Ethical Evangelism

by David P. Gushee

As a lost, seeking, 16-year-old, I was won to Christ in 1978 by men and women in the Southern Baptist tradition who had been schooled on a relentless "soul-winning" vision.

I literally wandered into a Southern Baptist church one Friday afternoon that summer, looking for something but not knowing exactly what. I knew the church only vaguely as the religious home of my girlfriend, who was on vacation with her family at the time. I had never attended a service there.

The church stood at the brow of a hill overlooking the local mall. I remember that I went to the mall that day to consider the possibility of joining a health club there that offered the promise of shaping my pear-like body into something better. Deterred by the monthly fee, I walked out of the mall and noticed the little church up the hill. Moved by a force I did not understand, I walked into the church that Friday afternoon.

The centrality of the kingdom of God in Jesus' preaching has reshaped my understanding of evangelism.

By Monday night I was sitting in my 1972 Buick Skylark in the church parking lot saying a heartfelt "sinner's prayer." However much some weary evangelicals may scoff at the theology and technique of the old sinner's prayer, it certainly worked for me that night. I confessed what I now knew to be true—I was indeed a lost, confused sinner who needed Jesus Christ. I accepted him as my "Savior and Lord," who would take my sins away and direct my life henceforth. I opened my eyes and knew that my life was now headed in a very different direction. Joy flooded my soul.

The conversion took. I began to go to church every time the doors were open. I gulped Scripture like water in the desert. I was still woefully immature, and I fell regularly. But my immaturity and sins were met with grace and forgiveness, for which I will always be grateful.

As a new Christian, I was fed the same kind of soul-winning emphasis that had shaped those who "witnessed" to me and led me to Christ. I was taught to look at every relationship with a non-Christian as a potential evangelistic opportunity. I made a list in my new KJV Bible of friends who needed Christ. I still have that Bible and that immortal list of teenage names.

This evangelistic hunger was central to my youth minister. His approach could be prone to excesses, which I discovered through an event whose meaning I understood only in retrospect. In preparation for an October youth retreat the minister asked me to help him prepare a tape that could be used for evangelistic purposes at the retreat. The tape mixed our yelling, screaming, moaning voices as we pretended to burn in hell. I am not making this up. He then subjected the youth to this tape on a retreat whose subject turned out to be hell. The hope was to scare people into accepting Christ. I am now ashamed that I had anything to do with this.

It is pretty clear to me that both my (former) Southern Baptist Convention and my (current) Cooperative Baptist Fellowship are not producing the kind of "soul-winning" spirit on which I was spiritually weaned. The more conservative SBC still speaks a soul-winning rhetoric, but its declining baptisms reflect the reality that this vision simply does not resonate the way it once did. The more moderate CBF still talks about evangelism, but its people also appear to do little of it.

I believe that God seeks the reclamation of the entire world from sin and not just souls from hell, and that God looks not just for believers but for kingdom coworkers.

The entire context for evangelism in this culture has changed. The old message that verbal confession of Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation—which is understood to mean forgiveness of personal sins and entrance into heaven/escape from burning in hell—bumps up against dissatisfaction from within the church and disdain from without. It strikes many Christians as a truncation of a broader or more loving vision of the biblical message and many non-Christians as a species of primitive religious intolerance.

My own discovery of the centrality of the kingdom of God in Jesus' preaching has reshaped my understanding of evangelism. I am in some ways still that teenager who was brought to Christ by an evangelist prepared to witness. I also am prepared to witness explicitly to my faith in Christ. But the story I tell is a different one now. I believe that God was in Christ reclaiming this broken world for his divine reign. I believe that God seeks the reclamation of the entire world from sin and not just souls from hell, and that God looks not just for believers but for kingdom coworkers. But I still believe that a Christian must at any time be ready to tell that good news, not only in deeds but also in words, without manipulation or coercion but in gracious love.

David P. Gushee is director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University, where he is also a professor of Christian ethics. His twelfth book, Religious Faith, Torture, and Our National Soul, was just released by Mercer University Press.

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