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Evangelise; dehumanise?

If ‘isms’ are dangerous, verbs ending in ‘ise’ or ‘ize’ are ominous.  Where did all the ‘ise’ words come from?  There are hundreds of them:  patronise, cauterize, immunise, terrorise, categorise, idolise, immobilise, infantilise, evangelise….

Where the verb has a human subject and a human object, the verb nearly always conveys the idea that the subject exerts power over the object:  ‘The doctor anaesthetised her.’  One person is powerful and active, the other is passive and apparently submissive, too.  It’s not clear how much choice the object of the verb has to resist the action of the subject.  Can you stop someone idolising you, or categorizing you?

Many of these words also incorporate the idea of taking away your humanity.  If you satirise someone, or lionise them, or bastardise them, the verb form ending in ‘ise’ suggests you have taken away their unique individuality, and their human freedom, and their power over how they are treated.  Which is why it’s a good idea to avoid the word ‘evangelise’…  because while it might be a word that incorporates the possibility of good things such as talking about Jesus, people who use it might unconsciously do it in a way that doesn’t wholly respect the humanity, freedom and individuality of the ‘other’.

Our freedom is highly prized by God and immensely important to him – so important it cost the death of Jesus on the cross.  God could have witheld our freedom in which case we wouldn’t have needed a saviour.  So we have to assume he wouldn’t want us to share the gospel in a way that has the potential to rob others of their full humanity, freedom and individuality.

The danger of isms

It sounds as if it should be the first line of a nonsense poem:

‘The danger of isms and and zations and ises –
all human deceptions in different disguises!’

My new role gives me responsibility for encouraging others to put evangelism at the heart of all they do, and while the spirit of that idea is something I completely endorse, I don’t like the language.

Having lived in the Soviet Union under communism, I came to realise that ‘isms’ are belief systems that cage people in a world which is divorced from reality.  Under communism people said they believed things that were quite clearly impossible and untrue.  You had to agree that your government were leading you into a bright future even while you were standing in a grocer’s shop that had nothing on the counter except one scrawny yellow chicken that would cost you a fortune, and you had to wrap your deceased relatives up in crepe paper and stand them in the foyer of your block of flats till they could be transported to the cemetery because there was no functioning undertaker service.

‘Isms’ box us in.  They suggest there’s a complete way of understanding one’s world which will give us order and certainty and save us having to think for ourselves and be open to realities that challenge our beliefs.  Gradually we allow them to describe a world that doesn’t exist, and a gulf opens up between us and the world that does.

So I think we need to think of a better term than ‘evangelism’.  I don’t think Jesus was an ‘ism’ – maker.  He was constantly questioning the unexamined teaching and assumptions made by religious teachers around him.  He smashed the walls of the glass cage of the rule-bound Judaism of his day.  If ‘evangelism’ describes a process based on a mindset that wants to make others believe what I believe, it isn’t worthy of Jesus or the gospel.

What we’re called to do is be ambassadors for God in Jesus Christ.  This may lead others to find a doorway into the kingdom of God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, where they will encounter the wonderful freedom of the children of God and be led by the Spirit into an ‘ism-free’ dynamic relationship of continual discovery.

To know as we are known

I went to work today asking God to help me treat each person as though they were unique, precious, and beautiful.

It did make a difference.  Somehow it created space between me and the ever-growing ‘to do’ list.  This might become my Lenten fast.  With God’s’ help (obviously) I’m going to try to have an attitude of reverence towards every person I encounter.

You might ask, ‘As a Christian and a priest, shouldn’t you be doing that already?’

The answer is obvious.  But somehow I don’t.  Parker Palmer, in his book ‘To know as we are known’, (pp 23 & 24) describes how our search for objective knowledge has led us to see the world in terms of ‘objects’, stuff that is ‘opposite us’, ‘opposed to us’.  Eventually we come to ‘know’ our fellow human beings in that way… not as created, beloved others formed in the image of God, but as objects that may or may not be useful to us in having some control over our lives.

Am I caught up in this tendency to see others like this?  I am.  But today was a good day.  I bring out of today a little album of memories consisting of moments when I intentionally allowed beloved human beings into the space between me and the  background shrill of my growing workload.

Palmer says the only way we can legitimately ‘know’ anything is to know as God knows.  And that is to know in a personal way, face-to-face. Through Jesus becoming human we’re invited into a loving knowing.  God knows us and that knowing is infused with love.  As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13, imagining us returning God’s gaze, ‘Now we are seeing a dim reflection in a mirror; but then we shall be seeing face to face.  The knowledge I have now is imperfect, but then I shall know as fully as I am known.’


A friend was driving to work listening to Radio 2 and Adele began singing ‘Hello’. My friend, who had heard the song a number of times before, found herself overcome with emotion as she heard God’s voice reach out to her in that word of greeting.  She had to pull the car over to absorb the moment.

‘Hello’. I love that God might just say ‘Hello’.

No reason to think he might not – Jesus would have certainly used the equivalent words to acknowledge and welcome someone in his days in Galilee. His words would have been a form of ‘Peace be with you’ that’s still used all over the Middle East.  There’s something so simple, so homely, so ‘alongside’ in that word that I’ve started saying it myself sometimes to God, as I’m driving, or walking…  just to remind myself he is there and I am there and we are both there together.  It always makes me smile inside, and it’s very restful.  It’s like being with someone you know very well and you don’t have to say anything to be comfortable with them; there’s just an understanding and a contentment on both sides in each other’s company.

It frees the conversation of any kind of performance or striving or contractual dialogue.  It’s just coming together and being, particularly when your mind is free and you’re doing something that’s not quite prayer and not quite rest and not quite work.  I get the sense too that God likes almost being taken for granted – wants just to be there, not the celebrity focus, just one of us.

On another front, it’s amazing how the Spirit of God is reaching out through pop culture to connect with people who don’t get on with church as it is.  God won’t stop singing even if we, the church, can’t catch the tune others need to hear.  God won’t stop calling people outside the church who are hungry for connection.  We need to pick up the mood music and join in.  I’m grateful to Adele for her openness to the Spirit that enabled my friend’s encounter.


The medium is the message

It’s been than two years since my last post.  If you’re still subscribed, thanks!  I don’t know why I haven’t been posting – probably just lacking capacity, and then you lose confidence.  I’ve challenged myself to get back on the horse and get into the discipline of writing over Lent, so I’ll be trying to post something every day.  I’ve decided not to set the bar too high in literary terms so I don’t spend hours agonising over a word or phrase.  So the posts should be shorter and sweeter (but also more frequent).  Let’s see how that goes….  So thanks again for being here, and read on!

Since starting a new job recently I’ve made another resolution – that as far as I can, I want to remind people that ‘the medium is the message’.  This phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan was applied to the use of communication tools by human beings and the way they affect what the content of communication.  I think it’s something we need to build in to all our church structures and activities.

I used to be a teacher and we’d list all our subjects on our website and in our prospectus.  As I trained in school leadership I realised there was a ‘hidden curriculum’ too.  Students thought they were coming to school to learn to cook or do algebra, but what they actually learned was that it was important to conform and keep the rules.  They learned that society values academic intelligence above emotional intelligence or organisational skill, and that power in schools lies mainly with the adults, even though it’s the students who are mainly affected by when decisions are made.

One of the challenges of our church life is to recognise our ‘hidden curriculum’.  We can’t talk about a living God and have a church building that looks like a mausoleum.  We can’t have church services which talk about resurrection if they’re dreary and stale.  The vicar can’t preach on transformation if she isn’t visibly being transformed herself or at least open to the possibility of it…  Whenever there’s a gap between what we say and what we do we lose integrity, and that undermines our message and our mission.

The best ever example of the medium being the message is Jesus.  In coming to share our humanity he was self-giving love, humility, reconciliation, compassion and outreach.  He was the Word made flesh.  We really need to follow his example and audit everything we do, not just for the content of all our services and structures and activities…. but for the way we do them.  Because on a subconscious level, this is what people take in.  They know if there’s even a tiny gap between our message and the way that’s embodied and acted out.

At the moment I’m thinking about this particularly in respect of emerging conversations about new pioneer training routes.  The reality is, any pioneer training route has to be pioneered and pioneering in its essence.  To use a theological word, it has to be ontologically pioneering.  A pioneer training route that isn’t breaking new ground, creating a fresh charism of theological education, giving a platform for unheard voices or challenging existing structures, risks undermining the integrity of pioneering.

For me personally, ‘the medium is the message’ represents a huge challenge… as someone with a call to use my words to influence the world around me, it’s easy to think the words are the most significant thing.  But they’re probably not…  the way they are offered and controlled and sometimes even withheld probably is.