“It makes me feel kind of icky.”
“I might have to do it, but I hope I never do.”
“Outdated and unnecessary.”
- Three reactions to the idea of evangelism, demonstrating that popular attitudes toward it are roughly analogous to those towards colonoscopies.
I involuntarily gathered these quotes by taking a class on evangelism this semester, and then by accidentally reading books for the class in public. My boss said aloud what everyone was thinking when he cheerfully-aggressively smiled and replied, “Just don’t evangelize me!”, executing a surprisingly spry spin away from me and closing his office door.
I have my own history with the word. As a kid, I came to believe that it meant getting strangers to convert to Christianity, especially if they were Catholic; so “evangelism” used to make me, a guilt-prone and stranger-averse child, feel slightly sick and clammy, like in those dreams where you’re back in school and you have to take a test you had no hope of preparing for. I didn’t even have a proper testimony, just an always-there knowledge that God was… always there. So when I first heard the whole “preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words” concept, it felt like getting off the hook for some cosmic homework assignment.
I am 100% into the idea that living a Christlike life is the best and most important way to evangelize - to “bring good news” - so that just maybe, other people can catch a glimpse of Jesus. Yet if that exhausts the definition of evangelism, we sort of lose the need for the word. The intention behind the verb goes missing. Yes, people might stop handing out hellfire tracts, so that’s a definite win, but we might also forget that “talking about your faith” was ever something done outside the walls of our Jesus club/church.
And if “going and preaching the gospel” is something to do, shouldn’t we somehow make a point of doing it… whatever it is? Even if it doesn’t mean telling other people their religion is stupid, or tricking them into accidentally coming to church, or doing mime-skits where the “lost” drink “beer” out of soda bottles handed to them by the “devil”/youth-group-guy-with-beard - shouldn’t we consciously share what is, ostensibly, good news?
I’ve reached the unpopular conclusion that we should. OK, so we’re all terrified that we’ll do it badly and ruin something precious - either the message of Jesus or a friendship. Great! The boring-mean-killjoy side of me thinks maybe we could stand to feel a little more cautious and reverent about some other things we Christians do; maybe we could be treating many more things and people as precious. A better side of me thinks this feeling means we’re finally starting to understand what evangelism is about: honesty and humility. Of course it’s scary; talking about faith can’t rightly be done without God’s help, and of course it feels vulnerable - you’re telling this personal story, and your friend might reject you, or Jesus, or both.
And I think that’s part of why it’s been done so terribly in the past. It was easier to hide behind deceit, covering over the more difficult parts to make it all more attractive. Or else to mask our vulnerability with pride, pushing others toward faith through fear and threats, or “winning” arguments without ever really seeing people. But I don’t think that simply clamming up about our faith in response to these evangelistic tactics is helping to redeem those experiences for ourselves or other people. Maybe learning to share with our friends the struggles, journeys, and stories that are a part of us could put us on a path toward healing.
I think I can identify the times I’ve engaged in something akin to evangelism; Each time, it was accompanied by that please-help-me-what-am-i-doing feeling that usually means I’ve wandered out to the edge of faith, where God wants me to be. It happens when we put new effort into translating an old story into someone else’s language, when we ask for the gift of speaking faithfully, when we trace back over the outlines of what all this means for us.
It happened in a youth-group room when I gave my over-prepared junior-year “talk” and said how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ. It happened when I prayed halting, quiet prayers with high schoolers at the youth center who trusted me with their wounds and their scars. When I sat in an empty Gothic sanctuary with a questioning undergrad on Maundy Thursday last year, trying to talk about Holy Week sans Christianese and it was like he was washing our feet right there. Or when I blogged good news in a tear-filled flurry of breathless inspiration that felt like Spirit overflowing.
These moments have taught me a surprising reason God might want us to talk about him. Because in the middle of telling the old, old story, I heard the good news again for the first time. A listening, waiting, humble evangelism always teaches our own stories back to us. And in hearing those stories, in God’s helping us to tell them, in having to actually look at God again, we are folded back into her love anew.
Lyndsey lives in Boston, MA where she is pursuing her Master's in Theological Studies at Boston University. She enjoys Community, Mad Men and Beauty and the Beast and her spirit animal is a sloth. She would like to know if this is some kind of interactive theater art piece. You can follow her on Twitter @lyndseygraves and you can find more of her writing at her blog To Be Honest.
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