Monday, July 21, 2008

Does Politics Have Something to Teach Us About Evangelism?

I found this quote from the New Yorker piece on Obama very interesting from an evangelistic standpoint:

"Gradually, Chicago caught up with the rest of the country and media-driven politics eclipsed machine-driven politics. “It became increasingly difficult to get into homes and apartments to talk about candidates,” Rose said. “High-rises were tough if not impossible to crack, and other parts of the city had become too dangerous to walk around in for hours at a time. And people didn’t want to answer their doors. Thus the increasing dependence on TV, radio, direct mail, phone-banking, robocalls, et cetera—all things that cost a hell of a lot more money than patronage workers, who were themselves in decline, anyway, because of anti-patronage court rulings.” Instead of a large army of ward heelers dragging people to the polls, candidates needed a small army of donors to pay for commercials. Money replaced bodies as the currency of Chicago politics. This new system became known as “pinstripe patronage,” because the key to winning was not rewarding voters with jobs but rewarding donors with government contracts."

I'm not concerned with the broader point of this article. I'm interested in what this brief quotation on the public dynamics of inner-city Chicago might suggest about the currents of American society. People, it seems, don't want to be bothered when at home. They want to be left alone. They don't want strangers coming around, knocking on their doors, interrupting their daily routine (or lack of it). They want to be anonymous.

Why am I bothering to work through this? Because it might shed light on how to do evangelism in the current day. I am not one to say that evangelism must be done in a particular way in order to evangelize a particular group of people. While I do acknowledge that wisdom and strategy are a part of witness (see Paul in Mars Hill in Acts 17), I would also say that God's gospel can penetrate human hearts in a variety of ways. People get saved in predictable and unpredictable ways. Street preachers, tracts, door-to-door witnessing, music, friendship--in these and many other ways, the gospel goes out, the Spirit of God moves, and people get saved.

So I would not consign door-to-door evangelism to the woodpile. I think it can be useful and good. However, I think that this quotation instructs we who are the church to reach out in creative ways in a closed-off society. In many places, people don't sit on their front porches (they don't have front porches to sit on), they don't engage with strangers in their homes, they put up signs to discourage solicitors, and they generally want to be left alone when at home. Many of these same people, though, do go to coffee shops and other "third places" to relax in a social environment.

It is my suggestion, then, that we not necessarily jettison door-to-door witnessing, but that we refine our model of evangelism, and try to reach people in natural settings in which they are comfortable being approached by strangers. Joining leagues, playing sports, attending book discussions, going to coffee shops--these are the kinds of things that I think Christians should do, and do evangelistically. Though people like anonymity and privacy at home, they also crave community, particularly because many of them have lost ties to traditional institutions like the church. Men's and women's clubs, mainline denominations, political organizations--all have seen numerical decline in recent decades (see Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone for more on this). And yet as people migrate away from established socializing, they migrate toward unstructured interaction in places like Starbucks. We should see this cultural shift and move into it.

I'm not seeking an evangelistic revolution here (good thing!), but am rather trying to pick up cultural cues for the purpose of effective witness in our age. I wouldn't jettison older methods of evangelism, but I would seek to add newer methods, all for the purpose of glorifying God through the salvation of lost, lonely, isolated, unhappy sinners just like I once was.

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