Book Review: Evangelism as Exiles
Evangelism as Exiles by Elliot Clark (The Gospel Coalition, 2919). 157 pages. (Limited copies available for purchase in church library)
Evangelism in Negative World
No one denies a massive cultural shift has occurred in the United States over the last several decades. American evangelicals have lost cultural prominence, power, and influence.
Aaron Renn describes this phenomenon using a Three Worlds model to describe Christianity’s relationship to broader American culture. In the Positive World (pre-1994) being a Christian was a social positive and embracing traditional norms enhanced your status (and a failure to embrace those norms could hurt you in some circumstances). In the Neutral World (1994-2014) being a Christian is socially neutral. It doesn’t help you, but doesn’t hurt you either, and many put it in the same category as a hobby. Traditional norms still carry some force. In the Negative World (2014-present) being a Christian is a social negative. Traditional norms are repudiated and seen as undermining the social good of our nation.
Billy Graham was a wildly successful evangelist in the positive world. But we live in the negative world.
How do we do evangelism when Christianity is no longer culturally dominant? This is the question Elliot Clark asks and answers in Evangelism and Exiles.
“This is a book about evangelism. Such a book will inevitably talk about what the gospel is and why we preach it to others. However, this book will primarily address how we live on mission when we’re strangers and sojourners in our own land. It’s about how we present the gospel and represent Christ when we lose our positions of cultural power and influence, when the world has pushed us to the margins, when those around us oppose the message we’re called to proclaim.” (20-21)
Clark answers these questions from two different directions. First, the book is an exposition of 1 Peter (which we just stared preaching through on Sunday mornings yesterday). Clark applies the Apostle’s words to the “elect exiles of the Dispersion” (1 Pet 1:1) to American Christians. The Scriptures drive his evangelistic encouragement.
Second, Clark draws from his experience as a missionary in a Muslim-majority Central Asian country. In that country, Christianity holds no cultural power or dominant social influence. Clark shares what he learned about representing Christ in that context and translates those missionary skills for our context.
Clark opens chapter one with a gripping story about his son. One day, Clark heard his wife gasp from the kitchen and call for him to come quick. They looked out the window as a group of rough boys from the neighborhood surrounded their 11-year-old son. They had rocks and were ready to throw them at him.
Before Clark and his wife could do anything, the boys lowered their rocks, and the situation was defused. Their son hurried home and explained what happened. The boys, a neighborhood gang called the Rough Uncles, assumed he was a Christian because he was a foreigner.
“They asked if he believed Jesus is God’s Son who died on the cross. When our son answered in the affirmative, the boys were incensed and threatened him with stoning.
My wife, who by this time was almost beside herself, then asked, ‘So what did you do?’ To which he responded, ‘I told them I wasn’t afraid of them. I told them they could kill me, but that it didn’t matter, because I would just end up in heaven.” (28-29)
Peter encourages believers facing many trials, opposition, and rejection with a vision of future glory. We can be fearless in the face of opposition because Christ has secured a future for us. A future that, because we are united to him, includes exaltation.
Clark argues that shame silences our witness.
“For many of us, when it comes to personal evangelism, comfort has usurped our calling. We speak the gospel when it seems appropriate. We open our mouths when we perceive an opportunity—that is, a willing audience. We’ll bring up the topic of faith so long as it won’t threaten our image, our credibility, or our relationships. If we made an honest assessment we’d have to admit we’re often ashamed of our Lord. And such shame silences our witness.” (50).
The antidote to shame is glory, and that glory is ours in Jesus (1 Pet 1:7). Therefore, we can overcome the threats of shame and disgrace and embrace bold witness in the face of opposition and suffering.
Fighting Fear With Fear
Our witness is also silenced by fear. But Clark does not assuage our fears. Rather, he argues we need to fear more.
“As feelings of anxiety and dread well up within us and drown out our evangelistic zeal, the solution isn’t to eliminate all fears. Our absence of appropriate fear is actually part of the problem. The solution we find in 1 Peter is to fight fear with fear—to grow in our fear of God and our fear for (not of) our fellow man.” (50).
In this chapter, Clark provides a helpful diagnostic for determining whom we fear: “You know you fear someone when you desire their approval and live for their praise” (59). Whose approval do you desire? Whose praise do you live for?
When you live for God’s approval and praise, fear of man dissipates. Therefore, the solution for the fear of man that silences our witness is to fear God, living for his approval and praise.
The Problem With Sharing the Gospel
American Christians for some time have spoken of evangelism as “sharing the Gospel.” While there is a positive connotation to this phrasing—generously giving something we hold valuable to another—this conception of evangelism is not without problems. It often implies we only give the gospel to willing recipients, and it fosters a passivity in proclaiming Christ.
Further, the Bible doesn’t use such language to describe evangelism. “Scripture, instead, spoke primarily of preaching the gospel, declaring and proclaiming a message” (95).
This is not just a matter of semantics. The way we speak about evangelism might just be affecting the way we do evangelism.
Often we “tiptoe through polite spiritual conversations and timidly share our opinions,” and then call it evangelism (96). “But to evangelize is to preach good news” (97). To evangelize is to testify to Christ. To warn, persuade, defend, plead, and call sinners to repent.
Evangelism is authoritative proclamation of the good news that Jesus lived a perfect life in our place, died a sacrificial death in our place, was buried, was raised on the third day, and ascended into heaven where he rules the world now and welcomes into his kingdom all who call on him in faith, washing away their sins.
God’s Word Remains
When our family lived in Central Asia, Elliot lived on the other side of the mountain. I remember on one visit, Elliot proclaimed Christ to one of my friends on the balcony of a hillside apartment.
That country has been a negative world for Christianity for a thousand years. Our cultural context looks more and more like theirs.
But God’s Word remains. Peter’s instructions to the “elect exiles of the Dispersion” in the first century continue to strengthen exiles in our land for a life of representing Jesus and faithfully bearing witness to him.