Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
As a different approach to recommended readings, I (David) would like to put two pieces into dialogue with each other: a recent blog post by Tom Lambrecht entitled "Lifestyle Evangelism" and a somewhat older blog post by Robert A. Hunt entitled "Moral Convictions - the Wrong Start in Human Relations."
Lambrecht's piece draws on the book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church by Alan Kreider to argue that the growth of the early church "was not primarily due to missions or evangelism" but was instead due to early Christians' "distinctive, lived-out faith that becomes attractive over time to people unfulfilled by the world’s pleasures and possessions." In illustrating what that practice of faith looked like, Lambrecht cites a variety of what might be termed moral practices by both the early church and early Methodism: business integrity, sexual purity, respect for life, inclusion of all peoples, care for the poor, etc. Lambrecht concludes:
"Evangelism programs and missional strategies are good and helpful. But people will not buy what we are selling unless they see that it works in making our lives different and more fulfilling than theirs. Otherwise, why make the sacrifices that being a Christian entails?"
Lambrecht's article helpfully questions the value of top-down initiatives to grow the church, and his emphasis on living out one's faith in practical ways that impact one's treatment of others represents an important and central affirmation of Methodist theology.
As I read Lambrecht's piece, though, I thought about the challenges that cultural diversity and cultural polarization represent to the type of lifestyle evangelism Lambrecht commends. While morality is not the entirety of lifestyle evangelism, it is centrally connected. For Christians' lifestyle to be attractive involves, on some level, non-Christians being able to see the attractiveness of the moral system lived out by Christians or at least the outcomes thereof, as Lambrecht's examples suggest.
Yet, in our culture today, understandings of morality are deeply polarized, at least on some issues. While people from all background generally agree that stealing and murder are bad, some of our country's most deeply polarizing topics have been framed not just as political or social issues, but as moral issues. Thus, the treatment of LGBTQ+ persons, responses to racism, views of the police, climate change, treatment of national symbols, and more are debated in moral language. Each side sees its approach to these issues as moral and the other side's approach as immoral.
This raises a question for the practice of lifestyle evangelism: Can it only be effective among those within the same politico-cultural sphere? Can Christians in the 21st century United States practice lifestyle evangelism in a way that is genuine attractive to those on the other side of the country's polarizing issues? And if not, if morality is so tied to politico-cultural identity, will non-Christians attribute Christians' practice of morality to their faith or to their political views? If their morality is seen as a function of their political views, then a lifestyle lived in accordance with that system of morality will not be seen as a testament to Christianity.
Here is where Robert Hunt's piece is useful. Hunt raises a strong caution about morality as a starting point for Christians' engagement with the world. He argues that "[t]he traditional church has imbued us with a set of moral convictions, and indeed a moral order, that only grudgingly makes way for genuine diversity and inclusion" and because of that "a diversity of cultures and customs is all too quickly mapped onto the distinction between the righteous and the unrighteous." Thus, if we as the church are too focused on morality, then we run the risk of shunning rather than attracting those who disagree with us on moral issues (whichever side we are on), and some must inevitably disagree with us in contemporary American society.
For Hunt, the solution is to focus on Jesus as "the one who leads us into the questioning of our own moral convictions" and the one who presents a new law of love. We must practice love for our neighbor "not merely when, but particularly because he or she is puncturing our posture of moral confidence." This is especially important in "a time of deep divisions, exclusion, and hatred."
This juxtaposition of Lambrecht's and Hunt's articles is not meant as a refutation of Lambrecht's piece. I am sure that Lambrecht would affirm that an evangelistic lifestyle is one that involves love of one's neighbor, and love of neighbor is present in the examples Lambrecht gives of what such a lifestyle looks like.
My intention is, instead, to encourage us as we are reflecting on Lambrecht's piece to think of those attractive aspects of the Christian as stemming from love, not from a system of morality. It is love that has the ability to reach across divisions, polarization, and boundaries, because love respects the integrity of the other. Love incarnated in our actions is what makes Christianity both credible and attractive.