July 24, 2014

Robert Webber on The Theology of Evangelism in the Early Church

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The late Robert Webber is best known for his writings on worship, but he thought and wrote about many areas of church life, seeking an ancient-future way forward in the post-modern age in which we live.

One of his last projects was called Journey to Jesus. It represents his attempt to adapt  for today’s congregations the way the Church in the third century provided a path of conversion and Christian formation. In the book, he outlines a fourfold process that:

  • Evangelizes the seeker
  • Disciples the new believer
  • Spiritually forms the maturing Christian
  • Assimilates the new Christian into the full life of the church

The book is called, Journey to Jesus: The Worship, Evangelism, and Nurture Mission of the Church, and in its second chapter Webber says that there were four theological themes around which the ancient church built their process for what many today would call “making disciples” –

1. The theme of Christus Victor

“Jesus is Lord.” This confession of the early church announced that by his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus has defeated all the powers of the world, flesh, and devil and sat down his throne to reign. For the ancient Church, Christus Victor stood in dramatic contrast to “Caesar is Lord,” and it thus set those believers apart from their culture’s dominant ethos. This confession formed their primary understanding of what Jesus came to accomplish, and was the main theme of the liturgies by which they worshiped.

Robert Webber says,

The entire process of salvation…is based on the conviction that by his sacrifice Christ has defeated the powers of evil. Conversion to Christ is a turning away from an allegiance to evil and choosing to be under the reign of Christ. This theme is reflected in baptism. As the converting person stands in the water he or she is asked to show a sign of the rejection of the devil. The convert turns to the west (the symbol of the domain of Satan) and spits as in the face of the devil. A powerful way to symbolize the end of a relationship!

tree of life door2. The theme of Church as Mother

“The image of mother suggests that new Christians are not left on their own in a world of principalities and powers, but are brought into a community of people from whose bosom they are nourished and given all that is needed to survive,” Webber writes. This was a prominent theme and image in the writings of the early Church Fathers.

Church as “Mother” suggests that she fulfills her role by being the womb in which God’s children are born. The waters of the womb symbolize the waters of baptism, through which we are born again.

Another maternal characteristic of the Church is her nurturing role in the lives of her children. We are nourished at her breasts, held in her arms, encouraged in her love.

3. The theme of evangelism as a process

While not discounting the possibility of instantaneous conversion, this perspective understands that even the most dramatically transformed individuals enter into a life that requires development and nurture. Webber quotes Irenaeus, who speaks about how Christ has sanctified all the various seasons of human life: “He came to save all through his own person; all, that is, who through him are reborn to God; infants, children, boys, young men and old. Therefore he passed through every stage of life.”

He builds his thesis around four stages of development recognized in the ancient church: (1) The Seeker, which presupposes an interest in the Gospel; (2) The Hearer, which presupposes a degree of commitment; (3) The Kneeler, which presupposes a time of spiritual preparation for baptism; and (4) The Faithful, when the person is fully incorporated into the life of the Church.

4. The theme of the power of symbol

Robert Webber tells us, “Conversion and growth in Christ and the church are accomplished not only by words, but also by words made visible through performative symbol.”

This sacramental perspective is rooted in the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation: God can and does work through the material of his Creation to communicate his grace to our lives. As Webber puts it succinctly: “God’s saving presence is made a reality through physical signs.” Therefore, as people walked within the ancient Church on their “journey to Jesus,” each major step along the way was marked by rites performed in the context of the congregation, recognizing and celebrating God’s work in making us anew in Christ.

* * *

Journey bookIn the post-modern world in which we live, Robert Webber recommends that Churches adapt and follow a pattern like this, a “structured Gospel,” as I have called it. He sees parallels between the Church today and congregations during the decline of the Roman Empire. They lived in a pre-Constantinian world before Christendom and we live in the days of Christendom’s demise, and Webber suggests that the approaches of evangelizing and nurturing new believers that the Church took during the modern era no longer speak to the realities around us.

A renewed emphasis on helping people take a well-marked “journey to Jesus” within the Church may help clarify the Gospel and the life to which it calls people in the context of a post-modern, post-Christendom world.

Ancient evangelism occurred in a setting hostile to the church and its values; it developed in the context of a clear self-understanding of the church as the eschatological people who are under the reign of God, the people who confess “Jesus is Lord.” It was evangelism with teeth, not an “easy believism” or a “cheap grace”; and it was a spiritual journey of discipleship, spiritual formation, and entrance into a new community.”

Comments

  1. Mike – I am unclear as to what is meant by “ancient” here – 1st century, or after, or ???

  2. How interesting. I will have to purchase and read that book. Because right now I am following Fr. John Strickland’s 40+-tape long series on the Rise and Decline of Christendom. he also starts with the premise that Christendom started not with Constantine, but with the Early, even the Apostolic Church, and that the high water mark of Christendom was not the Papacy of Innocent IV , but rather the Byzantine Commonwealth of the Macedonian Dynasty. At this time, the Byzantines were attempting to re-integrate both the Ottonian Empire and the Papacy back into the growing loosely associated commonwealth of Orthodox Catholic states that included Kievan Russia, Moravia, Anglo-Saxon England, the Khanate of Bulgaria, and should have included the Holy Roman Empire.

    If Otto III, son of the Byzantine princess Theophanu, had survived longer than 21 years, and had come of age in a more salutatory environment, there may have evolved a Christendom along the lines of the Byzantine symphony rather than being imposed by the Roman papacy.

    A lot of what Robert Webber is reported as saying in this post is roughly equivalent to what Fr. John says if you make allowances for Free Church Evangelicals as waving their arms around in a dark room attempting to reconnect with the Tradition. Strange that he goes into the Church as our Mother without mentioning the Most Holy Mother of God, but I guess you have to start somewhere.

    Fr. John says that the Early Church started with four pillars that acted as the framing for the future construction of Christendom; the first was Baptism, the second was the Hierarchy, the third was the Great Commission. I haven’t gotten to the fourth one yet. I suspect some cross-pollination here.

    I promise to file a report when I finish. The historical issue is very interesting to me.

  3. “The theme of evangelism as a process” Love this!!! Evangelism takes time, and in some cases a very long time. I don’t know why the church has concentrated in the quick prayer thing and forgoten the disciple part. The Gospel of Jesus is the most incredible thing out there, really no other religion offers what Jesus offers, and yet people keep turning away from this Gospel or not wanting to hear about it all together.

    So, how do we take what Webber said and turn it into action? How do we apply this to our everyday lifes?

    Suggestions?

    • I’m working on the book and as I go through it, I will pass along whatever I find interesting in that regard.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      The Gospel of Jesus is the most incredible thing out there, really no other religion offers what Jesus offers, and yet people keep turning away from this Gospel or not wanting to hear about it all together.

      Well, when you condense that Gospel to YEC, Rapture Scare, Culture War Without End, and a series of sound bites intended to high-pressure an Altar Call Conversion, it becomes a whole lot less incredible and attractive.

      • Christiane says:

        the fundamentalist ‘gimmicks’ are so worldly and point to a vision of such a ‘small’ god

        I look at Chrysologus, and his understanding of Incarnation by contrast, and how ‘rebirth’ in Him takes on a new meaning for our salvation:

        “” . . . we have borne the image of the man of dust,
        . . . . now reborn after the pattern of our Lord . . .
        let us bear the full and complete image of our Maker;
        not in majesty, in which He is alone,
        but in innocence, simplicity, meekness, patience, humility, mercy and concord – in which He deigned to become and to be One with us.”
        (from a sermon by St. Peter Chrysologus)

    • The early church gained converts as a result of its community and witness that separated it from the world at large and the society in which it found itself. Unfortunately, because we have developed into an individualistic society, the community of believers has degenerated, historically speaking, into a bunch of “Lone Rangers” who just happen to follow the ruminations of various media sanctioned examples, such as Osteen, Fallwell, Warren, take your pick. Is this fair to say? No, but the problem is that this impression is what the world sees now. No longer do unbelievers say of us, as did Pliny the Younger, “Oh, how they love one another”. If the unbeliever could see us and remark as Pliny (an unbeliever and government official) did, then we might come closer to the ancient witness instead of know it all moralists.

  4. Jonathan says:

    “He sees parallels between the Church today and congregations during the decline of the Roman Empire.” Except that the congregations during Rome’s decline weren’t splintered into thousands of insular denominations. As a Catholic, I’m intrigued by the book, and confess I haven’t read it, but how can Webber distinguish ancient evangelism from the ancient church; don’t evangelism and ecclesiology go together? How can you borrow the evangelistic methods used in the early Catholic church and loan them to a fundamental, independent baptist church in east Texas?

    • I’m not sure I can answer your question other than to say we have to deal with reality as it is. I doubt that a fundamental, independent Baptist church anywhere would have anything to do with Webber’s proposals. But churches that are more grounded in tradition may find a way to make their catechetical processes more robust.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        An IFB church would be too grounded in The IFB Way to consider any other. Same with a lot of “splinter churches” with the idea that they are the Only True Christians.

        What’s funny is how American Evangelicalism has gotten locked into pretty much the opposite of everything Webber describes as The One True Way, to the point that some believe the Altar Call/Sinner’s Prayer method was used from Day One (or Year 33).

    • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says:

      I’ve read a lot of Webber’s stuff over the years. Ironically, my first experience was as part of a course on Christian Worship at a Baptist University. I say I “ironically” because for most Baptists, Webber’s understanding of Church History and Ecclesiology just don’t compute.

      In his reliance on early Christian works (and that usually means 2nd-5th Centuries, though as CM pointed out, it’s largely Hippolytus), he seems to be advocating for the “Great Tradition” concept that typically sees Rome, Constantinople, the Reformers, etc. departing at different points and each having roots in the “Great Tradition” without themselves being the root. It’s similar to the “Branch Theory” that some Anglicans espouse.

      One thing is certain, he’d argue that your typical American Evangelical church is much farther away from the Great Tradition than the Catholics, Mainlines or Orthodox.

  5. I like the flow that he presents. I think that there is a pre-step that is missing, that might not have been as important in the early church. Our lives today are very compartamentalized, that is, we tend not to have a lot of interaction with out neighbours (at least where I live.) I think that the first step of evangelism needs to be relationship building. If we are not involved in people’s lives, inviting them into our home, then we have very little ability to speak to their spiritual needs.

    • greg r says:

      Well said, Michael: and done with great wisdom and sensitivity, or else we’re seen as “that too-interested church guy….” seen as some kind of stalker (or worse). The church needs to talk about this kind of cultural environment, and share insights/strategies and just plain encouragement to stay at it and not lose heart. One of my neighbors is going thru cancer treatment, heart illness treatment, and a divorce…oh, and his son just lost half his arm in a welding accident. He doesn’t give a rat’s behind (understandably) for my church’s programs. He is trying to keep his head above water in the rapids that we call “life”.

  6. Robert F says:

    It seems the new Christian converts in the ancient Roman Empire were highly motivated; how will this model of evangelism find a place in the over-committed schedules of most of the mainline churchgoing Christians I know. They complain when the service is a little longer than they think it should be, and though some of them enjoy singing, they won’t or can’t commit to the time that choir practice takes, and so the choir is gray-headed and disappearing by attrition. Will they go for what I have to assume will be the sizable time commitment that such a model of evangelism would require not only from the new converts but the congregation, too? Converts? Most of the people in the pews of the churches I attend are not new Christians, but transplants from other Christian churches, a significant portion of them because of disaffection with what was going on in their old parish or denomination. Would such a program of evangelization be modified to to introduce those who are already Christian to new parishes? Would they sit still for being treated as unfinished Christians by a new parish? Maybe I’m just cynical, but I don’t believe that most mainstream Christians in this country, and the rest of the developed world, are motivated enough to undertake such ambitious projects; they are sociologically very different creatures from second and third century Christians, for whom the church was the primary community in life around which everything else orbited and to which they were willing to give there lives and fortunes. Anything like that level of commitment will be treated as cult-like by most mainstream Christians (I can’t speak for evangelicals), who value things called privacy and personal life in a way completely unimagined by even the most privileged individuals in the ancient world.

    • You make good points.

      As far as Christians from other traditions, I like what the Catholics do– they have catechumens (new believers who have not been baptized, and candidates (who come from other Christian traditions).

    • Stuart Boyd says:

      “How will this model of evangelism find a place in the over-committed schedules of most of the mainline churchgoing Christians I know. They complain when the service is a little longer than they think it should be, and though some of them enjoy singing, they won’t or can’t commit to the time that choir practice takes, and so the choir is gray-headed and disappearing by attrition. Will they go for what I have to assume will be the sizable time commitment that such a model of evangelism would require not only from the new converts but the congregation, too?”

      I think this is a huge problem, too.

      Unless there is some kind of massive shift in the way Americans think of and practice Christianity, the thesis of this book will just remain a nice theory of how things could be. The committment necessary to move from Seeker to Hearer to Kneeler to Faithful is HUGE, and as more and more churches have targeted Seekers who may NOT have an interest in the Gospel as their motive for going to church, and those churches continued to twist themselves around the desires of Seekers (sermons must be a certain length, music must be a certain way, programs must be a certain kind, activities must be a certain type, etc.) I think that the whole process of discipleship began to disappear. At a certain point, the unmotivated Seekers often become the majority, and there are too few to lead people in discipleship, and that’s assuming that there are people motivated enough to want to be changed into disciples.

      The sacrifice of time and talents to move from Seeker to Hearer is great; that sacrifice just gets larger when moving from Hearer to Kneeler and Kneeler to Faithful. But in a culture that is littered with the idea that religion has no cost (obedience) any church that tries to move its congregation in the direction of a more in-depth process of evangelism will probably face significant losses, and there is also a tipping point for that as well: too much money has been invested in facilities designed around high traffic vs high commitment; too much staff has been hired to run programs designed around socializing vs sacrific; too much time has been devoted to the 1st stage of evangelistic outreach vs the 3rd and 4th stages of Christian living, etc. The losses that would occur simply become too great, so little, minor adjustments to the normal way of operating are viewed as the solution, and I don’t think that will produce any kind of real change.

      So unless there is something that causes a major shift in how Americans think about thier committment to Christianity, there will be little shift in practice.

      • Have you considered that the percentage of those who attend church regularly, and are truly believers INDEED, is quite small? And that the vast majority of church goers have not yet made that critical submission to Christ, with all of the implications for commitment and service, but are just skating along the edges? Could it be that the “gate is small and the way is narrow” so that “few there be that find it”? Could that also be why Paul would say “make you calling and election sure”, because being a “Christian” does not involve easy believism?

        These are things that I constantly think about, and the implications drive my heart to its metaphorical knees.

        • Stuart Boyd says:

          Sorry, thought my comment of “as more and more churches have targeted Seekers who may NOT have an interest in the Gospel as their motive for going to church, and those churches continued to twist themselves around the desires of Seekers,” indicated not only that people were skating around the edges, but that the problem wasn’t limited to people who are skating around edges, but churches that cater to those skaters.

          At least part of “the way Americans think of and practice Christianity” will require a serious look at means/methods of church growth so that numbers are not the exclusive definition of growth. And an examination of that definition will have to include thinking about what would happen if the numbers disappeared:”any church that tries to move its congregation in the direction of a more in-depth process of evangelism will probably face significant losses, and there is also a tipping point for that as well: too much money has been invested in facilities designed around high traffic vs high commitment; too much staff has been hired to run programs designed around socializing vs sacrific; too much time has been devoted to the 1st stage of evangelistic outreach vs the 3rd and 4th stages of Christian living: ”

          Christianity isn’t just a business anymore. It’s an industry. And if that industry were to fail, lots of things would change. How much money is pumped into the economy via the Religious Industry Machine, and what would happen if a significant amount of the money targeted towards letting outer edge skates continue to skate suddenly stopped being spent?

        • Robert F says:

          The two of you seem to referring to evangelical churches; what I see in mainline churches is that even many (most?) regular Sunday service attendees are not committed in the ways that such a discipleship program as outlined in the post would require. They are not theologically informed, nor are they seeking to extend their spiritual lives or theological understanding in a Christian context; neither are they much interested in being instructed by the church in how to conduct their lives outside the sanctuary walls. If I may hazard a speculation based on decades of experience, for many (most?) members of mainline churches attending church services on Sunday morning is something of a superstitious activity, wherein they bow in the direction of the transcendent, the supernatural, for an hour before they go back to what they understand to be their real lives at home and in their personal, secular non-church activities. They would not welcome a call to a much higher level of commitment that an intense discipleship program would demand.

          As to they idea that, since “the gate is small and the way is narrow,” it would be a good thing for churches both evangelical and mainline to make belonging a much more arduous enterprise, and it would be a good thing if the non-committed were to drop out in the making of a church comprised of those who have “made that critical submission to Christ,” it seems to me that such a church would end up being a church based on the theological purity of believers, which is much more like the Anabaptist model than the model of the magisterial reformers or the earlier church. I think that to try to purge the church of those who are not true believers and disciples is an exercise in futility, and that in pulling out the weeds, many good plants would be destroyed in the process, as the gospels also say.

  7. Gerald says:

    The modern incarnation of “Christus Victor” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I’m not sure if it is even intended to make sense, or is meant on a purely symbolic level, as mythology. (Are we to imagine–with our medieval forebears–Jesus literally breaking the literal chains of a literal hell, against which an omnipotent God could not otherwise prevail?) I surmise that it’s chief advantage is that it allows conservatives to avoid the weirdnesses of other salvation theories, while hiding the shame of their liberal hermeneutic behind the fig-leaf of antiquity!

    The whole “ancient future” rhetoric I find equally disingenious. Of course every religious group evolves from older forms, but the fact that Webber gets to select which portions of (an abstract, generalized) tradition to acknowledge, sets him apart from most churches that are *actually* ancient. For that matter, his talk of “the Church” seems entirely abstract, and divorced from any real-world institution–not at all how ancient Christians would have conceived of their religion. I suspect that all this is just rhetoric designed to position him in a certain way vis-a-vis other Evangelical Protestants.

    • Gerald, this is but one small example from a large and impressive body of work by Webber. I encourage you to withhold judgment. Certainly any attempt to access the past for the benefit of the present and future is fraught with peril. However, I think Webber has earned a great deal of respect in a wide range of circles for his work.

    • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says:

      If I remember right, while Webber retained many connections with his Evangelical roots (via friends, family, and his work at Wheaton, for example), he became an Episcopalian before doing most of his “Ancient-Future” work. I.e., I’m not sure “Evangelical Protestant” would be an accurate descriptor.

  8. I was baptized during a phase of my life in which I was a wheelchair user. We had several discussions of the logistics of how that would work, which apparently replaced some of the discussions that might have discussed the nitty gritty of the ritual.

    When the time came for spitting on Satan, I was taken entirely by surprise. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t have any problem with the concept, I just wasn’t entirely sure whether they actually meant I was supposed to be literally spitting on the western half of the church floor. I actually froze for a few seconds. Looking back, with preparation I could have done a much better job. ;)

  9. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    For the ancient Church, Christus Victor stood in dramatic contrast to “Caesar is Lord,” and it thus set those believers apart from their culture’s dominant ethos.

    I thought “Christus Victor” meant “Christ Wins” — wins over death, wins over sin, wins over entropy, wins over all that’s wrong.

  10. I recommend ‘Grounded in the Gospel’ by J.I. Packer and Gary Parrett. It draws from many sources, from the early centuries all the way to the Reformation period showing the history of catechesis, and points the way for a recovery within modern churches.