(totally cheating) Evangelism in the Empire– Keynote 1

Since I didn’t preach this week, I bring you the keynote addresses from our Annual Conference where, in one of my many hats, I wrote up articles about the keynotes given by my former professor, Dr. Bryan Stone.

(for fun, kids, diagram that sentence)

And to totally cheat, I’m just pasting in the articles. The content is, therefore, I think, ‘owned’ by Troy Annual Conference, and the first article at least is found in its home on the Troy AC website.

Evangelism in the Empire

Dr. Bryan Stone, addressing Confernece session. Photo by Nick Morrow, Troy AC CommunicationsThe E. Stanley Jones professor of Evangelism at Boston University School of Theology, Dr. Bryan Stone, believes that evangelism, the Good News, is the living out of the Christian faith. In his first keynote address to the Troy Annual Conference session, Dr. Stone focused on the task of evangelism in the American imperial context.

Empire, Stone said, is a word with negative connotations, and yet throughout its history the Christian church has lived in an empire. In this context, the church faithful have two options: they can serve as chaplains to the empire, nurturing its worldview and ministering to its particular needs, or they can act as martyrs within it. A martyr, or witness, lives in such a way as to challenge the empire, embodying “a new and alternative society.”

To provide this witness to, within, and against the surrounding culture, Stone said that the church of today needs to recover its visibility. Only by “recapturing the early church’s counter-imperialist strangeness” can the church of the twenty-first century engage in a lived and embodied witness.
This is true evangelism, Stone said, “not marketing, but being the deviant, subversive Body of Christ.”

Stone said there were several ways that Christians could be deviant and countercultural, standing in contrast to the empire that surrounds it: practicing forgiveness and love amidst violence, sharing food and resources in a just and loving way, rejecting the ‘us versus them’ mentality that often leads to violence, and offering holy hospitality to all, especially those deemed ‘other’ by the empire and its chaplains. These behaviors, visibly practiced, bear witness to a different way of life in the midst of an imperial context.

Drawing on the examples of the martyrs of the early church, Stone highlighted several aspects of martyrdom, or witness-bearing, relevant for evangelism today.

First, martyrs point to Christ in word and deed, living so that those around them consider following the Way in their own lives as well. Second, bearing witness defines what the church is by providing a demonstration to the world.

“The Church is the performance of an alternative social imagination, the embodiment of a new creation,” Stone said.

Third, martyrdom is an argument, not a bumper sticker or a t-shirt, but a rationale for a way of life that is lived without seeking the approval of others. Embracing the life of Christ means remaining faithful to that teaching with or without the support of culture.

Finally, as resistance to the empire, bearing witness follows Jesus and is, by definition, non-violent. True witness is open to learning from and listening to the other and loving as an act of humility, drawn from the realization that each individual is loved by God.

Stone challenged the conference to reflect on why the American church has formed so few martyrs. He speculated that the task of standing against the empire becomes more difficult when that empire is not a pagan empire but one that professes to be Christian.

“The church’s task is to keep ourselves from being seduced by the empire,” Stone said. “We have to ask ourselves: to what do our lives and our congregations bear witness? What do our actions proclaim?”

If the church teaches a way of life that bears witness to Christ, Stone said, we can create martyrs. We can make disciples who will not be chaplains to the empire, working within its political systems and worldview to try to effect small changes, but true saints, creating a new political system and a new way of living.

“The most evangelical thing the church can do is to be the church,” Stone said.

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