Over on facebook I was asked to clarify my self-identification as an evangelical. It is something I think about a lot. Mostly because I believe there is something amazing about Christianity that I would love to invite everyone into. However, I know that evangelism is often seen as a dirty word. In fact I find most forms of evangelism to be troubling, especially the manipulative hell talk that was common in my street preaching Pentecostal roots.
So what does evangelism mean to me?
When I go to a yoga class I expect my instructor/guide to extol the virtues of yoga. When I visit the place of worship for another religion, such as a Sikh temple where they give you suji and feed you, I expect to hear the virtues of that religion. So if you come to a Christian church then expect to hear about the virtues of following Jesus. That part makes sense and I think won't offend anyone. But if any of these groups begins to speak at a public level then it is a different story. But for me that is exactly where religion needs to be seen and heard. I'm not advocating a return to the fire and brimstone street preacher - in fact I struggled even then with the turn-or-burn type message. But it does need to work its way into our public lives, that is what makes it evangelism. So here are three guidelines that I would impose on my own understanding of evangelism.
It has to be invitational: This is the best attitude I know of. It is not confronting individuals, but giving them opportunity to journey with Jesus. Actually I'm quite convinced that the work of an evangelist is to partner with what Christ is already doing in peoples lives. Sometimes we think God has wholesale abandoned folks and it is up to us to rescue them. This is mostly because we don't care enough about people to listen. We would rather chalk up another convert than actually walk people towards God in patient, wholistic ways. The problem is that those few easy converts either fall away (one pastor recently said to me they fall off the hook? what a horrible image that is) or become similarly uncaring convert seekers themselves.
It has to practice what it preaches: The best evangelism comes from living out loud. This is the part that I think many evangelicals miss. The Fundamentalist movement, for instance, presented an unlivable message. Do we do the same? If we preach a message of God's love then how can we live in ways that exclude, condemn and marginalize others?
It also has to be honest: The other side of this is that we can't be selling something. I know, we are always selling something, but what I mean is that we need to be honest. Following Jesus is not a panacea for all of life's problems. Far from it. Following Jesus demands everything. The problem with the bridge gospel message is that it is only a small piece of the story. Following Jesus is not about some eternal reward, but about a way of living here and now. It is costly and we need to tell people that. It is hard and we need to make that clear as well. This is one of the reasons I'd rather have people walk with me before I ever make a direct invitation - I want them to see that I'm a real person, with real struggles. I also want them to see how my faith helps me navigate those things. How following Jesus leads me to make amends when I screw up, how it helps me to be better than I could be on my own. How prayer is like breathing for me, and how when I don't pray as I should I find myself resting too much on my own strength and knowledge. From my experience, people are open to being invited into something that is evidently real.
It has to have a notion of gospel that matches what Jesus used: Here is where modern apologetics fails us. Modern evangelism methods are about proving that we are right. My big problem is that Jesus never did this. In fact what I see Jesus doing in his cultural context is a far easier way of being in our cultural context. Jesus walked with the ones that society shunned. He was hard on the religious who made it hard on others. But with others he lived his life in such a way that they wanted to be part of that life. Jesus always encouraged those who got the insight to keep running with it, as opposed to those who preach eternal assurances resting on some faith commitment. Jesus knew that life was going to be complicated - he never glossed that over. He declared that the Kingdom had come, broken into the world in a way that would eventually transform all of history. He called us to look for the Kingdom, to watch and be ready. He spoke in aphorisms instead of dogmatics. So my question is how we can transform that into simplistic messages of atonement and eternal destination? This was not Jesus' pre-occupation. Neither should it be ours.
The option I'm presenting is not easy. There is a lot of simplistic religion in evangelical Christianity. A lot of easy methods, methods that frankly do not yield fruit that lasts (at least not fruit that looks much different than the Pharisees of Jesus' time). But it is also not as hard as we might think. What I'm saying is that we should think deeply about our faith. We should live it everywhere we go. We should also look for opportunities to share that faith perspective with others. And we should encourage them right where they are at (trusting God).