Looking From The Outside In – How We Come Across To Outsiders

It’s often sobering to listen to a review of how the church is doing, especially from the point of view of an outsider. Christians are pretty good at critiquing the church (some spend more time doing it than is healthy). Often we have to face up to the experiences and perceptions of others that makes for hard reading. It’s pleasant to receive some positive feedback, especially from surprising sources.

I came across one such surprise this week. It’s a glowing assessment of the evangelical movement and a critique of how we get our message out (evangelism) and how we treat people. The source was journalist George Monbiot, who is well known for his advocacy on a range of views that sit to the left of the political spectrum especially global warming. After studying zoology and working with the BBC Natural History unit and World Service as a producer he went on to do investigative journalism, activism, writing books and holding a number of associate fellowships and professorships.

Over the past two years Monbiot has been researching what the Left can learn from the evangelical movement. Writing in the Guardian in the aftermath of the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the British Labour Party, Monbiot outlines what he has observed (and is worthy of emulating). Leaving politics aside, this a revealing insight into how a critical thinker from the outside looking in sees the evangelical movement (which encompasses the vast majority of Australian Baptist churches).

“I share none of the core beliefs of the evangelicals but I recognise in their work a series of brilliant organisational models. Here we find movements that are highly diverse in terms of both ethnicity and class. Many of their members are prepared to devote, with apparent joy and limitless persistence, all their free hours to the cause. They persist, year after year. They will weather almost any humiliation and rebuff in their attempts to reach apathetic, hostile people, and they sometimes succeed. In some places – Brazil in particular. Brazil – they have transformed the life of the nation, often in ways I find disconcerting.

Over the past two years, with help from others, I’ve been trying to determine what we might learn from these movements. The project is still only half cooked (some might say half-baked). But a few rough shapes appear to be swimming into view. Here are some of the features we might be able to adopt.

Evangelical groups unite around a set of core convictions, overt, codified and non-negotiable. It would surely not be difficult to create a similar set, common to all progressive movements, built around empathy, kindness, forgiveness and self-worth. A set of immutable convictions might make our movements less capricious while reinforcing the commonality between the left’s many causes.

Evangelism is positive and propositional (to evangelise is to bring good news). You cannot achieve lasting change unless you set the agenda, rather than responding to that of your opponents.

They welcome everyone – but in particular the unconverted. Instead of anathematising difference, doubt and hesitation, they explain and normalise these responses as steps within a journey to belief. They are self-funding (often through a tithing system), and sometimes create a parallel welfare state, helping people to overcome financial hardship. To sustain ourselves, we need to be more than just political: we should offer those who join us emotional support, moral comfort and, sometimes, material help. It is a mistake to learn only from groups with which we may feel comfortable. Our first duty is to be effective.

Successful evangelical churches have charismatic leaders who use ritual and ceremony, narrative and theatre, to reinforce convictions, project a shared identity and bind people together. The churches create their own media channels and publishing houses, even their own record labels. All this is built on deeper Christian strategies of disruption and self-sacrifice: essential means of attracting attention and public sympathy that are already widely deployed widely by secular activists.”

There’s so much in there that its hard to pick any one thing out. Standing back from the detail, it’s refreshing to read this analysis. Part of the reason that its refreshing is because the narrative from within is often so trenchantly critical. It’s sometimes hard to feel optimistic about progress when we are surrounded by a constant critique that tells us how far short we are falling.

Herein lies the tension of living in a missional/evangelistic posture: the goal is never attained. Our efforts are never good enough, and we can always find fault. There’s always room for improvement – significant improvement. Every now and then though its good to hear a thoroughly considered viewpoint from the outside that is a positive assessment about our organisational models, commitment, empathy, kindness, forgiveness, self-worth, core convictions, diversity, regard for outsiders, welcoming culture, generous welfare, emotional support, moral comfort and immutable convictions.

Original article: The model for a leftwing resurgence. Evangelical Christianity.


Blog – Stan Fetting, Crossover Operations Manager