Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Is Evangelism a Selfish Idea?

I am preaching on the parables and other tidbits of wisdom from the Jesus Seminar Jesus. The red and pink sayings (and a few gray ones that I like) will be my "lectionary" for a while. Last week I preached on the parable of the Dinner Party.

After the service a church member commented on this line in Luke's version:

And the master said to the slave, "Then go out into the roads and the country lanes, and force people to come in so my house will be filled." Luke 14:23

He said
that is the problem.

He is right of course.

Evangelism is a selfish idea.

You know, it could be that the people in the roads and country lanes are perfectly happy. Whose interest is served by forcing that person into the dinner party?

The master in this parable doesn't care about people or what they care about. He just wants his house filled. The Church interpreting the master as God and itself as God's broker, thinks its role is to force everyone into its pew (and subsequently its morality and its beliefs).

Another friend sent me a link to
this story:
Following months of scandal and years of waning popularity, the Catholic Church plans to attack secularization by going after sheep that have strayed from the flock. Pope Benedict XVI announced on Monday that the Church will create a new pontifical council to "re-evangalize" the West, the Associated Press reports. Speaking at an evening vespers' service in Rome, Benedict said that the office will " 'promote a renewed evangelization' in countries where the Church has long existed 'but which are living a progressive secularization of society and a sort of 'eclipse of the sense of God.' " (Europeans: This means you.) The news comes a day after Benedict condemned Belgian authorities for raiding Church offices as part of their ongoing investigation into the sex abuse scandal. The Pope has not tapped anyone to head the office—dubbed the Pontifical Council for New Evangelization—but the Italian media speculates that the job will go to Monsignor Rino Fisichella, the current chief of the Pontifical Academy for Life. If Bendict does pick Fisichella, it won't be without controversy: Last year, the official came under fire for backing doctors who performed an abortion on a 9-year-old Brazilian girl who had been raped by her stepfather.
The Protestants are no less hypocritical. We use lofty concepts like evangelism when membership numbers are down. We use lofty terms like stewardship when budget numbers are down.

Now there is nothing wrong with an organization wanting to increase its membership and influence. I do it. My congregation has created its own little niche and I do what I can to promote it and welcome people into its life. We like to think that what we do is a good thing.

But it is very easy to slip from
We are doing a good thing.
You are not doing a good thing unless you do it with us.
That has been the Church's image of itself. It sees itself as superior to the rest of the world. That unless people are like it, that unless people share its "sense of God" that is apparently being "eclipsed" by "secularization" then people are worse off in some sense.

To put my cards on the table, I am in favor of secularization. I think the reason church numbers decline is because many people don't find the church interesting or useful. In fact, the church has come to represent backward, repressive views (anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-science).

Don Cupitt makes an interesting argument that the historically charitable aspects of the church have become part of the modern democratic society. He writes:
In short, the modern ethical state is far kinder to its own weaker members than ever the state was in the so-called ages of faith. Since 'the Death of God' (around 1680-1720) the liberal democratic state has gradually come to perform the traditional Corporal Works of Mercy on a vast scale, and today actually implements much of Jesus' programme. In the post-Christian epoch, as the Church has slowly died, the state has become startlingly Christian. The state's ethics is today much more Christian than is the official ethics of the churches. p. 99, Jesus and Philosophy
It seems to me that rather than try to force people back into archaic categories of belief and morality, the Church ought to adapt its strengths to a new era.

The Church certainly does have strengths (ritual, music, art), resources (community, creativity), and infrastructure (buildings, connections) that could be beneficial to individuals and to communities as we navigate through life's quickly changing challenges.

But forcing people to its dinner party isn't the way to go.


  1. The word "force" is likely very inaccurate.

    The KJ says "compel". the NIV says "make". Neither term is restricted to meaning physical force.

    It could be a "compelling" argument that was ordered. A demonstration of faith perhaps. Guilt trip? Possibly.
    It makes no sense whatsoever that the Master would send disciples into the street to beat people over the head and terrorize them into faith.
    If that was true "free will" would be unnecessary.

    Evangelism, in it's literal context, means to spread the word and more so, the example.
    However, "Evangelicals" are guilty of ramming their twisted misconceptions of Christianity down the secular world's collective throat and that IS "selfish" in every sense of the word.

    Not only do they seek to indoctrinate as opposed to educate, but they indoctrinate people into the wrong interpretations of biblical context. Often confusing parable with literal making things up when they have no answers.

    Good blog, John. Thanx.

  2. Thanks, Captain!

    This translation is from the Jesus Seminar's Scholars' Version. I think they chose the English word "force" because they felt that was the best translation. It is translating a word that means to constrain or to offer no other choice.

    That is what I think makes it rather curious. The challenge of the parable is to ponder whether or not the "master" is an allegory for God or not. I don't know. Parables are tricky business.

    It is true that the effect of this parable is that the Church thinks of itself as the Party or as the slaves getting people into the Party, but they seldom question the whole premise of the Party in the first place.

    What is this Party anyway? Heaven? The "good life"? What do we make of a God (if that is the master) who invites (compels) the rest of the folks as an afterthought when the invited guests decline? Why isn't everyone an invited guest in the first place? So what if you don't want to go to the Party? Is it possible to have a better time, a better life, not going? The Church of course says no. "No salvation outside of our party."

    The protestants do the same thing in a different way, even in its softer forms. We have "good news" to share? Well, maybe. More and more people are saying, I doubt it.

    I think the Church (Protestant, Catholic, or Heretic) needs to ask itself, is it really about us giving them the good news (whether by force or guilt trip?)

    Maybe it is time to revisit our purpose.

  3. John

    The time when the gospel was written/edited may have something to do with the invited and uninvited. It could be that the originally invited were Jews who refused to become Christians and the poor and folks from the highways and hedges are gentiles.

    Just a thought.

  4. @Bob

    That is certainly how Matthew spins the parable. Talk about your anti-semitism.

    Thomas spins it another way altogether against merchants.

    Luke tries to fit his earlier conversation about inviting the lame and poor to the party instead of the rich. The parable becomes awkward with the slave having to go invite two sets of extras.

    Everybody has a spin and the original context is lost.

  5. Greetings from a friendly Jewish person. I think evangelism is not selfish-- it's cruel. Or, may I say, it's arrogant. I know, I know, you folks are commanded to do it, but consider how I feel. I'm the target. I'm the one who is not okay with you. I'm the one who "needs" Jesus. Some denominations say I'll go to hell for refusing to accept him, others are kinder and just see me as misguided, or lost, or missing out on something. Few Christians want to accept that being a Jew is a good thing-- it's often presented as something defective in some way.

    When I think of evangelism, I think of the kids who beat me up and called me a Christ-killer, because their priest said the Jews "killed the Lord." I think of the Evangelical Baptist friend of mine who finally gave up but is very distressed that I am doomed to eternal hellfire just for being in the wrong religion. I think of the folks who wrote "Left Behind" who put forth the view that the "happy ending" in the final days is that the Jews will be given the chance to accept Jesus and if we do not, we will be brutally slaughtered. And I think of all the innocent Jews who have died over the past 2000 years just because we were different from you-- many of the evangelists I know claim to represent a religion of love, yet they do not accept that Judaism is a valid path. I find that tragic.

    Forgive me for posting these comments on a Christian blog, but in my view, evangelism is hurtful. In fact, it reminds me of all sorts of horrible and painful things. I am not saying any of you do it that way, but the very idea that one faith is true and others, by definition, are false, makes me shudder. I respect your right to share your faith, but somehow, I wish the evangelists of the world would learn to be respectful of Judaism. Most are not-- they see it as a means to bring the Jewish person to a "better" set of beliefs, and that is what really gets me upset.

    (Btw, somebody directed me to this blog, and while I hope I am not being rude, I respect your right to believe the non-Christian must be converted, but can you respect my belief that it's a privilege to be a Jew and there is nothing wrong or defective with Judaism?) Thanks for reading this and I hope I haven't offended you. That truly was not my intention.

  6. Hey Donna,

    You didn't offend me. I agree with you. I very much appreciate what you have written here.

    I don't think anyone should be converted except that we should all be converted to respect one another and work for peace in our world.

    I wrestle (quite openly on this blog) with my tradition and its history of proselytizing.

    I think now is the time to find a different way of relating than what we previously thought was our "mandate."

    There are many Christians who feel the important work is not "evangelism" but dialogue and cooperation. I hope that movement grows!