Evangelism is an awkward word. And depending on your context, full of negative images. For some it conjures angry red-faced preachers screaming hellfire, brimstone, and judgment — a la “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” For others, the dread of conflict and intellectual debate appears: how I can outsmart another (or at least defend my position) about Jesus, the Bible or the mere existence of God. Or for the bashful, fear that evangelism means walking up to randoms and handing them tracts or asking about their eternal destination. For others, just the idea of evangelism seems creepy and threatening: why can’t Christians just keep their beliefs to themselves? How dare Christians impose on my freedom?
My experience with “evangelism” is also awkward. I remember the revivals that the church would hold when I was a kid and being terrified of the furious message that the apoplectic circuit preacher would deliver. His volume and vitriol probably stoked the fear that the message alone would cause. I felt like crying the whole time he was talking. I can’t imagine inviting a friend to a service like that; if that makes me a bad Christian, well, so be it. But, I’m not sure what attracts people to a God who seems to hate us.
In high school, I attended a couple of S.E.M.P.s (Sonlife Evangelism Mission Project) in the Chicago area. They taught teens to get amped about sharing their faith, gave them tools to intellectually defend their faith, and sent them out into the streets and neighborhoods of Chicago to practice what they just learned. I learned a lot.
And I also inwardly hated it and found it brutally awkward. Particularly the part of walking up to random people with pithy platitudes about where they might spend eternity or find Jesus as the bridge to God. (To be fair, some of those may have a place… but it so doesn’t work for me). I didn’t know their story or have much invested in relationship with them beyond fulfilling an achievement box for camp. “Good” kids follow the rules and expectations. And I was a “good” kid. I did what I was told and trained to do. Looking back this seems hollow and embarrassing.
Lately I’ve found myself thinking more about evangelism — largely due to a seminary class that I’m taking. And the lectionary text from last week, Exodus 20:1-17 (aka the 10 Commandments), has also impacted the way I’m framing the conversation.
What follows as I think about evangelism — or put more simply, sharing “Good News” — is in large part a reaction to my own experiences that haven’t set well with me.
I find it odd when the 10 Commandments are used as a springboard for evangelism. With that method one starts by pointing the finger at what others are doing wrong. And that seems bizarre given the location and beginning of Exodus 20. The law is given after God has already rescued people. God had chosen Abraham and his descendents to be His people hundreds of years before; God rescued the Hebrews from Egypt in dramatic fashion. God brought them out of slavery. And it is in the wilderness, after God has saved this people, that God gives the guidelines for how to live as His free people. These guidelines are given by a God who saved and loved first.
Yes, the law convicts of sin, as Paul points out in the New Testament. But, I think before the law can do that in us, we have to have some idea of the One who we’ve sinned against. Yes, we’re broken. But if we have no concept of God or the God who loves and rescues us, why does it matter if we don’t live up to that God’s expectations? Why should someone care about that if they don’t first believe God loves them and created them with a purpose in mind?
The Hebrews met God before they received the law. He called Abraham and gave a promise. God was faithful to Isaac and Jacob and Joseph. God calls Moses to lead the Hebrews out of slavery. Drawing forward into the New Testament, Jesus blesses and heals before telling people to go and sin no more. Experience of God’s goodness becomes the basis for going forth without sin.
And yet, does our sharing of the good news focus on this? How are we as Church and individuals inviting others to sample God’s goodness? How are we agents of God’s kingdom — people who bring healing, justice, reconciliation, and hope to others by the power of the Holy Spirit?
Crocus are a symbol of good news for me. Of all the flowers, they bring me the most joy and excitement. Every year they sneak up on me; one day they weren’t there, and then suddenly, the next day they’ve brilliantly popped open. They’re a foretaste of the life that is on its way. Crocus are bright, colorful hope! Winter has lifted. Spring dawns. Growth and life will abound.
What if evangelism starts a bit more like crocus and a little less like a hammer? I’m not knocking the place for prophets and justice and addressing sin. I’m just wondering what if we spent a little more time laying the groundwork about the person of God, other than just God is mad at us because we failed?
What if evangelism were simpler? What if it was just being a people who faithfully attend to relationships with others, and who point towards the goodness of God? Who model the lifestyle that Jesus calls us towards, and through the freedom of that lifestyle inspire others as well?