Admittedly, I'm wrestling out loud in this post. Because I grew up in a denomination whose core identity was shaped by the conversion experience, I'm finding that I have a lot of ideological work to do around the theme of evangelism. Afterall, by the time I was 12, I probably had sung "Just As I Am" 500 times. Those words are ironed into my brain.
So my question is this: What exactly are we inviting people to "come to" just as they are? This is not a question of whether or not we should do it or even how we should do it. It is a question of what we are trying to accomplish when we invite people to "come." In order to think about this, I reflect on some of the reason why people join organizations.
Organizations usually base their invitation for new people to join on one of the following:
1. Usefullness. The organization provides a service that will prove beneficial to the individual. For instance, I was a member and a leader of the FFA organization in high school. It's purpose was clear. For those interested in agricultural activities, it provided a way for us to participate in the exhibition of our animals at agriculture fairs. In other words, it provided a service to those of us with this interest.
2. Reasonableness. Some organization base their invitation on the fact that it is the logical thing to do. Behind this logic is usually the aim to prove that the organization has the "right" perspective or goal. Political parties come to mind. Nation-states as a whole are based on this, especially in times of war.
Before I move to a third alternative, I'd like to point out that the gospel message has been founded on these two. I have been taught how to explain the Gospel of Jesus Christ to unbelievers so that they might see Jesus as useful. "There is a God-shaped hole in your heart. And you will never be truly happy until God fills that hole." Or "God has a plan for your life." The examples of the useful Gospel message are endless.
And of course there is the reasonable Gospel, the one we can explain up one side and down another. The evidence that demands a verdict, the convincing case for Christ, the knowledge of what we believe. We can put a nice bow around what we believe and make it very reasonable.
Now before I go on, let me ease your angst. I do believe that there is a God-shaped hole in our heart that only he can fill. And I do believe that there is a logic to our faith. But I now see that the invitation to follow Christ must be based on more that these. The usefullness and reasonableness of the Gospel must be in service to this third option.
3. Beauty. There are some organizations whose invitations to join are based on the fact that they have a mission to contribute beauty to the world. In other words, the organization is a conduit for something beyond itself, not and end in and of itself.
The invitation to follow Jesus is not simply an invitation to salvation, although it is at least that. It's not a simply a call to grow in Christ and receive freedom to bondage, although it is at least that. It's not simply an opportunity to experience a better life, although it is at least that. It's not simply the logical way to believe and live, although it is at least that.
If we make following Jesus about these things, we will clamor for them and never attain them. We will try to convince people to join us based on these assumptions, but we are only inviting them to enter into a never-ending loop of wish dreams. But if we see that the invitation to follow Jesus is about participating in his beauty restoration project, then we get those things along the way. Missional evangelism is in the very least–and there is much more to explore—the practice of inviting people to join God's work to restore and redeem the world. It's an invitation to join with a people who are called to this end, not to the end of just growing itself as an organization, but to the end of beauty realized.