Jonah the Evangelist

I’ve never been a fan of evangelism, which is something of a problem if you come, as I do, from an evangelistic Protestant tradition.

Some of this is likely because my few attempts at witnessing when I was a child ended in horrible failure. Some if it is probably because I never felt strong enough in my own faith to go around sharing it with others. Some more of it is likely because I grew up surrounded by Christians and never had much opportunity beyond those first failed attempts.

There’s more to it, though. Because evangelism, as I’ve seen it modeled, has meant going door to door and asking people if they knew where they were going when they died, or leaving those cool/disturbing comic-book tracts on restaurant tables with the tip, or hoodwinking people with concerts or prizes or fun activities before – surprise! – springing the gospel on them.

So I’ve become content with simply averring on the subject of evangelism and saying, “Well, that’s not my gift.” And, truth be told, I don’t think it is, to the extent that people who are actual evangelists or preachers or missionaries have that gift. But Jesus calls us all to share his good news, right? So what is a recovering conservative to do?

Our reading for class this week was an article by Stephen B. Chapman and Laceye C. Warner of Duke Divinity School. Chapman is assistant professor of religion at Duke’s Center for Jewish Studies, and Warner is (deep breath) associate dean for Academic Formation and Programs and associate Professor of the practice of evangelism and Methodist studies.

Together they look at what the prophet Jonah can teach us about evangelism in an article titled, “Jonah and the Imitation of God: Rethinking Evangelism and the Old Testament.”

To be honest, it’s a slow read. It takes a while to get into it. They use big words like “centripetal” and “centrifugal,” only one of which I’ve ever heard before and certainly not in this context. For the first 15 pages, it’s absolutely what I would consider an example of why more people don’t read academic literature.

Then, on Page 17, bam!

To consider the book of Jonah as a narrative of evangelism is thus to expand beyond a simple focus on the figure of Jonah, his message and his actions, to consider the primary role of God as a character in the story. The book concerns God’s “missionary” overture to Nineveh and the need for Israel to imitate the divine mission in its own life. Jonah/Israel is still “necessary” as a messenger, however, for some reason that is assumed rather than explained. Apparently only through the agency of Israel can the Ninevites hear God’s message.

In this way, the book of Jonah can be very much about evangelism, so long as evangelism is understood more broadly. Evangelism in this broader sense is actually the imitation of God, an activity that entails a whole range of practices, habits, dispositions, activities, and choices. From this per- spective, evangelism cannot be reduced to the character of Jonah’s verbal proclamation. Evangelism must instead be expanded to include a thicker set of practices, all grounded in the notion of the missio dei: God’s mission to rescue humankind and all creation.

The authors ask these questions:

How does this interpretation of Jonah modify or even correct current understandings of evangelism? What specific evangelistic practices might the book of Jonah warrant or underwrite? What would evangelism look like if the OT were taken more seriously as Christian Scripture?

And they respond with seven answers, which I will summarize:

1. “Like mission, evangelism is not in the first instance something that humans do but something God does.”

2. “Evangelism is deeply related to a theology of creation and a doctrine of providence, rightly construed.

We are all God’s creatures — evangelism rightly entails compassion for the earth and all its many inhabitants. Issues such as social justice, international development, nationalistic warfare, animal welfare, and global warming cannot be separated from the salvation of souls within the purview of Christian theology. 

3. “Evangelism as imitatio dei therefore means, first and foremost, that Christians must embody God’s love for the world and display God’s desire for reconciliation with the whole world. They do this as individuals whose hearts and minds are inspired by God, but they do so most fully in com- munities of faith as the reconciled body of Christ.”
4. “Evangelism thus entails working to align the entirety of one’s life and the lives of those whom one encounters to God’s ongoing reconciling purpose, rather than in the first instance attempting to proclaim or ex- plain to others what God has done.”

This kind of evangelism will necessarily include a wide variety of practices, habits, dispositions, and non-verbal signs, in addition to spoken utterances. To be sure, some will still say that if everything is evangelism then nothing is evangelism. In response, we resolutely maintain that for the Christian everything is evangelism. And that is not nothing.

5. “Aligning one’s life to God’s purpose therefore primarily means to live out God’s mercy in the entirety of one’s activities and relationships, perpetually offering others the embrace of God’s community.”

Evangelism therefore must remain the communal enactment of God’s justice and mercy by the church for the benefit of the world (1 John 4.7-12). That is, the church is to enact the message that Christ has overcome sin and death. Rather than a retreat from social action, church-based evangelism will powerfully incarnate God’s word.

6. “Evangelism in this sense is also a self-implicating conversation in which the evangelist learns ever more about herself and about God even as she extends the good news. This ‘conversation’ includes actions as well as words.”

7. “Christian evangelism is always centripetal as well as centrifugal because it always entails bringing people into community as well as sending people out from community.” (“Centripetal” means to come in, while “centrifugal” means to send out.)

In evangelism, the church preserves itself only by giving itself away, remaining hospitable and gracious to all, and not by seeking merely to maintain a homogenous membership.

In keeping with the double movement that the Bible envisions, evangelism is therefore better understood as “welcoming” or, better still, “enlisting” rather than as “winning” or “proclaiming” or even “inviting.”

The authors conclude:

For all these reasons, the upbuilding and maintenance of Christian community is itself evangelism. The most central practice of biblically based evangelism is for the church to be the church. … Taking the OT seriously as Christian Scripture thus strikingly reorients a Christian understanding of evangelism by making evangelism properly a group activity.Just because this kind of evangelism has nothing in common with conventional political programs, however, it would be a mistake to view evangelism as apolitical. We could characterize it instead as a new kind of politics. Drawing upon biblical language, we might well call it “living out the reign of God together.”

Such an account of evangelism avoids exaggerated and misleading ideas arising from a biblical theology in which a reductive reading of the NT is used to trump the OT and render it mute. By contrast the OT re- minds us forcefully that the Christian life is communitarian and embodied rather than merely individualistic and verbal. 

I have to be careful about topics like this. Because I don’t feel comfortable with evangelism, it would be easy to uncritically accept any evangelical philosophy that emphasizes living over doing.

But I don’t think that’s what the authors are saying. They are saying that we evangelize through living, yes, but that living requires doing – and often it requires doing more than traditional models of evangelism.

After all, why do so many people say they reject Christianity? It’s the hypocrisy, right? We say we should love our neighbors while we live in our gated communities, condemn gays, ignore the poor and find ways to justify our nation’s latest attempt to kill our enemies. Now, that’s mostly just an excuse; there’s hypocrisy everywhere, and the church is no exception. But that doesn’t make the charge any less true, and it shows how difficult it is to truly evangelize with our lives and reach out with our actions.

I want to go back to one of the first quotes, and leave the conversation there for now. It’s as refreshing as it is convicting:

We are all God’s creatures — evangelism rightly entails compassion for the earth and all its many inhabitants. Issues such as social justice, international development, nationalistic warfare, animal welfare, and global warming cannot be separated from the salvation of souls within the purview of Christian theology.

2 thoughts on “Jonah the Evangelist”

  1. I think I’d prefer to be evangelized in the way they describe, so it sounds good to me. But this part made me giggle:

    > What would evangelism look like if the OT were taken more seriously as Christian Scripture?

  2. Interesting post. Thank you for sharing. I recently came across your blog and am enjoying going through the immense richness of content here.

    On this post, I agree with your ultimate conclusion on Christianity and evangelization as quoted in your final paragraph. However, I don’t believe Jonah gets you to that message (the entire New Testament leads to the conclusion in your last paragraph).

    I have a different take on Jonah, which in many ways more simplistic but IMO may be getting at the core message. Ignoring whether Jonah was a real historical person or an outstanding literary parable (probably the latter IMO), I interpret Jonah as very unique among the prophets.

    Many prophets from the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Moses, Isiah, Jeremiah) and New Testament (e.g. Saul) were reluctant prophets at first but eventually embraced their calling with gusto. Not so with Jonah. Although he had a prophetic calling, he avoided it as much as he could. He remained a selfish, petty, self-centered person, trying to avoid his purpose in life. Indeed Jonah is selfish to the very end, worried about the loss of a shady gourd plant while being completely indifferent to the potential loss of 120,000 human lives in Ninevah “not to mention all the animals”.

    I can certainly relate to Jonah as I have many of those self-centered tendencies. I do not consider myself a bad person. However, I am spiritually and intellectually aware enough that I have a unique calling by God which I too often ignore. Moreover, I frequently focus on my own concerns and give too little attention to the impact that my actions have on other humans and God’s other creation.

    I know I am not unique living a 21st century U.S., the most individualistic and self-centered society that has ever existed. Jonah is likely more relevant today than he ever was.

    W. Ockham

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