What Scares Me About Evangelism
by Rebecca Brothers | 14 June 2019 |
Prior to serving a ten-month stint as an Adventist student missionary, I learned a popular evangelistic tactic called “friendship evangelism.”
The theory was that to draw people to the Adventist church, you make friends with them first. You show them hospitality, and wit, and good humor. You show them kindness. You show them that nothing worries you — not the national news, not tornado sirens, not even wild drivers — because your trust is in the Lord.
At some point, they will inevitably ask, “Why are you like this? Why are you so peaceful and joyful?”
Here, you go for the spiritual jugular. You lay out the plan of salvation, and all twenty-eight Fundamental Beliefs, and some key Ellen White quotes if you have time. Upon receiving this information, your friend will be overwhelmed by the truth and commit immediately to baptism. The curtain falls, and everyone will live happily ever after.
I’m being cynical, of course. Friendship evangelism isn’t meant to be so … transactional. Is it?
Well, let’s break it down: I have something. You don’t have it, and you don’t know you need it. I have a mandate to convince you that you need what I have.
Am I talking about sales or evangelism?
That’s something that scares me about evangelism: the fact that it is frequently so sales-like, so agenda-driven, so based on getting others to agree with us. Get those boxes checked off, those baptismal oaths signed, and those bodies in the baptismal pool.
That’s part of what made me fall in love with the Episcopal Church: its lack of big, expensive efforts to spread the message that “We have something you don’t.”
I fell in love with a church that isn’t known for evangelism.
Then our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry (whom you might know as the dynamic preacher from Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding), had to go and give himself the nickname of “Chief Evangelism Officer,” and hire an entire evangelism team (which happens to be two-thirds female). Then that team designed something called the Evangelism Toolkit, “intended to train Episcopalians at all levels in new ways of sharing their faith,” and I inwardly sighed and dragged my feet and thought, “Do we really have to do this?”
Because here’s something else that scares me about evangelism: I think one of the prerequisites for evangelism is a certain amount of certainty. But on the other hand—drawing from Anne Lamott—I also believe that “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”
So how do we balance faith and certainty? How do we become people who are firm in our Christian faith, while still remaining humble about the gray areas we see, the questions we have, and the doubts we hold?
I don’t know. I’m firm in my faith—to the point of loving the idea of a God who came to earth as a human, died for our sins, and conquered death by rising from the grave. It’s a story that’s wild enough to make me think, “That’s got to be real.”
Similarly, I love the idea of a God who’s so concerned about the poor and oppressed. I like the challenge repeated throughout the Law and the Prophets and the Gospels—the challenge not to repeat “the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49).
I struggle with a lot of the rest of the Bible. The genocides, the pattern of treating women as property, the “clobber passages” that are often used to defend anti-Semitism or misogyny or discrimination against the LGBTQIA+ community—I don’t know what to do with those. I don’t know how to reconcile those passages with the God who sees every sparrow fall (Matthew 10:29). I can only trust that “now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
If you think this all adds up to me being a nervous, wishy-washy evangelist, you’d be right. This approach is hard to market, but often I find myself thinking that the truth is a group project we’re all still working on together. As Rachel Held Evans put it, “Jesus said his Father’s house has many rooms. In this metaphor I like to imagine the Presbyterians hanging out in the library, the Baptists running the kitchen, the Anglicans setting the table, the Anabaptists washing feet with the hose in the backyard, the Lutherans making liturgy for the laundry, the Methodists stocking the fire in the hearth, the Catholics keeping the family history, the Pentecostals throwing open all the windows and doors to let more people in.”
In other words, maybe—just maybe—there’s enough room for everyone.
This runs counter to most evangelism tactics, which often seem to have the goal of getting others to think exactly like us—the goal of getting others to repent of their sins and see the light, whether these sins involve committing murder or eating prawns.
What if we threw out this definition of evangelism and its requirement that others learn to think like us? What if, instead, we learned how others think?
No, not with the mentality of “We’ll learn how they think; then we can market our faith to them better.” I’m not talking about that.
I’m talking about the approach of shows like The Moth Radio Hour, a program in which people just get up on stage and tell their stories. The audience doesn’t listen in order to counter with their own stories later. There’s no debate afterwards. People just sit and listen to others’ experiences.
What if our main evangelistic tactic was listening? What if we Christians gained a reputation as great listeners? What if “listening tours” weren’t just something politicians do?
That would also solve another problem I have with most evangelism tactics: the fact that they so often require a mask: the mask of a preacher who always speaks powerfully in pithy, tweetable statements; the mask of a sparkling-eyed literature evangelist who’s always ready with an answer and a Bible verse; or the mask of a peaceful friend who is never bothered or worried. I’m scared that these mandatory masks devalue evangelists who are angry, fearful, hurt, anxious, and depressed. I’m scared that they cut out evangelists who have questions and doubts. I’m scared that donning these masks pushes us away from faith and closer to certainty.
“[T]he modern-day church doesn’t like to wander or wait,” Rachel Held Evans wrote. “The modern-day church likes results. Convinced the gospel is a product we’ve got to sell to an increasingly shrinking market, we like our people to function as walking advertisements: happy, put-together, finished—proof that this Jesus stuff works! At its best, such a culture generates pews of Stepford Wife–style robots with painted smiles and programmed moves. At its worst, it creates environments where abuse and corruption get covered up to protect reputations and preserve image.”
So we’ve got listening as one form of evangelism. I’d like to propose one more evangelism component, to make us remove our masks. I call it “radical vulnerability.” What if we were real and honest and vulnerable with each other more often? What if we didn’t automatically reply “I’m fine” when friends ask how we are? What if we consciously made space for conversations about our bad days, our fears, our hopes, our dreams, our biases, our disappointments, and our mental illnesses (where applicable)? What if we honored our friends’ disclosures and didn’t immediately try to offer advice or condemnation or platitudes? What if, instead, we offered to sit with our friends in their pain and doubts and questions?
I have a sneaking suspicion this approach would strengthen our friendships and our communities. I have another suspicion that we can do this without whining, oversharing, or violating others’ privacy—and the more we do it, the better we’ll know our audience, and the smaller the odds of alienating that audience.
So here’s to nervous, wishy-washy, angry, fearful, hurt, anxious, depressed evangelists. Here’s to evangelists with questions and doubts. Here’s to evangelists without masks, and evangelists who listen well. May we know them. May we raise them. May we be them.
Rebecca Brothers is a graduate of Lincoln City Seventh-day Adventist School, Walla Walla University, and the University of Washington. She is a happy member of the Church of the Nativity in Huntsville, Alabama, and currently works as an academic librarian. Her proudest achievements include serving as a student missionary in Podkowa Leśna, Poland, and being completely submerged in mud during sixth-grade Outdoor School.