Proclaiming the Good News: Some Field Notes
This paper will consider the reality behind the dreaded word evangelism, and attempt to place it in a context more appropriate to sharing the good news of the kingdom from the perspective of The Urantia Book. Some additional resources are noted at the end, as are the sources to which I'm indebted for the material herein.
While evangelistic activity may take place in many contexts from highly public to intimately personal, our approach here will view the process as a spiritual activity taking place within interactions between individual persons.
This is not to suggest the adoption of specific practices but rather to provide a range of insights for reflection, helping us put our desire to share the good news into practice.
Successful evangelism is more than just sharing our opinion; the respect and graciousness with which we attempt to share the good news should be an embodiment of the good news itself. We must learn to communicate in ways that are considerate of others' dignity while remaining grounded in our unwavering experience of the Father's goodness in our own lives.
We'll consider four elements of sharing the good news.
1. Articulate a starting point—What is the the good news? What is the kingdom?
2. Reflect theologically on our starting point—We must have a clear understanding of what we're attempting to accomplish.
3. Become aware of the context—Our approach must be bridge-building rather than devisive.
4. Develop creative practices—Some bullet points for managing our efforts.
1. Articulate a Starting Point—What is the Good News? What is the Kingdom?
We are not propagating a doctrine or an ideology. The gospel of the kingdom is about persons and their relationships with each other and their relationship to God.
So our starting point must be a distilled statement of what exactly constitutes the good news. What makes the good news good? When we can articulate this we are able to share it. If we have been transformed by the spirit in our own inner lives it is the joy and expansive living which comes from this which we wish to share. We want to share the good news, not merely give advice. Our sharing must be motivated by our own personal spiritual experience. How well do we understand the kingdom? Can we describe it in something other than pat slogans such as "the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man?" While this phrase may contain truth it is a clich? in social conversation devoid of much depth of meaning.
2. Reflect Theologically on Our Starting Point
In today's world truth claims about reality and specific narratives are suspect. Such claims increasingly are understood to be derived from particular social, political, racial, economic, gender, and religious biases; from a position which is judgemental of the other. There is no longer a sense that there is one particular narrative which is better than any other. We get around this "post-modern" quagmire by making our work personal, focused only on persons and their inner lives. We completely avoid creating yet another competing world view. World views are theological, political, ideological, scientific?the good news of the kingdom is spiritual, personal.
We have to be highly conversant with what we believe. Can you write an essay about the character of God? Can you write an essay about the kingdom? How well can you articulate your personal relationship with God?
Can you write an essay articulating your spiritual purpose, your religious motivation, and exactly what it is you wish to accomplish? Theological reflection is for clarifying purpose and concept. If we're going to have a discussion with someone about the character of God, we should have given the topic considerable thought ahead of time. We enter the conversation with a specific purpose. We're not just engaging in casual free association.
Theological reflection involves studying the key elements of the gospel. Do we understand the character of God well enough to point out its presence and action in the stories people tell us? How about God as a person, as a father?do we understand that well enough to be able to help people to discover his father-like presence in their lives? Why is relating to God as a person so spiritually potent?
What about the kingdom? Does our theology have enough depth, have we studied the matter enough, to engage in a meaningful conversation about it?a real authentic conversation rather than a repeating of doctrinal statements?
Imagine that you came to visit here in Denver and I picked you up at the airport. You asked me, "Where are the Rocky Mountains?" I would simply direct your attention to the west where their presence is unmistakable. The kingdom is like this. It is not a doctrine or an ideology. It is an intrinsic, ontological part of being human. Our task is to bring people into a conscious awareness of this fundamental reality which exists with the domain of their own consciousness, the domain of their functioning as personalities in a social context, a domain in which we all participate and play creative roles. All people have some core beliefs and experiences in reference to God. Find these through conversation and use them as a springboard for further discussion, always trying to migrate to the spiritual aspects.
Do we have a good understanding of the role played by faith in accepting the gospel of the kingdom? What's the difference between faith and just randomly deciding to believe something is true? With Christians, grace is a key element of faith. Do we understand this important concept well enough to engage in a conversation involving it?
We can greatly expand our understanding of the kingdom by realizing that the Urantia Book presentation of the Supreme is a theological development of Jesus' concept of the kingdom. Study here greatly expands our understanding of an evolving spiritual civilization of eternal life in which we are creative participants. The broader our understanding of the basic elements of the gospel, the more flexible, adaptable, and effective we'll be in our attempts.
If we do not invest time and effort in organizing our theological perspectives we end up with a collection of isolated islands of information lacking coherence or conceptual unity. We reflect on the complex in order to simplify our expression of it. Such work is necessary because we tend to accrue our beliefs informally and inconsistently without intentional reflection and integration into a rational structure?they are just individual concepts that happened to resonate with us. This is often referred to as "folk theology." As ambassadors of the Master's kingdom, the way in which we approach our task and the grace and integrity with which we undertake our efforts may communicate more than our words.
Our goal should be the spiritual enrichment of the lives of those with whom we come into contact. We are not attempting to change existing beliefs. We are not teaching doctrines. We are attempting to catalyze spiritual processes already going on within the individual. We are attempting to focus their attention on something which they already know on some level within them but of which they may not be fully conscious.
Our challenge then, is to help guide people to the discovery of new and spiritual meanings in what they already believe to be true about reality. And discovering what they believe involves beginning with conversation, establishing a personal relationship, honoring their beliefs. Can we help them discover the good news, spiritual meanings, within the context of their existing world view? When we hear their stories and beliefs we can try to discern and draw their attention to elements of the kingdom woven through those stories and beliefs?elements which we can reinforce and attempt to illuminate.
3. Become Aware of the Context Within Which We Intend to Work
Successful communication requires a shared interpretive context. As communicators we must learn to communicate within the context of the other, not our own. Here we'll consider the social context and then the subjective context of the individual's own inner life.
The Social Context
Have we cultivated some awareness of what the term "kingdom" might mean in the minds of people with whom we're communicating? There's a private, subjective concept of the kingdom as an inner state of consciousness as experienced in Eastern religions. There are varying Christian concepts about the end times, about the "rapture," the "second coming," and more. Are we familiar enough with these concepts that we can work around them in attempting to illuminate the kingdom concept in the context of Jesus' teachings?
Effective communication requires us to know something about the interpretative context within which our words will be received. The 80% rule says that in communicating anything new, we should make sure that at least 80% of what we tell someone consists of things they already believe to be true. This approach focuses on enhancement, not replacement.
Learning more about the context within which our fellows live their religious and spiritual lives will greatly help us in our endeavor. And we get much of this knowledge by engaging them in authentic conversation. What are their thoughts about these matters? That should be the foundational starting point for what we choose to share about our thoughts.
Remember that we never bring God to someone—we help people awaken to the connection they have with God that is already theirs as a birthright of being human.
Who are you? Who am I? It is essential that we craft approaches to evangelism that represent our authentic selves. As individuals we vary widely in our skills, proclivities, education, and motivations. We must be aware of ourselves, our strengths, our weaknesses, and our limitations and develop an approach accordingly.
A major characteristic of today's world is the increasing fragmentation into subcultures, each of which has its own vocabulary, perspectives on sexuality, race, politics, traditions, rituals, ways of relating, belief frameworks, values and interpretations of meanings. Because of this we might be most effective if we work within the framework of our own particular subcultures.
If we're going to work across a broad range of subcultures than it becomes all the more critical that we know ourselves, know our own prejudices and cultural values. Here self-knowledge becomes essential if we are to separate our own cultural assumptions from the good news we seek to share.
Continuing cultural fragmentation combined with almost fundamentalist-like attitudes toward values and meanings within specific subcultures also increases the possibility of getting side tracked into discussing issues other than the good news. Refuse to allow the conversation to devolve into social, religious, or political hot-button topics.
Most destructive of all is the communication?consciously or unconsciously?of a sense of cultural or religious superiority. Such an attitude is inexcusable and shows a profound lack of insight into the nature of the kingdom we're supposedly representing.
The Subjective Context
Here we encounter what perhaps is the most important perspective offered by The Urantia Book. The Father is seeking to contact each of his mortal children and make himself known. We do not work in a vacuum.
Our efforts to spread the good news are support roles?supportive of the work being done in the minds and hearts of our fellows by their spiritual benefactors. We don't start from scratch. We're not isolated in our efforts. We are working in the flow of the mainstream of universe evolution.
Study the way in which the Spirit of Truth operates. We can facilitate the work of this powerful spiritual resource. People we're trying to help to recognize the nature of the kingdom have this resource at work within them which will "unfailingly bear witness" to the sincere mind. And colluding with this Spirit of Truth are the Adjuster and the Seraphim superimposed over the background of the Holy Spirit. This is the team of which we are a part when we engage in efforts to spread the good news. We are the foot soldiers on the ground but part of a mighty effort at planetary salvage. We are joining hundreds of thousands of kingdom believers in this task being directed by the Spirit of Truth. The "stars in their courses are doing battle for us."
And there are even more resources at our disposal. Study Paper 16, section 6. There are three realities?cosmic intuitions?to which every mind responds?causation, duty, and worship. Because these tendencies to thought formation are an inherent presence in every mind, they form entry points for conversation. Here again we're trying to learn how to work within the subjective reality of the individual and the natural trends within their own minds?not the implantation of external abstractions.
4. Develop Creative Practices
Organize and execute a personal educational program. If we're going to make the gospel of the kingdom relevant to others we should constantly seek to improve our understanding of the contexts within which they think and live. We should grow in our understanding of the ideas that inform concepts of spirituality in our culture. A growing understanding of the Bible should be a continuing quest. The first thing Jesus did with his apostles was to spend many hours in the synagogue library studying the existing scriptures and showing them how to use those scriptures to make the new gospel relevant.
Encourage faith; fan the flames of any existing expression of faith. Honor the individual's own inner and experiential processes. Honor the vocabulary of the other. Appreciate how vocabulary and expression communicate in-group out-group meta-information. Avoid terminology derived from The Urantia Book.
Understand the non-coercive way in which God relates to us. Do likewise to others.
Understand, support, and reinforce the core values of the Christian faith family. Those of us with differing theological backgrounds and world views should not see each other as competitors, but as people who commonly desire to share God's goodness and the joy of the spiritual life. Remember that, "The paramount mission of religion as a social influence is to stabilize the ideals of mankind during these dangerous times of transition from one phase of civilization to another, from one level of culture to another." The reinforcement and stabilization of attained levels of kingdom consciousness should be an essential element of our ministry.
We gratefully acknowledge and attempt to reinforce and support expressions of God's goodness being manifested by individuals who operate out of different theological traditions. There are countless Christians working in the world who have been led to that work by their best efforts to follow the leading of the Master's spirit, individuals who have dedicated their lives to the work of the kingdom. Honor, reinforce, and support these individuals when you encounter them. They are the vanguard of the current dispensation marching under the banner of the Spirit of Truth. It is their team we are joining.
At heart evangelism is a spiritual practice and a path consisting of continual growth and personal transformation. It is a lifestyle. It must emanate from and be an expression of our own spiritual lives. As we engage with others we are led to greater self-awareness about the elements of our own faith. Authentic, engaged conversation allows us to learn from and be enriched by the experience of others. Both parties of any conversation should come away with their lives enhanced.
Keep it simple; don't add to the complexity of people's lives.
We should spend time with each other, periodically spending time only with one another and with God. Retreats and other times dedicated to sharing experience and insight are valuable contributors to our ability to be more effective.
Pray. Pray when considering your approach to evangelism, pray when planning, and learn to pray in the background of your mind when conversing with someone about these matters.
Be humble. The person you're encountering may have something for you. We should encounter other people as equals, in a spirit of mutuality, standing ready to be transformed ourselves in the encounter.
Don't feel you have to make the sale. The sale may eventually close as a result of a person's multiple encounters with religionists over a period of time.
Never badmouth other kingdom workers or their theology, regardless of their denominational backgrounds. Never try to establish a position of superiority over other kingdom workers.
Build up an archive of stories to use in conversations to illuminate different aspects of the spiritual life or the kingdom. Stories from the Bible, from the lives of "saints" or historical events/persons in church history are excellent, especially if they are known to the person being evangelized. The best stories often are from our personal experience.
Stewardship is the care of all the things God has given to us. We understand that all we have?money, possessions, health, mental abilities, education, interests, our time, our ability to participate in culture and social structures, and everything else?belongs to God. If we are serious about our commitment it will be reflected in good stewardship. Theologian Elmer John Thiessen provides some helpful criteria for organizing our approach to sharing the good news. These criteria are:
1. It must protect the dignity of those being evangelized.
2. It must care for the whole person being evangelized, not just the soul.
3. It can use no coercion.
4. It can use no psychological manipulation.
5. It cannot leverage social power imbalances.
6. It cannot induce a person to accept the good news by bribery.
7. It cannot sidestep appealing to people rationally.
8. It must remain truthful and have integrity.
9. It must be humble and make allowances for ambiguity.
10. It must be motivated only by love of our fellows coupled with love of God.
11. It must respect the existing relationships a person being evangelized already has.
12. It is receptive to alternative beliefs presented by the person being evangelized.
Let's get to work!
The Commission to Minister, Meredith Sprunger
Spiritual Guidance for Kingdom Outreach, Meredith Sprunger
Abraman, William; The Logic of Evangelism.
Allison, Dale C. Jr.;The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus.
Gould, Meredith; The Social Media Gospel: Sharing the Good News in New Ways
Lazarus, Natchi; The Connected Church: A Social Media Communications Strategy Guide for Churches, Nonprofits, and Individuals in Ministry.
Sweet, Leonard; Nudge: Awakening Each Other to the God Who's Already There.
Teasdale, Mark R.; Evangelism for Non-Evangelists: Sharing the Gospel Authentically.
Thiessen, Elmer John; The Ethics of Evangelism.
Wattles, Jeffrey; Living in Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.