A Bonhoefferian Take on Evangelism

Evangelism, under the sway of the 16th century’s emphasis on the individual person’s (sinner) relation to God (judge and forgiver), saw people as needing to know they were miserable sinners in God’s sight and that they ought to avail themselves of his gracious forgiveness. Evangelism calibrated to this theology sought, then, to find others’ weaknesses and sins and bring them the good news of the gospel (as they understand it).  

As long as the sense of guilt before God was strong in our culture, this approach seemed effective. I say seemed, because whenever we met someone for who life was going well, were decent people, successful, good marriage, children doing well, etc. we discovered our gospel has little to say to them. And as the sense of guilt before God ceased to be potent culture reality the gospel was speaking a language fewer and fewer people could or wanted to understand.

The world had changed. The 20th was no longer the 16th century. The gospel we inherited, while not wrong in itself, proved less comprehensive than it needed to be. It no longer “scratched where people itched.” This, and churches behaving badly, soured many on the whole gospel “thing.” If what we were offering was “good news.” Those we were offering it to chose to pass.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer realized this as he sat in prison for his resistance work against the Nazis. In his Letters and Papers from Prison he offered this analysis. The changed world we live in he named the “world-come-of-age” (w-c-o-a). Humans were confident and assertive in using their powers to change the world. Science and technology were tools that engendered this confidence. They didn’t need God to solve their problems for them. No longer at the mercy of fate, custom, taboos, and religion, people took charge of their own lives. They had become agents of their own lives and history. This historical development was irresistible and irrevocable.    

In this w-c-o-a Bonhoeffer observed

“. . . In very different forms the Christian apologetic is now moving against this self-confidence. It is trying to persuade this world that has come of age that it cannot live without “God” as its guardian. Even after we have capitulated on all worldly matters, there still remain the so-called ultimate questions—death, guilt—which only “God” can answer, and for which people need God and the church and the pastor. So in a way we live off these so-called ultimate human questions. But what happens if some day they no longer exist as such, or if they are being answered “without God”? Here is where the secularized offshoots of Christian theology come in, that is, the existential philosophers and the psychotherapists, to prove to secure, contented, and happy human beings that they are in reality miserable and desperate and just don’t want to admit that they are in a perilous situation, unbeknown to themselves, from which only existentialism or psychotherapy can rescue them. Where there is health, strength, security, and simplicity, these experts scent sweet fruit on which they can gnaw or lay their corrupting eggs. They set about to drive people to inner despair, and then they have a game they can win. This is secularized methodism. And whom does it reach? a small number of intellectuals, of degenerates, those who consider themselves most important in the world and therefore enjoy being preoccupied with themselves. A simple man who spends his daily life with work and family, and certainly also with various stupid affairs, won’t be affected. He has neither time nor inclination to be concerned with his existential despair, or to see his perhaps modest share of happiness as having “perilous,” “worrisome,” or “disastrous” aspects. I consider the attack by Christian apologetics on the world’s coming of age as, first of all, pointless, second, ignoble, and, third, unchristian. Pointless—because it appears to me like trying to put a person who has become an adult back into puberty, that is, to make people dependent on a lot of things on which they in fact no longer depend, to shove them into problems that in fact are no longer problems for them. Ignoble—because an attempt is being made here to exploit people’s weaknesses for alien purposes to which they have not consented freely. Unchristian—because it confuses Christ with a particular stage of human religiousness, namely, with a human law” (Letters and Papers from Prison: DBW 8 (Kindle Locations 12081-12097). Augsburg Fortress. Kindle Edition.)

Both Christian apologists and secular “therapists” ply their trades by trying to ferret out people’s weaknesses, failures, and “sins,” especially those of the strong and successful. Both Bonhoeffer believes fail to take seriously the new historical epoch we live in. Such efforts he calls

-pointless: it seeks to infantilize others, to treat them as less than they have become.

-ignoble: it exploits others for purposes to which they have not consented (manipulative).

-unchristian: it assumes an approach which worked under certain conditions will work everywhere.  

I believe Bonhoeffer’s critique is valid for much of the “evangelism” practiced in North America in the 20th and 21st centuries. (This does not mean God has not or does not use such an approach to people; Phil.1:12-18.) We need a new way.

And that way according to Bonhoeffer is having a gospel large and supple enough to address people at their points of strength, success, health, and well-bring and not having to prey on them in weakness, wickedness, ill health, failure. And the like.

“From a theological viewpoint,” he writes, “the error is twofold: first, thinking one can only address people as sinners after having spied out their weaknesses and meanness; second, thinking that the essential nature of a person consists of his innermost, intimate depths and background, and calling this the person’s ‘inner life.’ And precisely these most secret human places are to be the domain of God! (LPP: 12955-12957)

Rather, Bonhoeffer says, ”It is not the sins of weakness but rather the sins of strength that matter. There is no need to go spying around. Nowhere does the Bible do this.” (LPP:12959-12960). The corollary here, I believe, is that evangelism is about idolatry not morality. The gospel addresses us in our strength, the places or postures we take that we believe maximize our drives for significance and security. For those places are where our idols reside and sponsor our hardcore resistance to God. The issue in evangelism, again, is idolatry not morality.

Secondly, we assume that we have an “inner life” which is where our life with God happens. But Bonhoeffer claims

“The discovery of the so-called inner life dates from the Renaissance (probably from Petrarch). The “heart” in the biblical sense is not the inner life but rather the whole person before God. Since human beings live as much from their ‘outer’ to their ‘inner’ selves as from their ‘inner’ to their ‘outer’ selves, the assumption that one can only understand the essence of a human being by knowing his most intimate psychological depths and background is completely erroneous” (LPP: 12969-12972).

Further, and in conclusion, he writes,

“What I am driving at is that God should not be smuggled in somewhere, in the very last, secret place that is left. Instead, one must simply recognize that the world and humankind have come of age. One must not find fault with people in their worldliness but rather confront them with God where they are strongest. One must give up the “holier-than-thou” ploys and not regard psychotherapy or existential philosophy as scouts preparing the way for God” (LPP:12973-12976).

“One must not find fault with people in their worldliness but rather confront them with God where they are strongest” – this must be the mantra of reconstructing evangelism in our day.


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