In recognition of yesterday’s being Pentecost, and because I have been reflecting a lot on the early church lately, I want to talk about evangelism today. It is, in many ways, at the centre of the church’s activities, and indeed should be. Still, as with many of the modern church’s practices, I feel that we are getting it wrong.
When I was at university, I belonged to a Christian group (I won’t name it, because it is not my intention to shame or deride them) that existed for the sole purpose of spreading the gospel. Customary procedure was to go out with a partner – “hunting in pairs”, as I have subsequently come to think of it – and look for somebody sitting alone, thirsty (if unwittingly so) for the Word. The goal was to read through a tract with them and afterwards to get them to pray for forgiveness with us. I completed the organisation’s extensive training programmes and spoke to a lot of students in the time I was there. But I never felt comfortable with the process. It is only now, decades later, that I understand why.
Not least among the reasons why such an approach to evangelism is problematic is the fact that it seems to completely disregard Jesus’ declaration that people would recognise his disciples by their love for others (John 13:35). While we were acting out of concern for others’ eternal well-being, I believe we were ultimately misguided and worse, unloving. One would be hard-pressed to argue that a refusal to listen to, let alone take another’s point-of-view seriously, coupled with an interaction model where one party tacitly considers the other to be both intellectually and morally inferior, and even vaguely threatening (hence the need to outnumber and prey on the perceived outsiders), is in any way loving. No philosophy of ‘love’ that I am prepared to believe in could have at its core the implicit conviction that those who think differently are Other. I cannot accept that.
Quite the contrary: the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) would seem to suggest that there is no Other. We may identify with either the rebellious son or the brother who remains at home, but either way we are all family – beloved children of God. The parable does not come close to even hinting that it was in any way the older son’s responsibility to bring the younger son home. Nor does it suggest that the older brother’s attitude is in any way superior. There is no good or bad son, no lost or found. Both are lost in different ways. Neither son fully understands nor appreciates the magnitude of the father’s love and provision. They are both ungrateful and unloving. But the father loves them anyway. There is no Other son.
A second concern I have with this approach to evangelism is the assumption that the final goal of the endeavour is some sort of response from the other person; that the “success” of the encounter is dependent on whether or not the other person” accepts Jesus into her life”. I would argue that this assumption, for two reasons, is deeply problematic.
First, the defining characteristic of all our interactions with other people (and thus the criteria by which “success” should be measured) should be this and only this: did we love them? Read again the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Note that at no point does Jesus suggest that we need to concern ourselves with how our ‘neighbour’ responds to our loving actions. Love in itself is enough to fulfil our obligations. The question we ought to be asking ourselves as Christians, then, is not: “how do we convert those who do not know Jesus?” but “how do we love them?”
The second reason, which is tied to the first, is that it places undue emphasis on the evangelist to “win souls”. Because success is tied to the outcome and not to the process, the evangelist can only feel that the work has been completed if others “come to know God”. But the responsibility for the souls of others was never ours; it was always God’s and His alone.
In fact, it makes me quite angry that young people in churches are encouraged to bear the weight of that responsibility; that they are encouraged to believe that the eternal fates of their loved ones are dependent on their willingness to share their faith. How can we possibly place on their shoulders that burden, and still call ourselves loving? It is, as far as I am concerned, a form of child abuse. The truth is that there is no clever story that we could tell, no logical argument we could construct, no song we could sing that would in any way make a life complete. Only God can do that. As adults we know that we can never assume responsibility for the decisions and beliefs of others. So why are we so quick to ask our children to do so? When we allow them to believe that unless they bring their loved ones to “accept Jesus into their hearts” they will see them condemned to eternal flames, we are placing a terrible burden on their shoulders. We are asking them to assume responsibility for the fates of others. No child can carry that without feeling unbearably guilty or overwhelmingly afraid. And love should – indeed can – never be driven by fear or guilt (1 John 4:18).
At this point I feel I need to clarify something, in case some of my Evangelical Christian readers misunderstand me. I am in no way ashamed of the Gospel. In fact, I will openly and passionately talk about Jesus to anybody who cares to listen. I do believe that life is only to be found in Him, simply because He is its author. But I also believe that our final mandate was always only to love. In the Good Samaritan, no mention is made of how the injured man responds, whether or not he was grateful, if or how his life or worldview were changed. And the reason these details were omitted by Jesus is simple: they were not important. They had no bearing on the story because Jesus had already fully made his point about what it means to love others: love does not expect nor require others to change, not that they meet certain criteria before we can love them. It requires only that the one doing the loving acts in way that speaks to the needs of the broken. Only act in love, and your duty has been fulfilled, whatever the outcome.
I would love to see a model of evangelism where the focus was not on converting others, or winning their intellectual assent, but was simply on loving them. Now during my university days I knew many people who had come to know God’s love and grace through our endeavours. But I do not believe – I never can- that the end justifies the means. That is a dangerous logical fallacy that history has taught us leads to all sorts of abominations, like the Crusades, or the Spanish Inquisition. No, I think it was a case of God working despite, not because of us. I can imagine how many more people would come to experience God’s love and grace if they were – even in an imperfect way – modelled through those who call themselves by His name.
If you are a Christian, and if – like me – you are becoming progressively more disillusioned with a culture of Christianity that belittles others and maintains momentum through instilling guilt and fear in its adherents, then join me in this Pentecostal quest; a quest to love. Refuse to be the pious priest who walked by the unconscious man in Jesus’ story. Refuse to be the Biblical scholar who understands theology with his head but not his heart. Be the Samaritan. Find the people in the world with whom you identify the least, the ones who may never know or appreciate your actions, and love them. Take the time to find out what their needs are and minister to those needs. Expect nothing in return, not even a prayer. Especially not a prayer. Simply love. Evangelism is as easy – and as difficult – as that.