What does the deep inner life of the Christian contemplative have to do with the practice of faith-sharing? The answer is “everything” according to Elaine A. Heath, McCreless Associate Professor of Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology. As a Christian scholar, Elaine found sustenance and renewal in the wisdom and nurture of contemplative spirituality. She immersed herself in the writings of John Woolman, an 18th century Quaker mystic and abolitionist; Julian of Norwich and Ignatius of Loyola, both Catholic Spiritual theologians from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance; and Phoebe Palmer, a 19th century Methodist lay leader and evangelist. Her study revealed people who prayerfully sought holiness and “dying to self” for the sake of God’s mission in the world. Heath concluded that the “wisdom of the great spiritual giants” was missing from contemporary discussions of the theory and practice of evangelism. In 2008, she published The Mystic Way of Evangelism: A Contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach. In her book, Heath suggests that the American church is in a “dark night of the soul”—a phrase borrowed from St. John of the Cross—and that a retrieval of contemplative spirituality is needed to revitalize missional Christianity. She says, “The church is in trouble in the post-Christendom West, the kind of trouble that requires leadership from those that are holy. The great Christian mystics are our exemplars of holiness.” Recently, Grace and Peace Magazine met with Heath to talk about her book. Along with her writing projects, Heath served as president of the Wesleyan Theological Society in 2011, a scholarly association with many Nazarenes in its membership.
G&P: Why did you write The Mystic Way of Evangelism, and what did you want to contribute to the field of evangelism?
Elaine Heath: I've served for many years as a local pastor and have a background in systematic theology and Christian spirituality. When I thought about what is missing in the theory and practice of evangelism, what struck me was the absence of the voices of those who had most shaped me spiritually and as a Christian leader, the voices and the lives of the people who had caused me to become interested in being a holy person. As I thought and prayed, I realized I could write a book about evangelism that was very true to my own life experience, not only as a scholar who studies these things, but as a practitioner. And it just came to me that I should write this book, which describes the decline of the Church through the matrix of the classic contemplative path, the three-fold contemplative path of purgation, illumination, and union, and that I could divide the book into these three categories. The experts on evangelism profiled in this book would not be people who were trendy or gimmicky or anything like that, but they would be the great Christian saints and mystics through the ages.
G&P: How do you define evangelism?
EH: I use this definition when teaching my course on the Introduction to the Theory and Practice of Evangelism: “Christian evangelism is the holistic process of initiation of persons into the reign of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and anchored in the Church for the transformation of the world.” It’s a Trinitarian definition. It includes the process of initiation, which recognizes that evangelism takes time. We know it takes two years or more for the average person to move from not having faith to fully embracing faith. And it’s a process that requires many different people to participate, to plant seeds, to water, and to tend. Also, the definition is holistic. Evangelism is meant to be “good news” for the whole person and the whole community. It is to encounter the love of God that transforms us. So, it touches upon all aspects of a person’s life. Evangelism includes attention to emotional wounds, for example. It includes attention to issues of poverty. We pray, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Salvation is not just about heaven someday—but heaven on earth now.
G&P: What do you mean by the term “mystic”?
EH: A Christian mystic is simply one who is transformed by the indwelling Spirit of God, so that that person becomes a vessel of transformative grace to the people around them and to the church. This makes the church more alive in Christ and more able to live out its missional vocation in the world. Christian mystics would not define themselves by mystical experiences at all; it’s not about that. It’s about becoming one with God, and God’s intentions in the world. People who are truly Christian mystics are people active in the world. They’re always prophetic people in the world. And for that reason, they sometimes get into trouble, especially when they say, “Hey wait a minute! Aren’t we supposed to be active in the world? Aren’t we supposed to be caring for the poor? Aren’t we supposed to be living the way Jesus lived, which was not a life of opulence?”
The idea that mysticism is private and removed from the rugged world of ministry is simply false. The visions, dreams, and other experiences the Old Testament prophets had of God were for the expressed purpose of calling God’s people back to their missional vocation.
Those who could properly be called the great Christian mystics, such as St. John of the Cross, attained a radical degree of holy transformation as a result of their encounters with the triune God. That is, their inward transformation resulted in an outward life of extraordinary impact on the world. All of the great Christian mystics were prophets with a vision for God’s mission in the world.
G&P: How did the holiness movement meet the challenge of evangelism, and what do you feel are challenges to faith-sharing today?
EH: The backbone of Methodism was the class meeting, where small gatherings of laypeople did spiritual formation and justice work together. Over time, this gave way as Methodism expanded and became institutionalized. It became the proper church to go to and was associated with polite society. It lost its prophetic edge. I find it exciting that in the 19th century, with the rise of the holiness movement, people like Phoebe Palmer were saying, “Wait a minute! The gospel’s supposed to radically change our lives. Holiness means that I not only pray and read my Bible regularly, but that I’m actively engaged in helping people.” So, holiness people helped immigrants and those in poverty. They helped people get out of slavery and aided blacks before and during post-Civil War Reconstruction. You can follow these cyclical patterns through the history of Methodism and all of its offshoots. Someone new will come along, like Phineas Bresee, who had a dramatic encounter with God before he started the Nazarene work in Los Angeles. Timothy Smith recounts in Called Unto Holiness that Bresee confessed to seeing “an indescribable ball of light” descending on him from his porch while in “earnest prayer.” The experience changed his life and revitalized his ministry. Bresee had a lot of energy and passion, and people followed his leadership. The Nazarene movement began but later also became institutionalized.
You find all of these different parts of Methodism and its offspring exhibiting periods of great vitality followed by institutionalization, followed by ossification and decline. What’s happened in the 20th century has happened to most churches, not just Methodism and its offshoots. We have been deeply shaped in the United States and in the West by capitalism. We are so immersed in consumer ways of thinking that it shapes how we think about church. We have marketed the church as a place where you can come and buy goods and services. If someone moves to a new town, you hear them say, “I’m shopping around for a church,” and nobody thinks twice about how bizarre that is. It’s utterly contrary to the gospel. We’ve been shaped by this consumer notion of Church, and it’s deformed us. It’s deformed what the Church does; how the church thinks about itself. We’re in a period where the church is in steep decline, and reformers are springing up. It’s a grassroots phenomenon, and the reformers are saying, “Wait a minute! We need to get back to the gospel. What about what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount? Are we really supposed to be presenting Jesus as a product that we’re selling? Are we really supposed to be presenting the Church as a marketplace for religious goods and services?”
G&P: Name a few persons you think would be helpful mentors as we consider evangelism?
EH: John Woolman, a Quaker, comes to mind. As a young man, he was a successful shopkeeper who earned more money than he needed. He thought about the claims of the gospel and decided he should share his material resources with others. He saw how the acquisition of wealth by a few always led to the oppression of many, always led to war, and led to the destruction of animals and the environment. Woolman had this amazing vision for how unchecked greed and consumption unleashes a host of destructive forces in the world. His method of dealing with this was by addressing people individually. He was a very gentle soul, but he would visit with slaveholders and people who were destroying the environment and gently reason with them. In this humble, mustard seed way, he made a huge difference. Many people came to Jesus because of his witness and example.
I’m also very fond of Phoebe Palmer. As the mother of the Wesleyan Holiness movement, she is in a special role with regard to the Church of the Nazarene. We have a lot to learn from Phoebe Palmer. She had a disciplined spiritual life. She rose early every morning and spent a significant amount of time in prayer and Bible reading. Phoebe started an organization called the “Tuesday Meetings for the Promotion of Holiness,” which is not a name we would choose for this kind of ministry today because it would bring up all sorts of stereotypes about being so heavenly minded you are no earthly good! But Phoebe’s meetings were heavenly minded and resulted in a lot of earthly good. She and her sister Sarah started this gathering in their home. They evangelized church people and non-Christians. People who came to the meetings would hear Bible teaching, give their testimonies, share what was going on in their lives, and pray for one another. Through this weekly gathering, Phoebe began to have a larger and larger impact in wider and wider concentric circles. She was asked to come and speak at camp meetings. She was involved in justice work. Phoebe brought many, many people to Christ, as many as 25,000 people in her lifetime. Her life, her example, and her theology are exactly what the Church needs today. It’s time for a revival of Phoebe Palmer’s theology, which is something that has been misunderstood for a long time.
G&P: Why has the church tended to forsake “mystery,” and why is this important to recapture in the work of evangelism?
EH: God is ultimately a mystery. We cannot know everything there is to know about God. We can only know what God is revealing to us. We’re serving a God who is a mystery, and there’s something beautiful about this. Yet, we’ve sometimes acted as if we know everything there is to know about God, and we try to control God, and say, “If you’ll just sign on this line, you too can know everything there is to know about God,” but that is a failed effort. We’ve sometimes approached evangelism this way: “Look, if you’ll believe in The Four Spiritual Laws, you’re saved, and everything’s wrapped up with a nice pink bow.” No, it’s not! There’s so much more to salvation than that. Salvation is the amazing process of our being brought into oneness with this God who is mystery. Part of the problem is that we’ve tended to think about evangelism, regardless of denomination, as “I’m going to persuade this person not only to believe in my Jesus, but join my local church. They will sit in the pew on Sunday and put money in the plate. Maybe they’ll even sing in the choir. Then I’ll know they’re evangelized, because they come to our church building, and they’re part of our denomination. They’re members.” We’ve tended to think in terms of church membership. But really, we need to be thinking like Jesus, and that is thinking of the Kingdom of God, which is much bigger than a particular tradition. It’s full of mystery. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, it’s like yeast, it’s like these living things that we do not tame and own and control. I think the biggest shift for us is to get our minds around this. Evangelism is initiating people into the Kingdom of God, the reign of God, much more than it is my local church. My local church is supposed to be there to support this endeavor, but God is not bound to my local church. God is the God of everything. I think that is an important difference.
G&P: In your book, you discuss eco-evangelism. What do you mean by this, and how can this enrich our understanding of evangelism?
EH: If you look at the Book of Genesis, sin interrupted and caused alienation in all of our relationships: our relationship with God, with each other, with ourselves, and with creation. And I believe that salvation heals each of those rifts. The good news of the Gospel is about restored relationships, not just with God and with each other, but with creation as well. God created this world. It belongs to God. As Christians, we’ve been given the responsibility to tend it, and we need to take this seriously. If evangelism is initiating people into the reign of God, we need to initiate them into a life of holiness, a life of discipleship, and a life of tending the earth. If we look at the earth as something we can use up and throw away, we degrade and disrespect it, which hurts everyone. Part of Good News-ing others is to make sure they have oxygen to breathe, clean water to drink, food to eat, and a safe place to live (which leads into the big topic of economic justice for our neighbors).
I find that doing things like creating a community garden in an area of urban blight can bring a whole neighborhood together, and you can form relationships with people you would never form otherwise. And as you’re growing food together for one another, you have opportunities to connect your lives in ways that allow the gospel to be spoken. As we consider the theory and practice of evangelism, we have an amazing opportunity and responsibility to consider ecological healing, a sustainable lifestyle, and an ecological awareness of the interconnectedness of all living things.
G&P: Are you contemplating a follow-up to The Mystic Way of Evangelism?
EH: I’m working on a sequel called Gospel Bearing: The Theory and Practice of Apostolic Life. In that book, I’m reflecting on the Apostle’s Creed, which is the ecumenical baptismal creed that goes back to antiquity, and is embraced by the majority of Christian traditions. I’m looking at each phrase in the Apostle’s Creed as a short-form reminder for how to live as Christians. So, for each phrase in the Apostle’s Creed, I’m writing three sections: how to pray, how to express hospitality to our neighbors, and how to practice justice. The book will include 25 short chapters and a study guide. It will be designed for lay usage or for the seminary classroom.