No. 2 July 1999

Dear friend,

I'm sure that you'll agree that one of the great "signs of the times" is the very strong interest that people from many walks of life and from vastly different contexts exhibit in spirituality. Millions of people the world over are showing an interest in religious experience, mysticism and spirituality to such a degree today, that scholars of social and cultural change are taking notice and making it one of their main discussion points. Some of them see it as one more illustration of the paradigm shift that our cultures are undergoing.

In this Letter, I would like to discuss a few aspects of this phenomenon from the point of view of evangelism. As churches and individuals concerned with inviting people to discover the good news of Christ, what are we learning from this new interest? What are some of the pressing challenges and new opportunities that peoples' thirst for spirituality presents to the ministry of evangelism, and what are some of the implications of this phenomenon for present day witness? Because this is such a dynamic and complex field, what follows can, of course, only be pointers for further reflection.

I'm also pleased to include in this issue a short text and a story on evangelism sent to me by people "in the field". These contributions, one by a young teacher of theology from Tonga, and the other by a well-known evangelical theologian from Peru, have come in response to an initiative that got started at the WCC's Harare Assembly. There, the participants asserted that integrated, contextual evangelism can and does take place, so I urged them to write about this theme and to let me share their insights and stories with others, as a source of encouragement. So, read on. I think you'll find their contributions quite compelling.

About the quest for spirituality and its implications for evangelism, we might best start by mentioning some of the multifarious ways in which strong interest in the transcendental is being evidenced. No one, of course, can miss the commercial expressions. Books dealing with the mystical and spiritual dimensions of life account for huge sales. CD's and tapes of music with a mystical character enjoy a similar success. Some ways that have gained appeal have been around for ages. Mass gatherings and ceremonies, pilgrimages, visits to holy sites, and involvement in monastic life, for example, are practices that are making a turn of the century come-back. Other expressions are modern versions of religious approaches called gnosticism, and still other ways are by-and-large "oriental" or "traditional". In certain areas of the world, serious individuals are drawn to seminars, retreats, and courses that focus on religious experience. Others seek out a spiritual guide or teacher. If we include what is happening in the academic field today this mosaic gets even more diverse, for increasingly the transcendental is being related to sciences such as physics and medicine.

Let me quickly add that I feel that we have to resist the temptation to think that this phenomenon relates exclusively to the affluent, to those who have "the luxury" to think about spiritual things. Of course, the longing for meaningful religious experience is expressed differently among the poor and in regions where the forces of economic exclusion prevail, but it is strongly present. The desire for a direct experience of the holy, or God, is a desire that rich and poor share alike. Recently, I was told by Christian student leaders from Latin America about a survey they had done among fellow leaders in a regional meeting of university students. The question was simply, "What subjects should we, in the student ministry, be focusing on in the coming year?" To this, most of the responses had ranked as an immediate concern, "prayer", or the question of "a relevant prayer life".

Explanations for the current mood abound. I'm sure you're familiar with many of them. It is said that ordinary people are turning to spirituality out of frustration and disenchantment. This has to do with the crisis of modern rationality, the way in which we learned to understand the world on the basis of analytical methods and theories based on observable facts. It also has to do with things as diverse as the failure of socialism in Eastern Europe, the violence and scandalous inequalities of the New World Order, and the institutionalization of spirituality by organized religions.

Our contemporaries have been turned off by the false promises of institutions, systems, ideologies and projects of all types. In most cases they are indifferent to the institutional church and can't relate to much of the traditional language of Christianity. Yet they feel it's not good enough to "just get by", and they're not even interested in struggling for a better world if that struggle or that world are merely going to be one-dimensional. No. For them, the world must have meaning. Life must be worthwhile. It must be possible, they feel, to restore enchantment to life. And so, the search is on for values, ideals, worthwhile relationships, and meaning.

Without a doubt, this dynamic situation presents some special challenges and fresh opportunities to the ministry of evangelism. In the first place, it becomes a provocative new platform for local churches and individual Christians to examine the structures, attitudes, language and styles that give shape to their life and witness. How do these promote relationships of concern and respect with people who long for spirituality or who express their spirituality in ways that are different? There is an intrinsic relationship between the search for spirituality and the breakdown of community. Our media-saturated and increasingly individualistic societies are generating a lot of lonely, hurt and confused people. How are Christians encouraged to know about them, to spend time with them and to share aspects of their lives with them?

In a very real sense the skepticism and indifference of people towards the church-as-institution, to authoritarian principles, and to abstract doctrines and statements about faith are invitations to our churches to demonstrate the reality of the love story that is the secret behind their life and purpose. I believe that the present generation of young people, the victims of the world's greed and violence, and countless others who have become disillusioned with false promises - including many of our neighbours of other faiths - are asking our churches to be genuine gospel communities. They're looking for hope and a demonstration, not of the fact that there is a God, but of deep love for God. This is a new chance for relational evangelism. In the present juncture, more than anything else, it will be the quality of our love for God, for one another and our neighbour that will give rise to opportunities to share the story of the crucified and risen Jesus and to present it with authenticity to the spirituality hungry.

The openness that people show to religious experience and spirituality is likewise a clear call to our churches to recapture the joy, peace and power of their root experience and originating message. It urges us to unlock the potential of the liturgy, congregational worship, and the sacraments, as means to transmit the subversive message of God's victory for us over sin and death. It also urges us to demonstrate the community and communion-generating dimensions of God's love story with the universe. This involves getting rid of encumbrances, and creating the possibilities for people to discover in a profoundly personal way who they are before God.

The Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner was quite prophetic when he said several decades ago that the Christianity of the future would have to be mystical or it would cease to be Christian. With this he was putting his finger on encumbrances that have accumulated and that no longer make sense, and also stressing the need to make God's spectacular gift of purpose and life through Christ more transparent. He was warning us that bad methods of sharing faith, such as by the dispassionate handing down of information about God and doctrine, mechanical observation of rituals, reliance on abstract theological explanations, and the lack of trust and dependency on the Holy Spirit were becoming matters of life or death for Christianity.

Rahner had much to say about the need and possibility of ordinary people to discover Christ through a direct, personal and personalizing experience of the living God. In recent years, it is Matthew Fox, the author of the well-known best seller, Creation Spirituality (San Francisco: Harper-Collins 1991), who expresses similar views in his own striking way. Fox insists, for example, that, "While learning is certainly essential to healthy religion, it is no substitute for praxis. Thinking about God is no substitute for giving people ways of experiencing God." As far as the contemporary spiritual mood is concerned, the observations of Rahner and Fox are "right on". Our religious environment clamours for an in-depth experience of God. The churches that do not facilitate this, or that make it difficult for people to sense the touch of God's Spirit or the power of forgiveness and healing show a lack of sensitivity to this very clear pastoral demand. On the other hand, wherever churches intentionally create spaces for God's Spirit to address people, personal lives are changed and vital communities are born. This is clearly the case in places where the churches are growing massively, but it is equally true for struggling, smaller communities. These too can be spiritually strong. Such an experience - which is available to all people regardless of religious categories - for Christians will be the prime element in their continuous conversion and their following of Jesus. It will be the wide context of renewed relationships, a passion for the reign of God, and a humble walk with persons of other spiritualities which will be the context out of which will emerge for them the occasions for explaining the Christian faith and inviting others to follow Jesus.

With the acceleration of changes in almost all societies today, the points of contact and encounter between Christians and other seekers after meaningful ideas and values are potentially numerous. We can say that the playing field is now level. The harsh anti-religious bias and the intellectual attitude that disqualified faith experience has by and large disappeared. This is true not only in the West and post-socialist countries, but in the mega cities of the South as well. More than before, Christians are welcome to share their faith journeys with others and to suggest that the spirituality they are seeking could be experienced in the fellowship of communities that receive their identities from Jesus Christ. Of course, we should not overlook the correlation that exists between the search for spiritual fulfillment and the tremendous havoc caused by our worldwide economic system. We know that the so-called "free-market banquet" is not open to the vast majority of people. Our world is dominated by an ideology of consumerism that bolsters artificial needs and creates deep frustration. Attitudes of indifference have started to replace the values of community and solidarity. Is it surprising to discover that behind much of the current hunger for spirituality there are the faces of human beings who experience alienation, hopelessness or boredom? How can this reality give shape to a courageous evangelizing mission that, in ways public and perso

From the point of view of evangelism, there is a special challenge here. Precisely because we understand that there is a direct relationship between the globalization of the market economy and the desire of people to find purpose and meaning, we should avoid the tendency to separate advocacy and public witness from addressing the actual spiritual longings of everyday human beings. They belong together. The current context calls for a clearer demonstration of the fact that the good news is oriented to the whole of human life, in all its dimensions.

One more word about this, because it has implications for evangelism too. I am referring to the obvious fact that people are not simply passive spectators of the dramatic changes and contradictions that affect them. On the contrary. They are looking for both survival and meaning. When it comes to things religious, they are actively "constructing" their search. This shows up in their "shopping around" approach and in their tendency to "pick and mix." In this active search, some become intolerant and fanatic about what they found to be the answer, others simply treat spirituality as one more thing to be consumed.

Precisely because the playing field is now level Christians can also be expected to respond to this reality on the basis of their love for Christ and their understanding of mission in Christ's way. For example, because they are committed to the relationships He establishes, they can challenge their associates whose religious longings have driven them to controlling sects and cults. They can try to assist those whose religiosity requires a total rejection of rational thought, and they can help reconnect others whose search has cut them off from relating to the sufferings of this world.

It is encouraging to note that the changed religious environment is already having an impact on the style of the ministry of evangelism by local churches and individual Christians in different latitudes of the world. The effect it is having is most notable in what might be called "the starting point" of evangelistic witness. A report issued by the Church of England on the development of their Decade on Evangelism highlights this. Entitled "Signs of Life" (Robert Warren, London: Church House Publishing 1996), this account refers to a number of striking changes in contemporary evangelistic approaches. Because it signals trends that are apparent in other situations, it is worth mentioning a few, for your assessment. Bear in mind that these shifts are from one approach or entry point, to another. You should not see a strict separation between the two "poles".

These points seemed to me a helpful summary of how the current interest in spiritual matters is already finding response in new accents in evangelism by local churches and individuals. It is easy to see that witness carried out in this perspective sees the generative work of the Holy Spirit operating in today's quest for the transcendental. In my view, such a witness reflects not a desire to make "worldly accommodations," or to appear fashionable, but a genuine trust in the hope-filled, satisfying gospel of Christ for the longings of the world. There is honest wrestling here with the question of integrity.

I believe that the unique spiritual situation of today is a window of opportunity for renewal in evangelism. Because we recognize that the Spirit who prods people in the direction of spirituality is the same Spirit who awakens them to faith, we are impelled to render imaginative, sensitive witness to the fulfillment offered by God in Jesus Christ. I am convinced that, in today's spiritual context, a range of effective ways lies at our disposal if we are willing to pay the cost.

Let me close here. I hope that some of the concerns and views raised in this Letter find an echo in your ministry, and I would be very interested in hearing about why and how this is so, or not so. In this regard, I want to thank the readers who wrote to me in response to the previous Letter. Some of your points and expansions on the topic of evangelism and women were very valuable, so it is good to start thinking about devoting space to some readers' feedback!

I will sign off here, but I urge you to read on.

Receive my best wishes for God's blessings on your life and work.

Paz y bien,

Ana Langerak
Executive Secretary for
Mission and Evangelism

Contributions from the "field"

The first reflection comes from Lynette Mo'unga Fuka, who is a teacher at the Sia'atoutai Theological College of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga. Lynette wanted us to note that while Tonga is the smallest kingdom in the South Pacific, it has the honour of being the first island kingdom to greet the sun every day.

Let God be the Evangelist

What the heart is can be defined in several ways. It is, of course, that very sensitive organ whose function determines the life or death of a person. The heart moves and receives blood from the veins and pumps it through the arteries to bring oxygen to the blood during its circuit. The heart can also be seen as the center of the total personality, including feelings, emotions and intuitions, such as when we say, "In your heart you know it's true."

I believe that God is the heart of any authentic evangelism. It is God the Evangelist who is alive in us, cleansing us and making Christ known through us. As God's life and renewal are pumped through the arteries of our daily lives, we as God's children proclaim and share God's love in Christ in dynamic, authentic ways. The work of the Evangelist thus unfolds every day and from generation to generation.

Do we restrain God's action? As a Tongan I wonder if we are really permitting God to work in the lives of individuals so that each can become the unique person they were created to be. A communal society such ours indirectly authorizes the majority to rule and to dismiss the views of the minorities, who are considered "different." As a result, the majority determines the standards everyone should live by and both parties spend a lot of time blaming the other for the failures in our society. I believe this mentality places obstacles to the work of God the Evangelist.

When we are asked to prepare sermons or testimonies, we often spend many hours consulting reference books and experts. Doesn't this place limits on the work of God, the Evangelist, within us? Shouldn't we rather explore what God is doing in our own lives and in the lives of our brothers and sisters? And when we train evangelists simply to bring others to "our way" because theirs is "wrong", to what point are we not negating the wide work of God the Evangelist?

Instead of restraining God's action by imposing our standards on others, by spending all our time consulting the prescriptions of others, or by denying God's action in others, let us respond to the Evangelizing God, and so allow the gospel of God's love to be preached and shared authentically.

The following is a story sent in by Tito Paredes, a Peruvian theologian and pastor, who is the General Secretary of the Latin American Theological Fraternity. He calls his piece, "A Singing Missionary Church":

The church of Christ among the Quechua peoples - from northern Ecuador, through Peru and down to southern Bolivia - is rediscovering its cultural heritage and leadership abilities in the expression of the gospel.

Until recently Quechua Christians had been taught, consciously or unconsciously, to reject some valuable aspects of their own culture. Among these were their native music and musical instruments. Upon their conversion to Christianity, skillful musicians who used to play in "pagan" festivals and other occasions sold or stored their "instruments of the devil" and played them no more.

If one reflects on the importance of native non-Christian festivals and music in the social and religious life of the Quechua communities, it is easy to see that something vital was missing when the gospel was presented only in spoken form. Music is a natural vehicle that is a vibrant part of the lives of the Quechuas.

No wonder that so few Quechuas accepted the Christian faith! They perceived it as a foreign intrusion that threatened to destroy valuable dimensions of their society. But when the Quechuas themselves began to preach the gospel with their musical forms and with messages from Scripture or their own inspiration, many began to hear and accept the liberating message. Now, the moment of God for the Quechuas is at hand, and God is using Quechua believers and their church to bring many to a knowledge of Christ.

I was privileged to attend a very special event in the town of Yungay, at the foot of the magnificent snow-covered Huascaran Mountains in northern Peru. It was the Second National Combined Gathering of Quechua Leaders and Music Festival, sponsored by the National Evangelical Quechua Committee of Peru and Evangelical Missiological Center of the Andean Amazonian Region. Participants had come from all over Peru.

On one of the evenings while the crowd watched the musical presentations, I was standing next to an 80-year-old Quechua man. He had a big smile on his face and I could not help but notice he was enjoying himself. As we commented on the gathering, he told me that he and the other believers had walked a whole day to get to the festival because there was no road to their village. As he was talking about the gathering and Quechua hymns, tears began to roll down his cheeks.

He said, "I was the first believer in my village. In those days we suffered persecution and mockery. Then we could not have imagined that we would be experiencing something like this event - so many Christians getting together and singing joyfully and freely to the Lord! I am an old man. I do not know if I will be able to witness another event like this, but I am very thankful that the Lord has kept me alive to see it." I could not help but think of the gospel passage of Luke 2:29-30, where Simeon had finally seen the coming of the Messiah.

Many old believers who were lonely islands when they accepted the Christian faith years ago are beginning to see the pouring out of God's Spirit among their own people. Their faithfulness and witness to God in the midst of mockery and persecution is paying off. Hundreds of thousands of Quechua Indians are turning to the Lord as the church is discovering indigenous expressions for its faith in music, art and drama.

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Ecumenical Letter on Evangelism no. 3 - September 1999
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