Episode 73: Evangelism Today with Robert Hunt

Robert Hunt is back on Good God talking about evangelism in a pluralistic world. How can Christians engage in relationships with people of other faiths or no faith and still offer what we believe is a life of beauty and truth?

Dr. Hunt says, “We don't begin a dialogical process because we somehow caved in on the truth we know in Jesus Christ. We begin the dialogical process out of the absolute conviction that God still has things to teach us.”

You’ll learn some of things God is teaching us in this episode of Good God.

Listen here, read the transcript below, or click here for the full video version.

George Mason: The word evangelism excited some people and scares others. How do we understand evangelism today in light of our non-Christian neighbors who live right next door? And who lives of virtue? SMU professor Robert Hunt will be here with us to talk about just that and how we might think about it anew. Stay tuned for Good God.

George Mason: Welcome to Good God, conversations that matter about faith in public life. I'm your host George Mason and I'm delighted to welcome back to the program Robert Hunt. Robert, we're glad you're here.

Robert Hunt: Thank you.

George Mason: Robert is the director of global theological education at SMU. Perkins School of Theology. Also, the director of the Center for Evangelism. We're delighted to pick up a conversation that we started in our last time. Last time we talked Robert, we were talking more specifically about the Methodist situation. The cultural assumptions that have gone into understanding Methodist as a global church and the decisions that were made then that have actually fractured the church and challenged the notion of a united Methodist Church over whether same gender marriage could be blessed and whether gay clergy could be ordained, and the like.

George Mason: Today, I'd like us to talk a little bit more specifically about the work you do in evangelism. It has a lot to do with this same question of culture. For many people who grew up in evangelical, Christian culture, evangelism has some connotations to it. I'll describe it this way. We have the full and complete truth in Jesus Christ. It is our spiritual and moral responsibility to obey the great commission and take to every person, every ethnic group, every nation of the world this good news. To the end that they become followers of Jesus. They become Christians, as well. Regardless of their own faith tradition or the like because ours is right and theirs is wrong.

George Mason: Therefore, when the world is fully Christianized or Jesus returns, whichever happens first, then we will have succeeded in our mission. That has created for many people lots of cognitive dissidence because of the way the world has come to our back door. It was easier to do or think that maybe when we sent you to Malaysia as a missionary, right?

Robert Hunt: Right.

George Mason: Maybe when a Malaysian neighbor moved in next door who is Muslim we are a little less inclined. What's happening in evangelism now that we're wrestling to rethink and try to get straight? What would you say?

Robert Hunt: I think the first thing that's happening is that we're... a lot of the false ideas followed by romantic idea of the missionary era let us say the 19th and early 20th century, or even the 20th century... We're realizing were wrong. That then troubles our underlying presuppositions. The first of those was simply that we have a natural virtue that comes to us as Christians that people in other cultures didn't possess because they lack our Christianity.

Robert Hunt: It didn't take long for missionaries to realize that simply wasn't true. That there were virtuous people who were not Christians. Virtue and Christianity didn't go together. Something a little broader than that ... Well, lacking Christianity and the West, they're barbarians. That slips to-

George Mason: Who's going to bring Western civilization to them?

Robert Hunt: Exactly.

George Mason: This will be good for them and they just don't know it yet.

Robert Hunt: Right.

George Mason: That gets melded with the Christian faith to the point where then that breaks down. The problems of Western civilization then become the problems for the church.

Robert Hunt: Well, exactly. David Livingston preached a famous sermon called Christianity, Commerce, and Civilization. I believe in 1860-something to the graduating class at Oxford. In which he said these are the three things we're going to bring to benighted Africa. Right?

George Mason: Yes.

Robert Hunt: Well, by the end of WWI, and certainly by the end of WWII with the Holocaust, it was absolutely clear that speaking of the superiority of Western civilization was going to be nonsensical to anybody else outside the West. Two vastly destructive wars. Simply didn't speak to some superiority of Western civilization or of Christian civilization.

Robert Hunt: This puts us in a mode of rethinking, already. Of partnership. Of dialogue. Added to that, and specifically with regard to evangelism, is the idea that develops through the conversations of interfaith Christian groups. Let's just ecumenical Christian groups, who begin to recognize that we need to speak about God's mission in the world and that God is always a mission in the world. The so called Missio Dei. Whatever we do in Christian mission and evangelism we are going and finding where God has already been at work.

George Mason: The church doesn't have a mission. God has a mission.

Robert Hunt: God has a mission.

George Mason: The church is simply catching up to God's mission.

Robert Hunt: That's right, yes. We do have our unique message by the way. We have an absolutely unique message and one that we are morally obliged to share with everyone. We no longer do it in a vacuum. An imagined, spiritual vacuum where we bring something. God's there. That's going to reform all of our ideas about evangelism.

George Mason: This is my father's world. The whole world is already God's.

Robert Hunt: That's right.

George Mason: God has already claimed the whole world.

Robert Hunt: Well, God is already working in the whole world. By the way, we find this is an amazing place in Amos chapter 9 for people who are interested in the Bible. This is a section in Amos where as usual we have this sort of condemnations of the nations in chapter 8. Ending of course with the condemnation of Israel. As sort of an, oh yeah, the nations are all really bad, and you are, too.

George Mason: We are too.

Robert Hunt: We are too. Then, Amos attacks directly Israel's one claim to be unique. Well, God led us out of Egypt. Amos says, "God led the Hittites out Kir. God led the Philistines."

George Mason: Wow.

Robert Hunt: God has been active in every human history. There's no uniqueness.

George Mason: Have to go back to read Amos.

Robert Hunt: I think it's worth reading. Then of course when we get into the New Testament what we discover is phrases like Jesus meeting someone and saying, "I have not found faith like this in Israel." Jesus meets people who are faithful who have never met Jesus. Now when we keep that in mind then that's going to change our outlook on evangelism. We're going to go into a situation asking or not beginning with the idea that we have the truth and we must impart it. We begin with the idea that we are here to learn what God has done among you.

Robert Hunt: We have something to say, too. Right? This is dialogical now. This is dialogical. When we can do that I believe we can move away from the idea, the implicit idea, that evangelism is getting people to join our team. And move to the idea that evangelism is opening the door for people to enter into a relationship with God through Christ. The form of that relationship, the affiliations that will form out of that relationship are not something we can determine.

Robert Hunt: We have something to offer. A community of faith.

George Mason: Yes. A church.

Robert Hunt: A church. That church should be open to everybody. My experience is there are people who need it. I'm not in a position to judge people who say, "You know, I think what you are telling me about is a truth I already know about. I feel like a redeemed person. I feel like a person who lives in the ambit of God's love within my religious tradition and culture."

George Mason: This is problematic for the way we have taught evangelism. Much of our assumption is the first thing we need to do is to explain to people how alienated from God they are to begin with. To help them understand their sinfulness and that that sinfulness has created an ontological distance between themselves and God. We'll call it relational. That has eternal consequences to it. The first thing about the good news that we have to share is the bad news about who you are.

Robert Hunt: Exactly. Yeah.

George Mason: So, there's a kind of oddness to that I think when you start to reflect about how it would be that God is already at work in the world. Every human being is created in the image and likeness of God, and God is at work everywhere. Yet, our first word has to be to reinforce the problem in order to then hold up the solution.

Robert Hunt: Right. I would say the problem in our terms.

George Mason: Yes. Okay.

Robert Hunt: Okay?

George Mason: Right.

Robert Hunt: Sin as opposed to law. Right?

George Mason: Right.

Robert Hunt: One of the interesting things about working in Asia is I would say, and in Austria as well, the idea of feeling alienated. Alienated from transcendent meaning. Alienated from a sense of purpose in life. This sense of alienation is something that is a pretty universal characteristic. The way in which its framed in different cultures is different. In some cultures that framing may be so close to a Christian framing that our preaching of this sort of law and Gospel makes perfect sense almost instantly. In other cultures it will sound similar but actually be different. Right?

George Mason: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Robert Hunt: In other cultures it will be completely different. One of the questions we ask as an evangelist as a practical matter is what does the redemption one in Jesus Christ mean for people whose understanding of alienation is different than ours? Does it mean they have to come and see things the way we see things about their alienation? Is it possible that the redemption one in Jesus Christ is so universal that it actually addresses their sense of alienation where it is?

George Mason: We have to actually understand their sense of alienation before we can actually hope to offer something.

Robert Hunt: Exactly. We have to enter into a dialogue with them. What's interesting when this happens is of course, we may learn something about our own sense of alienation that we didn't know. We may discover that there are depths to what God does for us in Jesus Christ that we haven't recognized earlier. Right?

George Mason: Very good.

Robert Hunt: So that in the process of evangelism we in some sense become evangelized. That critical dual process, I think is the only thing that can give this integrity. Then also to recognize that the evangelist never evangelizes. The spirit of Christ evangelizes.

George Mason: Okay, good.

Robert Hunt: Right?

George Mason: Right.

Robert Hunt: The spirit of Christ is going to move where it will and how it will and in what ways it will. This gets us back to the we don't form teams. Right? Too much of evangelism is based on church growth. Our United Methodist discussion has been fraught because both sides claim that either history's on their side or they have the more rapidly growing churches. That proves nothing. Okay. It's pretty useful to remember in the first couple hundred years of Christianity that the surest sign that you had gotten it right was that you were dead.

George Mason: That's right. We celebrate the Christian martyrs in that era.

Robert Hunt: We celebrate the Christian martyrs. Look, by modern standards the American Methodist mission to China, to Fuzhou, China, okay, if it had been in a contemporary, American United Methodist setting they would have pulled the plug before the first convert.

George Mason: It's a bad business model.

Robert Hunt: No.

George Mason: Yeah.

Robert Hunt: There were more missionaries that died in China than there were converts in the first 15 years.

George Mason: There you go.

Robert Hunt: Well does that prove that they were wrong? That they weren't evangelical. That they didn't have orthodox, Christian beliefs? Of course not. They were by every modern standard fundamentalists.

George Mason: Yes, right. Right. We didn't have any progressives back then.

Robert Hunt: Right. That language proves nothing. Nor, am I sure there any human judgment that can be brought to bear on what constitutes success or failure. The only human judgment is the one that we bring to bear on ourselves, which is, have I been faithful?

George Mason: Lovely. Yes.

Robert Hunt: Okay.

George Mason: Lovely.

Robert Hunt: That's the only question. Is have I been faithful? If I have been faithful God will take care of the rest. This is what Paul brings up when he says, "I planted. Apollos watered." Somebody else could see the return. This concerns the faithful.

George Mason: Does this make me a failure? That's right. Exactly. Let's pick that up when we come back. I want to talk a little more about the dialogical aspect of this and your work with the Parliament of Religions and conversations with other faith traditions, as well. I think there's a lot to be learned about that. Let's take a break.

Robert Hunt: Thanks.

George Mason: Thank you for continuing to tune into Good God. This program is available as many of you already know in various formats. You can take it as a podcast that is delivered to all the places you would go. Whether Apple Podcasts or Google Play. You can hear it weekly, and you can subscribe to it. A new episode drops every Thursday morning. We invite you do that and subscribe.

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George Mason: We're back with Robert Hunt, and Robert we were talking about evangelism in a dialogical way. That is to say now we don't view that everyone outside of our faith tradition is simply a blank slate waiting for us to write the good news upon them. Rather, they are already subject to the work of God somehow in their lives. Sometimes that has taken a particular religious form, in fact. Sometimes it's Muslim. Sometime Buddhist. Sometime Jewish and other kind of ways that are non-Christian.

George Mason: You have been at work with the Parliament of World's Religions on the one hand. Lots of conversation among religious leaders from different faith traditions here in Dallas. You show up with Thanksgiving Square and The World Affairs Council and Faith Forward Dallas at Thanksgiving Square, where we have a real multi-faith environment.

George Mason: How do you speak to your Christian tradition about what is to be valued in these conversations and not simply say to them that we are in a sense forfeiting our evangelistic aim by entering into dialogue. As if entering into dialogue is an alternative to evangelism.

Robert Hunt: Right. Well I think that's a good question. I'll go back to something I said earlier, which is we really have to recognize, and this is just logical, that what has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ is sufficient for our salvation and knowledge of God. It is not complete. It really cannot be complete if you think about it. We have a limited slice of history and we have limited human brains.

George Mason: The risen Christ is still at work in the world and God continues to reveal to us, even as Jesus said, "I'm sending you the Spirit. More things than you can bear today." Et cetera, et cetera.

Robert Hunt: Yeah. The plenitude of this actually is written into scripture. Jesus and John but of course at the end of John, "I suppose that if we were to write everything that he has done all the books in the world would not contain them."

George Mason: That's right.

Robert Hunt: That clearly suggest that not only do we need big libraries but we ought to read bigger books. Right?

George Mason: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Robert Hunt: I think that begins us as the dialogical process. We don't begin a dialogical process because we somehow caved in on the truth we know in Jesus Christ. We begin the dialogical process out of the absolute conviction that God still has things to teach us.

George Mason: Good.

Robert Hunt: That we still need to learn them. If we start the process that way I think it begins to have some integrity and our neighbors respect that. They respect that we know something true. We want to share that. We also want to listen because we know they know something true, as well.

Robert Hunt: Now, the purposes of those dialogues are manifold. I still remain convinced that there is a strong place for a personal evangelistic dialogue. I tell my students this. I'm not a universalist in the sense that I can just let go and say, "Well, God will take care of everything."

George Mason: All roads lead to God, regardless of what you believe, it doesn't make any difference. That sort of thing.

Robert Hunt: That to me is a nonsensical belief. Okay. God may draw everyone to God's self. As Christ does upon the cross with John. Right?

George Mason: Yes.

Robert Hunt: We cannot assume that every human path leads to God. That's just on the basis of our own personal human experience. We're pretty capable of running away from God. We shouldn't assume if we're capable of it others aren't, as well. On the other hand, I can't really discern, right? I would say in this sense I'm agnostic toward whether someone has the possibility of reaching God on the road they're on. As we sit here, if someone is going down Mockingbird Lane in the westward direction, and they stop and say, "I'm on my way to Love Field. " I would say, "Absolutely, keep going."

Robert Hunt: If it happens to be that they cross on Abrams Road and say, "Am I on my to Love Field?" I could say, "I doubt it, but if you took a right turn at the right place, you might."

George Mason: Yes. Yes.

Robert Hunt: If they're going the other way, east on Mockingbird, I'd have to say, "I don't think you're going to get there but the world is round."

George Mason: That's beautiful. That's good.

Robert Hunt: I can't say that I would advise you in this direction. I can't tell you you'll never get there.

George Mason: Okay. I see. Yes.

Robert Hunt: There is a place for this individual conversation. In those individual conversations I think there are some people who will say, you know, I don't think I'm on the right road. For your talking and my talking I think I see something that is attractive to me that makes me want to be part of a community to explore that more. I always think of the church as the evangelizing community. Come in and see if you want to join the road that we're on as opposed to an individual making decision.

Robert Hunt: I say this with some firmness. I don't want anyone to think we can dismiss evangelism of this sort. Individuals need to make decisions. I say this to my classes. They don't always like it. I have baptized Muslims who became Christian. I've baptized Buddhists that became Christian. I've baptized Hindus who became Christian. Most of my students for many years were converts to Christianity. I'm not going to dismiss their experience.

Robert Hunt: They did give up their families for this. That's critical to know. At the same time I cannot on the basis of their experience generalize to every human being in the world and say you need to follow that path. What I can say is you have been redeemed by God in Jesus Christ. That's good news. That's good news. If you say to me, "I already knew that. I knew it in different way. I knew it in a different form." Or, "I believe that my religious tradition is leading me closer and closer to God and therefore I want to stay within in that discipline and that community." Then all I can do is respect that. You have made that judgment. I just don't think that God has given me that window of knowledge.

George Mason: You've now talked about this in a way that I think is interesting. When we think about the classical three ideas of goodness, truth, and beauty. What I heard you talking about a lot was language of drawing, being attracted to. This has more of an aesthetic character to it. There is a sense of God calling people to a beautiful life. To an experience that is more about wonder than a concession to an idea. There is a lacking, I think, in the tradition of evangelism that I think a lot of people have known of acknowledgement of how God works through that drawing into a beautiful experience of life. Leading to a goodness, as well. A way of life that is good. In favor of instead always trying to prove propositionally that something is true that you assent to.

Robert Hunt: Absolutely. The most dolorous affect of the Enlightenment was to separate truth from beauty. This would be unimaginable in Greek culture. Or the culture of Jesus time. Okay. Things that are true are beautiful. Things that are beautiful are almost always true.

George Mason: This is Keats poetry, right?

Robert Hunt: Okay. We need to recognize that. When we see a beautiful life we're seeing there's something true there. I think that liberates us some. It means that one, there's a whole new realm of evangelism, which is the realm of putting, I would say, decisive and decision forcing beauty in front of people.

George Mason: Lovely.

Robert Hunt: I think this was the genius actually of the inklings of C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams and J.R.R. Tolkien is that they create works that were beautiful, literary works, but would be thoroughly evangelistic. They would draw someone into a world. Then, they would lead the person in a classic way through the understanding of crisis and decision. That idea in those literary forms, in poetry, in any kind of excellent art, right? Is evangelistic. In a genuine sense it's evangelistic. It's converting. We need to therefore be much more attentive to this.

Robert Hunt: It's quite possible that a Brandi Carlile song like The Fool, I think, will play an evangelistic role. I always think of a Mary Chapin Carpenter song. One line of which is I will serve the beauty but not the truth.

George Mason: Wow.

Robert Hunt: Now, she's talking about lost love. Okay. The truth is we're not together. The beauty is we were in love. So which of those is going to be the determinative factor? You see?

George Mason: Right. Right.

Robert Hunt: I think this aesthetic sensibility is absolutely on. The association of goodness with beauty and truth. If we can hold the three together then we're well on our way to having a useful dialogue. If we separate out truth into a set of proposition in a sort of Enlightenment way and say oh, I assent to these and therefore I'm in. Or I fail to assent and therefore I'm out. Then I think we've hit a dead end and we will inevitably decline and wither spiritually.

George Mason: Well, I think this is where we have been recently in witnessing the capitulation of much of evangelical Christianity in America to the political culture of power where the separation of believing the right things over here gives you permission then to promote a way of life that is abhorrent to the Gospel that you claim to preach. That's where many people are falling out with the church today over the cleft between on the one hand claims to truth and on the other hand a kind of unattractive life you might say.

Robert Hunt: Well, it's an ugly life.

George Mason: It is an ugly life.

Robert Hunt: It's an ugly life. I think people are repelled by the ugliness that they see. Justifiably so. What's most unfortunate is when that ugliness finds its way into the church. We have an ugly church. No one's going to come in. Unfortunately, all of us who are Protestants, to some degree, some more than others, okay, are inheritors of an iconoclasm that was rebellion against Roman Catholicism. That led to something sparse and spare. Not to say ugly. Sometimes the sparsity, the clean altars, so there's no hint of idolatry, the lack of even a cross. The old Vermont church that we used to go to with my uncle when we went on holiday, were oh, my gosh. That actually represented a certain aesthetic in its time. Okay. It eventually becomes a negative theology where anything beautiful, ornate, florid, is wrong. Then we're cut down to bare propositions. Again, this sort of equations are the truth. I think that is repellent to people. We see some evidence that the so called millennial generation is actually attracted to aesthetically pleasing worship as opposed to spare, bare bones.

George Mason: Or performance worship. The spare, bare bones on the one hand. Or the great entertainment culture on the other, which they can get on their own. They don't need the church to do that for them.

Robert Hunt: When there's nothing distinctive. When our praise music sounds like Celine Dion does Jesus then we have not adequately separated our aesthetic from a world aesthetic. There's a difference.

George Mason: There really is. Well, Robert thank you for raising all of these ideas to us and challenging us to put them all together. We're grateful for your work and for you being here in Dallas. Thank you for being on Good God.

Robert Hunt: Happy to be here.

George Mason: Thank you very much.

Robert Hunt: Terrific.


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