"Evangelism"

Let’s begin with the class I just attended: Pastoral Leadership and Evangelism.

After class some of us ended up staying around for an extended conversation with the professor about the problems we see implicit in the idea of “evangelism” as it is usually presented – or maybe even at its core. I don’t want to go into an attempted transcript, but here are some major issues that came up:

1. The concept of “evanglism” assumes and even creates a power dynamic, which is as follows: I have a message that you need. My life is somehow satisfactory in a way that yours is not because you have not accepted this message. In a sense, because you have not received this message that I have, you are less than acceptable, your life less than worthwhile. This isn’t necessarily what is actually going on in the heart and mind of the evangelist, but it is implicit in the process. The Message is brought to a (supposedly) hungering/thirsting/suffering world and will (supposedly) transform it, and the Message is carried by an evangelist, who is presented as one already in some way transformed, as somehow empowered to go and convert people.

2. The language (we talked a lot about language) of evanglism, as presented by the Church (in this case the Presbyterian Church, but others are guilty as well), is first-century language. It assumes that the Church is one body and the World is another, distinct body, and that the job is to bring the Church message to the world. The problem is…there’s been a Church functioning for two thousand years in some form, and it has wielded tremendous power for most of that time in one way or another. The language of bringing the good news to a godless world doesn’t mesh with our actual, lived experience. More often than not, people have heard more than they ever want to hear about the “good news” through televangelists, pseudo-religious punditry, negative church experiences, being accosted at the mall and asked if Jesus is their Lord and Savior, etc.

3. The Churches have not even begun to tangle with the problems presented by a mulitplicity of ancient, revered religious traditions in the world as it pertains to any scheme of evangelism. The fact is, there are other incredibly powerful religions that represent very distinct ways of being human and that also make powerful claims on their adherents. What about our message gives us the right to assume that we are superior, that the way to “save” a Buddhist is to convert him or her to Christianity? Also, if we take this process to its logical conclusion, we see the destruction of all non-Christian traditions. The world, frankly, loses much of its beauty and ‘color’. Sure, some traditions and customs will be (and obviously have been) carried over into Christianity, but in a way it just amounts to “window dressing”.

We talked a lot about language, as well as how language both arises from certain ideas and also fosters certain ideas. Regardless of our high levels of empathy and sympathy, our good intentions, our humility, etc., if our language implies that we are the superiors bringing the Message to those who need it, we are putting ourselves in a position where hubris, and not service, will be the rule. Especially considering that most people are not priviliged to have the education that we’re having – they just have the language and concepts we use to contend with, and won’t necessarily see any nuance behind it unless we make it explicit.

So, how do we deal with these problems? How do we envision “evanglism” in terms that foster humility, respect, and the idea that in going out into the world, it is more likely that we will be learning rather than teaching, that we will be changed by our encounters rather than changing those we meet? Should we do “evangelism” at all? Is it fundamentally an arrogant and imperialist process? And if not, what is the Church? What are we doing here? What does it mean for the Church if, in going out into the world, it is prepared to be transformed?

7 thoughts on “"Evangelism"

  1. Hey, great questions. And this blog is a great idea (and fun for an alum who feels far away).Here’s a counter-question which might be interesting too: Given that evangelism can be strident, dominating, intrusive etc. in all the ways you describe, what about Christians who (out of fear of being like that) are afraid to say anything at all to others about their faith in Christ? Are there ways they can be empowered to tell their stories?And an amusing observation: It is fun when one is dressed up to go clubbing and runs into a street-corner evangelist, and the evangelist says “Young lady, have you considered accepting Jesus into your heart instead of going to bars?” and then one’s gorgeous date pipes up and says “Yeah, she’s a minister!”

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  2. In ‘Evangelism’ don’t we imply that their experiences so far haven’t been up to par? Can someone experience God without knowing it? Do most people you know who do ‘Evangelism’ take this into account? Some students of mine (from youth group) were sitting one day in burger king eating lunch. They were approached by an elder person (i believe it was a woman) who noticed that one of them was wearing a burger king crown (don’t we all do that). They then posed the question: do you know who the real king is? Now these students were regular attenders at church and were really searching for a way to develop their faith. But this individual didn’t bother to even try to ask or anything. Do people think this is an effective way to evangelize? One of these students didn’t want to come back to explore faith further because he didn’t want to HAVE to be like that person in burger king.Last night I was talking about this class with my wife. Julia suggested that we should just get rid of some of this dominating language. That even words like ‘evangelism’ is enough to stop people from talking or sharing. Language is ultimately a problem. But what is the solution?BTW to get back to commenting on Doug’s post. I think that the way to help to take some of the power dynamics out of ‘evangelism’ is to force people to spend more time with those who need ‘saving.’ Tell them not to share to talk about their own experiences just listen to those who are already present. The one way I think you can diffuse the power dynamics is not to talk.

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  3. responding to heather: what you describe is the problem i think we’re all trying to avoid – that of saying/doing nothing for fear of saying/doing the wrong thing. paralysis isn’t a good answer, regardless, and that seems to be the basic mainline response to evangelism – nothing.

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  4. to nick: in thinking about this a bit, i think that ditching the language of evangelism entirely is the best moethod for those of us who aren’t ‘evangelical’ and don’t necessarily want to be associated with those sorts of tactics.i would personally tend to lump ‘evangelical’ activities under ‘service’, with the idea being that you come to it focused on the other person/group and not on our own need to change them. this way, you foster in yourself some humility at the get-go, and you’re also going to have a default setting of doing good, rather than just running your mouth about jesus.to the kid in burger king – “hey man, nice hat” probably goes farther than “do you know who the real king is?”

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  5. Yeah, ‘Nice Hat’ can work. But my point is that you can’t blizt evangelize. It’s not fair to the person that your trying to work with/serve/evangelize etc…I think the only real way to ‘evangelize’ has very little to do with actually do anything, but i think it’s a state of being. If you are hanging out with friends/people then they will slowly come to understand what you stand for. I think if your truly struggling with your faith and how it applies to your life then they will notice and ask you about it.

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  6. As someone who is not Christian (but is married to one, indeed the ’05 alumna!), I have to say that the word “evangelism” really gives me the willies. It says to me that I’m not considered a whole person even though I’m as much a member of the Chosen People as Jesus was. I’ve been forced into the receiving end of evangelism often enough that I often just avoid situations that might end in a similar fashion.I have heard it said that G-d is the one who guides people toward faith, not any individual person’s efforts. But I don’t think that the answer is that people can’t share their beliefs at all.In general, it’s usually pretty easy to tell whether a person is interested in receiving the information you’d like to give them. I don’t think it’s wise (or proper) to give information to someone just because you want to give it, without regard for whether the other person wants to receive it.

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