Thursday, February 05, 2015

Taking a Second Glance at Evangelism

It seems to me that pretty much all of us have a 'gross' evangelization encounter story. By that I mean, a stranger walking up to you and "sharing the gospel," oftentimes with the help of some sort of pamphlet with a diagram that visually represents salvation in God and has Bible verses on the back.

So for me, I was at the HUB one day back in my college years, getting lunch. I was headed toward the cafeteria to return my dirty tray when I was unexpectedly steered to sit down with a woman on a ledge next to an overgrown indoor plant. Perhaps the word 'ambushed' may be too strong to describe this encounter, but that's kind of how it felt at the moment.

The woman who had stopped me then proceeded to flip through her pamphlet with the diagram and the Bible verses, asking me some questions about who I was and who I believed God to be. I pride myself on being a thoughtful person, so responded honestly and from the heart, but discovered quickly that this woman was not as interested in knowing me as she was in getting through that pamphlet!

She asked me if I had "received Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior," to which I replied in the affirmative. She looked at me suspiciously, squinting her eyes slightly, then proceeded to explain in great detail that many people may *think* they are saved but in actuality are not. It was obvious that she doubted my eternal salvation. At this point I started to get a bit ticked off by this woman's audacity and boldness to think she had me pegged as 'not really' a believer, that she had to 'save' from my own self-deceit and delusion.

"I have to go," I interjected firmly, and she looked a bit crestfallen not to have been able to 'seal the deal' with me by having me pray through the Sinner's Prayer (or so I assumed). I stewed on that interaction the rest of the day and still get riled up recounting it now. Who does she think she is? How dare she?

One thing is clear: that day I made a vow that I would never become an evangelist like that.

'Gross' Evangelism

A couple of people in my life have had even worse experiences. A classmate in high school told me that as a waitress at Johnny Rocket's a table of young men told her (as she was trying to take their order) that she was a sinner, was going to hell and then didn't leave a tip (but of course left a Bible)! Assholes! My dad was evangelized to in Mexico by a white guy who told my dad he was a sinner "didn't know anything" and heaped one verbal assault after another against him as his seven-year old daughter (I presume) looked on. Evangelical encounters like these are absolutely disgusting. The overt message is one of condemnation. There is no love. This kind of evangelism damages those it professes to 'save' and misrepresents the gospel of Jesus Christ (and Jesus Christ himself).

Shrinking Back

As a consequence of these hurtful experiences with heavy-handed evangelists, I became extra sensitive not to 'inflict' my beliefs on others, and did my best to keep my faith somewhat hidden out of courtesy. I definitely didn't share the gospel. In many ways I agreed with postmodern values of pluralism and relativism--that everyone was entitled to believe what they wanted. Who was I to convince them otherwise (i.e. tell them that they were 'wrong' and I was 'right'--GROSS)? So while people around me may have known that I went to church, or may have seen me reading my Bible in public, I was not interested in evangelizing (sharing the good news).

Gross Evangelism=Proclamation-Love
My 'Evangelism'=Love-Proclamation

For this reason I stayed clear of working in 'church ministries' to serve the poor, or faith-based organizations, preferring non-profits or government work as a means to be present to the oppressed. I wanted to steer clear of 'gross' charity work--only offering to help with physical needs (food, clothing, shelter) if those served go to chapel. That carrot and stick stuff seemed so disingenuous to me and even, perhaps, manipulative.

All this to say, I became a very passive evangelist, if I was one at all. I was all good with being friends with unbelievers, listening to them, praying for them (when alone in my room, of course, never WITH them). Again, I was not going to be that gross evangelist!

The Stigma of Evangelism

In academia I learned of the term proselytization ("to induce someone to convert one's faith"). It was always used with pejorative overtones. Proselytization was nearly synonymous with 'cultural imperialism' (i.e. the Crusades, Spanish colonial 'missions' to Latin America). Proselytization implied an intrusion, usually with a strong arm, against a population, forcing them into belief. It was oppressive. To proselytize was basically to be an asshole. My professor of 'The Political Economy of World Religion' would talk self-deprecatingly about his Christian faith in class but always made sure to assure us quickly, "but I'm not here to proselytize [i.e. impose]." Evangelicals and evangelism in general were presented in pretty dim light.

The gospel is good news, meant to be a gift, yet it seems that in these days, to some it's seen as only inflicting injury.

Reclaiming the Gospel

"I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16).

To be honest, I still carry vestiges of shame about the gospel because it has been misused by so many of these gross evangelist types, and a part of me is super embarrassed to be associated with them by sharing the gospel with people in my life. Recently I was convicted of the need to pray forgiveness over the evangelists that have hurt me in the past, to renounce that vow to never be like them, and to bless, yes bless, gross evangelists in Jesus' name. It feels like a turning point.

A part of me really does believe in the power of the gospel, and that it really is good news! Nowadays I am willing to openly talk about Jesus Christ with people, simply because he has done so much for me--like, I have a lot to share, if people are interested in hearing my story.

What I'm trying to say is that, gross evangelization encounters notwithstanding, I am ready to live into being an evangelist, even if that means risking looking or sounding stupid when sharing the gospel. This is kind of big, guys!

My Old Evangelism=Love-Proclamation
My New Evangelism=Love+Proclamation

Here goes nothing!