Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Ugly Evangelical: Three Ways We Get Evangelism Wrong, Why It Hurts the Gospel And What We Can Do

The more we talked, the more uncomfortable he appeared.  His lightly tanned face began to take on a pinkish hue, became red and finally flushed a full crimson color.  At that point I began to worry about his blood pressure. He finally asked me, "Haven't you read Romans 1?  Don't you know this man is dying because of his sin?" Now I could feel a flush in my cheeks as I retorted,

"The last time I checked, Saint Paul stated that none of us are getting out of this world alive. Why not try becoming his friend first?"

The story of my conversation with this Christian pastor illustrates the frustration that I believe resides on both sides of the often heated debate about the way that we evangelicals approach evangelism. 

On the one hand many of us see a pressing urgency about the need for witness and evangelism.  The phrase that is burned into my mind is that we face "a lost and dying world" on the brink of hell.  We Christians ought to break out of our complacency and display a heart for evangelism.

In the hospital setting I sometimes hear this sense of urgency amplified.  "How can you watch a lost person dying and make no effort to present the gospel to them?"

On the other side of the debate is an opinion best summed up in the nickname of someone I am following on Twitter: "Jesus Needs New P.R." The idea is that so-called Christian evangelism pushes more people away than it draws to the gospel of Christ.

You may not be surprised to learn that I tend to be in that camp.  It might surprise you, however, to know that statistically more people come to faith in Christ through compassionate ministries than through evangelistic crusades.  Far more than through legislation of Christian ideals. 

Christian churches in the United States are losing adherents in ever increasing numbers and polls plainly point to the overall perception of Christians in general and evangelicals in particular as angry, pushy,opinionated, and unwilling to listen to others' views.  Not quite the Biblical ideal of someone who loves their neighbor, is gentle and apt to teach, and bears the Spirit's fruit of love, joy, peace, patience gentleness, kindness and self control.
image credit: Asbury Seedbed Publishing

Having said the above, however, I do see an urgent need for Christians, especially Evangelical Christians living in the United States, to grasp the urgency of the situation.  The Christian church in the U.S. is standing on a burning platform at this point in time.  
My strong conviction, however, is that the problem is so urgent and important that we cannot afford to get it wrong.  And on the whole we seem to be getting it wrong in spades.  Here are some bad habits we cannot afford to continue to indulge if we want to turn the current trend around:
1.       We can no longer afford the luxury of comparing our best to someone else's worst.  The simple fact is that indiscriminately doing battle with competing views is a no-win situation, but Evangelicals often make it worse when we point to the Islamic extremist as our only example of the Muslim faith, then claim Mother Teresa or Billy Graham as our examples.   It reveals our basic dishonesty when we refuse to admit simple facts that are plain for everyone to see.  St. John put it even more pointedly, "If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us." I John 1:10
2.       We can no longer afford to perpetuate misinformation about others' lifestyles or their beliefs. For instance, atheists are not immoral people, at least not any more than the general population. No matter how you parse the language, you will never be able to show that Godless people are inherently unstable, evil, or somehow less personally attractive that any of the rest of us sinners.

      I personally loathe having an atheist describe in tedious detail what I believe as a Christian.  The picture is never flattering, and invariably riddled with misrepresentations and oversimplification.  On top of it all, the self-image that I am asked to accept on the basis of an outsider's analysis of my faith is emotionally unacceptable.  Why would I turn around and do the same thing to atheists or other non Christians?  If we decry the prejudice and outright bigotry that is practiced against us, then we should be twice as determined to avoid practicing those sins in relation to others.  It doesn’t make people trust the gospel more when we display gross ignorance in defense of a God who supposedly understands human beings.
      3.       We can no longer afford to demand to have our privileges respected as rights even as we work to undermine others' human and civil rights.  Public prayer in public schools is a privilege, not a God-given right.  The ten commandments posted in a court house does nothing to make anyone want to give themselves to Jesus, especially if those acts are seen as repressive to other people's exercise of their basic freedoms.  And for the record, grandmother forcing us to take cod liver oil for our own good did not make us love cod liver oil the more.
What is the answer?  I think it lies in the ability of us Evangelicals to understand ourselves as flawed, sinful human beings who need every bit of help we can secure to get it right.  It requires us to actively and accurately inform ourselves about the beliefs of those around us.  We also need to read our Bibles more closely and to pray more fervently as we seek to worship God in spirit and in truth.  We need to give up our idolatry of the golden age when everybody believed like us.  And we need to renounce our misguided illusions of power where life will be comfortable and we can always think of ourselves as the brightest and smartest and most beloved of God.  A halfway serious reading of Scripture will knock that illusion in the head.
Finally, we would do well to see what Christians are doing in other parts of the world . . . especially in parts ofthe world where the Gospel message is thriving in a pluralistic atmosphere.  We do well to learn about how Christ's message is being heard and having amazing impact at the cross roads of ideas, where Christianity enjoys no political or social advantage.  It might teach us something urgent and important about the power of God unto salvation.


  1. Your blog reminded me of an "Ugly" incident some 30 years ago working as a summer missionary. We were attending a week long revival and the evangelist became upset, apparently due to the lack of response, stormed down the aisle pointing and yelling at us,me and my fellow summer missionaries, demanding we walk the aisle to help get these people saved.

  2. Wow! Now that makes you wanna go to work for Jesus, doesn't it? ;0) I'll never forget Dr. Shields (James Shields, Practical Theology Professor at Howard Payne University for the non-HPU grads out there) talking about how tempting it is to confuse our ego with God's will. Thanks for the comment, Rob!


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