I feel like an expert in 'how not to do evangelism' most of the time. From my youth group days where we were proud to be known as 'evandalists', to my most recent faux pas where I publically mistook a young woman for a boy in a Q&A at a university Christian Union, I know I have a lot to learn. I wish I could tell you that I am running several seeker Bible studies in my home, and that my church is seeing mass conversions each month, but the truth is evangelism is tough, and yet I long, like most Christians I meet, for my friends, family, neighbours and community to know the Jesus who loves them. Let's look together at these four ways not to evangelise and see what we can learn.
1. The Mime Artist
I don't know who started the rumour, but there's an infamous quote attributed to St Francis of Assisi which says: "Preach the gospel, use words if necessary". Many people take this to mean we can live out the gospel in our lifestyles so well that we no longer need to brush up on giving our testimony, inviting neighbours to church, or explaining the tricky parts of the Bible. I affectionately call this sort of Christian the 'Mime Artist'. Don't get me wrong – on a hot summer's evening in Trafalgar Square you may well catch me entranced by a silent actor usually painted in silver, and there is something truly stunning about their artistry, skill and beauty that can stop a crowd. But you wouldn't expect political leaders to communicate their vision for our nation, or a historian to explain the major events in human history, or a news-reader to present the 9 o'clock news this way.
Mime was not Jesus' dominant mode of communication either. If ever any human being could have attempted to preach the gospel without words you would have thought Christ, the word of God incarnate, would have managed it. Instead the Bible is very clear Jesus preached the gospel using actions and words. Incidentally I have never been able to source the origin of the quote we attribute to St Francis. But there are times I see the attraction of the Mime Artist approach – mostly in response to yet another headline about a Christian leader's abuse of their power, or after I have encountered the second way not to do evangelism...
2. The Shouter
The Shouter is not afraid to speak out for Christ. But although this may be commendable in itself, sadly they are also not afraid to speak out their opinions either, especially when it involves publically shaming passers-by. I came across a gentleman not long ago on a busy street, megaphone in hand, shouting at passers by. It was difficult to catch everything he was saying but the selected highlights were along these lines:
"So you think you are a good person do you? Have you ever lied? Have you ever said OMG? Have you ever looked at someone lustfully? – Then the Bible calls you a lying, thieving, adulterous, BLASPHEMER".
This approach of shaming people to consider faith seems strangely at odds with Jesus' modus operandi. Jesus showed Zacchaeus grace by publically affirming him, going round to his home and offering him an opportunity to make a new start – even though he really was a lying, stealing blasphemer. Jesus is the holiest person that ever lived. His standards of holiness are higher than any of ours, and yet, somehow, Jesus was not known to be a shouting ranter but as a friend of sinners.
I am sometimes attracted to the Shouter's approach to evangelism – I get so frustrated that my friends don't seem interested in the gospel that I want to find some way to help them see their need. The shouter's 'shock and shame' approach is trying to do just that. I need to remember to trust that it is the Holy Spirit's job to convict people of sin, not mine, and to keep graciously, patiently and generously sharing the good news when God opens up the opportunities.
Even worse, sometimes I catch myself looking down on other people who have sinned in visible and clear ways and I find myself excusing my own sin as 'not quite that bad'. I find I try to feel better about myself by looking down on others. Which leads us to a third way not to do evangelism...
3. The Avon Lady
So you are in the school playground and you spot someone walking purposefully towards you. In their hand is a booklet in a plastic bag. Your mission, if you chose to accept it, is to be nice to this acquaintance without committing yourself to receive the Avon/ Amway/ Aloe Vera / Tupperware/ Pampered Chef (etc etc) catalogue she has for you. You know that the marketing seminar she has been on tells her that she should build up her network of contacts as this will help her sell more products to you. So, although you barely know her, she is very friendly because she would just love you to buy her products/host a party/join her team and boost her own career.
There are some approaches to evangelism that feel very similar. We approach our social networks looking for opportunities to win people for Jesus. But if someone doesn't show sufficient interest quickly enough we drop them as a friend and move on to the next target. Sometimes called 'friendship evangelism', this can often come over as manipulative as we are only interested in people as potential evangelistic sales opportunities.
In my own life I can recognize some of this approach at play. If we are not careful our relationships become means to an end. We end up looking at people that can help us, do us a favour, support our cause or become our evangelistic scalps. Because, like the rest of humanity, our hearts are biased towards serving our own needs. We need to continually call on the Holy Spirit's help to love others with the same love as Jesus has for us.
4. The Call Centre Clone
There's that weird silence when you receive an unexpected call on the home phone. The call comes in just as you are about to have dinner and after the silence and a buzz of distant chatter you are greeted with a very friendly voice who has kindly taken the trouble to bring you 'a courtesy call'. No matter what you say, you get the same response because the person on the other end is working from a script. This has been taken to a new level with the online direct chat text services now available, although they are pretty easy to dupe:
The call centre clone approach to evangelism has a script they are working through when they present the gospel. No matter what anyone says, the message comes across the same. It's still basically:
"God loves you [insert name]. You have sinned. Jesus died for you [insert name]. You can go to heaven when you die if you accept Jesus."
Just as John in the illustration above knows that he is being processed through a pre-recorded digital script, our friends realise pretty quickly that this is not really a conversation, it's a monologue. Although the statements are true, this is 'one-size-fits-nobody' evangelism and it doesn't have a precedent in the New Testament. All the evangelistic sermons and conversations in the New Testament engage with the specific contexts of the people being addressed – you can see this from even a cursory glance through the book of Acts.
The challenge in the Bible is to know the lives of the people we are talking to and make connections. Unfortunately, I am sometimes too lazy or tired to bother, and my evangelism can quickly become cold and mechanistic.
Friends, it is easy to categorise our own evangelism into one of these stereotypes – are we too quiet or too loud? Are we overly interested or disinterested in our friends and neighbours? It is easy to become so self-conscious that we back off altogether and fail to share our faith. It is also easy to become cynical and critical about the ways that other people around us are sharing their faith, and forget that we are all on the same side as we seek to make Christ known. Of course, Jesus is our model when it comes to evangelism. He spoke clearly, confidently, personally and gently with no hint of manipulation. The closer we get to Jesus, the more like him we will become in being willing to speak about him with the people around us. Because, whether they know it or not, they desperately need him.