The push for a relational approach to evangelism and ministry in general is without a doubt a direct response to long-standing church culture that has over-valued propositionalism. Younger leaders (Gen X and Millennial especially) view attempts to urge a person to faith in Christ by way of intellectual assent as inauthentic and even manipulative. The solution, at least according to many, is to shift away from logic and towards relationship. Seems like an obvious choice, but this presents what I perceive to be a catastrophic problem.
The real issue with propositionalism is not a personal one; it is generational. Boomers (born 1942-1961) and Silents (born 1920-1941) place a high value on logic and therefore almost require truth to be presented by proposition. But that view is not shared by Gen X’ers (born 1962-1981) and Millennials (born 1982-2001); they revere experience over most anything else. However, the issue of trust does concern us personally–it transcends generational tendencies. Here’s the difference though: In the older generations, trust can only be violated; in the younger generations, trust can only be earned. So if you’re dealing with a people group who is generally trusting, even during the intitial stages of acquaintance, and that people group values logic (i.e. Boomers and Silents), then propositionalism would naturally be a highly effective way to engage them for the purpose of sharing truth. There’s nothing wrong with it–it makes sense, it’s authentic to the generation, and it works. In fact, to the Boomers and Silents, it’s… get ready for it… relational! You see, relationships are defined not by time, but by trust. And it generally takes less time to build trust among the older generations than it does for the younger ones. So, the opposite of (hence the solution to) propositional is actually NOT relational.
Here’s the problem: By replacing the propostitional with the relational, we have effectively perceived and employed relationship as a technique. This categorically violates the very nature and sanctity of relationship. The moment we even acknowledge an intention to ‘use’ a relationship for any purpose, it is no longer a relationship; it becomes a vehicle. That fundamentally changes the way we view the other person. It ultimately devalues him and it damages our integrity.
Now, please don’t misinterpret the point here. Relationship is absolutely critical to evangelism, discipleship and Christian community. But it is no more essential now than it ever has been. If you’re a Boomer who grew up in the fifties and sixties, you likely placed a high value on relationship (you still do, I’m certain). When you dismiss “relational” or “friendship” evangelism for example, it’s because to you it seems a bit redundant. The primary complaint members of older generations have against the relational approach is that it lacks substance–but you’ll rarely ever hear a Boomer claim that relationship is unimportant. To them, because trust is initially assumed, relationship is inherent. However, our culture has shifted towards distrust and skepticism, and so trust generally requires more time to establish. We’ve confused this process with ministry strategy, and so we build outreach methodologies that demand measurable outcomes from relationships. From the world’s perspective, setting these kinds of expectations on our relationships can potentially even place us on a level with some of those notorious swindlers we all read about…
The bottom line for me is this: Jesus compels his disciples in Mark 12:31, “…You shall love your neighbor as yourself…” (ESV) In Romans 5:8, Paul describes how Christ provided the perfect model, “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (ESV) Paul goes on to distill the nature of this love in Ephesians 5:2, “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (ESV) Love is characterized by what we offer, not by what we receive. Sustainable relationship depends on this principle and exists exclusive of any expectation of profit (spiritual or otherwise). A ministry strategy that corrupts this becomes inauthentic and manipulative–just like what we claim of propositionalism.
So, if the propositional approach makes no sense to the younger generations, and if we are to preserve the purity of relationship by resisting our present inclinations to use it as a means to an end, then where does that leave us? I will address this in my very next post, but I’m extremely interested in hearing your thoughts. Do you agree? Disagree? What do you believe is the solution?
PS- I thought I’d include this incredible clip of Danny DeVito from the movie The Big Kahuna. He does an amazing job of describing this concept in his character’s own words.
Tags: Baby Boomers, friendship evangelism, generation x, generational theory, Millennials, Milliennial Generation, ministry methodology, ministry strategy, propositional, propositionalism, relational, relational discipleship, relational evangelism, relational ministry, Silent Generation