Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The evangelizers

Where I come from, Jehova's Witnesses are people you hear about in anecdotes, but never really actually encounter. "Just tell them you're already saved," my mom jokes.

Living in Mexico with a family of them has been an interesting experience, which can be both interesting and frustrating. In general, they are soft-spoken and willing to listen (not just my family, but the other JW's I've encountered here), and their literature can be impressive in its thoroughness and scientific backing. On the other hand, sometimes I feel like they're trying to gently point me towards their obvious truth, with questions like "do you know about the end times?" or publications that seem to have all of the answers.

From time to time, my host mother mentions that two English-speaking brothers from the church stopped by trying to "give me the good news," but I was away. I am intensely uncomfortable being evangelized to, and I've always been pretty happy that they missed me. "Score one for Team Brethren," I say with a smile, winking upwards.

Perhaps God did not find this amusing. At any rate, this morning they finally caught me. I have to say, their English was astounding, especially if they learned it just to spread the Word. And aside from one awkward moment when they asked me "what I thought of" the Good Friday service I went to at their church (did my host family fail to tell them that I'm already a churchgoer?), it was not a lamentable interruption to my noon breakfast. They'd heard that I was going to be working with incarcerated youth this summer and gave me a handy book about issues youth face, all with a Biblical foundation. I dodged any direct theological talk - while I have many good things to say about Jehova's Witnesses, I find that my family and the literature they give me tends to imply that they have all the answers. I don't always feel it's worth it to tell people with that attitude that I don't agree with them about some given issue, so I tend to keep quiet here.

The book they gave me definitely points to the "right answers." Sometimes it has obvious interpretations of the Bible, but other times it seems to take some larger, though usually common, leaps without providing any sort of argument for these assumptions. At one point, it seemed they couldn't actually find any Bible verse on a particular issue so they went so far as to put in a bracket quote that changed an ambiguous verse into a clear one (I won't provide specific examples, because I'm not trying to talk about these issues at this point).

I won't be using the book this summer - the nonprofit I'm working for is not religious, and my job is to keep kids, Christian or not, out of jail. But this story does bring up some thoughts about evangelism and "right answers."

When a consultant told my church congregation recently that we need a minister of evangelism, someone asked him if he was aware that we would find no such thing in the Church of the Brethren (I'm not up to date on the matter, but I think we hired/are hiring someone from outside the COB). And it's true, many of the Brethren I know get antsy at the idea of evangelism (though I would interject that there are also very strong evangelical strains in the Church - just not so much in Goshen, IN). We focus intensely on service and throw around that old Alexander Mack quote, "they will know us by the manner of our living" (I love that). But I think - and I say think because I'm a far cry from a historian - we're distorting Church history a bit when we use that quote in relation to evangelism.

My understanding is that that quote is in response to the decision of the "brethren" not to take a name, not in defense of a non-evangelical stanse. In fact, from what I read in the introduction to my copy of the 300th anniversary devotion book, it seems like the early Brethren were actually quite evangelial, gaining members even from Mennonite communities (correct me if I have this wrong).

But history aside, what's the right attitude here? My problem with evangelism is that it implies that we're right and other people are wrong. It seems presumptuous to assume that we (as Brethren or as Christians), and no one else, know God's mind. Could people of other religions have discovered the real truth, or (as I prefer to believe), a different truth than ours that is still a perfectly valid understanding of an infinite and undefineable God?

Still, maybe the Brethren do have something to offer. I have met, at college and here in Mexico, plenty of people who have been completely turned off to Christianity, yet are impressed and refreshed by the things I have to say about my faith and about the Church of the Brethren. One friend, Jon, a devout atheist, actually told me "Nick, I've always been pretty against this whole Christianity stuff, but from what you've told me I think the Brethren have some stuff I can really respect and get behind."


I've yet to bring any converts into our fold (as far as I know), but I feel like I'm on the right track: telling people who we are and learning about who they are, then finding common ground in how we can do God's work here on earth. And I get to express all this enthusiasm I have for the Church of the Brethren while I'm at it!

Of course, Brethren - and Christians - are all over the map with this stuff, and I still haven't figured out exactly how evangelical is too evangelical - or not evangelical enough. Where do you fall on the question of evangelism? I look forward to reading your comments.

PS - Still looking for more authors. Volunteer or you'll just have to keep reading what I think!

1 comment:

mufasa said...

If you want some clarity on the early history of the COB, read Durnbaugh's "Fruit of the vine". It looks imposing, it isn't. It is not a bad read.
COB does do evangelism, we just do it in a passive aggressive way. The problem is that evangelism evokes images of Falwell, Bakker and other sham artists (my political view showing) who have used the name of God in an effort to further their political and power agenda's, often through their wallets. We, as COBers, like to believe that we do not evangelize, but we do, and it is not bad. We just do it differently than most. Mr. Mack had it right, and there is a beautiful song that echo's his sentiment ("They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love"). Our lives are evangelism, not our words. Humanity has always wanted answers, hard and fast, concrete, rock answers. I don't believe that there are as many concrete answers as we would like to believe. I just returned from Scotland last week and while there I heard a story of Pelagius, a fourth century Celtic Christianity influenced theologian, who was deemed a heretic because of a misrepresentation. A lady wrote to Pelagius asking her to give him a "rule by which to live." She wanted a formula of how to do things. Pelagius responded, "I can give you no such rule. All I can tell you is to examine your heart and your life. They examine the life and heart of Jesus. If there is discord, re examine your heart and life." Part of not having the answers is the discovery of the relationship we, as a part of God's creation, are to have with our creator. I understand the allure of answers provided by religion, I truly do. I am thankful for the JW's if, for no other reason, they foster discussion, and people talking is not always a bad thing. However, any religion that claims to have all the answers raises some flags immediately in my mind. We, as COB, often like to say that we don't have the answers, and we don't...but we have an answer, that may or may not be right. More often than not however, those presenting an answer believe that they are right and that others are wrong, or better stated that the opinion giver could not possibly be wrong. Our passive aggressiveness is on display then when we pay lip service to the ambiguity of God and then "swear" that we have the truth.
Just my two cents.