But if you've grown up in church you have a completely unique lexicon from which to choose words and phrases to hate on as extra. Doozies like 'anointing', 'testimony', 'witness', 'burden' or 'washed in the blood'. Added to this great list are fantastic new additions like 'incarnational mission' or 'intentional community' or 'the glory of God is man fully alive', the latter often used purely as a licence to over-indulge in self-expression. Irenaeus would be confused.
Still, out of this impressive list of cringe, no word has ever grown to possess the ability to repel like 'evangelism'. It conjures all sorts of socially awkward images in a hearer's mind, like conversations to check if people know the Lord "Jeeeeeeeeeezussssssss", the excessive misuse of tambourines and overuse of floral blouses, and corny yet equally horrific phrases like "Be sanctified or chicken fried!"
The thing is, we Christians know that expressing our faith can be awkward, and so we often try to sidestep this reality by dressing it up so well that people don't even know it's happening half the time. Sure, we might enter into intense and fickle arguments on Facebook from time to time about marriage or intelligent design, but most of the time we'll make following Jesus look like an episode of X-Factor; bright lights, stage presence and great hair. Borrowed celebrity culture. I've seen the Bride of Christ and she looks like Taylor Swift.
But if we really believe that the message of Jesus is the best news that has ever been told, then we should really think about telling it well. Just because evangelism is done badly a heck of a lot does not mean it shouldn't be done. And if we want to do it well, then we should probably do our best to understand the people we want to speak to. So what is the spiritual landscape of New Zealand?
It is becoming increasingly evident that New Zealand has never truly been a secular country. In fact, the idea that secularism and atheism are the country's most accurate descriptors is misguided. What's true is that we don't want to be anything like America, with religion and politics wrapped up together in an awkward stranglehold. But as a nation, New Zealand has never had an established church, and so the concern to keep church and state separate is a curious one.
There is in fact a deep hunger for the transcendent; an interest in new spiritualties, a growing attraction to national liturgies such as Anzac and Waitangi and an almost religious pilgrimage each Summer to mountains and beaches, away from desk jobs to these new sacred spaces. New Zealanders tend to have a sense that all is sacred and have a personal connection with the land they claim is their own. Maori have never accepted a mechanistic view of the universe, and interest in new age spirituality is at an all-time high. Peter Matheson argues that though church attendance might be waning, "meaning is back."
But having a strong spirituality does not mean the church is popular. Vast numbers of Kiwis have turned from Christianity because they view it as restrictive, puritanical and life-denying. The way that the Marriage Amendment Bill was contested on social networking sites and in the media will not have done any favours in this department. Nevertheless, it isn't that culture has slammed the door on the church, it's just maybe the church has been trying to climb through the windows instead. New Zealand has heard lots about morality from Christians, when maybe we should have begun introducing Jesus first through conversations about spirituality and the transcendent domains that people are already engaging in.
Translating the Gospel Well
If the Apostle Paul is a good example to follow, then starting conversations with the conversations already taking place is not only good methodology, it also far more respectful, gentle and shows we care what people think rather than just trying to make them believe the same things we do.
So how about we get serious about a more holistic take on salvation. Sure, no explanation of the gospel can ever fully do it credit, but for too long we've used a consumerist model, only talking about it in terms of what it can add to your life, describing it as an adventure, as a perpetually fulfilling experience. Obviously we do this in between pushing our own church brands. Obviously.
Much of the rest of the time we fall back on "The Bridge" model (we're on one cliff, God is on the other – only the cross can get you there!), in that we only talk about the gospel as a changed legal status before God - you can be on God's side!
But for New Zealanders it might be far more hope filled for them to actually learn that we care a lot about our planet, and that in fact God is looking to redeem the entire world, all traditions, cultures and good ideas and not actually about to transport human souls away Star Trek-esque. God feels a very personal connection with the world too.
Or how about rather than critiquing the individualistic and materialistic mindsets of people and rabbiting on about how true happiness is only found in Jesus (while we know how to spend it up like the best of them), we actually model community outside of church. Let's pay for some meals and groceries for no reason. Let's go beyond the rules of every man for himself. Capitalism needs a good kick in the pants after all.
Can we show that Christianity is more than connection with the transcendent? That God's grace, with all cheese aside, can change the world? That we hold to this belief system not because it is the most attractive option but because even though sometimes it is profoundly unattractive, boring, frustrating and sometimes nonsensical we have found life there and nowhere else?
And above all, in this spiritual and intellectual climate, do we remember why we think that this good news is actually good news and not just one side of a debate?
Sam Burrows is an ex-Middle School teacher (he made it out alive) who is currently working in Young Adult ministry while completing a Graduate Diploma in Theology at Laidlaw College. In his spare time he likes to pretend to be a rock star and writes for enjoyment and in order to impress a potential wife.
Sam Burrows previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/sam-burrows.html