Most of us can agree that Christians have a bit of a PR problem in contemporary Western culture. Part of this comes from the scandals the media love to feed on like a carcass any time one emerges. But another is how we leave so many with a bitter taste in their mouths from our recruitment — read: evangelism — techniques.
Yes, we may get some to come into the proverbial fold by doing what we do. But what about the millions who are so turned off by the experience that they wouldn’t darken the door of a church if they were paid to? Too often we suffer too much from over-eagerness and a myopic sense of mission to keep a sensitivity for the humanity of the person we’re talking to.
I got to thinking about evangelism this month in particular as part of My Jesus Project, a year-long practice I’m engaged in to more deeply understand what it really means to follow Jesus. This month I’m studying what I call “Jesus the Evangelist,” with Alan Chambers as my mentor. Chambers is best known as the founder and longtime head of Exodus International, an organization that emphasized conversion therapy, or helping people who were gay become — for lack of a better term — un-gay.
But it didn’t work. Chambers said so himself, as he is gay too, and he knows firsthand that he is still very much the same sexual being he was before. Further, the organization’s form of evangelism did a lot of damage, which he now seeks to repair.
“Winning people to Jesus is a favorite past time that goes hand in hand with the style of Christianity most believers practice," said Chambers.
"It is what I was taught and what I taught and it left me constantly wanting more, praying for better, striving for success, feeling like a failure, and hurting others. I came to realize that this is not evangelism. It’s legalism. And legalism kills.”
Here are some all-too-common examples of how we misstep when trying in one way or another to share our faith with others:
1. We talk too much. I’ve been approached many times — and I mean a lot — by Christians who start out a conversation with something like, “Let me tell you about my personal relationship with Jesus.” Or with a question like, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”
Granted, this second one is actually an open door to some kind of “dialogue,” though maybe not the kind the other person wants. Too often we are way too eager to launch into our own script rather than asking questions that express a genuine interest in another person, regardless of what they believe or claim.
2. Our script is tired. Want to know what people really think of us? Ask them. Though, like Jack Nicholson says, I’m not sure if we can handle the truth. More to the point, ask them what they feel or what goes through their mind when they hear the phrase “Have you accepted Jesus” or “Let me tell you about my relationship with Jesus.”
If they’re like me (and I’m a Christian!), they get anxious, defensive, and their ears more or less shut down. Partly because they’ve heard it plenty of times before, and partly because…
3. People think we’re bullies. The M.O. of most Christian evangelism involves at least one of two things: get people to accept Jesus (like us) and become part of our church (also like us). So this presumes that wherever that person is in their lives, what they need is to be more like us. This means we have tin ears at best, and at worst, it comes across as spiritual bullying. The subtext is “you aren’t right how you are; you need to be more like me to be O.K.”
And if someone turned the tables on us and implied we had to be like them or else (fill in the blank), how would we feel?
4. We haven’t earned the right. The rules of social behavior generally dictate that we have to earn someone’s trust by caring about them first, investing time in them, and making ourselves vulnerable to them before they have any reason to trust us. And we sometimes confuse sharing our testimony with actual vulnerability. Regurgitating a rehearsed script about how Jesus came into our lives is not vulnerable. It’s coercive, namely because we risk nothing on our own part, and put all of the pressure and expectation on the other person to change. The only other context in which this is expected in our culture is in high pressure sales, which is what most people equate Christian evangelism with.
5. People don’t see the difference. Too often, people can’t tell the difference between how Christians are and anyone else. And that’s if we’re lucky. Often times, we’re perceived (rightly or not) as brash, opinionated, and judgmental. And like it or not, we’re lumped in with any negative stereotype people have of Christians; it’s then on us to reveal a different kind of Christianity. As noted above, that takes time, personal risk and vulnerability. The old mantra of “show, don’t tell” is the best remedy in this case. And it might take more than buying someone a cup of coffee or holding the door for them.
So what do we do if the old stand-by form of evangelism doesn’t work, or at least does more harm than good? There are two options as I see it. One option is servant evangelism, which, in my eyes, is far more like the evangelism Jesus did for most people (save for a handful of his inner circle of disciples). He immersed himself in a local community and even went out of his way to cross social boundaries. He noticed what people needed and he responded. Then he encouraged people to go out, to live lives with purpose, focused on doing the same for others. Simple, but far form easy.
Second, if we want more of a how-to model, look no further than a 12-step program. With nearly no budget, no marketing, and no leadership, 12-step groups continue to grow and radically change lives all over the world. Part of this success is because of how they govern themselves. The focus is on personal story, mutual accountability and encouragement, and personal growth rather than numeric growth. You can earn the right over time to invite someone only onceto join you at a 12-step meeting, then you let it go. You don’t preach at people, and you live what you practice. And recovery is something you do, one day at a time, rather than something you are by reciting a handful of words or taking part on a one-time ritual.
Talk is cheap. We need to focus less on being Christian, especially as the world has come to understand it, and invest more of ourselves in being more Christ-like. At least for today.
Christian Piatt is the author of postChristian, Blood Doctrine, and the Banned Questions book series, among others. He is engaged in a year-long effort called My Jesus Project to more deeply and honestly follow the life, teaching, and example of Jesus through prayer, study and action. Follow along his journey, and even join in, at www.MyJesusProject.com.