19 October 2006

The golden age of evangelism, part two: Alan Rutherford

Shortly after I posted last week's comments, Alan Rutherford and I had lunch together and we talked about some of the points I raised. Alan has given dedicated service over many years to Reedwood Friends Church, but these days he and his family are worshipping elsewhere. He talked about his search for integrity in evangelism and in worship. I encouraged him to contribute his thoughts to this blog, and offered to help by asking some specific questions. Here are my questions (in italics) and his responses.

Johan: 1. From the post itself: What are some of the features of postmodern society that may make it a more promising arena for evangelism? And, ... 2. What are the specific requirements for effective evangelism imposed by postmodern society?

Alan: (I'll respond to these two questions together.) Whenever we can unearth common ground between our biblical story and the prevailing world view, we can use it as a starting point for sharing. For example, Christians were skeptical about modernity's myths of progress (peace, prosperity, and salvation for all), or should have been. The same skepticism has become widespread in postmodern society. Look at the way NT Wright describes it: "postmodernity has come along and basically blown a raspberry at modernity and said, you know, all your righteousness is as filthy rags... you’ve just been building the tower of Babel, and God is coming down to have a little giggle at it and to confuse your languages."

We can also frame the Christian story as an alternative to the mythology of empire. Actually, it is already expressed that way throughout the New Testament. This should resonate with people who've had it with up-to-here with empty promises of salvation, peace, and prosperity from the "war on terror," global capitalism, the religious Right, or irresistible forces such as the media or Walmart.

I'm not sure that evangelism is getting easier, however. I am reminded of Rebecca Manley Pippert's account of the history of Investigative Bible Discussions, which she helped InterVarsity develop back in the 60s or 70s at Reed College. She recalls that discussions were pretty lively back in the day. Most students receiving a liberal education were unreceptive to the gospel, if not openly hostile. Fast forward to today: Pippert reports that Bible discussions at Reed are much more serene. You'd think that Generation Y postmoderns would condemn the Christian story as oppressive, but she reports that they politely listen, as they are inclined to listen to other peoples' perspectives, especially about spirituality. Instead of regarding one's faith in God as something to investigate (like a fact in a test tube), it is seen as one's perspective.

I confess that I'm not much different. I regard the faith of my Buddhist next-door neighbor, the one across the street, or the Hare Krishna couple two doors down, with respect; I don't believe they're on the right path, but it's their path and I feel reluctant or unable to steer them toward mine. Besides, I know they've heard the Christian story plenty of times, because they grew up in Christian homes and societies. And I don't have much faith in my own ability to retell it effectively enough to convert them back to Christ. Our effort (as a family) goes into living lives with integrity and lots of interaction with our neighbors, who know we're the Christians on the block and the ones who throw most of the neighborhood parties. When I was young, I was taught that apologetics was the key to converting those from other faiths. I just can't imagine that working now. When we discover that our faith in Yahweh is more than just an objective fact in a test-tube, but a story, a relationship, a covenant, and a community, then we are thinking in terms which will resonate with our contemporaries.

Johan: 3. What role does worship and the worshipping community play in evangelism?

Alan: Worship's primary role is not evangelism. Worship can only be done by those who recognize the worthiness of God. It is directed toward God, rather than the congregation or unbelievers. Theologians from more liturgical traditions talk about worship's ability to form us as a community. Here are some interesting quotes: Stanley Hauerwas: "One learns through common practices like the liturgy. Practices and rituals help the story of one's life take shape. One learns that as a Christian one is here to be a glorifier of God; one's whole life depends upon that." NT Wright: "Christian worship is humbly adoring the Creator God and thereby being renewed in his image." Marva Dawn: "Worship is a subtle but strong formative agent... To focus the worship on evangelistic introduction deprives our children and ourselves of the deeper nurturing they and we need to live as Church and deprives God of the intimate worship due his name." Samuel Wells: "Through story, sacrament, and Spirit, God has given his people all that they ned to live with him. The church's creative energies are largely concerned with preparing its members to be able to respond by habit to unforseeable turns of events." This last quote, from his wonderful book Improvisation: The drama of Christian ethics, reflects Sam Wells's view that rituals are an opportunity to practice, with our bodies, the Christian disciplines. (See here for comments on this book.)

I would like to see churches intentionally equip themselves for evangelism, especially those communities who emphasize social justice, because they are usually allergic to it and never get around to it. That's too bad, because they could learn to do it with such integrity, I think.

Johan: 4. How do Christians provide for different temperaments, different ways of understanding the relationship between symbol and reality?

Alan: Clearly, different Christian denominations represent different temperaments and ways of thinking. It's easy to see how this came about. Each one came about in a unique time and place, shaping its personality, how it pictures God, its doctrine, its language, its liturgy, etc. These differences do not necessarily fade over time, either, because of natural processes of assimilation: communities attract and keep people who feel at home, and gradually lose those who don't.

Should we rely solely on denominations to achieve the diversity in the Body of Christ that Paul calls for in I Corinthians 12? Surely not. Worship ought to bring a diversity of temperaments and understandings together around Christ's story. If it doesn't, 'communion' has no meaning at all.

I'm not saying that all denominations should be abolished. After all, if we believe that Christ came for the whole world, we should expect to see numerous different cultural manifestations of the Church, and enjoy it for its rich diversity and for the message that it sends: that dead white guys didn't think up the Church, Christ did.

Pastors and leaders should constantly ask themselves, are we providing enough variety in our messages, worship, and programs, to accommodate different gifts, temperaments and understandings of God?

I'd like to take a look at Robert Stephen Reid's The Four Voices of Preaching. Brazos Press's blurb says this new book identifies four distinct voices that preachers gravitate toward: teaching, encouraging, sage, and testifying. Reid encourages preachers to claim their voice rather than embracing a one-size-fits-all approach. I wonder if this could be used as a tool for serving the different needs in a community.

Johan: 5. What challenges might you specifically address to Quakers, based on your inside knowledge of our myths, conceits, and valid insights?

Alan: Postmodern society is impatient with many familiar categories such as high class/low class, new/old, left/right, east/west. We all know that distinctions also abound within the Church, as I was just mentioning. There are three main branches, Protestant/Catholic/Orthodox, and more punctilious distinctions within Protestantism too numerous to mention. Each denomination is defined in part by its own liturgy, that is, what form does its worship take. Recently, worship leaders from many traditions have begun using ancient forms of worship, borrowing from other traditions, creating new forms, and mixing them together in surprising ways--to the consternation of many. This has not, however, come as a surprise to those who are familiar with Postmodern forms of creative expression. Architecture, literature, music (especially hip-hop), video, and fashion all have an eclectic, cut-and-paste quality, sometimes known as pastiche. They all express the impatience with the strictness of Modern categorization that I was talking about. In light of this, Quakers find themselves at a unique disadvantage since their liturgy excludes many forms of expression. What is a Quaker to do if they discover that reciting creeds or performing certain rituals can be a powerful, meaningful response to God?

Another challenge I have is, what do you do with those have never enjoyed a direct, first-hand experience of God? This describes a lot of Christians, including me. I joined the Friends church because of its ethical teachings that come right out of the Bible (but that many had forgotten): plain speech, simple living, and the peace testimony. What got to me was the emphasis on experience. I'm not saying experience was used over and against scripture by Evangelical Friends, as it is in the unprogrammed meetings I've attended. But Evangelical Friends give experience roughly equal status to scripture. This has its dangers: it leads to doubt in those who never sense God; it gives more authority to those who sense God than to those who don't; it fragments the community because experience is often very personal; and it often rests on the fallacious idea that if one simply checks their leading with scripture, and finds no conflict, then it's from God. What I'm suggesting here iss that it's quite possible for one's personal leading to be in harmony with scripture, nothing wrong with it whatsoever, but it's not necessarily a message from God. How can one know?

When someone rises in open worship, and says something somewhere between half-baked and ridiculous, I have a problem calling that worship. I may have spent the week reading scripture or Christian writings by diligent thinkers, or listening to Bach chorales. I find it hard to come into a meeting where anyone who feels they are led by the Holy Spirit is invited to speak. How can one know? I've been told one could "feel" it, both by those who said appropriate things and by those who spoke rubbish. Perhaps the good stuff was from God, but I don't believe the rubbish is. Probably nobody does. At this point in my life, I would rather participate in beautifully crafted, time-tested, Biblically-rooted liturgy--even if it's empty for some of the people in the room--than to be lectured from someone who's about to be eldered.

Johan: 6. What are some intriguing features of other Christian communities you've been visiting or hearing about?

Alan: We attended a Holy Communion service with some Lutheran friends of ours this summer. One of the steps in preparation for communion is sharing the Peace, in which worshipers turn to each other and offer the greetings of peace that Jesus spoke on the first Easter. When this moment came, my friend Wayne made a beeline for my son Henry, extended his hand to him and said his name and some kind words. They had been "butting heads" throughout the day, and this was an offer of reconciliation. To me it was like an acting out of Matthew 5:23..."when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled..." Liturgy can give worshipers a template and opportunity to practice the gospel story.

Johan's PS:

In an earlier post, I touched on the subject of worship and the dilemmas it raises for those of us who, like the Reedwood Friend I quoted there (not Alan, by the way), resist any symbolism in a worship context. That Friend asserted that we do not need symbols to get in the way of our communion with God. We do not need artful props to simulate or represent the divine encounter, we need the divine encounter itself, and anything else is vain ornamentation.

In my conversation with Alan Rutherford, he brought up an interesting point: Friends may advocate for Quaker worship as allowing the freedom to respond directly to the Holy Spirit, but we often seem unaware of the ways other Christians have addressed and met this desire. My own observations back Alan up: we sometimes seem smug and insular in our criticisms of other Christians, rather than actively involved in an ecumenical discussion where we actually compare our ideals and traditions.

Without that kind of active exchange, I fear that what we Friends are doing is using vague rhetorical shortcuts to bless a way of worship that actually suits the particular temperaments of those of us who show up for Quaker worship. I believe our goal should be universal access (note: that's not the same as universal acceptance), not pious feathers for our own cozy little nest while we preach lifechanging evangelism and radical hospitality.

It doesn't need to be this way. There are sound underpinnings to the Quaker way of worship, including its hybrid forms--programmed meetings with one or more times of open worship--but we need to do the important work of engaging each other and the ecumenical world to test, explain, and refine those underpinnings. (Great example.) If the cost is granting that some other traditions also have sound underpinnings, is that so bad?

Righteous links:

Two of the churches that are getting noticed in our area for their worship and evangelism are The Bridge and Imago Dei. I've not been to either, but other Friends have given me favorable reports.

"Evangelism Plus": John Stott reflects on where we've been and where we're going. "The Gospel of Green" by Bill McKibben of OnEarth Magazine. Sorry for the sour note but see the comments for documentation of the anti-Christian mood among many progressives.

Christianity Today: Contemporary reflections on whether we should stand with or against culture?

Finally: Some sobering words in Quaker Life from Santosh J. Chandy, "Quakerism: does it work now?"


Susie Day said...

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Anonymous said...

Both the post and the links are incredibly rich. There are some wonderful things going on out there, and people are getting out of some of the old ruts - even Quakers!

In our church, we try to focus on being and making disciples of Jesus Christ. This means we do not focus on denominationalism (we're not in one), rigid ideas of what worship must be, a narrow approach to scripture, excluding the "wrong" people, numerical growth in the church as an institution, and so many other things that churches (and unprogrammed Friends meetings) are inclined to do.

If the body keeps that focus, it will find itself crossing the traditional lines. For Friends, this could involve inclusion of things like the elements in communion and water baptism (both already adopted by some Friends), and for elements that seem somewhat programmed in "unprogrammed" meetings (done widely now under the subterfuge of the other element, such as singing, being outside the time period designated "meeting for worship" but increasingly treated as part of worship).

Some things that have marked Friends, even while Friends might be less rigid in following them, still may have a lot to contribute to the Christian community. One is an awareness of the dangers in a professional clergy class, which I think is a much greater problem than most of the institutional church realizes, even in the emerging church. Another, not really unrelated, is the recognition and provision for God speaking through anyone in the community. Friends might be more useful in making such particular contributions to the broader exploration in the Christian community than in being rigid about applying them internally.

I am encouraged by currents that seem to be present and growing in Northwest YM (probably not exclusively there, but it certainly seems by far strongest there) and by the "convergence" movement.

Robin M. said...

It's tough on readers, Johan, when you put so many interesting things into one post. It's taken me a while to check through them. But I also wanted to respond to some of Alan's points.

In the first part, he was talking about feeling inadequate to convert his Buddhist, etc. neighbors to Christianity. I liked his point that his efforts are simply to live his life with integrity and hospitality. I wonder why one would bother at all to try to convert people who are happy with their faith when there are so many people unhappy with their lives, who would seem like much better candidates for conversion? Maybe this is my relativistic attitude, or simply a practical question, but I don't understand why this is so important to evangelicals.

In the third part, I really liked the quote from Marva Dawn, but I don't know who she is. For me and my Quaker self, I think the point of worship is to devote ourselves to spending time in God's presence. God doesn't need our flattery, but rather our attention. To use a human metaphor, I don't want my children to tell me how pretty I am, I want them to do what I tell them.

I would love to know more about how churches intentionally equip themselves for evangelism. How would we do that, if we had outgrown our allergy?

Regarding the fourth question, I recently read John Ortberg's book, God Is Closer Than You Think. One of the chapters talks about seven spiritual pathways, ways that people experience the presence of God. Our adult religious ed committee is looking at expanding our definition of religious ed to offer opportunities on a variety of pathways. Next up: a movie night featuring three short post-modern films from www.nooma.com (which I first heard about from Gregg Koskela in Newberg). Next is to look at service opportunities as a form of religious education, not just a peace and justice concern.

I have more to say, I'll have to write later. But this was great to engage with. Thank you to both of you.

Robin M. said...

All right. Children retrieved from school, dinner in the oven. Back to this blog comment.

I was bothered by Alan's response to question #5. He lists reliance on the authority of experience of God as a danger. "...it gives more authority to those who sense God than to those who don't..." I thought this was one of the original points of Quakerism - that the experience of God is available to all people (that Christ Jesus does speak to our condition), that being bred at Oxford or Cambridge (or Fuller) was not enough to make one a minister, and that authority is given to those who hear the word of the Lord directly and obey it, with discernment through scripture and community, etc.

Alan finds it hard to come into a meeting where anyone who feels they are led by the Holy Spirit is invited to speak - I find it hard to contemplate worship where someone who feels led by the Holy Spirit is not invited to speak. Again, having spent the week reading Scripture or listening to Bach chorales doesn't mean that you will have anything worth saying on Sunday morning. I don't mean that these would hurt, I agree that they help, but it's not enough. Perhaps this is why I am still worshipping with unprogrammed Friends and Alan is attending some more liturgical church.

Liturgy can be an opportunity to practice gospel living, but in my experience it is more often an opportunity to follow human instructions. As for needing symbols and props, and other ways of engaging our whole selves into worship - some do and some don't and most of us do some times.

If Friends seem smug and insular in our criticisms of other Christians, we are not alone. My experiences of this among Friends have nothing on my experiences as an interloper in a large and highly liturgical church which will remain nameless.

Right now, it is enough for me to test, engage, explain and refine the underpinnings of Quaker worship with other forms of Quakers. My initial forays into more ecumenical and interfaith dialogue were just too much to get into.

But it is good to hear from people who have recently left a community about its failings - this perspective is too often missing, and leads to more smugness and insularity, I'm afraid.

Anonymous said...


I enjoyed your comments. I recall enjoying your blog and I see in your profile that we share many interests, especially religious education, children, and pie, as Johan will attest (I may be fishing for a complement here).

Marva Dawn is an prolific Lutheran writer and speaker, who has a relationship with and degree from George Fox Seminary. I was quoting from her book Is It a Lost Cause? Having the Heart of God for the Church's Children, hence the reference to children in her warning against evangelistic worship. Her most widely read book is actually about worship and evangelism, entitled Reaching Out without Dumbing Down. I still want to get ahold of her dissertation on Jacques Ellul.

I'll try to explain what I meant in my answer to question #5, when I said that the Friends' emphasis on experience "gives more authority to those who sense God than to those who don't." I'm guessing this was unclear because I was trying to make two points simultaneously. Or maybe I'm just unable to blog coherently and parent at the same time. Let me try again (only 4 interruptions from my son so far)...

First, I was trying to say that this emphasis on experience gives more authority to those who think they sense God. In meetings for worship and business, those who sense God are invited to rise and speak. How can they know whether they're really hearing from God, and how can the community know? I have read books and attended several workshops on Quaker discernment, and even hosted one. I haven't heard a rigorous answer to this most basic question, one that really works in practice. In practice, those who think they've sensed God rise and speak, and the community has various ways of dealing with the aftermath when some comments were clearly BS. I'd be interested in worship leaders finding ways to let the horse out of the barn less often. The solution would not be another seminar on discernment, clearly, but perhaps focusing on spiritual formation of the community.

The second problem with this emphasis on experience is that many of the faithful have ever directly experienced God. I never have. Those who don't directly experience God are not invited to speak. Yet I believe that my reliance on other valuable sources for discernment, such as scripture, tradition, discussion with other members, contemplation, theology, reason, prayers for wisdom (and Bach chorales) may make me eligible to be in on the discussion as the church tries to follow God. Unfortunately, in many cases, these sources for discernment aren't seen as direct enough -- and therefore inferior to -- spontaneous experience, which frankly, I find to be half-baked a lot of the time. Would there be a way that Quakers could invite less spontaneous, less direct forms of responses to God into worship and discernment?

Whether one sees a three, four, or umpteen-legged stool as the model for spiritual discernment, I would like to see more attention paid to the necessity of strong connections between legs, just as an actual stool has connections between its legs for maximum stability.

[- Alan Rutherford]

Johan Maurer said...

Bill, I agree with your comment: It would be a shame if we applied our most creative insights rigidly inside our own community, even as those same insights might become a creative leavening element in the wider ecumenical community. We need to apply these insights and testimonies knowledgeably and discerningly, in relationship. Instead, too often, some Friends insist on rigid application, and others, in reaction, give up entirely and avoid anything that ties into our classic Quaker discipleship.

Thanks, Robin, for taking the time to touch on some very important concerns and inviting Alan's good feedback. One issue, why we would address any of our evangelistic energy toward people of other religions, is truly a central concern of mine, and I beg forgiveness for deferring it until later. (But let me put in a plug for one of the best books on mission that I've ever read, Mission and Meaninglessness: The good news in a world of suffering and disorder, Peter Cotterell, London: SPCK, 1990.)

Concerning reliance on the experience of God, I was glad that Alan addressed the reality that many cannot claim to have any internal experience of God. This reminds me of William James's book The Varieties of Religious Experience, which points out that there seems to be a statistical minimum of people who simply don't seem wired for religious experience (he put it more elegantly). That's why it's so crucial to have a trustworthy community, with a tender and interactive relationship with the Bible, and a mutually respectful division of labor within the community that's based on what our gifts really are, not what we wished they were or felt constrained by social pressure to pretend they were. I think that early Friends were on solid ground concerning the primacy of the immediate witness of the Holy Spirit, but this was to be a witness to the community, not a filter to exclude non-mystics from the community.

By the way, Alan makes amazing pies. And his stool metaphor has all the more credibility for me because, among other things, he makes furniture.

- Johan