Preaching to Convert: Evangelical Outreach and Performance Activism in a Secular Age – a review

Review of
Preaching to Convert: Evangelical Outreach and Performance Activism in a Secular Age,
by John Fletcher
Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2013.

The Christian church in North America today, including the evangelical church, is rather embarrassed about doing evangelism. In part this is due to fact that the history of the Christian church is littered with obviously immoral approaches to evangelism, from which we want to distance ourselves. But, as John Fletcher points out in the conclusion to his book, perhaps there is a more telling and current reason for our embarrassment about evangelism. We have accommodated to contemporary liberal pluralism, and thus do our utmost to be “pleasingly tolerant, faithful-but-non-fanatic” (p. 309), as per the portrait found in American Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell (2010). “Indeed, so great is the desire to ‘leave everybody else alone,’ so painful the self-inflicted wounds of awkward/offensive/presumptive evangelism, that most self-identified evangelicals rarely evangelize at all, at least not with any frequency” (p. 305). And yet, as Fletcher reminds us, evangelicals should engage in outreach. That is part of what it means to be an evangelical, as Fletcher points out in an early chapter, which provides a helpful analysis of what it means to be an evangelical (Ch. 2). Indeed, Fletcher frequently expresses his admiration for evangelical evangelism, even though he is an outsider.

This raises the question as to why a Professor of Theatre at Louisiana State University, and “a liberal, gay, ex-Southern Baptist, United Methodist” (p. 5), would write a careful analysis of evangelical approaches to evangelism. Fletcher interprets evangelism as a kind of theatrical performance, an “activist performance,” which he uses as an umbrella word to describe a host of other popular and scholarly terms that each touch on some aspect of the kind of performance that he studies – political theater, theater for social change, street theater, people’s theater, community-engaged theatre, theatre of the oppressed, or applied theatre/drama (Ch. 1, p. 18). I found trying to understand evangelism from this perspective to be not only refreshing but also illuminating in that it serves to highlight aspects of evangelism that are easily missed by those immersed in the evangelical mindset.

Fletcher also dares to suggest that progressive left activists have something to learn from evangelicals and their approaches to evangelism (pp. 311-13). Evangelicals are committed to inviting others to a better way, a better worldview, and they engage in evangelism because they believe that their message is in the other’s best interests. Evangelicals, while respecting the deep convictions of others, are willing to challenge them with their own convictions. Some evangelistic approaches also stress the need to understand their target audiences. Worldview assumptions need to be understood to be challenged. “Evangelicalism’s conversionist orientation – imperfectly realized as it may be – offers a reminder that democratically minded activism must always include an element of attraction and empathy with the enemy” (p. 312). Fletcher concludes Chapter 2 with this generous comment: “In a time of cynicism and diminished hopes, in a time of partisan polarization, in a time of desperation and apathy, I am envious of evangelicals’ faith in activism” (p. 45).

The bulk of Preaching to Convert is devoted to a careful analysis of various approaches to evangelism as practiced by evangelicals, who are described by Fletcher as “a heterogeneous collection of communities and individuals who unit in constantly seeking out, innovating, defining, theorizing, criticizing, reacting to, refining, combining, experimenting with, discarding, and realizing this ever-expanding, ever-deepening repertoire of techniques for changing the hearts, minds, and souls of those around them” (p. 309). Chapter 3 examines personal evangelism as proclamation – the “soul-winning” tradition of door-to-door evangelism, the “Four Spiritual Laws” presentation innovated by Bill Bright and the Campus Crusade for Christ, and the stop-strangers-on-the-street dialogic evangelism promoted by Ray Comfort in his “Way of the Master.”

In Chapter 4, Fletcher examines a number of evangelicals who have become critical of interpersonal evangelism that limits itself to proclamation. Indeed, multiple congregations across the United States have taken up the “Confessions of a Sinful Church” strategy, where they publicly apologize for “ugly evangelism” (pp. 124-8). Instead of confrontational approaches to evangelism, some evangelicals advocate approaches that involve friendship, careful listening, countering anti-Christian presuppositions, and apologetics. Chapter 4 takes up Jim Henderson’s “Ordinary Attempts,” Greg Koukl’s conversational apologetics, and Greg Stier’s “ideavirus” approach. Each of these approaches draw from the work of Francis Schaeffer who counseled evangelists to spend time trying to understand the worldviews of non-Christians before they tried to persuade them of Christian Truth.

In the third section of the book Fletcher studies two large-scale, more traditionally “theatrical” evangelical performance forms. Chapter 5 focuses on the community/church-based staging of “hell houses” and judgement houses” as a way of reaching the unconverted. Chapter 6 examines the Creation Museum, a multi-million-dollar combination of science museum and discovery-fun-center based around a strictly young-earth creationist viewpoint. Often considered to be exemplars of evangelical backwardness and anti-intellectualism, Fletcher suggests they are best understood as community based productions that accomplish vital work for the producing communities in terms of reinforcing their beliefs, even as they strive to reach the unconverted.

Chapter 7 examines the way in which mega-churches have used seeker-sensitive worship services to attract new members. The chapter begins with an intriguing question raised in a video produced by Richard Reising’s company, Artistry Labs: “What if Starbucks Marketed like the Church? A Parable” (p. 221). Chapter 8 is somewhat of an odd fit for this book, and Fletcher concedes this point to some extent. The focus of Chapter 8 is on organizations like Exodus International, which are dedicated to helping homosexuals find healing. Here the focus is not on changing someone else, but on individual conversion. In this chapter Fletcher analyzes the controversies surrounding the effectiveness of gay cures, and the resulting spectrum of positions on LGBT people within evangelicalism.

I found Fletcher’s survey of each of these evangelical performances to be thorough and often insightful, uncovering the assumptions underlying each approach and doing some good comparative analysis. Indeed, his careful analysis belies his status as an outsider. This is in part due to his background as “a preacher’s kid in the Southern Baptist Church” and his knowing “from firsthand experience what it is to evangelize” (pp. 12-13). Fletcher is also not afraid to use the works of evangelical scholarship, though he is careful to note and account for interpretive slants that might exist. Interestingly, he draws attention to a “comparable warping in many ostensibly ‘neutral’ works on religion, works that can sometimes dwell more on the author’s distance from faith than on the beliefs and believers being studied” (p. 12). This is very definitely not a weakness of Fletcher’s own analysis. Though he engages in criticism, I found his criticisms to be on the whole fair, and meeting his aim of “critical generosity” (p. 36). At times he quite deliberately defends evangelicals and evangelistic methods against unfair criticisms. It is only in his chapter on homosexuality that his language occasionally becomes a little strident.

I would highly recommend this book for anyone wanting a good overview of evangelical practices of outreach. Though a book of scholarship, it is very readable, and further, fascinating for anyone interested in evangelical approaches to evangelism.

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