Thursday, July 23, 2009

On Reaching for Dialogue: Revisiting Evangelism and Musings on Conversion Efforts

I advocate dialogue and ministry. In an earlier blog, I differentiated between ministry and evangelism. I didn't exactly say ministry was better than evangelism, but I thought it. My problems with evangelism are the ulterior motives and many of the methods associated with it. Even in the friendliest of situations, I don't like to think of someone being loving in order to persuade someone to a different belief system and/or life style, i.e., "convert."

Today, I realized I misjudged evangelism. I misjudged evangelism, because I was judging a great number of evangelicals and evangelists. I was judging those whose evangelism is like flattery. But, I mustn't confuse some expressions of evangelism for all expressions. (That's the trouble with inductive reasoning.)

Tonight I was thinking about the ever-ambiguous and most-beloved "dialogue." Dialogue is often thought of as an alternative to many evangelistic endeavors such as tracts, preaching on the sidewalk, apologetics, judging people, and corny questions ("If you knew that you would die today ..."). Essentially, it is conversation, but a conversation for mutual enrichment about ideas, opinions, values, ethics, worldviews, and ways of life among other things. To contrast, I don't think dialogue is just shooting bull or the breeze, although the delineation is hazy at best.

Note: dialogue is not to be confused with defending or discussing. If you simply talk about your presuppositions or go on the offense, you are not dialoguing. I am not suggesting we should go into every dialogue doubting everything, especially those things about which we are not talking. Rather, if you talk about the Bible, you must give your thoughts, hear the other persons thoughts, and weigh both of your thoughts with some healthy criticism that you have given and received. In the end, if you are not simply comfortable with the other person's view, then be uncomfortable with it and do not hold it. However, it probably isn't healthy to think you are unwavering. Faith is not a blind tenacity; it is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Don't let your convictions be uninformed.

In Christ in a Pluralistic Age, John Cobb, Jr. said dialogue should exist sans untouchables, which are those things you will not let go of, no matter what someone says or does. You may have your presuppositions, but your dialogue has a level of hypocrisy and insincerity if you won't dialogue about those presuppositions.

But what I have said is not so easy, is it? I thought about a few of my own "untouchables." Mostly, I thought about social justice and how I think Christianity is about making life more abundant, especially by improving this life for all. Lately--the past few years--I do not think I have entered any conversation about social justice and thought, Maybe Christianity isn't all about social justice. Maybe I can buy nice things and not think about the poor all the time. Maybe Jesus wants to bless me with money so I can spend it on myself, not others.

Oh how hypocritical he gets! How insincere his dialogue must have been! He ministers not and dialogues not--he evangelizes via apologetics!

Yes, I was evangelizing. I was evangelizing to Christians. When dialogue started, I wanted to persuade them to my views. I was borderline apologetic. I wanted to convert them, little by little and bit by bit.

Perhaps some places call for a preachy-sort of evangelism. The pulpit is one of those places. Some lectures. Some Sunday school lessons. Essays. Maybe even some blogs, although I'm not completely convinced. But in dialogue, I do not think preachy evangelism and apologetics are good ideas--although so hard to avoid.

This sort of dialogue is not pluralism, by the way, although it certainly leaves room for pluralism. A difference exists between trying to convert someone and wanting someone to "convert" to your views and ways. I can hope people will be attracted to social justice as I present it in story, proposition, and action, but I do not need to replace love with apologetics of any kind or for any product.

And now to repeat what I've said with a few aphorisms:
You can think you are right without forcing it on someone.
You can hope they concede to your point without trying to convince them.

Note: I suppose I've had a struggle with the thoughts in this blog all week, at least. See my last blog to see how I was trying to process and balance hypocrisy, conversion, judgment, and dialogue this past Sunday.

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