I understand the basis of evangelism. There are lots of scriptural bases for doing it: making disciples of all nations, expanding our territory, and so on. Also, there’s a great feeling that comes with bringing someone over to your way of thinking and acting. There’s the sense of doing something good for them, plus there’s the validation of our own faith when someone else aligns themselves with it. Every new Christian is one more step toward ensuring that our churches, our faith, our stories or our values will be passed on for future generations.
That said, there are plenty of potential pitfalls in the process of evangelizing too. Depending on how you approach folks, there’s the potential that you’ll turn them off to a relationship with you all together, or what’s more, a relationship with your faith. Like it or not, you represent the entirety of Christianity to that person in that moment; that’s a lot of responsibility.
There’s also the implicit assumption in the evangelism process that I know something you don’t, or I have something you need. The way so many of us take this on creates an immediate power imbalance in the relationship that can be hard to overcome. There are also the problems of talking more than listening, making blind assumptions about the other person’s needs, background and values and going into the situation assuming the only person that warrants any change is the one we’re talking to.
But none of these is the most potentially dangerous element of evangelism.
Sometimes our zeal for sharing something that’s important to us blinds us to the havoc we can be wreaking in the process. We’re so intent on the end result we seek – converting the person we’re talking with to Christ – that we’ll say or do a lot of things we shouldn’t to get what we desire. We become salespeople for Jesus rather than partners in a relationship or equals in a conversation. And any good salesperson can tell you that there are two key components to closing a sale.
First, you have to be able to identify the need you’re trying to address in your subject. If you can’t recognize and articulate back to them what they need, it’s more or less impossible to sell them anything. Much of evangelism training focuses on this. We ask questions, dig into personal history, until we tap into that longing, that brokenness, that hurt that each of us has and would love to make go away.
That’s not the problem, usually. The issue arises in what we present as the solution to those deficits, ailments and vacancies. We’re taught that Jesus is the panacea, the one-time inoculation against all that is wrong in our lives. All we have to do is welcome him into our hearts and lives, and all will be better.
Except when it isn’t. Then, we’ve created a real problem, because the person we’ve evangelized still experiences hardship, doubt, struggle or lack, but we’ve told them that Jesus can fix everything. So where must the problem lie? The only option is themselves. They must have turned on God, rejected Christ, brought this on themselves. Time to double down, to try harder, maybe even be born again – again – to see if, this time, it sticks for good.
But it never does. Life is beset with struggle, suffering, bumps and brokenness with or without the Christian faith. At its best, the faith is a discipline that helps us contend with such difficulties, relating to the very One who knew suffering so intimately, and yet still chose Love. Clearly, given the fates of Jesus and those early disciples who followed him, the call of Christ is not one of comfort, flawlessness or blissful elation every day of the year.
To sell it as such is false advertising.
What’s the alternative? Living as Christ-like life, as much as possible, reorienting ourselves over and over again toward the path of love, compassion, peace and reconciliation, regardless of the costs. Some will look on this as absurd, unnecessarily difficult, when the world tell us we should endeavor to surround ourselves with comforts and satisfactions that will make it all better. But this is as much of a false premise as the one sold by many Christian evangelists. Such indelible satisfaction simply doesn’t exist.
But there is something more attractive than the promise of satisfaction. We think that we want comfort but what we really long for is peace. Where does this peace come from? Consider Jesus’ own examples. He didn’t shirk from struggle, but rather found ways, through his faith, to make peace with his own journey. That is the point at which such lacks, deficits and struggles lose their power and potency. They don’t go away, but they cease to be come central to our lives, because they are placed in perspective when held up against a peace that surpasses human understanding.
This kind of peace is self-evident. It requires no sales pitch, no coercion. It stands as a beacon others tend to seek out. Let that be enough.