Bad Evangelism

In the news recently, neighbors of a Toronto street came out to drive away a group of Christians who were doing public evangelism on the street. Here’s the youtube video of what occurred:

Apparently, the church group had been regularly grouping in front of a particular house and reading their bible loudly for the past seven years. There’s the possibility that homophobia might be involved as it was a homosexual couple living in that house. But it is not clear if the church group is aware of that, as it seems to be their regular evangelism spot on that street even before the homosexual couple moved into the neighborhood. Regardless if it was homophobic motivated or not (it’s worse if it was), I think most of us will agree that this is an example of bad evangelism.

Why would anyone think that reading bible verses loudly in the middle of a street count as effective evangelism? Would anyone hoping for a quite evening in the comfort of their homes regard such noisy disruptions on their street as anything remotely “good news”? Christians really need to take seriously Marshall McLuhan’s insight that “the medium is the message” – how you communicate a message determines how the audience understands the message. In this case, even if the church group was reading out Bible verses about God’s love, the message the neighbors got was “hate”, as evidenced by the neighbors’ remarks to the street evangelists: “you’re a hateful people, that’s what you are, you’re hateful” and “you don’t know what love means”. The medium, inconsiderate and insensitive in-your-face proclamation, has totally overshadowed the Biblical message of God’s love.

I think part of the problem here, outside of common sense and civility, is that these Christians, like so many others, have reduced evangelism to verbal proclamation. Although it is true that the New Testament apostles speak of “proclaiming the good news” or euangelion (the original Greek word for “good news” or “gospel” from whence we got “evangelist” and “evangelism”), it is a mistake to take this proclamation out of context from the apostles’ overall relationship with people. For example, in 1 Thessalonians 2:7-9, Paul, Silas and Timothy reminded the Thessalonian Christians that “just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.” (TNIV) Here, we see that gospel proclamation is set within the context of a loving relationship – “as a nursing mother cares for her children” (what a tender image!) – and in the context of sharing lives, not just sharing a verbal message – “we shared not only the gospel but our lives as well” – and also in the context of being considerate – “not to be a burden to anyone”. How different this is from the street evangelists in our video! The street evangelists were inconsiderate of the neighbors, did not share their lives (they did not even live there) but only a verbal message, and did not love or care for the neighbors with the tenderness of a mother.

Not only have so many Christians, evangelicals in particular, reduced evangelism to verbal proclamation without the context of a loving, caring and whole-life relationship, they also reduced evangelism to a one-size-fits-all verbal proclamation. It is telling the same packaged message to everyone and anyone, regardless of the hearer’s situation, context, background or relationship. If we examine the practice of both Jesus and the apostle Paul in the Bible, we see that they do not have a one-size-fits-all approach.

For example, if we compare Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus, the Jewish religious authority in John 3 with his dialogue with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, we immediately see a difference in his approach to the two. Jesus asked the Samaritan woman for a drink, which was breaking an ethnic barrier between Jews and Samaritans at the time (a relationship akin to Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, i.e. hostile). Jesus asked a favor of an ethnic enemy! Although Jesus knew of the woman’s moral outcast state, he did not reprimand her too harshly – “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.” (John 4:17-18) (Although we should not judge the woman too harshly either, as women back then often did not have the right to divorce but men do, so the five husbands divorced her, not she them. This might make her more a victim of men’s lust than her being an immoral woman. But that’s all stuff for another blog post.) But with Nicodemus, we see Jesus going straight to the religious point: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” (John 3:3) This is the kind of religious in-your-face-challenging proclamation that most Christians associate with evangelism, not the asking for a favor, soft on sin, friendly dialogue with the Samaritan woman. Jesus went straight into a theological discussion with Nicodemus. But remember, Nicodemus was a religious official who came seeking Jesus in the night. Nicodemus was primed for a deep religious dialogue and probably expected nothing less. The Samaritan woman was not. She just wanted to get water from the well and trying to avoid strangers, especially Jewish male strangers! Jesus’ humble asking of a favor eventually led to a religious discussion. Ironically, the initial outcome was far more successful with the Samaritan woman than with Nicodemus! At least, that’s the impression the author John gives by juxtaposing the two stories. The Samaritan woman not only became excited about Jesus but became an evangelist herself, inviting others in her community to meet Jesus!

Similarly, the apostle Paul’s evangelism methods changed from audience to audience. In Acts 13, Paul was speaking to Jews in a synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. There, he quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures and tied the death and resurrection of Jesus to the religious history of Israel. In Acts 17, however, we see Paul speaking to the intellectual elite of Athens. There, Paul never once quoted the Hebrew Scriptures (a proclamation without Bible verses!). Instead, he quoted from pagan Greek poets/thinkers that the Athenians knew: “As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.'” (Acts 17:28) Paul’s speech in Athens was more philosophical, tying in to their own history of the altar to an unknown god. So, Paul’s methodology and his proclamation was tailored to his audience and context. People are not cookie-cutter clones of each other. So why should the sharing of our lives and of the gospel with them be cookie-cutter varieties? Paul and Jesus focused on their audiences’ agendas – where they are at spiritually – rather than on their own individual agendas. This, to me, is a form of loving your neighbor.

Evangelism is not a one-size-fits-all decontextualized verbal proclamation. Evangelism is a holistic sharing of God’s love in our lives (the good news) in a context of love, care and consideration for others. This, therefore, can take many shapes and forms depending on the context of our relationship to our neighbor and our neighbor’s background, desires and where they are at in their spiritual journeys: a dialogue, a discussion, a proclamation, a helping hand, a shoulder to cry on, a collaboration, an encouragement, a listening, a fun time together, etc. We share our lives, and as Christians, God’s reality and love should be big integral parts of our lives. Another way of saying this, instead of simply proclaiming God’s good news to our neighbors, we Christians should BE God’s good news to our neighbors! As this song “Does Anybody Hear Her?” from Casting Crowns suggests (thanks to my niece Wei Ci for sharing this with me on facebook), being God’s good news to our neighbors may very well start with really hearing them and seeing them, not with throwing words at them.

As they say, “actions speak louder than words”! Remember, “the medium is the message.” And only then, will we earn an invitation to be heard or to dialogue with people about what beliefs drive our God-shaped lives. But that is not the end goal.

Evangelism should not be a goal we pursue with our neighbors. This so easily turns evangelism into a project and our neighbors into objects or “targets”. It dehumanizes them, which is unloving. Our goal, as Jesus commanded, is always to love our neighbors as ourselves in the context of loving God with our whole beings (Mark 12:30-31). Evangelism, sharing the good news that is real in our lives, is an outcome of loving our neighbors, not the goal. In order to love others as we love ourselves, we must accept them as they are, which doesn’t mean condoning everything and anything just as we don’t always condone everything we have done in our own lives. For example, I always accept my children even when I don’t condone what they have done. Even when I am upset with them, I still always forgive them, respect their dignity, embrace them, and welcome them home. In order to love others as ourselves, we must share our lives with them. And that will organically include sharing what makes us tick, what gives us purpose and meaning and hope: our faith in Christ Jesus.

If evangelical Christians are really serious about the fact that Christianity is not a formulaic religion but is ultimately a personal relationship with God, then why should evangelism be a formulaic methodology? Would it not be more theologically consistent then to insist that evangelism is a personal relationship with others that invites them to share in our relationship with God? If the message is a personal (meaning uniquely tailored to an individual) relationship with a loving God, shouldn’t the medium be something similar? I am being rhetorical here, even though I don’t like reducing Christianity into simply a personal relationship with God. Furthermore, there’s more to be said about reducing evangelism into an individual action that we lose sight of its communal aspect. But that will make this into a very long post.

Thankfully, more and more Christians are rethinking evangelism. This article, “God Uses Little Leaguers”, explores the current ideas on evangelism among Canadian Christians. In this article, “Reimagining Evangelism” author Rick Richardson of a book with the same title, shares ideas for rethinking evangelism. Richardson’s book title reminds me of a book I read years ago, and which I recommend: Donald C. Posterski’s Reinventing Evangelism (IVP 1989). Another book I recommend heartily is John P. Bowen’s Evangelism for “Normal” People: Good News for Those Looking for a Fresh Approach (Augsburg Fortress 2002).

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