I Don't Like Evangelism
Confessions of an evangelism professor—and the holistic approach that makes "bearing witness" bearable
by Al Tizon
I don't like evangelism, at least as it is often understood and/or executed. I cringe at tacky tracts and mechanical formulas and culturally insensitive strategies, even while I concede that God can and occasionally does use some of these things to draw people to himself.
I was in Vietnam in the early '90s, a time when evangelism was being outlawed. Preaching the gospel was only permitted within the walls of a church. As much as I may dislike the idea of evangelism, this grated on me. Surely everyone has a right to hear the gospel, I reasoned.
"Yes," replied a Vietnamese brother, "but our government believes that everyone also has a right not to hear the gospel."
I don't remember how I responded at the time, but the idea began to grow on me over the years: the right not to hear the gospel. Interesting. Maybe that explains the violated feeling I get when missionaries at the door are applying some evangelistic formula on me. Maybe that right not to hear explains the sick feeling I get when I see a street evangelist using a megaphone to preach hellfire and brimstone … you know, the "good news." Or the sicker feeling I get when I happen upon a channel with a slick, big-haired televangelist telling me that if I buy his book, God will bless me. When I think of these things, I say, "Evangelism illegal: I like it!"
But here's the thing: Jesus. The person of Jesus. When I finally work through my self-righteous cynicism toward evangelism, I see Jesus, and I believe once again in the telling of the good news concerning him. This Jesus, whom we can know in faith by the power of the Spirit, is truly good news. And this kind of news is worth sharing, despite the dehumanizing ways that we've tried to do it. I believe in evangelism in spite of evangelism. We can't let bad approaches stop us from sharing the greatest story ever told—the story of the death and resurrection of Christ through which human beings can relate to the God of the universe as friend and Father. I defy anyone to come up with better news than that.
So here's my dilemma. I don't like evangelism, but I'm compelled by the love of God in the person of Jesus to be evangelistic. What to do? I'm far from resolving this dilemma, but I discovered in Paul's teachings some life postures that describe a type of evangelism I can live with, a responsible kind of evangelism that upholds human dignity and restores the lost art of conversation.
The first life posture is to be yourself in Christ, who is redeeming you. I get this primarily from 2 Corinthians 4:7, where Paul wrote, "But we have this treasure (Christ in us) in clay jars (our imperfect, breakable selves), so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power (of salvation) belongs to God and does not come from us." I get it also as I read the incredibly vulnerable words of Paul in Romans 7, where he confessed his own weakness and his susceptibility to the evil in his own heart.
As I think about our "clay jar" nature in terms of evangelism, I can't help but interpret this as a call to be ourselves—broken and all—in the world. I personally find the gospel irresistible when presented by real human beings who are as cracked a clay jar as everybody else but who are being patched up and strengthened by a power beyond themselves.
I recently gathered with several others in the living room of two women who live on our street, one of whom is a lapsed Mormon. Also present were a nominal Jewish man and his nominal Christian wife. As we sat around sipping our drinks and enjoying the music, we talked about how uniquely close the people of our street are to each other and rejoiced at the very real sense of community we enjoy in our neighborhood. We were having a good time when one of them turned to me and said, "Al, I gotta ask. How did you get so religious? Most ministers I'm around make me nervous, and I'm trying to figure out why I like you."
I am a Christian, not because someone explained the nuts and bolts of Christianity to me,
but because there were people willing to be nuts and bolts.
~ Rich Mullins
And I proceeded to share, in the natural setting of our neighborly relationship, my story of how the person of Jesus became real to me, how God yanked me out of some pretty hard, dysfunctional family muck, and how he's helping me to better understand who I am. This got the ball rolling, and soon each of them started to share his or her own experiences with religion. It was laughter and tears and resentment and appreciation all balled up into one conversation. Who knows how long we went that night. It certainly was not the only thing we talked about, but my last word concerning God and religion was that God and religion are different, that even as religion falls short of our valiant attempts to understand God, God in the person of Christ continues to bring life and transformation to anyone who believes. There was no altar call that night, just amazing conversation where I believe the gospel was preached.
The point is that it wasn't formulaic or awkward to engage in God-talk with them, because I felt free to be myself in the context of real relationships, which were cultivated in the natural environment called a neighborhood. So to be ourselves in Christ and to let the unfolding of faith-sharing happen naturally make up the first life posture toward a responsible evangelism.
In 1 Corinthians 9: 24-27, Paul describes the life of an athlete. Good athletes train to win, Paul says; they discipline themselves to compete at the highest level. Some athletes may have the natural gifts to be winners. But if they don't discipline themselves, then when it's time to perform or compete, they end up being the losers.
On November 9, 1996, Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield entered the boxing ring for the heavyweight championship of the world. Because of Tyson's record and reputation, he was expected to demolish the smaller Holyfield. Tyson was physically stronger and perhaps even more naturally gifted. But Tyson was accustomed to living it up between fights, partying with strong drink, fast cars, and groupies. Then, about three or four months before a fight, he'd start to get in shape.
Holyfield, on the other hand, lived and breathed boxing. He watched what he ate and submitted himself to rigorous training under a team of specialists and trainers, whether or not a fight was on the docket. He was fit all the time, ready to enter into the ring anytime with anyone. He was the consummate athlete. So when the naturally gifted but only partially disciplined Tyson met the chisel-bodied, fully disciplined Holyfield, guess who won? Holyfield by TKO in the 11th round.
Our goal for evangelism, according to this passage, is to be Holyfield in the Spirit, to be fit at all times to meet the challenges of a lost and hurting world, to be fit to authentically and sensitively share Jesus with people. And the way to be fit and ready is to be disciplined. With regard to the things of the Spirit, this means praying and reading and fellowshipping and learning and growing in Christ on an ongoing basis. It is this kind of spiritual discipline that keeps us ever ready to meet the challenges of a world in desperate need of something real and full of hope.
Faithful witnesses of the gospel need to be actively engaged in good via acts of compassion, mercy, and justice for the underserved in the world. Do we want people to take us seriously when we talk about Jesus? Nothing builds our credibility more than a life that advocates for the poor.
I remember the day we inaugurated the installation of a deep well in a village in the Philippines that was devastated by the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo. Residents of the community gathered around the well while the pastor of our partner church spoke of how hard life had been for these people, the lack of clean drinkable water being just one of many challenges. Depending on where their new dwellings were located, many of them, he reminded us, had to walk great distances to find water and carry it home. But then, he said, God had chosen to be good to them, unveiling the deep well. People gave thanks with tears and applause. The pastor asked me to pray over it, and afterward we let a child fill the first bucket. Then we all celebrated together over good food and music the blessing of water and the goodness of God.
During the celebration, a woman came up to me to thank me personally for the part I had played in getting the deep well installed. In the native tongue, she said, "I'm not a Christian, but I see that the God you serve is about goodness and mercy." I affirmed that and told her that God loves her and her family. Then she said, "I've never considered attending this church, but maybe this Sunday I'll come and worship."
There is power in a message of goodness, mercy, and love that is backed up by acts of goodness, mercy, and love. To be active with kingdom activity is an indispensable life posture for responsible evangelism.
I find it fascinating how Paul concludes his line of reasoning in that same passage, saying, in v. 27, "…I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others, I myself should not be disqualified." Paul understood here how integrity works. He recognized that he could tell others of this good news, but if he didn't apply it in his own life, he himself could be disqualified. In other words, it matters how we live our lives.
Just as tragic scandals (such as what happened to Jim and Tammy Bakker or Jimmy Swaggart in the '80s, and more recently what happened to Ted Haggard) mar the credibility of the gospel message to an unbelieving world, so lives of integrity gain its credibility. A sincere inquirer of the faith once wrote to Pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick, "How can I believe when there is so much evil and so many evil people in the world?" Fosdick replied, "If you cannot believe because of all of the evil people, then what are you going to do with all of the good people? You see, if Christians have the problem of evil to grapple with," he continued, "then atheists have the problem of goodness to grapple with."
Indeed there is authentic evangelistic power in our goodness, in our character, in our practicing what we preach. Grace, faith, and submission to the Spirit in our lives are, of course, absolute prerequisites for the good life. So we need to discipline ourselves in the Spirit to run the race so as not to disqualify ourselves by our disingenuousness and our sin. God finally calls us to pursue holiness and to uphold righteousness, to be good, and thus bear witness to Christ in the world.
Al Tizon is co-president of ESA and associate professor of holistic ministry at Palmer Theological Seminary.