Yesterday, I provided the first three major characteristics of Pope John Paul II’s 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio. This encyclical spells out the “new evangelization.” My purpose in these blogs is to show how the words evangelism, evangelization and mission are now being used and why a richer, broader and deeper understanding of these words, and what they represent, will help us to do mission in the context of a robust, Spirit-given ecumenism. Today I share three more characteristics of this powerful encyclical.
4. The New Evangelization is directed to individuals and to whole cultures.
Pope John Paul II taught that evangelization includes not only individuals but whole cultures, cultures that need to be transformed by the influence of the gospel. In the missionary activity of the church we will always encounter different cultures thus the church must become involved in the process of inculturation. By inculturation the pope means, “the intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through the integration in Christianity and the insertion of Christianity into the various human cultures.” He adds, “The new evangelization must strive to incarnate Christian values and open the gospel message to human cultures.” In one of his most amazing word choices John Paul II said this transformation should lead us to embrace and establish: “A civilization of love.” This call is to a new kind of civilization, one lost in large measure to the former Christendom cultures of the West. It will be characterized, most centrally, by love. This love is for all people and all cultures but it will always be particularly directed to the poorest and the least in every culture, underscoring what has been called the “preferential option for the poor.”
5. The New Evangelization is not limited to the presentation of the basic Gospel message (kerygma) but is a comprehensive process of Christianization.
Before I explain the pope’s thinking here it is worth noting that these two points (numbers 4 and 5) both sound remarkably like the view of culture, and evangelization, promoted by the great Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920). If you want to get into Kuyper’s worldview then read the newly translated work, Wisdom and Wonder: Common Grace in Science and Art, (Nelson D. Kloosterman, translator, Grand Rapids: Christian’s Library Press, 2011).
Kuyper taught a doctrine called, in the English translation of the original Dutch, sphere sovereignty. Much, though not all, of the Dutch Reformed tradition has embraced this idea in one form or another. (It often goes under another theological category called common grace.) Sphere sovereignty is the concept that each sphere (or sector) of life has its own distinct responsibilities and authority, or competence. Sphere sovereignty teaches that there is an all encompassing created order, an order designed and governed by God. This created order includes societal communities (such as those for purposes of education, worship, civil justice, agriculture, economy and labor, marriage and family, artistic expression, etc.) which include historical development and abiding norms. This principle of sphere sovereignty seeks to affirm and respect both creational boundaries and historical differentiation.
Sphere sovereignty implies that no single area of life or societal community is sovereign over another. Each sphere has its own created integrity. This type of “Kuyperian-Calvinism” holds that since God created everything “after its own kind,” diversity must be acknowledged and appreciated. For instance, the different God-given norms for family life and economic life should be recognized, such that a family does not properly function like a business. Similarly, neither faith-institutions (e.g. churches) nor an institution of civil justice (i.e. the state) should seek totalitarian control, or any regulation of human activity outside their limited competence. (Read that sentence again very slowly!)
John Paul II believed, as did Abraham Kuyper, that the proclamation of the Gospel is the essential first step. It is also the foundation of a life long process. Evangelization involves more than initial conversion. It also involves catechetical instruction, moral doctrine and the social teaching of the Church. Those who are incorporated into Christ are incorporated into the mystery and communion of his body. All reality is social!
People who are redeemed are joined to God through the sacraments and the church community. Kuyper held a Reformed view of the eucharist (called “real presence”) but I believe he would have deeply resonated with John Paul II’s basic understanding.
6. The New Evangelization calls for a missionary spirituality.
The basis of sharing the life of Christ with others is living the life that is in Christ. This means that true evangelism must be rooted in a deep and growing spiritual union with Christ focused on self-denial and sacrifice. This is always true because of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
We are all called, as the church together, to know Christ and to make Him known. John Paul II wrote: “It is not possible to bear witness to Christ without reflecting his image, which is made alive in us by grace and the power of the Spirit.” In order to pass on the gospel to others it must have first permeated our lives at the deepest level. We must incarnate divine love if we would be effective evangelists. John Paul II named certain specific elements of a type of spirituality that he believed to be essential for all those who are called to be missionaries. David Nodar writes, “Reception of the gifts of fortitude and discernment are essential.” We must, said the late pontiff, “feel Christ’s burning love for souls, and love the church as Christ did.” And he adds: “Holiness must be called a fundamental presupposition and an irreplaceable condition of everyone in fulfilling the mission of salvation in the Church. The universal call to holiness is closely linked to the universal call to mission. Every member of the faithful is called to holiness and to mission.”
Every evangelical Protestant heart ought to resonate profoundly with such a vision and perspective. What the pope said about this work that is not so widely practiced by evangelical Protestants is expressed in the idea that “the future of mission depends to a great extent on contemplation. Unless the missionary is a contemplative he cannot proclaim Christ in a credible way.” This means God’s people are all called to be “person[s] of the beatitudes (poverty, meekness, acceptance of suffering and persecution, the desire for justice and peace, charity).”
Pope John Paul II rightly noted that mission, “renews the church, revitalizes faith and Christian identity, and offers fresh enthusiasm and new incentive.” We should preach the gospel to the church and to the nations. This is what Jesus meant when he called his first disciples by saying,”Come follow me.” The pope is inviting us to join a journey in, and toward, Christ. What could be more deeply Christian than this call?