My observation is that a lot of what is done under the heading of “mission” is actually rather ill-conceived, just splurting out what people inside a Christian ghetto think people outside it need to hear, without any proper attention to what the big wide world is actually like. Theology, in that kind of context, tends to get distorted: it tends to be either defensive or aggressive, or both. It seems to be something like a theological grenade just lobbed out there in the hopes that it will hit some ill-defined target. But it doesn’t seem to include listening, or conversation, or the willingness to allow “outsiders” to contribute to theology. And it nearly always ends up being bad theology.
This excerpt from a post by Maggi Dawn gets at the heart of why most Christian evangelism is poorly-conceived, counter-productive, and, not to put too fine a point on it, just plain awful.
When people hear the word "evangelism," they generally think of people who come knocking on your door, or those whose tradition encourages "witnessing" to others so that they might be "converted" to thinking like they do. The former category are almost always Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons, the latter almost always those from conservative theological traditions who emphasize "converting" others to their way of thinking.
Yes, the New Testament does encourage witness, especially the fourth gospel. In the first century, however, the Christian witness took place in a diverse and fluid intellectual world. Christians had to be pretty sharp to compete in this "marketplace of ideas." Which they were. The early history of Christianity is studded with the names of great theologians in dialog with the intellectual currents of their times.
This didn't last long, unfortunately. Imperial Christianity abandoned the free exchange of ideas in the fourth century, and, for the next 1000 years or so, Christian evangelism basically amounted to forcing conquered peoples to get baptized.
Nowadays, we manipulate people with a lighter touch. Today's evangelism usually combines sentimental piety with fear of hell. ("If you died today, would you go to heaven or hell?") If this gets a person through the door--which, increasingly, it does not--then follows the rest of the fundamentalist package: inerrant Bible, distrust of science, rejection of reason, and the propagation of legalistic moralisms, usually limited to, and obsessively-focused upon, sexuality.
This package is increasingly rejected. In fact, this all-too-typical approach now turns off way more people than it turns on. Yet, in response to this hostile reception, fundamentalists seem to have no other alternatives. If you haven't been converted, it's because you simply didn't hear them, at which point they say the exact same thing over again, only louder this time.
This kind of theology cannot compete in our current "marketplace of ideas." The reason is because it rejects that marketplace in the first place. Its not interested in dialog, but rather dominance. Its not interested in the experience of people in the modern world, only their submission to a worldview that seems not only at odds with the modern world, but reality itself. (Talking snakes? Dinosaurs on the ark?)
One can appreciate the New Testament emphasis on "witness" while at the same time being appalled at its contemporary manifestations. One alternate approach that combines intellectual heft with respect for the real-life experience of people is Paul Tillich's "method of correlation."
The "method of correlation" seeks dialog between the faith and the world. It doesn't assume it has all the answers, but seeks, rather, to understand the plight of people as they try to negotiate their lives through the confusing thicket of modern existence. It seeks understanding rather than dominance, which means it treats people with respect and takes the modern world seriously.
I don't say that such an approach will "work" if by "work" you mean herding more people through the Christian chute. Barnum and Bailey hucksterism can do that quite well all by itself. (Manipulation of feelings "works" to an extent, even as it annoys and repels countless others.)
The "method of correlation" asserts the good news of the Christian faith in a world that, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, is now "come of age." People no longer look to religious authorities or institutions to understand the world. They make their own determinations, thank you very much, which means that the church will need to get much sharper and much more relevant in its proclamation. (Bonhoeffer also said, incidentally, that religionists would use all their "clerical tricks" to keep people in a "religious consciousness," i.e. dependent on religion.)
Christian evangelism is not about tacking another coon skin on the wall. In fact, it's not even really about talking. When Jesus talks about the mission of the church in the four gospels, it's much more about doing than it is about speaking. Trust in Christ is advanced when his people treat others with dignity, and not as mere objects to be emotionally manipulated. Or, as St. Francis so succinctly put it, "Always preach the gospel. If necessary, use words."