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Whatever Happened to Evangelism? (2013)

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Thursday, November 14, 2013

Whatever Happened to Evangelism? (2013)

In 1973, psychiatrist Karl Menninger published a book with the provocative title, Whatever Became of Sin?  His point was that sociology and psychology tend to avoid terms like “evil,” or “immorality,” and “wrongdoing.”  Menninger detailed how the theological notion of sin became the legal idea of crime and then slid further from its true meaning when it was relegated to the psychological category of sickness.

It’s time someone wrote a book for the church titled Whatever Became of Evangelism?

The point would be how we tend to avoid terms like “lost” or “hell” or “salvation.”  It would detail how the Great Commission became the Great Rhetoric and then finally fell into the category of the Great Community. 

It wouldn’t take long to lay out how it all happened.  It fits nicely into a short equation:  Virtue of Tolerance + Emphasis on Social Ministry = Diminished Evangelism.

Let’s break the equation down.

First, tolerance. 

There is little doubt that tolerance is our culture’s uber-virtue.  Specifically, tolerance defined as “acceptance” of other people’s beliefs and lifestyle; then, defining acceptance as “equally valid.”

This flows from a confusion of the idea of tolerance.  When we speak of tolerance, we usually mean social tolerance:  “I accept you as a person.”  Or, at times, legal tolerance:  “You have the right to believe what you wish.” 

We do not, however, tend to mean intellectual tolerance.  This would mean that all ideas are equally valid.  No one believes that ideas supporting genocide, pedophilia, racism, sexism, or the rejection of the historical reality of the Holocaust, are to be tolerated.  But it is precisely the idea of intellectual tolerance we find ourselves sloppily embracing under the overarching mantra of “tolerance.”

The dilemma with such a position, as T.S. Eliot rightly pointed out, is that “It is not enthusiasm, but dogma, that differentiates a Christian from a pagan society.” 

Then there is our emphasis on social ministry.

In what is arguably a reaction against the previous generation’s emphasis on social morality – namely abortion and same-sex marriage – younger Christians (and now older ones as well) are giving renewed emphasis to matters of social justice, including a new interest in public policies that address issues related to peace, health and poverty. 

The reaction is not hard to understand. 

Few eras of American Christian history are reviled as much as the Moral Majority of the 1980’s and its attempt to impose Christian values on culture through political maneuvering.  The idea at the time was simple and attractive: If we could only have Christians in the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court, or populating other leadership elites, then morality would be enacted and faith would once again find the fertile soil needed to establish its footing in individual lives. 

The moral majority “won” through the election of Ronald Reagan as president, and his subsequent Supreme Court appointments throughout the 1980’s brought great anticipation for substantive change.  Yet there has been little real change to mark as a result.  Even the prime target – the striking down of the Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion – remains the law of the land to this day. 

What was achieved was cultural division and Christians feeling more vilified than ever.  The “culture wars” of the 1980’s and 1990’s is now widely viewed as one of the more distasteful episodes in recent memory, and many younger evangelicals want nothing to do with what was often its caustic, abrasive and unloving approach toward those apart from Christ. 

So what is the result of tolerance as the supreme virtue coupled with a new emphasis on social justice?

We’ll buy Tom’s Shoes, but not witness to Tom.

Let’s get the necessary qualifier out of the way.  Social ministry should not be paired against evangelism.  We should extend the Bread of Life as well as bread for the stomach. But we must never begin, and end, with the stomach alone.

I suspect some of this is tied to our need to be accepted by the secular culture.  The scandal of the cross – and humanity’s desperate need for it – doesn’t play as well as the hip work of IJM or supporting Bono in Africa.  We get a taste of doing something that plays well in culture, and we become like Sally Field at the Oscars:  “You like me!  You really, really like me!”

We should lock eyes with the poor and the hungry, the sex-trafficked and the destitute.  We should care for them, deeply, and serve them in the name of Christ.  But we must not forget to give them Christ.  Because once this life is over, the food we gave them for their stomach will mean nothing compared to the food we could have given them for their souls.  How tragic it would be to have compassion for the immediate needs of this life, but not the eternal needs of the life to come.

So yes, buy a pair of Tom’s Shoes.

Just don’t forget Tom.

James Emery White


Adapted from James Emery White, The Church In An Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker).

T.S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Whatever Happened to Evangelism? (2013)