Slow Cooked Evangelism

The mission of God is concerned with alerting people to his universal reign through Christ. One of the ways we join him in that enterprise is through the verbal announcement of that reign. We must see evangelism in this broader context, but we need to be careful not to assume that unexplained action is evangelistic.

As it’s used in the New Testament, the term evangelism describes a verbal announcement. It is a declarative activity. Words are required. It cannot be replaced by unexplained deeds. But as David Bosch pointed out, there is no perfect set of words that captures the gospel.

Part of the problem with evangelism is many Christians feel they need to get the whole gospel out in one conversation. The reason for this is many Christians are only ever in a position to “evangelise” strangers, because all their friends are Christians. When the only “evangelism” we do is with strangers on airplanes or at dinner parties or business conferences, we feel an understandable pressure to get all the bases covered because this might be the only opportunity we (or they) get. Evangelising friends and neighbours, gradually, relationally, over an extended time, means that the breadth and beauty of the gospel can be expressed slowly without the urgency of the one-off pitch.

When we understand what it is to be truly missional – incarnated deeply within a local host community – we will find that evangelism is best done slowly, deliberately, in the context of a loving community. It requires the unbeliever to observe our lifestyle, see our demonstrations of the reign of God, test our values, enjoys our hospitality. It must occur as a communal activity, not only as a solo venture. Unbelievers must see the nature and quality of the embodied gospel in community. And all the while, conversations, questions, discussions, and even debates occur wherein we can verbally express our devotion to the reign of God through Christ. No more billboards. No more television commercials. No more unsolicited mail. If evangelism is like a meal, think of it as being prepared in a slow cooker and served over a long night around a large table. It can’t be micro-waved. It can’t be take-out.

In 1986, Italian chef Carlo Petrini founded the Slow Food movement which has since expanded globally to over 100,000 members in 132 countries. Slow Food exists to “…counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.” Well, that’s what missional thinkers are attempting to do with evangelism – to slow it down, to counteract the abuses of fast evangelism, to place evangelism back into community, to rediscover both the pleasure and the responsibility of announcing the reign of God. It shouldn’t be a one-off, hit-or-miss presentation.

Part of the problem is that so many of our models for evangelism are itinerant evangelists and pastors. These people rarely tell stories about being deeply incarnated into a neighbourhood or host community. Rather, their examples are all about “evangelising” strangers on airplanes. They tell us about how they managed to fashion just the right line at the perfect time that allowed them to present Christ to them. They make these presentations to people they will never see again and for whom they feel no sense of ongoing responsibility. It is the equivalent of fast food evangelism, and it’s not the way it was meant to be. David Bosch defines evangelism as: “…that dimension and activity of the church’s mission which, by word and deed and in light of particular conditions and a particular context, offers every person and community, everywhere, a valid opportunity to be directly challenged to a radical reorientation of their lives.”

Since Bosch managed to pack a series of ideas into that one sentence, we need to do a bit of unpacking: evangelism is a dimension of mission, not its sum total;
• Evangelism is part of the church’s mission, not just an activity for individuals;
• Evangelism involves both word and deed;
• Evangelism occurs within, and is influenced by, certain cultural and relational conditions, and in a certain context;
• Evangelism challenges people to a radical reorientation of their lives.

Sharing your faith with a stranger on a plane is not a bad thing as such, but it is not an exemplar of the things mentioned above. It is a solo activity, conducted between virtual strangers, outside of their particular cultural contexts, and if “successful” it leaves the evangelised having prayed some sinner’s prayer that will guarantee them eternal salvation. Where’s the church community? Where’s the shared context? Where’s both word and deed? And, above all, where is the radical reorientation of which Bosch speaks? That radical reorientation should of course involve the decision to acknowledge the reign of God through Christ and submit oneself to live under it. It is more than saying a prayer that will provide you with the golden ticket into heaven when you die. It is the breathtaking and foolhardy risk to live every day under the assumption that the triune God does indeed reign.

Michael Frost is the Vice Principal and the Director of the Tinsley Institute, the mission study centre, at Morling Theological College, Sydney. He has also written a number of books. Prac 12.