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.