Monday, May 28, 2007

Rethinking the formula

Last year, I was invited to present an academic paper at a conference on C S Lewis, hosted by the Centre for Apologetic Scholarship and Education at the University of New South Wales. It was a good experience and an opportunity to learn from and interact with a variety of Christian thinkers and C S Lewis aficionados. But in a session of general discussion, there was a recurring question—which I probably should have anticipated in such a predominantly academic, Christian setting—that bugged me: “How can we find/develop/become the ‘next C S Lewis’?”
Of course, the thinking goes, C S Lewis was—and his books continue to be—such a powerful voice for rational Christian faith that finding someone else to do the same kind of thing will advance the cause of Christianity further still. Such thinking is only partly right.

The concern for connecting with other people and connecting them with our faith is important. Even if there were no other reasons, Jesus said to do it (see Matthew 28:18-20 and Acts 1:8). If we really believe the things we claim, we realise there are dramatic consequences to this mission. And it is also important for the health of the church and the credibility of our own faith.

Accordingly, we should be prepared to look to and learn from the past, both the successes and the failures. The wisdom that has been handed down to us is valuable. And if there has been an approach that has served well in the past we should consider how we can continue to employ it. A new idea is not necessarily a better idea. We shoulder an unending burden if we expect to continually develop and discover new approaches to evangelism.

But neither should we be prisoners of the established ways of doing things. We should not be tempted to believe evangelism can be reduced to some formula or technique. To suggest a formula is useful marketing for a “how to” book, seminar or other resource. But the quest for an evangelism formula is a myth of Christian marketing; there is no specific evangelism formula.

For an academic Christian audience, one can see why the C S Lewis formula is attractive. They understand and appreciate his approach. Lewis was a scholar of Oxford and Cambridge Universities. At the height of his popularity—in England during World War II—Lewis was probably the second most recognisable voice on radio, after Winston Churchill. His writing attracted attention around the world and even saw him featured on the cover of Time magazine. The recent success of the movie adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe testify to his talent for communication and storytelling.

But to seek a Lewis-clone as some kind of evangelistic cure-all undercuts him and the missional nature of true evangelism. For a start, Lewis was a genius. He has been described as the most widely read person of his generation and the acclaim given to his books is testament to their unique craftmanship. Lewis has been so successful because what he did was singularly remarkable.

And he was in the right place at the right time. At a time when universities were highly respected, a time of national crisis, a time of relatively easy mass communication but before the takeover of the public consciousness by today’s myriad of media voices, Lewis’ gift for communication could shine—and it did. But he did not create a formula.

As the discussion continued that afternoon, I was so bold as to share these reflections with the group. It may be, I suggested, we are wrong to look for another C S Lewis, whom we would readily recognise as the next C S Lewis. Instead, perhaps we might recognise something of the spirit of C S Lewis in the musical efforts of bands like Sixpence None the Richer and Switchfoot, both of which have taken their faith-driven music to the top of mainstream music charts around the world in recent years. Both readily reference C S Lewis—“sixpence none the richer” is a phrase borrowed from Lewis’ Mere Christianity—but are speaking in the language and culture of their generation. Given the nature of the gathering, I think my suggestions were largely unappreciated.

But I was not trying to suggest an alternative formula. However we try to communicate our faith we should use the best of our abilities in a way that makes sense in the culture and society in which we find ourselves. Forgive me if that begins to sound like a formula.

1 comment:

  1. Nathan, I enjoyed your discussion/comments, and I heartily agree. There is a danger in placing great leaders and thinkers on pedestals. When I consider topics such as these, I often think of what D.L Moody stated. It is very appropriate:

    "Out of 100 men, one will read the Bible, the other 99 will read the Christian."

    In my opinion, we all can have just as much impact as Lewis as long as we are living as Christ would have us.