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On Evangelism

A few years ago, I remember taking one of those online “spiritual gifts” tests with several co-workers.  Needless to say, I am fairly suspicious of these sorts of things in general and particularly when they claim to be discovering something as open to abuse, misunderstanding, and misappropriation as spiritual gifts.  I have always been of the opinion that spiritual gifts are the kinds of things that are discovered in community via the wisdom of mature Christians, not as a printout generated by responses to a handful of formulaic online questions.

Nonetheless, I took the survey.  Among the more interesting discoveries of the “personalized spiritual gifts analysis” that showed up in my inbox at the end of the process was that I scored lowest on “evangelism.”  Perhaps ironically, the category of “pastor” only came in third, much to the amusement of my co-workers.  So apparently I am barely suited to be a pastor, and most definitely not an evangelist!

So what is an evangelist?  Well, I suppose technically it is someone who has some unique skill in proclaiming the evangel—the “good news.”  I suspect that a more popular definition would look something like this: “someone who is good at producing ‘conversions,’ making people aware of their need for personal repentance, or just generally convincing people that they ‘need Jesus.'”  The questions in the survey certainly would support the second definition—some of them were fairly obviously trying to sniff out those who had a strong felt need to proselytize and who were effective in producing (specifically understood) results.  I didn’t fit the job description.

I wasn’t terribly surprised, truth be told.  I’m not a confrontational person by nature.  I’ve never felt a burning desire to confront people about their faith or lack thereof.  Youth group appeals to “share your faith with your friends” went mostly unheeded by yours truly.  As an adult, most of my “faith-sharing” has taken place in the context of existing relationships.  “Evangelism” has always been a word that makes me uneasy.

A book with an intriguing title arrived in my mailbox for review last week: The Ethics of Evangelism.  I’ve barely begun the book, but the title alone underscores the widely-held suspicion—inside and outside of the church—that it is unethical to attempt to convert others.   As a culture, we are growing increasingly skittish about telling people what to think.  Evangelism is a form of imperialism, after all.  What right have we to impose our views upon others?  What right have we to judge that our views are superior to theirs?

We see this even within the realm of parenting.  Some would say that raising your child in any kind of specific religious context amounts to a form of unpardonable brainwashing or indoctrination.  I was recently speaking with someone who thought that the best option would be to raise their (future) children with a completely neutral perspective about religion and let them decide for themselves when they get older.  After all, how many kids out there have suffered profound trauma/damage as the result of some overzealous pastor/priest who loaded them with guilt or terrified them with hell?  Far better, it would seem, to keep their religious options open for as long as possible.

The problem is that “religious neutrality,” just like the worldviews it derides, is also a form of indoctrination, if of a more superficially benign variety.  It effectively raises a child with the view that religious questions are not important enough for mom/dad/guardian to give them their guidance on—that nothing important hangs on their decisions on these matters, and that the ultimate questions that religions purport to answer are to be relegated to the realm of “personal preference” and to be addressed “whenever it occurs to you to think or care about it.”  This, too, is a worldview that is being foisted upon impressionable young minds.

I don’t know if the word “evangelism” is redeemable in the minds of many or not.  There are certainly many deficient, inaccurate, and misguided approaches to commending the Christian faith out there—whether to children or adults.  Of course, it must also be acknowledged that there are bad representations of all worldviews, including the bland pluralism that seems to be the default option out there right now.  But changing times may require a changing vocabulary in how we talk about talking about faith.

Whatever words we choose to describe it, we ought not to abandon the practice of commending the faith. To cease to speak of our convictions about faith and truth and beauty and goodness is to capitulate to a cultural ethos where words like “tolerance” and acceptance” mask an inability or unwillingness to even muster the energy to ask or care about what matters to one another.  Far better to do the hard work of attempting to figure out how to present the gospel in ways that help people to think critically, ask questions, embrace truth and celebrate discovery wherever and whenever it is to be found and to do all of this as an act of committed discipleship to Jesus Christ.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    In the reformed tradition, (I am thinking of Luther here,) faith comes as a gift, if it comes at all. Faith and hope are the ultimate gifts of the spirit. Faith is the way that one comes to know the gospel, and faith comes by gift. Hope follows.

    In that tradition, evangelism may consist of talking about our faith to others and inviting others to worship, but also consists importantly of prayer. Things especially associated with evangelism in the popular imagination, such as altar calls and knocking on doors, are not common in that tradition. They are part of other traditions, ones associated with revivalism, for example. But still, what happens in the reformed tradition is yet evangelism. Each tradition has its own ways, as does each person, as do you and me.

    For a pantheist, or panentheist, like me, it is easy: Want to go hiking?

    November 7, 2011
    • Panentheist evangelism! I like it. Perhaps if I ever make it to southern California you can evangelize me :).

      November 7, 2011
      • Ken #

        I look forward to that day on the trails in the hills of Beulah.

        November 8, 2011
  2. Paul Johnston #

    Not a fully coherent response here….somewhere Gil says “no sh..” :)…I wonder about the imagery of sheep to sheep. A rather unflattering modern dialectic. What would the image of saint to would be/could be saint, inspire. Is evangelism inherently at fault? If it is what do we say of the “Great Commission”? How does one go about making disciples of all people anyway?

    With regard to Christianity’s historical manifestation one wonders how different it might have been without the relentless evangelization of St. Paul? If to evangelize correctly, is to testify to the truth, how is it to be avoided? How can it be avoided?

    ….”Whatever words we choose to describe it, we ought not to abandon the practice of commending the faith”…. here, here!! 🙂

    Ryan, if judgement is our lot, will there be an evangelical assessment of our lives? Will how well or how poorly we evangelized matter?

    ….”Far better to do the hard work of attempting to figure out how to present the gospel in ways that help people to think critically, ask questions, embrace truth and celebrate discovery wherever and whenever it is to be found and to do all of this as an act of committed discipleship to Jesus Christ.”…. I like this one but this is where God gives us different perspective. I prefer presentations of Gospel that speak to love. Not an intellectual process at all really but just the shared sense that we are all worthy and capable of His love, if we so choose it…not withstanding the teachings of the apostates Luther and Cauvin.

    I recognize overlaps but generally speaking you seem more legalistic/rational than I. Perhaps I am the more spiritual/contemplative. In any case, spokes of the same wheel. 🙂

    Perhaps the real issue regarding evangelization is one of example. Am I a good example? If not, then let my evangelization continue. Let the log continue to be removed from my eye, as it where, before I attempt efforts regarding the splinters that others have manifest.

    November 8, 2011
    • Well, the I chose the sheep image in a bit of a tongue-in-cheek moment. This is certainly how evangelism is often perceived. It was meant to be lightly provocative in the context of a discussion of how to understand evangelism, nothing more.

      Of course I’m not suggesting we ought to abandon evangelism or testifying to the truth or anything like that. Far from it. As with so many other “religious” words in a postmodern context, a bit of unpacking and deconstruction is often necessary before we can use the word profitably.

      Ryan, if judgement is our lot, will there be an evangelical assessment of our lives? Will how well or how poorly we evangelized matter?

      Matthew 25:31-46 always comes to mind here. I don’t think God will judge based on how many people you or I were able to “convert” (another word that has been degraded through misuse).

      I recognize overlaps but generally speaking you seem more legalistic/rational than I. Perhaps I am the more spiritual/contemplative. In any case, spokes of the same wheel.

      Legalistic? Really? First time I’ve had that label attached to me… :). As I’ve said many times before, I don’t draw the sharp distinctions you do between the intellectual and the spiritual. There are differences in approach, of course, but I prefer to think of an intellect inflamed by the Spirit and and a spirituality informed by the intellect. Perhaps this is just another way of saying spokes on the same wheel…

      November 9, 2011
      • Paul Johnston #

        I like Matthew 25 a lot!! Of course you have some explaining to do with the justification not works crowd but we “Assisans” assent.

        “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.”… St. Francis says some of the coolest stuff.

        BTW I like your way of describing “spokes on the wheel”, better than mine.

        November 11, 2011
  3. Ryan, perhaps you needed to share a bit more from your latest sermon in this post. Evangelism should be quite simply telling the stories of how God has worked in our lives. Similar to your sermon on the value of stories in peacemaking for Christ, we also need to view evangelism the same way – telling stories. I know I often forget to ‘evangelize’, not in telling others what to think, but by simply sharing how God has touched my life. I have caught myself telling the same story to a ‘church-goer’ and a ‘non-church-goer’ and in the former I use phrases like “God really worked in my life during that time…” and in the latter I remove the God-references afraid to offend. Later I’ve felt bad for failing to tell the good stories of how God works in my life. Stories have a ‘take it or leave it’ quality that Ryan you spoke to in your sermon. I know I need to have the courage to tell the stories of how God has worked in my life.

    November 8, 2011
    • Thanks for this, Jonathan. Evangelism as storytelling—I like that. It has none of the imperialistic connotations that the word “evangelism” has, rightly or wrongly, acquired over the years. It is simply paying attention to the traces of God in your own story and the story of the world, and then inviting others to see what you see.

      So often evangelism seems to be about telling people what to think/believe. Perhaps, like Philip’s response to Nathanael’s incredulity that anything good could come from Nazareth, we ought simply to be inviting people to “come and see” (John 1:45-47).

      November 9, 2011
  4. Larry S #

    Ryan,

    have u read McKnight’s “King Jesus Gospel”

    I’m working thru it now. I think McKnight would say we need to tell ‘the Story’ not merely telling ‘stories.’ If all it is is telling ‘stories’ we could miss out some of the good bits by focussing only on the various examples/or stories we happen to like. for example; we could turn Jesus into the teller of interesting moral ideas or merely examples in peacemaking, or confronting religious powers rather than presenting him as Messiah/Lord with all that implies and entails.

    regards

    November 9, 2011
    • I’ve cracked McKnight’s book open, but was then distracted by other reading. It’s on the list… :).

      Of course, “The Story” is the thing, not whatever stories we happen to prefer. I think that each of the dangers you mention here is well-represented in church history. We are selective storytellers.

      In my response to Jonathan above, I guess I was getting at the idea of developing the ability to identify “The Story” in our stories and relate this to others. But this does not, of course, take the place of telling “The Story” independent of our own stories. Thanks for the reminder.

      November 9, 2011

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