Reimagining church for discipleship from the margins
by L. Wesley de Souza*
I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
EPHESIANS 4:1-3 (King James)
What do Christians today envision when they think about “evangelism?” Do they imagine an iconic scene of missionaries of old, like James Thoburn, walking among the masses, baptizing new Christians by the thousands? Do we remember missionaries like John and Helen Springer, who undertook long and sometimes dangerous journeys through jungles unmapped by westerners to find village chiefs and indigenous people willing to listen to seemingly crazy but determined foreigners? Do our minds wander to more recent times and great crusaders for the gospel, like the Rev. Billy Graham, or to a time in the United States when Methodist conferences were building hundreds of new churches every year? What does evangelism mean today, and how do Christians relate it to their daily lives?
Left: Bishop James Thoburn (center) baptizing more than 800 Gujarati men, Baroda District, Methodist Church in India, 1910s. PHOTO: R. WARD, GCAH INDIA #1, P. 39. Right: Isabella Thoburn, James’ sister (seated) and Lilivati Singh. PHOTO: BOARD OF MISSIONS
“Is there anything new to be said about evangelism?” That’s the question Américo J. Reyes, the newly elected bishop of the Methodist Evangelical Church in Argentina, posed as he started his keynote speech at the 2018 World Methodist Evangelism Institute’s International Seminar in Buenos Aires. Reyes articulated a question I have wrestled with for a long time as a minister and as a teacher of mission formation in theological education: Is there anything new about evangelism that would radically change the mindset of those who investigate, reflect on, read, and write on the matter?
There was a time not long ago when literature production, research, and resources in the field of evangelism were—at best—out of date, not contextual, impractical, unattainable, non-inclusive, and often narrow in understanding. To make matters worse, many of these resources lacked practical suggestions and implications for churches and pastors to do church work while remaining pragmatic and surviving as a congregation.
This is no longer the case! Today, access to information and resources on evangelism have not only been graciously approached in serious literature production, the resources are also constructive, creative, innovative, progressive and they promise illumination of basic ecumenical concepts and best practices that inform and support day-to-day church life. The resources available, if accessed and used under the Holy Spirit’s power and guidance, are more than enough to foster innovation as we embrace and apply them in creating a church determined to “walk worthy of the vocation wherewith we are called” and to exist as a true expression of God’s communicational love.
Do We Need Anything New?
When I see and use World Council Churches’ Together Towards Life (TTL) and the latest “The Arusha Call to Discipleship (2018),” I understand how privileged I am as a Christian and as an educator in the practice of evangelism. I don’t see such unifying documents anywhere else that would be able to draw such a common line, so carefully crafted, in a broader dialogue fostered by those who produced the document. (Web download: Together Towards Life.)
Plenary session on Mission from the Margins, World Council of Churches, World Mission and Evangelism in Arusha, Tanzania, March 2018. Shown: Vitoshe Salika, Council of Baptist Churches in Northeast India, Cynthia Manuela Baptista Paul, Methodist Church in Ecuador; and Elisabeth Yamato, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania. PHOTO: ALBIN HILLERT/WCC
Together Towards Life is not alone, however. There are other well-written documents and books on the history and study of evangelism, as well as materials that approach and synthesize the practice from a mission-centric perspective in a variety of contexts and approaches. With the continuous debate and discussion that incorporates different hermeneutics and worldviews, and historical and prospective readings, we can say there are not only working definitions and viable conceptions of evangelism, but also indications of pivotal viability and relevance for the gospel to be proclaimed in a contextual manner to our world today.
Scholars and practitioners have worked on resourceful insights from almost every shade of conventional and nonconventional perspectives, firmly rooted in our great Wesleyan missional tradition, which “[holds] together the evangelistic and the prophetic dimensions of the Gospel,” and for which “there [is] no split between personal salvation and social engagement.”1 We are doing our job in combining perceptive scholarship with concrete practice and questions that foster meaningful discussions in the art of living out the gospel and communicating God’s love amidst suffering, particularly to the oppressed, the excluded, and the marginalized.
Delivery or Product?
A few years ago, a former Candler colleague, Michael J. Brown, posted a sharp, painful, realistic observation on a social media network that still resonates in my mind and makes me concerned about my own work as a professor of evangelism. He asked, “Fewer Christians? What happens in all of those evangelism classes we teach at seminaries? Not working?” Then he deduced, “Maybe the problem is deeper.” More recently, Brown responded to a comment I made on the same post: “Part of that post came from a sense of disgruntlement that the UMC keeps piling on evangelism courses without recognizing that the issue is not the delivery. It’s the product.”
Though the language of “product” may sound offensive for some of us, since we are referring to people, I share Brown’s perspective, for he has a good point: What kind of “product” is coming in from the churches that send the students who go through and get out of our confessional seminaries? Mainline traditions, notably ours, have given them a very anemic missional conscience or, as I consider it, a diet which starves discipleship endurance. Yes, there are exceptions to this rule, but when most students start mission and evangelism courses, they are nervous and highly skeptical about the validity of witnessing to the gospel and no less skeptical about the church as a whole, making little or no connection between their own affirmed vocation and the missional nature of the Christian faith!
Not “how to,” but “why” and “for whom?”
Why has Methodism, as it is expressed in the Western world today, lost its missional substance that was historically refined through its organic action and process as an evangelistic movement? As we consider our own UMC and eventually, other pan-Methodist denominations in the United States, we have regressed from being characterized as a mainline church to becoming a sidelined church. Inviting new people to companionship in the Kingdom of God, embracing them, no matter who they are, into welcoming and meaningful communities of faith, life, and mission (into a body of people sent on a Spirit-led missional pilgrimage in the world), into discipleship that is truly “transformative in character and purpose,”2 has become the exception, not the rule. Has Methodism spent too much energy on everything else that is divisive and/or consuming, but not enough on the very things that unify us—our participation in God’s mission to reconcile the world to Godself?
A young girl arrives for Sunday worship at Nazareth United Methodist Church in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. PHOTO: MIKE DUBOSE/UMNS
As a theologian, missiologist, minister, church planter, and a Christian who has been engaged in the holistic mission movement, I do not presuppose that there is only one way of approaching different human circumstances in communicating God’s unique message. More exploration must be done on different missional practices. Nevertheless, as far as I can see, what is needed now is not more “how tos,” but more “whys” and “for whoms.” That’s one of the reasons the World Methodist Evangelism Institute has pursued education, not to train people focusing on “how to do” evangelism, but on why we do it and in the name and power of whom we do so. We understand the importance of connecting, encouraging, mentoring, resourcing, training, and providing cross-cultural experiences in world evangelism. We have worked on strengthening the pan-Methodist family as a movement that is mission driven, situated in time and space, in every culture and conjuncture. We are helping younger pan-Wesleyan leaders understand the bottom line of embracing people and communicating the message of salvation that is God’s love and desire for healing creation by grace upon grace.
From Wesleyan heritage, we all derive that if what we need to do is “spread scriptural holiness over the land,” then we need to start by reforming “the nation, particularly the church.”3 Of divine origin and human composition, the church is a mystery, a people, and a covenant: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. The church is not God’s kingdom but called to be an expression, vanguard, anticipation, and sign of that kingdom. Created according to God’s heart within the economy of salvation, the church is designed to be Christ-centered, empowered, and guided by the Holy Spirit. Formed by people, with their personalities, temperaments, and stories of life, the church is set to be a mission-driven, redeemable community situated in time and space, in any given culture and conjuncture.
With that in mind, perhaps what needs to be considered is not what novelties or new horizons of evangelistic conceptualizations might come about. It is a question of how congregations embrace and shape their practices of evangelism informed by context and strengthened by a much higher sense of ecclesial belonging. Note that I said “ecclesial,” not “ecclesiastical.” We must consider focusing on a Spirit-filled sense of community and church as emotional systems—relationships that generate Spirit-led, grassroots, missional motivation, evangelistic enthusiasm, and movemental Methodism.
The Rev. Jean Claude Masuka Maleka serves Holy Communion during worship at Nazareth United Methodist Church in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, where he serves as a missionary evangelist. PHOTO: MIKE DUBOSE/UMNS
This will help us reshape how churches form contextually, as the Wesleys did in their own time, space, and conjuncture. We need an urgent revitalization and reconceptualization of evangelizing churches, one that is not sold to and does not confuse itself with market strategies for the sake of multiplying adherents, beautifying reports, and growing our ego-oriented, successful models of church.
Marginal churches spelling out the gospel
Developing a higher sense of ecclesial belonging and forming churches that communicate God’s love amid human suffering by incarnating the message within human suffering requires a Christian commitment to truly “spell out” the gospel to the marginalized. If mission is done from the margins, then we need marginal churches that are unmistakably empowered and led by the Holy Spirit. They will need to be remarkably sensitive, contextually relevant, sacrificial, and innovative in the art of embracing and inviting people into companionship in the kingdom of God. They present a broad consciousness of a kingdom witnessed by mission initiatives that foster relief and the healing of creation through words, deeds, and signs. Our holistic evangelical reflection and proposition can help the church overcome its current underdeveloped applications on contextualizing both the message and the practice of mission amid human suffering.
It is often said that God does not have a preference, which is true. Yet, God surely has a special compassion for those who suffer. “Of all peoples and classes, God especially has compassion on the poor, and [God’s] acts in history confirm this,”4 as rightly noted by Howard Snyder. On the same note, Henri Nouwen observed that, “We need to focus on the poor, not primarily because the poor need us, but because we need the poor. Jesus says: ‘Blessed are the poor.’ He does not say: ‘Blessed are those who care for the poor.’ The poor are holding a blessing for us that we need to receive.”5
Suffering is not a condition that affects only those with economic struggles. It equally affects people who experience the many pains that derive from all kinds of systemic oppression, persecution, and exclusion from the benefits of society. The poor in spirit may be one of the margins from which we can all engage in mission and evangelism today.
*The Rev. Dr. Luís Wesley de Souza is a missiologist, theologian, and elder of the North Georgia Conference and the Arthur J. Moore Associate Professor in the Practice of Evangelism at Emory University, Candler School of Theology. He also serves as the director of the World Methodist Evangelism Institute (WMEI) and coordinator of Formation & Witness Concentration.
1 Snyder, Howard A., “Wesley’s Concept of the Church,” The Asbury Seminarian, 1978, p. 46.
2 WCC-CWME’s Conference on World Mission and Evangelism, “Moving in the Spirit: Called to Transforming Discipleship,” Conference Report, Arusha, Tanzania, March 2018.
3 “Minutes of Several Conversations,” Q.3, in The Works of John Wesley, vol. 8; ed. T. Jackson; Baker, 1978, p. 299.
4 Snyder, Howard A., The Problem of Wineskins, Downers Grove, InterVarsity
Press, Illinois, 1975, p. 39.
5 Nouwen, Henri. “Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life.”
Copyright New World Outlook magazine, Fall 2018 issue. Used by permission. Email the New World Outlook editor for more information.