Friday, March 26, 2010

Something important I figured out about why "evangelism" makes my skin crawl

I have always been uncomfortable with the way the evangelical church defines evangelism. They equate it to the Great Commission and indicate that real Christians are ready and willing to evangelize (do drive-by evangelism, hand out tracts at the drop of a hat, and preach at anyone who breathes and enters their radius). I've never been comfortable with that.

For a long time, I harbored guilt about my unease. Obviously I wasn't a real Christian if I didn't like participating in these activities. Along with making me uncomfortable, they seemed ineffective.

I didn't know how ineffective until I was reading The Unlikely Disciple, where the hardest chapter for me to read wasn't the one about masturbation or the one about homosexuality, but the one where the author signed up to do a spring break evangelism trip. I knew the chapter would be mortifyingly embarrassing to me as an evangelical (and it really was). I didn't want to read it, but I knew I couldn't skip it.  I stalled out at that point for two weeks.

Part of my discomfort came from knowing that this kind of "evangelism" was pointless. Even someone who does not relate to others normally knows that the tactics we teach to evanglize are not the most effective way to tell others about our faith and beliefs.  We are called to love God and our neighbors, and we do that best by having relationships with people and living out our love for God and them among them. However, I wasn't comfortable with the kind of "life-style evangelism" that didn't ever involve telling people why we do what we do and what we believe that motivates us to do what we do. (Another balance issue?!)

Recently, I figured out that the root of my unease with what evangelicals refer to as evangelism has to do with the meaning of words. Matthew 28:19-20 is called the Great Commission and is used by Evangelicals to describe their mandate to evangelize. Leaving aside concerns about whether Christ was speaking to that specific audience or a broader one (and assuming He was addressing a broader one including all believers), I am not satisfied that we are reading this verse right. My Bible doesn't say, "Go preach at people" or "Go tell them the gospel, get a prayer of confession, and mark them down as a statistic.  My Bible says, "Go therefore and make disciples . . .."

What we describe as evangelism seems to me to have less in common with biblical discipleship and more in common with historical practices like forced conversions, the Crusades, and the Inquisition. In the past, the church had political authority and power, and we could bludgeon people into doing our will. That's not very biblical, but we did it a lot. For a really long time. Power corrupts and all that.

I wonder if some of our mindsets about missions and evangelism today still reflect the distortions of past (colonialism, HRE stuff) instead of reflecting a more biblical focus. It wouldn't surprise me if this is a case of not knowing our history and continuing to repeat it ad nauseum.

So now I'm really curious about what it means to make disciples.  What does the Great Commission really tell us to do?  what does it mean to make disciples?  Any thoughts?


  1. Also, witch-trials.

    I think the idea of making disciples is a bit terrifying. I suspect that it is supposed to be like the way I understand draft horses are trained: you take an inexperienced horse, hitch him up alongside a mature, trained one, and then keep them working/moving together until the new one gets the hang of things. If you make disciples that way, you're looking at dedicating yourself to running parallel to somebody else for a long time. You might not even really like the person, but who are you to judge, if you're open to helping whoever needs it, whoever God brings you? Which of course you should be, if you trust him and really want to do his will and work. And think about the people who have put up with you in the past. Think about the people Jesus put up with, even among his closest friends, the twelve. If find it exhausting just to think about it, let alone live it.

    If you just go someplace for a week and harass people you don't know and will never see again, you can come back and live your life however you please and feel good about yourself for it.

  2. Yikes. Eloquently put. Really. I hope you get a chance to read The Unlikely Disciple; you'll really wince during the spring break evangelism chapter . . .

    So how do you figure out what horse to hitch to above and below you? Should this be like a chain of relationships or just an older (over X years) to younger (under x years)? And how do you commit and get committed to in a society (and church) that is constantly in flux (people moving away or moving to other churches, etc.)? How do you determine who is qualified and how they are matched?

    Any thoughts on these questions (specifically or generally)?

  3. A couple thoughts, at least: older over younger is no guarantee of success. You need to hook up with people who are more mature/experienced but with whom you can connect well personally/in terms of what my sociologist friend calls 'life place'. I find that part of things challenging, always have. I think all of the regular members of a church need to be aware of each other's/newer folks' habits of gravitating to one person or another to visit or encourage each other (especially if there's a coffee hour after church. I do believe in food as a ministry!).

    I don't know how formally structured this should be; I suspect it's something that, with some basic teaching and general awareness, people should just begin to look for/encourage in their relationships. I think it's really just a function of the healthy body of Christ, and as such is maintained/directed by the Holy Spirit. The biggest challenge, I think, is to create a church environment where people care about their own/each other's spiritual development and are willing to talk about it like it's a real issue.

    As far as the society in flux goes- my life has been in flux for the past ten years at least (I think I've attended 5 churches in that time, changing due to college-related moves). You just have to make the most of whatever time you have: even Jesus had only three and a half years to make disciples.