Boundaries and making disciples

One of the things I think about sometimes is the relationship between personal discipleship and making disciples (evangelism). One of the passages I often dwell on, and which I’ve blogged before, is the passage from the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People about the arrival of Augustine and his companions in Kent in 597. Normally, I think on this passage in terms of the fact that these are a bunch of monks who succeed in making disciples of a good number of English people in Kent.

Today, I am thinking more about the straightforward evangelism bit of the story. First, if we look at Book 1, ch. 25, these people were up-front with what they were there for. They weren’t pretending to be something other than bearers of good news. Second, their first real sermon before King Aethelbert was preached at his invitation. In 1.26, we learn that “they preached the word of life to as many as they could” — open-air preaching? Later in the chapter, they are given a disused, Roman-era church. Presumably a lot of preaching happened there. Unbelievers have always been welcome at the preaching portion of a Christian service.

Their lifestyle and this preaching led to many being baptised.

In Acts, it also seems most of the preaching is done open-air or to people who are asking for it.

This aspect of ancient and medieval evangelism strikes me as important when we consider the boundaries of our friends and family who have not placed their faith in the Triune God. It does so particularly because today I read this piece entitled, “Christianity Has a Major Boundary Problem.” I do not agree with a lot of the author’s analysis, and he, a deconverted Southern Baptist, demonstrates in that piece a certain lack of knowledge of the Great Tradition and suchlike. I also feel that when Americans talk about “conservative evangelical Christianity,” my conservative evangelical Anglican Canadian parents are not what they have in mind.

Anyway, I think the article is worth reading because it shows us how a certain amount of standard evangelical practice is taken and how it goes down. Many take “preach the Gospel in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2) to mean that you can talk at people about Christianity whenever you want, and if they would rather you change the subject, keep on going, since you never know if that seed of social rudeness — I mean, the Gospel — might take root.

It is worth noting that I know atheists and hard-line skeptics and agnostics who behave just as badly as the Christians described in the article every time they meet a professing Christian.

I would like to say that I enjoy having conversations about the Christian faith with those who don’t believe. Some of them ask for it. Sometimes it — honestly — is part of the natural turn of conversation. However, I think we need to realise that a dinner party or getting together for coffee with a friend is not the same thing as what we see in Acts nor is it what Augustine and his forty monks did in Canterbury.

If they had private conversations, as we see sometimes in Acts, it was with willing partners.

That is to say, I think we need to actually become friends with people or pray for actual, natural openings for the Gospel. Sometimes these natural openings just fall into your lap — like a student I met at a party in Germany who learned what I researched and wanted to talk about the supernatural. Or the man I had dinner with once in Rome; conversations in Rome often turn at least to Catholicism, and people frequently express their skepticism about the Christian faith in response to what they see at the Vatican. Such moments, if taken respectfully, are evangelistic gold. I found myself talking about the wonders of grace in the Christian Gospel.

Not that I have talked to either of those people since. Nonetheless, the opportunities were real. I did not engineer them, nor did I just start talking about Christianity in the face of an unwilling conversation partner.

You would think we wouldn’t have to keep reminding ourselves of treating people with dignity, of treating friends as real friends (and not simply as potential converts, no matter how badly we wish to see them enlivened by the Holy Spirit). After all, what I’m talking about here has been termed “friendship evangelism”, as seen in the classic 1979 book Out of the Saltshaker and Into the World by Rebecca Manley Pippert. It’s been 14 or 15 years since I read that book, but as I imagine “friendship evangelism”, it’s pretty basic:

  1. Make actual friends with other people.
  2. Don’t hide the fact that you are a Christian.
  3. Talk to them about spiritual things when it’s relevant.
  4. Love them and support them and be there for them regardless of how much or little they want or allow you to talk about Christianity.

Maybe some of us forget that fourth one. So a final thought about boundaries: Make yourself worthy of sharing your deep beliefs with your friends who do not agree with you. Be a real friend to them. Love them.