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Thu, Jun. 4th, 2009, 08:15 am
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Everist, Norma Cook, ed. Christian Education as Evangelism. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.

This book is a collection of twelve essays exploring the theological and practical interrelationship between evangelism and Christian education in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. The unifying theme of the essays is that “[e]ducation leads to evangelism and evangelism leads to education” (p. 1). The primary theological warrant claimed for both of these activities is the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) given by Jesus to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (NIV). Several of the authors emphasize that the New Testament Greek word for “disciple,” etymologically, means “learner.” For them, evangelism is not merely getting individuals to make an intellectual commitment to the doctrines of Christianity or a personal commitment to Jesus, but an invitation to continual growth in knowledge and faith.

This emphasis on discipleship aligns their theology with Scott Jones’ in The Evangelistic Love of God and Neighbor: a Theology of Witness and Discipleship (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003). Indeed, explicitly or implicitly, the authors mirror Jones’ position that, all things being equal, any individual will always be better off as a Christian than not. However, some of the authors go further than Jones in viewing individuals who are active in churches as valid targets for evangelism, on occasion using the term “re-evangelism.” This view seems closely tied to their looking back to Martin Luther’s emphasis on education — in particular, Biblical literacy — during the Reformation. No authors make reference to targeting Catholics (or Orthodox or non-Lutheran Protestants), and in fairness, negative evaluations seem primarily aimed at members of their own denomination in practice, but the theological justification for “poaching” seems present.

The authors report on, and propose, a broad range of direct and indirect evangelism strategies through the vehicle of education. “Christian education” itself is allowed the broadest possible meaning across the essays, from actual instruction in the history and doctrines of the Christian faith to grade schools operated by Christian organizations to classes, such as English language classes for immigrants, that are offered in church facilities. In these various settings, Christian discipleship is encouraged through one or more of the following strategies: a) direct Christian learning by the student; b) direct inspiration of others by the student who shares what they have learned in class; c) indirect learning by the individual who is surrounded by the institutional trappings of Christianity; and d) indirect inspiration of students and others by the Christian teacher who is modeling love, compassion and service.

Each author has their own goals, methods and explanations, but there are three key points that do carry across the essays. The first point is that the Christian story is too joyous not to share; gratitude for the free gift of salvation from God in Jesus Christ should have us spreading the Good News, as we would for the end of a war or the cure of a dreaded disease, or for the birth of a beloved child. The second point is that this story must be told in a language that is comprehensible to both the teller and the listener; not only literal languages (such as Spanish or Chinese or English), but personal languages shaped by gender or trade or age or culture or temperament. The third point is that preparation is necessary to properly tell this story; it must be a deeply familiar story that one can tell with confidence and skill. Education renews one’s joy, exposes one to a variety of languages, and provides the necessary preparation to tell the Christian story authentically.

I am predisposed to share the enthusiasm of the authors for linking Christian education and evangelism — that predisposition is, after all, why I chose this particular book to read and review. However, there are two major weaknesses in the approaches outlined in this book, for my ministry. The first weakness is that they tend to assume the availability of a pretty robust educational infrastructure: classrooms, teachers, curricula, etc. The second weakness is that they tend to assume an asymmetrical model where the teacher is more privileged than the student in terms of faith, authority, knowledge, etc. The primary locations of my ministry — Metropolitan Community Church of the Rockies and House for All Sinners and Saints, both in Denver — do not possess that kind of infrastructure or encourage the acceptance of asymmetrical privilege.

For this reason, pursuing evangelism through education as envisioned in this book will be most applicable for me in the secondary location of my ministry: my work in the library at Naropa University. At Naropa, we are encouraged to be open about our contemplative practices and religious convictions, and I have been presented with the possibility of teaching an occasional undergraduate class in the religious studies department. It would be inappropriate, and also distasteful to me personally, to use the infrastructure and my status at Naropa to do direct evangelism, but I welcome the opportunity to do indirect evangelism through exposing students and staff to Christian writings and practices and through (hopefully) offering a positive Christian example.