Sunday, January 29, 2006

Two Poles of Evangelism

Evangelism, I know that sounds like a dirty word to some and an imperative to others. Personally I love the idea of evangelism – that of sharing our faith in Christ. But what I don’t like is how notions of evangelism polarize the Christian Church; my gut tells me that this is not the intention of evangelism at all. Nor is the purpose homogeneity of belief. Evangelism at the heart is an invitation to step into the very work of God, shared by the Godhead and given to the Church.

One pole of evangelism is what I call the confrontational approach. This is pretty standard and easy to get your head around. You have a presentation of the gospel and you call people to respond. In my early years as a Christian this was how I lived, I preached on street corners and passed out oodles of variations on the bridge illustration. I even berated others who found gentler ways to preach the gospel; I was part of the problem.

The other pole is almost a completely silent witness. One that uses works of charity and kindness to influence others, I will call this evangelistic action. This can be a highly creative approach to evangelism. It can also be a form of evangelism that never brings individuals to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

These two poles are often seen as completely at odds with each other, and it is easy to see that they embody two different philosophies. Also I have painted them at the extremes rather than their more common expressions, that is not all confrontational evangelists ram the gospel down peoples throats and not all evangelistic action is devoid of a connection to the gospel message. But it is useful to denote the two this way and say we really need the best of both worlds.

One thing that confrontational evangelism does really well is preparing people to be able to share their faith. Part of the problem with an evangelism of action is that when the right questions come many of the participants have no clue how best to share their faith. So as you might guess I am looking for a third way, a middle road, and this understanding of the nature of the Good News is something we need to keep from the confrontational side.

From the action side we really need the emphasis that we are dealing with whole people; people who have intact worldviews and often with a lot of baggage. Many people are simply not ready to hear a presentation of the gospel, in fact lots of people have questions other than “what do I do with the sin in my life?” When we adopt a life of service to others, then we can really be Christ to the world. We can become the friend of sinners, and all things to all people that by all means we might win some. Something about that excites me deep inside my being.

What inevitably happens in an environment like this is questions. I love it when the questions come – partly because my heritage in the confrontational world has left me very capable of navigating the questions. One has to be careful here to listen to the question, I think this is one of the greatest failures of the confrontational side – the failure to address the questions that really matter to the person you are witnessing to. I know it is hard for some to get, but really most people don’t care that God sent His Son Jesus to save them. But you know they do have deep needs that only Jesus can meet. The respect of these real needs is what we need to preserve from the evangelistic action side.

I would love these poles to disappear, especially as we just completed a week of prayer for Church unity. But the realist in me says we still have a lot of work to do. But I for one want to be part of the solution, I want to craft and live this middle way. Honestly, I think my experience in the confrontational side gave me the tendency to err on the action side, but I am learning. And God isn’t through with me yet.


Cedric said...

You've obviously given this subject a lot of thought. Evangelism is an important topic to wrestle with. I've recently started a blog dedicted to evangelism, and would welcome your thoughts and input. Go to

Doug E. said...

Good post! We are to speak the truth in love.


Anonymous said...

This is very interesting. I am wrestling with some of these thoughts myself. In an attempt to take the gospel "outside the church", one church I know is planning to take their services to the local beach in the summer. I wonder the wisdom in this - it seems rude to me. The people at the beach will be there to relax. Why do we Christians think we have the right to invade their resting space? Yes, we have the truth, but does that make it acceptable to be rude when it comes to sharing it? I don't know. It just doesn't feel right to me. It feels disrespectful.

One of Freedom said...

I know of a Vineyard that met on the beach in California (South of Long Beach IIRC) for quite a while. I agree you need to be very careful here. When I used to do a lot of street preaching, I would take my guitar onto the street. The buskers would include me in their circle and one day we got talking about their issues with the evangelists and it really struck me. They really weren't upset about the gospel - hey they liked me and I was a known street preacher - but that the Christians didn't respect the people who were already there. They were less upset about the evangelists that were there every week, because those folks (like me) made some effort to work in harmony with the buskers (some of whom made their living this way!). But when preachers stole the best spots and stayed there for hours, that was an issue - the buskers always gave up these spots a half hour after someone new came, it was like the code on the street. Also there was a church that set up a service once a year and took up a whole chunk of the market area - this killed at least two good busking spots, but what was worse to the buskers was the fact that they never saw these folks any other time so what right did they have to steal that space every year? That conversation really opened my eyes.