This fall I had the opportunity to travel to Fayetteville, AR with Molly. She attended a conference while I worked on my thesis project. Molly had a tremendous week, while I made (slow) progress on a short preliminary document that took me all semester to complete. One of the first sessions Molly attended featured Elaine A. Heath, who is the McCreless Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology, SMU. Molly was excited about what she had heard, and believed much of the presentation would have resonated with me. Dr. Heath had recently published a book which contained some of the insights she shared at the conference entitled The Mystic Way of Evangelism: A Contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach. The next week I ordered the book from Amazon.com. When someone speaks to me with enthusiasm about a book, an author, or an idea, I’m usually quick to pounce. In this case I’m glad I did.
Heath’s title is telling and reveals the nature of her project, which to some may appear enigmatic. What does the life of the mystic have to do with the life of the evangelist? Can the deep, inner, contemplative life yield fruit for sharing the gospel and bringing people to Christian faith? For Heath the answer is a resounding yes. After recounting her first exposure to Christian evangelism Heath astutely observes, “there is a striking absence in most contemporary discussions of evangelism of the wisdom of the great spiritual giants…to shape and lead our understanding of the theory and practice of evangelism.”
Heath structures her book by utilizing the threefold contemplative path: purgation, illumination, and union. First, Heath claims that the church in American is experiencing “a dark night of the soul” and proceeds to describe the “dryness and fruitlessness” experienced by many churches, the “flailing, the striving, and the…loss of desire” present in the life of some leaders, and the emergence of a deep and holy longing for God which brings with it a new day. Heath describes the current malaise present in the church of today as a time of refinement and preparation for what God might bring about tomorrow. Heath states, “the church in America is in transition, with Christendom fading into memory and the religious accretions of the world, the flesh, and the devil, increasingly apparent for what they are…We are ready for a different way to think about our vocation as the church. It is time for us to discover a contemplative vision for evangelism.”
In part 2 (Illumination) Heath examines five major themes of the contemplative life and exalts two major examples per theme to bring life to her argument. Heath discusses the experience of God’s love (Julian of Norwich and Hans Ur von Balthasar), holiness exhibited in lives reflective of eucharist (Phoebe Palmer and Father Arseny), the discovery of home/identity in God (Thomas R. Kelly and Henri Nouwen), the church’s collective need to confess her sins (Julia Foote and Mechthild of Magdeburg), and the healing of the earth (St. Bonaventure and John Woolman). Each chapter utilizes these biographical examples well, allowing the content of each individual’s life inform the contemplative life of the church today. Heath also helps us remember both women and men who can be heralded as saints and followed as examples.
In part 3 (Union) Heath utilizes the fictional account of Sam, a divorcee and parent of a teenage daughter, who comes in contact with a church embodying the contemplative life Heath is proposing. Heath’s chapter titles, “A Hermeneutic of Love,” “Giving Ourselves Away,” “Homing Prayer,” “New Tongues of Fire,” and “Your Will Be Done on Earth” are in themselves revealing, and each chapter tells how Sam learns of God’s nature, the Christian life of service, prayer, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and what the Christian life has to do with the here and now.
I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to church leaders and mature Christians interested in evangelism. Heath’s approach is uncommon. She goes beyond a way of packaging and presenting the Christian faith and instead calls the church to become holy, believing that the very life of the community has the power to draw and witness to the truth of the gospel. Her argument acknowledges that the good news about Jesus does indeed have content, but couples the importance of the message with the integrity of the life the church leads. Her emphasis on holiness and purity of character as primary is what I find so refreshing and increasingly vital for the church as she seeks to find her way.