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I’ve been regularly meeting up recently with a group of people who are not Christian to talk about spiritual things. In our meetings the point is not to talk about Christianity, though people can if they want to, but rather to explore a more generic expression of spiritual matters. Any opinion is valid and accepted as long as it is not hurtful or disrespectful.

And it’s been beautiful.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our conversations and have learnt a lot from and with them so far.

I feel completely inadequate to answer some of their questions and longings so most of the time I just listen.

It’s also made me think about that term that Christians use- “pre-evangelism”. In a way, you could call what I am doing pre-evangelism or pre- pre- pre- evangelism, depending on your theology.

Here are some thoughts around this that I have been reflecting on that will hopefully generate further discussion on what I think is an important topic for today.

Priority of evangelism over pre-evangelism

It seems to me that many Christians prioritise evangelism, that is the straightforward proclamation of the gospel, over pre-evangelism. Whenever I describe this group that I’m meeting with to people, the first question is “But do you tell them about Jesus?” Well no I don’t. As soon as I say that, I get what I think is a look of disapproval or perhaps dismissal. We have this view that if we are not proclaiming the gospel, then what is the point? Why do we waste time on matters that we see as secondary, if what counts is telling people about Jesus? We believe that what matters is “getting people across the line”, whatever that means. I think we have had an explosion of Alpha, Christianity Explained, Exploring God type courses over the years and this to me, shows our priority of evangelism over pre-evangelism. I don’t see a lot of theological reflection around pre-evangelism to give it the legitimacy that it deserves. 

The urgent need for a prioritisation of pre-evangelism

Charles Taylor in his book A Secular Age writes about the “buffered self” of modern times in comparison to the “porous self” of medieval times. As medieval times were more “enchanted”, that is people were more open to the spiritual world, there was easy movement between the earthly and spiritual. People allowed themselves to be impacted by spiritual things. In modern “disenchanted” times, this movement and impact is more difficult as people do not live with a worldview that belief in God or spiritual things is the norm or indeed even desirable. This has broader impact because not only are people buffered against spiritual belief, but they to some extent are also buffered against each other. There is a resistance and a hesitancy, to connect with the Other and also the other. It is harder to connect meaningfully with the people around us who we might interact with everyday yet we have built up an armour around ourselves so that true connection is less likely. This is the world that we live in now and it is the atmosphere that we breathe. No matter how hard we try to proclaim the gospel, people are buffered in this way, so it makes it difficult to hear and absorb the message. However, what I have observed as have many others, is that this armour and buffering dissolves to some extent in community and relationship. As people enter into a safe space where authenticity is valued they become more “porous” in the way they relate to each other and also to spiritual matters. This is usually a very slow process. This is where “pre-evangelism” activities can contribute in that they can be safe spaces for people to build trusting relationships with one another, to relate spiritually to each other, and possibly even the Other. Having said this, the main agenda in these kinds of activities needs to be clearly about building genuine friendships.

Connecting with people’s spiritual longings

Even though people in the secularised West are today resistant to a worldview that includes God, my experience has been that people still have spiritual longings that are often reawakened in contexts where they can talk freely about them. Firstly, those desires need to be identified and then carefully allowed to come to the light in order to explore whether they are worth embodying. To me this is actually the process of discipleship and I wonder if perhaps a better expression for us than pre-evangelism would be the notion of discipling secular people. This is in fact what it feels like to me as I sit in the midst of my wonderful group of people who are not Christian yet are clearly spiritual people. I am helping them identify their longings, sometimes poignantly so, and then letting them decide for themselves what they will do with this revelation. This is essentially a non-judgmental process. However, Christians are not very good at being non-judgmental. I asked a group of people recently to engage in some cultural exegesis and immediately they jumped to judging the culture. I had to remind them to act like scientists and instead simply to observe, listen and notice the culture rather than move quickly to judgment. Sometimes I wonder if this is also a reason why we prioritise evangelism over pre-evangelism. We feel much more comfortable in the atmosphere of the gospel, and rightly so, but instead of moving to judgment we should ask what can we affirm about people’s longings. Often there will be room for critique but where is it in our culture that we can find value? Perhaps pre-evangelism often looks to many people as though there is a capitulation to the culture occurring. When we connect more and more with secular people we might give the impression that we approve of everything they do. But this is not the case of course. We are however listening, learning, loving and friending those whom God loves.

What is next?

What we then need to think about is what happens next when people’s spiritual longings begin to surface. And they do begin to surface. I’m not sure about this yet, but so far my experience has been one of trusting the Spirit’s guidance and so no doubt it will be the same in the next stage of the journey.