In The Mystic Way of Evangelism, Elaine Heath draws from the vast wealth of Christian mysticism to reimagine the present and future for the church and its evangelistic mission in the U.S. Her vision is not merely based on the mystical sources; it uses the threefold mystical path of purgation, illumination, and union as the lenses through which to view the church’s vocation. Before laying out this mystical vision of evangelism, Heath provides a helpful definition of key terms. She defines evangelism as a local faith community’s practice of initiating people into God’s reign that ends only when those people are fully incorporated in and active with that faith community. For Heath, holiness is at the heart of the mystical tradition and central to her mystical way of evangelism. Holiness is being set apart to be in partnership with God in God’s mission. Therefore, mysticism is not a way of escape from the world through private, spiritual experience but a way of being holy that is concerned with bringing wholeness and healing to persons who then increasingly pursue the love of God and neighbor.
According to Heath, the U.S. church has already entered the first step in the mystical journey – purgation. She bases this conclusion on a series of dismal statistics about falling church membership and participation along with a loss of authority in the lives of individuals and communities. The church’s days of power and influence as an institution are over; this includes both mainline and evangelical denominations. However, instead of fighting this decline, Heath calls the church to a posture of surrender which acknowledges God’s faithful, yet hidden presence in the church’s struggles and suffering. As the church surrenders, God is working to free it from its deeply held idolatrous views of God as a being it can control as well as its accommodation to the consumerist and individualist ways of the world. God longs to restore the church, but this time of exile is necessary for its holy transformation.
In order to emerge from this “dark night of the soul,” Heath unearths and integrates the work of ten Christian mystics both ancient and modern over the course of five chapters to “illuminate” five central, theological themes the church must consider as it pursues a renewed way of being holy. Julian of Norwich and Hans Urs von Balthasar reveal love as the essence of God’s meaning. Phoebe Palmer and Father Arseny embody a life of kenosis – self-emptying – lived for the sake of others. Thomas R. Kelly and Henri Nouwen mark the journey through the false self into the true self at home in God’s love. Julia Foote and Methchild of Magdeburg expose the church’s great need for healing from its threefold wound of racism, sexism, and classism. Finally, St. Bonaventure and John Woolman cast a vision of ecological redemption that grounds the practice of evangelism in the stewardship and care of creation.
In the five remaining chapters, Heath explores how the practice of evangelism will be transformed if and when the church takes the step past illumination into union. Since love is God’s meaning, evangelism becomes a way of serving and loving Christ in the persons we meet. The life of kenosis highlights how radical self-giving beyond the typical financial tithe leads to new, more light-weight yet more costly ways of doing church which are vital to the work of evangelism. For Christians to be truly hospitable towards those they evangelize, the practice of evangelism must be grounded in a life of contemplative prayer that facilitates personal healing and wholeness. Evangelism that takes the threefold wound of racism, sexism, and classism seriously calls for egalitarian church leadership structures, intentional church plants in poor neighborhoods, and ministries devoted to violence prevention and recovery. Finally, the mystical way of evangelism must include multi-dimensional efforts to steward the evangelistic witness of creation by confronting consumerism and teaching simplicity and sustainability as core values.
In this work, Heath has masterfully developed a thorough, compelling, and holistic vision of evangelism in a mystical key for the church today. Her command of the ten mystical sources she uses in the “illumination” section is impressive and her ability to synthesize the works of two sources – sometimes across vast distances in history and culture – shows great skill and creativity. While every chapter in this section is a gem, I want to make special note of Heath’s chapter on Hans Urs von Balthasar and Julian of Norwich which lays the foundation for the rest of the section. This chapter illuminates God’s being as pure love in a unique, provocative way. When God’s being as love is discussed in typical fashion, one usually finds a discussion on God’s being as Trinity, as a perfect communion of equal, mutually self-giving and other-receiving love. Heath avoids this typical Trinitarian discussion and focuses instead on how God’s being as love shapes our view of eschatology via Hans Urs von Baltahasar and sin via Julian of Norwich. This move is important not because it “skips over” Trinitarian theology but because it extends Trinitarian theology in a way that entirely subverts the project of evangelism that has dominated the Protestant church in America for decades which has been characteristically a-Trinitarian. With von Balthasar’s hopeful, inclusive eschatology, evangelism is freed from its tendency to devolve into manipulative fear tactics. With Julian’s definition of sin as “original wound,” evangelists can address the actual pain and violence of sin endured by those who live apart from the loving God instead of abstracting sin to an otherworldly realm of divine transactions. Upon finishing this chapter, I felt excited about evangelism for the first time – and I was raised in a Southern Baptist church! Evangelism is no longer about convincing someone to feel bad about their sin to save themselves from a god of wrath; it is an introduction to the God who exists as love and is moving all creation towards a hopeful future where all its wounds are healed.
In the third and final section, Heath looks for ways the church’s practice of evangelism will need to change as it seeks a “union” of holiness with God. Unfortunately, this section seemed very repetitive and Heath’s goals for it were unclear to me. At first I thought she was “applying” the “theory” she had developed in section two. In most of the “union” chapters, she does focus on practical applications and changes to be made, but she had already discussed many of these changes in the “illumination” chapters. The chapters in this section also included short vignettes which follow the life of a man named Sam who encounters a church which practices a mystic way of evangelism. These vignettes attempt to communicate the truth of each chapter in a narrative format. However, I found these stories added little to what had already been said in each chapter. The stories were too brief and underdeveloped to say anything new. This added to the sense of repetitiveness I found throughout this section.
One redeeming feature of the “union” section was Heath’s discussion of a “new kind of Pentecostalism” in chapter ten. As a member of a charismatic church, I appreciated how Heath reformulated the Pentecostal doctrine of “initial evidence” from a performance which somehow proves an individual’s holiness to a life committed to the creation of communities which have been divided by race, class, and gender. The “evidence” of the Spirit’s work is renewed life in community, i.e. the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit” which the apostle Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians 13:14. Evangelism that is Spirit-filled will invite others into a renewed and renewing community which embodies the new creation reconciliation Christ has made possible.
I would recommend this book to all Christian leaders who are concerned about the future of the church in the U.S. Heath has provided a refreshing and hopeful way forward that does not ignore the church’s issues but nevertheless trusts in God’s active presence to renew and restore God’s people. This book would be especially helpful for church planters who are forming their vision for the community God has called them to cultivate. They may find Heath’s stories about “Sam’s” experience with the mystic way of evangelism more helpful than I since they paint an explicit image of how her process could work. This book may also be helpful for the typical church member to help them deepen their understanding of evangelism. However, the second section may be too theologically in-depth for some general audience readers. On the whole, I give this book a very hearty recommendation because it has given me new hope and excitement about how evangelism can be practiced in truly life-giving ways for both our churches and our communities.