Making Peace with Evangelism

I received a book recommendation the other day with the following subtitle: “How to lead Muslims to Christ Now!”

I had many thoughts (mostly unkind ones) when I saw the subtitle of this book on Amazon, but one word explicitly came to mind:

Evangelism.

I hate to say it, but I cringe at the word. Memories of street evangelism and choir mission trips to Hawaii flooded my mind. I remembered the times I placed people in metaphorical hierarchical structures – my brand of Christianity was the king, Christians that were not like me were the lords, and non-Christians were the serfs. The only use of the serfs were to win them to Jesus through rationalistic, apologetic means. In the same vein, I placed people into two linguistic categories: believers and non-believers. People were not people; they were only representations of particular categories, and my role as a believer was to force all non-believers, by my own effort and volition, into my category.

Now, let me say this. These are not healthy and helpful thoughts. They reek of judgment and pride. I think the word, “Now,” with the exclamation mark whirled me into this destructive place.

Now, let me also say this. I do believe some Christians approach evangelism in this way. But, the overwhelming emotion I felt connected to the word, evangelism, is not the fault of the concept of evangelism. As Iris Murdoch says, “Words may mislead us…since words are often stable while concepts alter; we have a different image of courage at forty from that which we had at twenty.”

The connotation of evangelism that welled up, and wells up, in me is very much connected to a late 20th century model assumed by much of the evangelical church, and some remnants of it still remain. But, the concept of evangelism itself is undoubtedly at the heart of being living out a life marked by the love of God.

When I first began to plan for my trip this summer, I was challenged by some Christians who I love and respect to expand my vision of the trip. Instead of the trip strictly being a story-telling adventure (which for me is still the heart of the trip), they encouraged me to connect with missionaries on the ground in order to evangelize. When my friends said this, all those feelings of anxiety, despair, and anger associated with that word saturated my heart and soul. I immediately pushed back and tried to talk myself and them out of evangelizing, or convincing others to intellectually assent to the four spiritual laws or some wildly out of context bible verses, so I can put another saved person, due to my clever rhetoric, as a notch on my religious belt.

But, after ranting and raving for a while – both internally and externally – God revealed something to me.

The problem with the evangelism of my youth is the context – Western, post-enlightenment, highly intellectualized, wealthy America. We are trying to convince people of their need for God, when in all reality, we don’t need God.

Yes, I know, we all need God, but because of our material security, and with our western construct of need so intertwined with the very things we physically have, a transcendent need is reasoned away. We don’t have a need for daily bread.

The seemingly abstract realities of grace, hope, self-sacrificial love, sin, and a bodily resurrection – all realities connected to the things outside the bounds of rationality and the physical world – must be experienced. To argue using the means of the material and rational (apologetics) for the mystery of faith can, at times, be useful for some, but it typically falls on deaf ears. So, then, how do you evangelize an experience?

I think the truth of evangelism, then, is a hard one, and Jesus says it best. When Jesus begins his ministry, he opens up a scroll from Isaiah in the synagogue and reads,

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The Word became flesh for these very people. The incarnation is about God bringing about restoration for those who know they need restoration. In the west, it is hard to convince someone that they are the poor (in spirit), that they are in bondage (to their sins), that they are blind (to the beauty of the Lord), that they are oppressed (by darkness), and that the Lord’s favor is being proclaimed (in all of creation). Does this, or could this, message resonate with many in the west? Of course! But, our material sufficiency is oftentimes a roadblock. Therefore, it is in the experience of being poor, blind, etc. that opens us up to the hope and freedom that Jesus offers, and I think it is hard to be convinced of it. In the end, I think it has to be embodied.

I think this is why Christianity has exploded in the global south yet has stagnated/decreased in the west. Their perceived need for God is higher. It is a felt, experienced need. The gift of grace that frees us and unites us with God our Father is a fulfillment of a longing, of a need. Therefore, in places that experience more overt need, they are actually, physically, spiritually fulfilled through the work of the Spirit. It is why, when many go on mission trips to Africa and Latin America, they are shocked by the joy Christians have in such “horrible” circumstances. Their needs, in the midst of dirt floors and bacteria infested water, have been met through Jesus.

Evangelism, therefore, isn’t predicated on an us vs. them mentality, a believer vs. non-believer dichotomy. Instead, the gospel of grace is offered up by those who have experienced the hope of Jesus in their greatest time of need, and it is shared with those they love, know, respect, and value as fellow image bearers of the Father. It is a gift to be shared that fulfills all needs and desires, not a tool to fulfill some personal agenda or draw lines between people. It is transcendent reality that reaches down to earth and changes everything. Past, present, and future.

Likewise, the same applies for the current refugee situation. As more and more stories come out about people coming to faith as they flee the dire situations of their homelands, Jesus’s words, through the prophet of Isaiah, ring especially true. He has come:

to proclaim good news to the poor…
to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free.  

I pray, as I head overseas in a few days, that my negative connotations of evangelism, brought about by a unique western point-of-view, is suppressed. I pray God grants me courage to proclaim the good news of Jesus, not out of some selfishness or superiority, but out of an overflow of God’s love for and in me. I pray God reminds me of how he met me in my greatest times of need, how he provided for me the hope and peace only he can give. I pray that the gift of grace offered to those I meet is given out of a posture of love and service, and out of our common humanity.

Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Lord have mercy.

Image credit: http://tinyurl.com/h3gugop

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