate change.
Israel represents an extreme in Christian fundamentalist evangelism to be sure. But it's worth noting that the primary means for engaging others is evangelism, and mere proclamation (and denunciation) at that. But Israel's emphasis on the supreme importance of evangelism also has connections to mainstream evangelicalism. The other item I recently encountered was a Patheos blog post by Josh Daffern titled "Evangelism is the Greatest Form of Discipleship." You can read that post for yourself and draw your own conclusions, but I disagree with it. I believe in sharing my faith, and in inviting others to follow Christ as disciples. That's not my issue. I think that's an important part of discipleship. I agree with Daffern there. My disagreement comes with the assumption of his title: evangelism is part of discipleship, but it isn't the only part, and why should we consider it the greatest form? With this view we end up with forms of reductionism: the gospel is boiled down to heaven or hell; evangelism is the best form of discipleship, never mind a myriad other Christian virtues and practices that should be incorporated into a mature Christian life.
So while Ruben Israel may represent one end of the extreme on evangelism that most evangelicals would disagree with, Josh Daffern is more mainstream. But I submit that both of these emphases on evangelism miss the mark, especially in an age where American evangelicalism lacks credibility with others. It's time for some critical self-reflection, and an expansion of the ways in which we engage to others.