peter rollins on evangelism

Peter Rollins with IKON has this really good blog on Evangelism, thought I would share it and see what you thought. You can check his website out at:

When we are confronted with an alternative political or religious community our tendency is to discuss what we think is valid about its view of the world and where we think they fall short. Yet such a conversation so easily eclipses the truly vital role of alternative political and religious visions. Truly great movements, the ones that continue to change, develop and persevere (even if only as an idea), can not so easily be judged and sifted. They often remain for the simple reason that, at their core, they offer a way of seeing the world that offers profound insight. Something that is too often missed in discussions concerning what we like and don’t like about the particular movement under discussion.

Instead, Žižek and others offer a different way of approaching alternative movements, even ones that are rightly judged to be dangerious. Žižek asks us to resist judging them for a moment and allow them to judge us. In other words, he invites us to see our world through their eyes.

Let us take a religious example. A movement in the Western world that continues to exist in a different way to the dominant values of society is the Amish community. Instead of looking at that community and either romanticising them or ridiculing them an interesting experiment would be to ask a different question. Namely, what do those within the Amish community see when they look at the society around them. In short, what do they think when they look at us?

When we ask this question we may, for instance, begin to discern a shadow side to aspects of our society that we previously assumed to be good. We may begin to perceive problems with our increasing attachment to social media, or our abstraction from an organic sense of time (the passing of seasons etc.), or with how we treat our elders once they are too old to have independence (putting them in institutions) etc. etc.

What we may have assumed to be good aspects of our society (or simply ‘the way things are’) may be revealed as oppressive and in need of reform.

This approach is not relativistic in that it does not claim that all worlds are equal. Yet neither does it fall into the all too safe and easy position of judging a movement from the outside. Rather it allows the other to critique our own position and improve our own society. In other words, they enable us to engage more effectively in immanent critique (which, I would want to argue, is the most effective type of critique).

This goes equally for groups that are popularly conceived of as the ‘enemy’. For instance, what would we see if we attempted to view the Western world through the eyes of someone in the Taliban? What would they make of our magazines that are full of unrealistic images of the ‘ideal’ woman, images that sit alongside adverts for plastic surgery and diet pills? Or how would they feel about the way news channels frame conflicts (almost always in non-political ways that emphasise subjective street violence over the objective violence of economic issues that feed the conflicts)? Would they see the former as oppressive in much the same way as many see woman wearing a Hijab as oppressive? And would they see the later as largely an outpouring of propaganda that fails to educate people about the effects of global politics, foreign policy decisions and economic issues?

To invite a world that we would wish to critique and dismiss to be a mirror into our own world is a difficult thing to do. It requires both bravery and humility.

In ikon we run an experimental group called ‘The Evangelism Project’ that was formed out of this idea around six years ago. ‘The Evangelism Project’ is a group of people who visit different political and religious groups, not to evangelise, but to be evangelised. Not to reform the other but to invite the other to reform us. In the project we have found that, as we see our world through the others eyes, we come to see some of things we believe and do in a different light. Here the other offers us a profound gift that enables us to transform our own community in positive ways that we would otherwise have been blind to.

‘The Evangelism Project’ is not an interfaith dialogue as we are not there to share what we have in common (and thus avoid what we don’t). Indeed there is no real dialogue at all. We are there to learn, to see our world through the others eyes in order to begin to locate (and then deal with) the shadow side of our own position. Interestingly however, time and again we have found that by allowing ourselves to be evangelised it encourages others to want to recipricate.

As Kester Brewin pointed out in a provocative post recently, we can even do this with racist groups like the BNP. Here the point is not to strengthen their position but to weaken it by working out why many people (rather than just a lunatic fringe) are drawn to the movement and then addressing the issues properly.

So I still very much believe that evangelism can change the world, and hope to help show that Christian faith communities can demonstrate this by continually inviting people to evangelise us…


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