On witness

“St. Paul Preaching in Athens.” Raphael, 1515.

Christendom was largely converted by monks who converted monarchs, who converted their subjects by appealing to their oaths of fealty. Why are we so surprised that Anglicans, standing in the Catholic tradition, would not know how to “witness” to an Evangelical country?

All apostolic Churches have this problem, inherited not from a lack of heart religion, but from historical and cultural trends that the Apostles didn’t see coming.

Context

The Bible advises the apostles to tell the Gospel to everyone they know (Mark 16:15) and to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). Church tradition tells us that they did just that. St. Paul may have gone as far West as Spain (Romans 15:24); the existence of the Malankara Church suggests that St. Thomas went as far East as India.

But with the conversion of Constantine, the model by which the Holy Fathers went into the Aereopagus to reason as philosophers, with other philosophers (Acts 17:16-34), came to pass. Society was nominally Christian even if church attendance was as sparse as it is in the modern European Union. And often, church attendance was indeed that sparse. That’s why they had the First Catholic Revival. Clergy hardly visited their own churches.

Low church attendance isn’t new! People in the Middle Ages were no better or worse than we are! Read some literature from their time. They had as much crime, as much immorality and as much functional unbelief as us! Lithuania wasn’t a Christian nation until 1387, and its paganism arguably never died out. Nobody told these people that a bunch of medievalists would view them as a  ideal of Christian virtue. Nobody.

Christendom never meant living in a land of the practicing faithful. It meant that, for dozens of generations of people, Christianity was an unspoken norm and part of daily life. Nobody really bothered to question it. What’s new is that these people, whom we used to shake out of their apathy every once in a while, no longer have to stick around long enough to listen to our pitch.

They aren’t a captive audience anymore.

There was never a time when most people were observant Christians, just a time when society’s institutions put Christian bumpers on everybody else’s decisions and prevented the Church from getting sued. If we really think about it, our historical moment is otherwise identical to any other in Western history. So don’t think I’m being ambitious when I call for a “Second Catholic Revival.” I’m not.

By an accident of history, we haven’t developed our own missionary model. Anglicans have been guilty of trying to reproduce by means of reproduction alone. Unfortunately, we have also been guilty of reproducing very little. That’s so bad, it’s not even wrong! It also means that we’re a tabula rasa, bringing no false assumptions to the table.

America

In much of the United States, Evangelical revivalists who read the Bible literally used the Scripture I have referenced above to formulate a sort of witness in which laypeople tried to debate their friends into church until they couldn’t even have normal conversations. This is the origin of the “Bible thumper” stereotype. It was well meaning, used to work a little, but now drives people away. There’s a reason for that.

Until recently, almost all Americans were nominal Evangelicals or Mainline Protestants. Those who strayed from the church returned out of both conviction and a need for social respectability. The pattern of religious debate, altar calls and the like makes perfect sense in a country where everybody is supposed to be “Christian” Evangelical Protestant, and already knows that “getting saved” works that way. It doesn’t work anywhere else.

Trying those mission strategies on 21st century people is like expecting an atheist to get “slain in the spirit.” He doesn’t know that one is supposed to imitate seizures, so he never convinces himself to do so. Then, he can never credit the Holy Spirit!

Results

That is why some Evangelicals are surprised that their polemics just don’t seem to work anymore. They don’t realize it, but their whole pitch always relied on being the only game in town. Unless people respond to that pitch in the established way, they don’t even think the conversion is sincere. Increasingly, when people like this aren’t handing us Chick tracts, they are warming the bench with us, trying to figure out what went wrong.

But I’ll say it once more: They are laboring under assumptions that, by and large, they cannot and will not abandon. We aren’t. That is a strength.

What forms of outreach have you tried? Which have been successful? Why?

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