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09 June 2010

Evangelism in the 21st Century (2): Isolationism and Community

Previously we began considering the nature of evangelism in the twenty-first century by considering the twenty-first century context and the different types of people that we find around us. We demonstrated that even though much has changed over two millennia, many aspects of the twenty-first century mirror the situation into which the Gospel was first brought back in the first century. Nevertheless, there are many glaring differences between our current society and society in the first century, and many of these differences represent significant stumbling-blocks to evangelism. Perhaps no stumbling-block is as acutely felt as the isolationist trend in our society with its subsequent loss of community. How can the Gospel overcome?

The trend toward isolation in our society has developed gradually and in many ways imperceptibly over time, yet ought to be manifest today. The way that technology has been used deserves a good share of the blame, but so also does the general American ethos of individualism and personal privacy. Consider the average middle- to upper-class American in his existence: he wakes up in his suburban house with his wife and 2.5 children, gets into his automobile to drive into the city to go to work, surrounded by thousands of other persons in their automobiles, all separated from one another yet sharing the same roads. He then gets to his place of employment, where he works in a cubicle or an office, and although there are hundreds of other employees around, he is shielded from them and interacts mostly with the telephone or the computer screen. On his way home he may stop at a supermarket or "big box" store where he is again surrounded by many other people and yet does not interact with them much at all. He then comes home to his fenced-in home in his subdivision, turns on the television, and wonders why his life feels empty.

It is indeed a sad irony-we live in an age where people can directly communicate across the globe, and yet we are more and more set apart from other people. It ought not to surprise anyone that we have so much more depression and other psychological disorders manifest in our society. Individuals were never meant to be islands, and yet that is what they have become.

How is this so? As human beings have become more isolated, the concept of community has significantly changed or has been entirely lost. As more and more people flock to cities, one's "community" is not defined by physical boundary markers as much as voluntary association. People have as large of a community as they would desire to have, and can change that community as they wish. Nevertheless, the ties that bind the communities of today are not as strong as the bonds of communities of old.

We have surprising evidence of these trends from the Amish. The Amish are renowned for their more simplistic lifestyle and how they are utterly different from "us". In the Amish community, all teenagers have the opportunity to either go out into the world or to decide to become full members of the community. These days, according to statistics, well over 90 percent remain part of the community (Steven Nolt, A History of the Amish, 284-285). While we could investigate all kinds of factors-brainwashing, familiarity issues, etc.-such do not really answer the more startling statistic: this percentage is higher than it has ever been in the past! In 1900, the Amish way of life looked like it would become extinct; the movement was absorbed into the Mennonite church in Europe, and half of the Amish in America also drifted into the Mennonite church. At that time, 79 percent of the teenagers stayed (ibid, 284). One hundred years earlier, only 40 percent stayed; in fact, in 1800, there was not one Amish family in the United States in which all the children remained faithful to their traditions (ibid, 74).

Such information confuses us-after all, the Amish in 1800 were not as distinct from the rest of the world as they are now. We have all these technological developments that make life so much easier; do they really want to do all that extra work? It is highly doubtful that Amish teenagers would not appreciate labor-saving technology; the reasons for the change in patterns do not lie with the Amish as much as it does with "us". When the Amish see our world, they see the isolation of our society and the lack of support structures. While they have to work harder, they at least have a tight-knit community that will make sure that everyone's needs are met. Twenty-first century America requires the government to do the things that the Amish community has been doing for their own for years-- Social Security, welfare, healthcare, etc. The Amish demonstrate to us the power of community and what modern society has lost.

How, then, does this impact evangelism in the twenty-first century? Much in every way. Realistically, we are not going to be able to do the types of things that Peter and Paul did, standing in a public forum and addressing the multitudes. First of all, such public forums rarely exist; even where they do exist, modern man has trained himself to ignore and avoid all such things with which he is unfamiliar. We still use such methods as door-knocking, direct mail, Bible correspondence courses, posting gospel meeting announcements and the like, and so on and so forth, to try to present the Gospel to those with whom we are unfamiliar. We certainly should still strive to reach such persons, but we must recognize that we will not achieve momentous results with such programs. We must work with the community structure that is in place today.

Polls that have been taken correspond with evidence "on the ground": personal evangelism is the best way to reach people in an isolated society. The focus can no longer be sustained on the evangelist, for most likely he is one of the least enmeshed persons within the community and for whom there are more boundaries raised. People have been "sold things" to death, but people are still open to hear about new things from their family, friends, and associates who have no vested interest in what they are promoting. When members talk to their friends, family, neighbors, and associates about spiritual things, inviting them to the assemblies, showing proper Christian love and care for them (Galatians 6:10, Philippians 1:14). More than ever, the life lived by each individual member is the best form of evangelism today (Matthew 5:13-16).

What should be done about the tendency toward isolation? Many have found success in using the tools of isolation-television, the Internet, etc.--but most are only truly successful when they provide the appearance of breaking down that isolating barrier. There is no problem with promoting the Gospel with many of these tools, but overall the church must stand against this isolationist tendency, and it does so by promoting the church as a community. Acts 2:42-47 describes the early church in Jerusalem, and one notable aspect of this church is how they devoted themselves to "fellowship", which is the Greek word koinonia, which also can mean "community". In this early church community, all the members had everything in common and were together, constantly in the Temple and in houses, praising God (Acts 2:42-46). Should we then be surprised to see that their numbers were constantly growing (Acts 2:47)? Consider again Matthew 5:13-16: we must be the light of the world, a city on a hill that cannot be hidden. If the church represents the type of community it ought-brethren who love one another, working with one another, encouraging one another, bearing one another's burdens (1 John 4:15-21, Hebrews 10:24-25, Galatians 6:1-2)-many others will see how it is different and can see why they ought to participate. Maintaining a healthy church community is not evangelism per se, but evangelism will not be easy if a church does not provide the community that God has charged it to provide. If the church acts just like a social club or a dysfunctional family, how is it any different from the world at large? What makes it attractive to others?

If societal trends continue, isolationism and the loss of community will still be acutely felt for generations to come. These difficulties are not going to go away; we must consider them and how we must confront them. Let us do what we can to promote the Gospel in our own lives and increase the Kingdom in this age.

Ethan R. Longhenry
September 2007

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