Evangelism after Christendom – A Book Review
As Christianity continues to decline in New Zealand, I have been spending time reflecting on what it means to be salt and light in a post-Christian society. Stone, in his book, Evangelism after Christendom, explores what Christian witness could look like in post-Christendom. I chose this book to see if Stone offers anything to the New Zealand Church, and specifically to the church in Christchurch where I work.
Coming from the east and from an Anglican tradition, I was fascinated with Stone’s thesis that the practice of evangelism is fulfilled in the “beauty of holiness made real in the church” , and that evangelism is done in community with one another. The idea of sharing life together and being involved in spiritual practices like rituals, service and spiritual formation excites me. I was looking forward to reading what Stone had to say for the 21st century church.
Stone, in his book, presents not only the theology of evangelism, but also the practice of evangelism in a post-Christian society. This Christian practice of evangelism is not about methods or techniques but rather being a virtuous activity whose ends are intrinsic, not extrinsic and based on numbers and results. Evangelism then is a Christian practice done communally with other followers of Christ so that the church becomes a “new and unprecedented social existence” in a post-Christian world. The church does not do evangelism but rather is itself evangelism because it is called to be the witness to God’s reign in the world. Evangelism is primarily ecclesiological. It is a community of faith being present in the world in a distinctive way that allows the beauty of holiness to be touched, tasted and tried .
To prove his thesis, Stone retraces the biblical narrative of God’s people through history. Israel, as God’s chosen people, was called to bear witness to God’s peace in the world. Jesus announced the presence of God’s Kingdom and that it is available to everyone who would respond. The early church presented the apostolic message by focusing on Jesus as the fulfilment of the long-promised reign of God’s peace that is now made known through the church. Through the Biblical narrative, Stone presents evangelism as the faithful, virtuous witness to God’s peace in the world .
Stone then goes on to look at “rival narratives” to this biblical narrative that has shaped western culture. He specifically looks at the stories of Constantine and Modernity and how they influenced and distorted the church’s understanding and practices of true evangelism, as revealed in the Biblical narrative. The church had to rediscover what it means to be an evangelising community formed by the Holy Spirit through the practices of worship, forgiveness, hospitality, and economic sharing. This community of faith embodies a new and distinct pattern of life and remains consistent in their character even in the face of martyrdom.
Stone presents a powerful appeal for churches to move away from the rival narratives that only fuels the “creative reconstructions of evangelism” . Instead of falling into the trap of reinventing a Christendom model of evangelism, Stone throws the challenge for the church to return to the biblical narrative where the life and witness of the Church community is evangelism instead of “translating our beliefs about the world into categories that others will find acceptable” .
For someone who sees the importance for the church to partner with the God of mission, the vision presented by Stone is very compelling and deeply inspiring. It is about the church being the salt and light in the world, not through coercive means, but through the shape of life that the church presents in and to the world. This shape is seen in and through the practices that show the world a new way of life and invites the world to share in that life.
Stone thus builds a strong case for evangelism to be embodied within a community rather than a personal or individual witness. To present his case, Stone is influenced and inspired by John Howard Yoder and quotes from him several times. Stone insists that any church seeking to be free from the shackles of Christendom will have to engage with Yoder seriously .
Another strength of this book is its explanation of the gospel and salvation. Stone argues that salvation is more than just a personal relationship with Jesus. Conversion is like receiving citizenship or membership . Stone explains, “The gospel is Christ himself; and Christ has a body” . Receiving the gospel is not only receiving Christ, but receiving his body as well, and becoming part of that community of faith. By receiving salvation, an individual becomes part of the faith community and adopts its “practices, patterns and politics” . Membership and involvement in a Christian community becomes an inseparable part of the gospel.
Stone, I think, left the best to the last. In his final chapter, Stone illustrates what evangelism could look like as the church engages with society. Evangelism has to be demonstrated as the church lives out certain virtues in the world. These virtues, which include presence, patience, courage and humility, cause the church to stand with the poor and marginalised and to stand against oppressive powers influencing society.
In presenting the rival narratives, Stone identified some key problems that have shaped Christendom. For example a problem he identified with the Constantinian era is the merging of church and the world. As a result of this merge, the church no longer allows the world to be in a place of disbelief . When he discussed modernity, Stone was critical of how the church has adopted the modernity’s emphasis on the individual and turned evangelism to an individual’s decision to follow Christ. So for the church that has been influenced by Christendom, evangelism is often seen as an individual’s decision for Christ with the church being seen as an afterthought. The church growth movement started the western church becoming attractional and focusing on numbers. Churches would look for the latest method or technique that would draw people to the church. These are the shackles of Christendom that the church in the west needs to break free of. Only then can the church live out the biblical narrative in the world.
Stone’s idea of evangelism as being the communal way of life the church presents in the world goes against the extrinsic values the church puts on results. Stone argues that church should let their faithfulness to the gospel and the Kingdom be seen in and through a life patterned on certain virtues and practices and not get too caught up with the numbers game. This thought is freeing because the fruit of evangelism is seen in the practice of evangelism rather than results of evangelism.
Probably the main challenge to Stone’s thesis would come from the early church’s experience in the book of Acts. Stone argues that evangelism, in the Biblical narratives, is done in community demonstrating the kingdom life in and through their presence in society. However in the book of Acts, and even in the ministry of Jesus, evangelism is done through individuals carrying out miracles and proclaiming the gospel of the Kingdom. It may appear that Stone is undermining the importance of individuals declaring and demonstrating the Kingdom of God in their spheres of influence. However, when we examine Scripture, even though at times, certain individual’s ministry is highlighted, that ministry is never done alone. These individual were surrounded by other believers. Whether Paul, or Peter, or Jesus, they were never alone. When Jesus sent his disciples out, he sent them in pairs. Stone’s argument that the Biblical narratives highlights that evangelism is done in community still holds true.
Another challenge to Stone’s claim is the growth of Christians in parts of the world where the meeting together of Christians is either restricted or forbidden. Yet again in these countries, even though the church’s life and witness is not visible, the salt and light impact of the ‘underground church’ is very visible. The church, like in the days of Acts, thrived under persecution because their presence is not seen but felt within society. This is highlighted in the last chapter of the book.
A danger that could arise from Stone’s thesis is that the church could shift its focus from being outward-looking to being inward-looking. The need to get the church life functioning well through spiritual practices could become a distraction to the church becoming salt and light in society. Stone does warn the church against this . In fact Stone reiterates several times his case that the church must become the embodiment of the gospel and in so doing become salt and light in the world. As long as the church does not lose sight of that, it will be difficult for the church to end up becoming inward looking.
The reasons I have given in this review lead me to believe that Stone has been successful in presenting his case that evangelism should be seen as a rich practice of the church, and that the church as a community of faith fulfil its role as a body of witness in the world.