Posted by: Philip Rushton | October 13, 2014

The Authentic Sign

“The reason why anyone refuses his assent to your opinion is in you. He refuses to accept you as a bringer of truth, because, though you think you have it, he feels that you have it not. You have not given him the authentic sign.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson

On Wednesday evenings I have been facilitating a conversation about missional living.  As part of this conversation I have been attempting to recover the “e” word –  by which I mean “evangelism.”  Yes, evangelism has become somewhat of a bad word for me.  The word evokes images of awkward conversations with strangers, and door-to-door religious sales pitches.  It also evokes a sense of fear.  I struggle to know how to have spiritual conversations with people outside the church.  The strategies I was taught growing up seem inauthentic, arrogant and pushy.  They do not account for the fact that people have a lot of suspicion and distrust of religion.

The Celtic Way Of Evangelism

The Celtic Way

One of the books I have been drawing on for our conversation is George Hunter’s, The Celtic Way Of Evangelism.  Hunter explores how the Celts sought to spread the gospel in a social climate that is similar to ours.  They were seeking to engage a culture that was primarily pagan and hostile towards the Christian religion.

Hunter explains that the Celts recognized the importance of gaining credibility in this kind of environment.  Evangelism required more than having the right script.  People were looking for, what Emerson calls, the “authentic sign.”  People began to trust this emerging Christian movement only after they saw Christians living with integrity and sacrificial love.

Conversations about evangelism often start by looking externally.  We try and understand our culture and figure out strategies by which to communicate the gospel.  Perhaps, though, our focus on outreach needs to start by looking within.  I believe that effective evangelism is only possible if we attend to our own spiritual formation.  Our skeptical culture is looking for people who demonstrate the “authentic sign.”  The message of Christ is only going to gain credibility if practice what we preach.  George Hunter writes:

“My interview research with secular people has confirmed the prominence of the ‘credibility’ theme in secular people’s inquiries about Christianity. Some people wonder whether we really believe what we say we believe. Some people do not doubt that we believe it; they wonder whether we live by it. Some people do not doubt that we believe it or live by it; they wonder whether it makes much difference.”

Jesus spoke about this in the Sermon on the Mount.  I think we forget that when he says, “You are the salt of the earth,” and “You are the light of the world,” he is referring to the beatitude people he has just described.  People who bring light to the world are those who have experienced spiritual transformation.  They are people who exhibit characteristics of meekness, poverty of spirit, peacemaking, mercy, and purity of heart.

When it comes to recovering evangelism, then, the last thing the world needs is another marketing campaign or tract.  What the world needs is authentic Christians who live out their faith in the community.  As one person in our class said last week, “people won’t care how much we know until they know how much we care.”


  1. I would suggest the possibility that its not so much that our focus on outreach needs to start by looking within, but instead our focus on outreach would be led by the Holy Spirit searching out the true motives of our heart, so that we would be led to truly see that which we ourselves cannot see by looking within.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Henry. Yes, the language of “looking within,” needs some more clarity. I agree that this process of spiritual growth and awareness is only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit. Thanks for clarifying the issue!

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