The former leader of one of the UK's few mega churches (Abundant Life, Bradford), Paul Scanlon, is now someone who gives 'Master Classes in Communication'. Recently he communicated a very interesting thought that has caused a bit of a stir and hit a nerve. He Instagrammed: 'Christians and non-Christians agree on one thing – we both dislike evangelism.'
He explained what he meant: 'Christians dislike it because we feel awkward and non Christians dislike it because we are awkward. Many of us should've received a medal for surviving evangelism... It was more like an assault because it was more about our guilt than their souls. You don't have to evangelise anyone, just love accept and serve people. I didn't build my church on evangelism (in fact I banned the word) but on love and service and we flourished.'
It's an interesting comment that reveals much about the evangelical church in the West today.
1. We have adopted a post-modern form of communication
The major problem with the statement is that it is an ambiguous piece of communication. If Paul were saying that he doesn't like the caricature of evangelism which is so often presented (people shouting at street corners, shoving tracts into hands and knocking on doors seeking to make a 'gospel presentation') then most of us would be saying 'amen and amen'.
But the problem is not with the truth behind the statement (because all caricatures carry a degree of truth – otherwise they would not work) but with the distortion that it presents. As in all unclear messages, this post sends out differing signals to different groups, and causes people to argue at cross purposes about disparate things.
2. We have left the news out of the Good News.
Paul Scanlon's remarks reminded me of the advice reportedly given by St Francis of Assisi: 'Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.' The modern equivalent is, 'You don't have to preach a sermon, you are the sermon.' The trouble is that this sets up a false antithesis between preaching and doing. Both surely go together? Indeed the statement itself is nonsensical – how do you communicate without using the primary means of communication God has given us, words? Even more how do we communicate his Word without using his words?
3. We have equated the Good News with being nice.
People are very concerned with how we are perceived. Are we thought to be 'awkward' or 'unloving'? By the standards of our culture we will often be judged as unloving, just as Jesus was condemned by the standards of his. This is because in contemporary Western society to challenge someone's values, identity and culture is considered to be a great sin (unless you are challenging biblical Christianity!). But that is precisely what the gospel does. It does not affirm us in what we are, but promises to change us into something far better. It's not nice. But it is real love. Our message is not, 'Look at how nice we Christians are – you can become like us,' but rather, 'Look at how beautiful Jesus is – you can become like him.'
4. We have confused the fruit with the root
If we believe the gospel we will care for the poor, seek to welcome people and desire to serve. But we don't do these things in order to earn brownie points in heaven or as some kind of religious penance. We do them because they are the fruit of a heart changed by the grace of Jesus. We don't do them to virtue signal nor as a substitute for evangelism. Without the root of gospel proclamation, you cannot have the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
5. We have forgotten why Jesus came
The important factor is not whether non-Christians like evangelism. It is not whether Christians like evangelism. It is what Jesus thinks about evangelism. He doesn't like it. He loves it! That's why he came: 'Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness' (Matthew 9:35). He set up his church so that it would be advanced through the proclamation of the message: 'My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message' (John 17:20). The early disciples, rather than being embarrassed by the message and seeking to replace it with 'loving, accepting and serving everyone', proclaimed the Good News as much as they could: 'Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah' (Acts 5:42).
If evangelism is misunderstood, then rather than banning the use of the word, we should seek to reclaim it. I wonder if one of the reasons we are embarrassed by its use is not just the example of poor evangelism, but rather that we are embarrassed by the biblical gospel and would prefer to have our own watered-down, contextualized, safe version. Jesus does not give his people that option.
Christ is not interested in how we build our churches. He is interested in building his church, against which even the gates of hell don't have a chance. His church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. It is the pillar of the truth. It is founded in truth and grows in truth. Jesus doesn't need a PR company, spiritual psychobabble, a new communication strategy or evangelism programme. He just needs us to believe what he has said and pass on the Good News about him, 'adequately, intelligently, enjoyably and powerfully'. We don't want people to see how nice we are – we want them to see how beautiful Jesus is, and how his beauty overcomes our ugliness. Our society and our churches desperately need more, not less, of that evangelism.