Evangelism

Five Problems With Christian Evangelism (and What to Do Instead)

Image via Bevan Goldswain/shutterstock.com

Image via Bevan Goldswain/shutterstock.com

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.

Here are some all-too-common examples of how we misstep when trying in one way or another to share our faith with others.

What If Jesus Wasn’t the Answer?

Gajus / Shutterstock.com

Gajus / Shutterstock.com

I gave up street evangelizing a long time ago. It was a short-lived career — a few weekends into town with a friend, praying for God to help us meet someone we could share Jesus with. It quickly (thankfully) became clear to me that this business of following God is much better done in the context of long-term relationships with a broader understanding of salvation and mission.

Any time we try to confine the big and beautiful Good News of God into a simplistic message small enough to fit onto a tract or a 10-minute awkward conversation, we cut out too many important details. The truncated gospel of the Four Spiritual Laws requires that we get to the point — Jesus is the answer — as quickly as possible, lest our conversion, I mean, conversation partner gets away from us.

For Jesus to be the answer, there’s got to be a problem, and so we belabor the problem in order to solve it.

The mathematical equation of the gospel made sense to me when I was a child and perhaps into young adulthood. Prove the problem and solve the equation. Everything was simple, organized, and neatly categorized.

Somewhere along the way, it stopped making sense.

Converting People: I Don't Buy It

photo by Jeff Few, via Flickr.com

Man preaching at the Chinatown metro station in Washington, D.C., photo by Jeff Few, via Flickr.com

I was recently talking with friends about looking people up online. I told the story of being unpleasantly surprised to find, on someone’s Facebook profile, that he was affiliated with a sports-themed summer camp in the Middle East run by Christians with the not-as-subtle-as-they-think motivation of converting (or at least … influencing) young Muslim campers. As I told the story, I could see that I had probably picked the wrong audience: friends who, while they might not have signed up for such a project themselves, certainly knew people who would. I trailed off lamely, debating with myself whether to bother noting the obvious as an excuse for my reaction: that they had grown up in conservative churches and I in a liberal one.

But thinking about it later, I realized it was more than that. “I don’t believe in converting people,” I wanted to go back and say to them. “Not in the way that I don’t believe in wearing white after Labor Day — like a personal preference or moral objection — but in the way that I don’t believe in Santa Claus.” I do not believe it happens.

To be more specific, I don’t believe in people converting people. Conversion, obviously, happens. And other people may be there, even standing by and handing the convert a pamphlet. The convert may even be saying, “Because of you, I am converting!” But I don’t buy it.

Deconstructing God's Mission

Dennis Cox / Shutterstock.com

Dennis Cox / Shutterstock.com

When I ask people to describe a typical “missionary,” the usual response includes that of a young man with black pants and a white collared shirt (with a name tag attached) that knocks on doors, or perhaps an evangelical preacher who stands on (and shouts from) street corners, or possibly one who travels the far ends of the earth to help the poor and plant new churches. But just because some are more vocal and visible than others, such missionaries should not be acknowledged as the totality of all that exists, because:

All people in all places are missionaries, for all people in all places participate within a particular mission in some shape or form. Missionaries are as diverse as the human community itself.

While most missionaries do not self-define as such, the world is filled with them, many of whom serve with a high degree of commitment and faithfulness. For instance, if a missionary is – by definition – one who participates within a particular mission, then those who consume Coca-Cola are not merely consumers, but they are – by definition – missionaries of the Coca-Cola brand and its corporate mission. Similarly, there are countless political missionaries in all corners of the globe. As election cycles draw close, such missionaries multiply in mass numbers, and their energetic zeal often rivals – and sometimes far exceeds – the determination of many religious clergy labeled as extreme.

The world consists of countless missions and innumerable missionaries. As stated from the onset, all people in all places are missionaries, so not only should we hesitate to assume we know what a “typical missionary” is, we should also attempt to distinguish who a Christian missionary is to be within the context of countless other (complementary and competing) missions and missionaries. So what follows is a brief reflection on what the focus of God’s mission might be, and an exploration of how Christian missionaries may be able to function as a result.

How I Kissed Evangelizing Goodbye

Robsonphoto/ Shutterstock.com

Robsonphoto/ Shutterstock.com

I went to the mecca of evangelicalism for college — beautiful campus in the suburbs of Chicago, where I received a scholarship from none other than the Pope of Evangelicalism, Billy Graham, for my work in street evangelism. As in, speaking to random strangers on the street in order to convert them to Christianity. Post graduation, I became a missionary, the Protestant equivalent of achieving sainthood.

I look back on that girl on fire and marvel at her earnest faith. If I could, I would reach back and massage the tense knots out of her high-strung shoulders, weary from carrying the weight of her neighbors’ eternal destinies. I would wistfully explain to her that the first person she tried to witness to, that gentle, drunken, homeless woman named Kathy, needed more than my rehearsed Roman Road to salvation. Then I would break the Temporal Prime Directive and reveal to her that one day she would become more interested in being evangelized than evangelizing.

The truth is, I’m just better at being evangelized. It’s probably how I was so easily converted at the tender age of 12. The young Christian is expected to learn how to share their testimony: their story of how God changes your life. By the time I was in my twenties, I had given my testimony a bajillion times.

But my own story often bored me.

Nursing Home Evangelism: Preaching at the Last ‘Bus Stop to Eternity’

RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Lay evangelists review their visit to a Washington, D.C.-area nursing home. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Rhonda Rowe and her team gathered around a diagram of the nursing home’s floor plan and determined how to split up to avoid praying with anyone twice.

Rowe made her way to a room where a 93-year-old woman lay in her bed while her 87-year-old roommate sat in a wheelchair. Rowe knelt between them and went through her “Nursing Home Gospel Soul-Winning Script.”

“Fill me with your Holy Spirit and fire of God,” the 93-year-old repeated. “I’m on my way to heaven. I have Jesus in my heart.”

Rowe was soon off to the next room, but before she left, acknowledged that she might never see them again on earth. “I’ll see you girls in heaven!” she chirped.

Welcome to the world of nursing home evangelism, where teams of lay evangelists target senior citizens for one last chance in this life for glory in the next.

VIDEO: The Good News Club

In public schools across the U.S., children are threatened with fire and brimstone while attending the “Good News Club,” an afterschool program sponsored by the Child Evangelism Fellowship. In “‘Get Them When They’re Young!’” (Sojourners, August 2014), Asra Q. Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, writes about her experience working with a group of interfaith mothers to challenge the Good News Club in their community.

To get an inside look at the Good News Club in action, watch this video featuring their training materials and curriculum.

Read the Full Article

​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

'Get Them When They're Young!'

LAST FALL, I WALKED INTO Room 154 at my son’s public elementary school in Great Falls, Va., for the inaugural meeting of a new after-school club. The club’s lead organizer, a parent at the school, eyed me as she stacked Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies snacks and asked about my son, a fifth-grader at the school: “Is Shibli here?”

“No,” I responded, quietly taking my seat. I’d come out of curiosity. Our school administrators had emailed parents a flyer advertising a free, exciting, fun-filled hour of “dynamic Bible lessons,” “creative learning activities,” and “inspiring missionary stories,” with a pledge to teach our children “respect for authority,” “moral values,” and “character qualities.” Would this club be a good experience for my fifth grader?

At 3:17 p.m., three minutes before the dismissal bell, the mother-volunteer said: “Asra, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. This is a kid’s club, and you don’t have a kid [here].” My curiosity turned to suspicion. Instead of leaving, I called the school district’s public affairs office who confirmed that the club, held on public school grounds, was in fact open to anyone, with or without a child.

The mother ran out of the room and returned with the school principal. He bee-lined to me, yelling: “Right now, you are disturbing the children.” I looked around. The children were happily munching on their Cheddar Bunnies. He moved the club to the gym. When I followed, he blocked my way.

This was my introduction to the Good News Club, a private Christian organization founded in the 1920s for children age 6 to 12, run by the Child Evangelism Fellowship.

Read the Full Article

​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

GO: The Biggest Word in the Great Commission

Pair of shoes, moomsabuy / Shutterstock.com

Pair of shoes, moomsabuy / Shutterstock.com

Our son, Mattias, is a complicated kid. He’s sweet, creative and remarkably intelligent. But to say he is strong willed would be underselling his capacity for intransigence.

When he was in preschool he, like many kids, went through a “naked phase.” He never wanted to have his clothes on at home (which was no small issue with regard to our furniture’s upkeep), and getting him dressed in the morning was part chore and part all-out war.

“We have one of these kids every year,” said his teacher, a seasoned veteran. “What you have to do is call his bluff.”

Go and Make Disciples — Not Converts

The Roman Road, Barry Barnes / Shutterstock.com

The Roman Road, Barry Barnes / Shutterstock.com

I have never really understood personal evangelism. Maybe it’s because I have never really been good at sharing my faith — at least not with complete strangers. I have never stood on the street corner preaching to all within earshot. I’m not the guy with numerous stories about how I shared my life story with the person sitting next to me on the plane, inducing a tearful admission that he needs Jesus. (I am not condemning these types of encounters, nor am I condemning these practices altogether.) To be completely honest, I don’t think I have even one story like that.

Recently, I have been trying to better understand the Great Commission. I have to tell you what I hear Jesus telling me in that particular passage. You might be surprised to find that he isn’t telling me to share the Gospel with all who will listen (although, that is part of it); rather he is telling me (and you) to go and make disciples. The former is really just words; the latter is words and actions, ultimately culminating in a relationship.

Pages

Subscribe