Bryan Stone, Evangelism after Pluralism: The Ethics of Christian Witness, Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Academic, 2018. 151 + vii pp. $22.00 (paper). ISBN: 080109979X.
Evangelism makes me uncomfortable. Even when I was a teenager doing summer mission trips in Africa as part of a team intent on winning Uganda for Jesus, the prospect of going up to a stranger and telling them to accept my religion gave me a queasy feeling. I later learned that Uganda is a majority-Christian nation and the strangers who accepted my tracts and listened to my stammering pleas were probably just being polite. This did not make me any more comfortable with evangelism.
And yet, the stories of the apostles in the New Testament show a community eager to spread the good news of Jesus Christ, and I can see why. This good news is transformative and renewing, capable of bringing hope into a despairing world. To evangelize is to show someone that they are more deeply loved than they realize, that there is a community where they can be fully themselves, and that the systems that dehumanize them will not have the last word.
Is it possible to recover this kind of evangelism—an exuberant sharing of “a reason for the hope that is in you”— from beneath the imperialism and self-righteousness with which evangelism has (quite fairly) become associated?
Bryan Stone’s Evangelism after Pluralism aims to help readers navigate the complicated waters surrounding evangelism. The book is a follow-up to Stone’s Evangelism after Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2007), but it can be fruitfully read and appreciated without any familiarity with Stone’s earlier work. Though the book is subtitled “The Ethics of Christian Witness,” Stone’s central aim is not to discern whether evangelism is ethical or not but to show how closely connected Christian ethics and Christian witness are. Indeed, Stone even claims that “ethics is evangelism” (9).
As Stone defines it, “Evangelism is the noncompetitive practice of bearing faithful and embodied witness in a particular context rather than an attempt to produce converts by first safeguarding the credibility or helpfulness of the good news” (13). All too often, the framework through which people approach evangelism is through a competition in a battleground of worldviews. If one wins a convert, one has enlisted them from “the other side” to “our side.” At worst, this framework reinforces an “us versus them” mindset and treats members of other religious and nonreligious groups as a threat. But even at its best, this competitive framework promotes questionable sales tactics and flattening the gospel into a commodity.
Stone’s discussion of the “winning converts” framework helped me understand some of my own discomfort with evangelism. If a person’s religious convictions are part of their core identity, inviting them to change their convictions—no matter how compassionately—is telling them that there is something wrong with who they are, that they need to change fundamentally. If a person’s religious commitments aren’t part of their identity, inviting them to change their commitments is basically asking them to adopt a new “brand” (93), a set of cultural markers without any inner transformation. Evangelism, then, either involves an implicit condemnation of a person created in God’s image or a superficial facsimile of the gospel. Proselytizing is either too judgmental to be good news or too hollow to be news at all.
Stone argues that these two pitfalls are two sides of the same coin. The more colonialist, sanctimonious attitude toward non-Christians and the more privatized, domesticated version of Christianity are both consequences of Christians allying their cause to what Stone calls “empire.” In a fascinating chapter, Stone describes how evangelism can easily become a way of “playing chaplain to the empire” (27) as Christians become preoccupied with Christianizing their societies and neglect the work of proclaiming the radical message of the kingdom of God. This discussion will no doubt be of interest to chaplains, pastors, and missionaries working within Anabaptist traditions.
Cornel West writes, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Stone’s book suggests that evangelism is what worship looks like in public. Not coincidentally, evangelism also looks a lot like work for justice. Stone makes the familiar but still important case that Christian witness is political, offering an alternative to the stories empires tell to justify their own power.
In contrast to the “winning converts” framework, Stone proposes a different model for Christian witness, centered on giving faithful witness to beauty. Rather than seeking results by selling or defending a worldview, evangelists should seek to testify to the beauty of God’s work in Christ carried on by the Holy Spirit. Just as an impressionist painter tries to express the beauty of a night sky as they see it, so witnesses try through words and actions to express the beauty that has captivated their imagination. Evangelism is not so much a duty to be carried out but rather an abundant gift to be shared freely. “A faith born out of a response to beauty,” Stone writes, “inclines organically, naturally, and perhaps even necessarily toward sharing” (120). If contemporary Christians want to discover the same missionary fervor as the biblical apostles, we should not grit our teeth and push through our discomfort but should rather re-awaken our imaginations to the divine beauty we can’t possess but can only revel in. Not only is the culture pluralistic, but Christian witness is pluriform—evangelism is not about securing uniformity of opinion but freeing different witnesses to show others the facets of divine grace that uniquely inspire each of them.
The epilogue, titled “The Meaninglessness of Apologetics,” is the least persuasive section of the book. It’s unclear whether Stone is arguing that Christians should abandon apologetics as a pursuit or—as he argues with evangelism—pursue it in a different mode from what we usually imagine. Lacking a sustained engagement with how apologists understand their task, this epilogue feels more dismissive than the chapters that precede it.
Evangelism after Pluralism is an accessible, well-written treatment of an uncomfortable topic from a theological perspective. Though Stone is ordained in the Church of the Nazarene, his emphasis on nonviolence, embodied community, and dialogue resonates with Anabaptist commitments. I hope this book brings us closer to the day when people will associate evangelism not with competition but with a shared appreciation for the beauty of divine grace.
Russell P. Johnson is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago and a
member of Chicago Community Mennonite Church.