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Pre-evangelism in a secular age
Posted in Faith
Held at Adelaide West Uniting Church from 27-29 August, The Hope We Have is a conference on evangelism, conversion and the mission of God coordinated by Uniting College for Leadership & Theology. Rev Dr Karina Kreminski, lecturer in Missional Studies at Morling College in Sydney, will be one of the key speakers at the conference, sharing her experiences of evangelism and church planting. In this article, Karina explores the idea of pre-evangelism and its importance in modern Christian life.
Recently, I’ve been having regular meetings with a group of people who are not Christian to talk about spiritual things. In our meetings the point is not to talk about Christianity – though people can if they want to – but rather to explore a more generic expression of spiritual matters. Any opinion is valid and accepted as long as it is not hurtful or disrespectful.
It’s been beautiful. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our conversations and have learnt a lot from and with the group so far. I feel completely inadequate to answer some of their questions and longings so most of the time I just listen.
These gatherings have also made me think about that term that Christians use – “pre-evangelism”.
Priority of evangelism over pre-evangelism
It seems to me that many Christians prioritise evangelism – that is, the straightforward proclamation of the gospel – over pre-evangelism. Whenever I describe this group that I’m meeting with, the first question many people ask is “Do you tell them about Jesus?” Well, no, I don’t. As soon as I say that, I get what I think is a look of disapproval or perhaps dismissal.
We have this view that if we are not proclaiming the gospel, then what is the point? Why do we waste time on matters that we see as secondary, if what counts is telling people about Jesus? We believe that what matters is “getting people across the line”, whatever that means.
We have had an explosion of courses like Alpha, Christianity Explained, Exploring God and others like them over the years, and I think this shows how we prioritise evangelism over pre-evangelism.
I don’t see a lot of theological reflection around pre-evangelism to give it the legitimacy that it deserves.
The urgent need for a prioritisation of pre-evangelism
In his book A Secular Age, Charles Taylor writes about the “buffered self” of modern times in comparison to the “porous self” of medieval times.
Medieval times are sometimes considered “enchanted” – people were more open to the spiritual world, and there was easy movement between the earthly and spiritual. People allowed themselves to be impacted by spiritual things.
In modern “disenchanted” times, this movement and impact is more difficult as people do not live with a worldview that belief in God or spiritual things is the norm, or indeed even desirable. This has broader impact because not only are people buffered against spiritual belief, but they to some extent are also buffered against each other. There is a resistance and a hesitancy to connect with the Other and also with others. We have built up an armour around ourselves so that true connection is less likely, making it harder to connect meaningfully with the people around us.
This is the world that we live in now and it is the atmosphere that we breathe. No matter how hard we try to proclaim the gospel, people are buffered in a way that makes it difficult to hear and absorb the message.
However, what I have observed, as have many others, is that this armour and buffering dissolves to some extent in community and relationship. As people enter into a safe space where authenticity is valued they become more “porous” in the way they relate to each other and also to spiritual matters. This is usually a very slow process.
This is where “pre-evangelism” activities can contribute by creating safe spaces for people to build trusting relationships with one another, to relate spiritually to each other, and possibly even the Other. Having said this, the main agenda in these kinds of activities needs to be clearly about building genuine friendships.
Connecting with people’s spiritual longings
Even though people in the secularised West are today resistant to a worldview that includes God, my experience has been that people still have spiritual longings that are often reawakened in contexts where they can talk freely about them. Those desires need to be identified and carefully allowed to come to the light in order to explore whether they are worth embodying.
To me this is actually the process of discipleship, and I wonder if perhaps a better expression for us than “pre-evangelism” would be the notion of “discipling secular people”.
This accurately encompasses what it feels like to me as I sit with this wonderful group of people who are not Christian, yet are clearly spiritual people. I am helping them identify their longings, then letting them decide for themselves what they will do with this revelation. This is essentially a non-judgmental process.
Often Christians are not very good at being non-judgmental. Recently, when I asked a group of Christians to engage in some cultural exegesis, they immediately started judging the culture. I had to remind them to instead simply observe, listen and notice the culture. Instead of moving to judgment, we should ask what we can affirm about people’s longings. Often there will be room for critique, but where is it in our culture that we can find value?
Perhaps pre-evangelism looks like a capitulation to the culture. When we connect more and more with secular people, we might give the impression that we approve of everything they do. This is not the case, of course. We are, however, listening, learning, loving and friending those whom God loves.
What is next?
What we then need to think about is what happens after people’s spiritual longings begin to surface – and they do begin to surface. I’m not sure about this next step yet, but so far my experience has been one of trusting the Spirit’s guidance. No doubt this will be the same in the next stage of the journey.
What do you think about Karina’s reflections on pre-evangelism? What does pre-evangelism and evangelism look like in your own life or the life of your church community? There will be an opportunity to explore these questions at The Hope We Have (see the breakout box for details). If you would like to reflect further on these ideas, please consider sending a letter or other response to firstname.lastname@example.org
Rev Dr Karina Kreminski will present two sessions at The Hope We Have conference. She regularly blogs at karinakreminski.com.au
Information about The Hope We Have conference
The Hope We Have will be held from Sunday 27 to Tuesday 29 August at Adelaide West Uniting Church. The conference will explore the theology and practice of evangelism in a secular world through keynote sessions led by Karina Kreminski and Mike Frost, in addition to workshops and worship. Topics addressed in these sessions will include CALD (culturally and linguistically diverse) ministry, understanding context, relational evangelism, preaching in evangelism, encouraging the church in outward focus, and much more.
The Hope We Have is open to anyone with an interest in evangelism, and people are invited to attend for the whole conference or for individual sessions. The conference forms part of a unit (MINS2320) offered through Uniting College and the Adelaide College of Divinity, which may be taken for credit.
Registration costs $120 (adult) or $100 (concession) per person for the whole conference. Students enrolled in MINS2320 pay only $40 per person. Group bookings for five people or more cost $100 per person. A daily rate of $70 per person is also available.
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