Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Perplexities of Proselytizing

It was ingrained int0 my soul and mind a long time ago that I must have my evangelism radar on at all times and a missed opportunity, could send someone to eternal hell.

The paradigm even went as far as to say that the ONLY reason that I was alive was to share the gospel with people, on their way to hell. It was even implied that if you stop sharing your faith, then God just may take you home because you have out-lived your purpose on this earth. Of course I don't believe in this reason for existing anymore.

But I do know how complicated evangelicalism has come for me. I've alluded to this before.

This time, it was a situation Friday night. I'm starting a new medical clinic and Friday was our launch meeting. It was the first time that my office manager, my psychologist and the physician I'm working with were all in the same place at the same time. We had a photo session and then went out to dinner.

It was a truly "working dinner" as we signed contracts, discussed the details of running a medical practice. But the conversation did drift in and out of personal stuff. We would pair off around the table in those conversations. It could be the physician and me talking for a while, then the psychologist and me while the physician was talking to the office manger.

It was during one of those times that talking to the psychologist beside me when I overheard the conversation across the table between the physician and the office manager. It had drifted to books. While I'm reading the old classics, it sounded like both of them were in contemporary best-selling books, the kind you would find on the New York Times top 10. Then I overherd the physician say that he recently when back and read Darwin's Origin of the Species. There was certainly nothing wrong with that and I would like to read it some day.

But then he went on to say something that did surprise me (I didn't listen closely because the psychologist was talking to me about something totally differently and I was trying to listen to her). He said something to the effect that if anyone read it, it would convince then that they don't need to think of a god being necessary for creation. Then he looked surprised at the office manager and said, "Oh, I hope you're not religious and I offended you."

"Oh, no," she said. "I was Lutheran, but then in high school I read the Bible from cover to cover and soon after that Origin of the Species. Darwin made the Bible look silly."

Then the psychologist, catching the end of that conversation said, "Oh, I used to be Lutheran too. But I'm not religious anymore."

That's when I stood like the deer in the headlights. They weren't expecting me to comment as really the center of that conversation was across the table. But I had this conviction that I should.

But that conviction was deeply seated from many years ago. As I thought about it, I knew that anything I said would mess things up. If I were gifted in communication, I'm sure I could have turned this into something good. I could have confidently challenged them on their present philosophical presuppositions.

What I would end up saying is that I was a Christian. Then, without a doubt, in their minds a sudden, and complex, lexicon of assumptions would be made. I would live behind the label of "evangelical" in their eyes from that moment forward for years. I wouldn't have been surprised if they immediately apologized for drinking beer, for having used words like, "hell," "damn" and "shit" during the evening. Then the assumptions would only get worse.

I so much didn't want to go there. But then I had the thought (and all this happened in a matter of about 3 seconds) that I should try to explain what kind of Christian I was, "I use to be an Evangelical Christian but now I'm not. I'm a different kind of Christian who believers differ things. For one, I think that questions are good and doubt are healthy and I don't mind alcohol are saying shit." About this time their eyes would gloss over with, "I don't give a flying f*** what strange religious sect you come from."

So, I just smiled as the psychologist turned back to me and resumed her conversation.

In my present job, everyone knows that I'm a Christian. But they got to know the real me first. They knew I drank beer and, if I was really mad, say "shit." In that way, they didn't make these huge assumptions. Get to know the real me, then you will observe what I believe.

So, it is complicated. I do feel guilty about those conversations. I'm sure a Josh McDowel or many others would have communicated with great authority and clarity. However, if God permits, I will be working with these folks on a daily basis for many years. I do hope I can communicate in things far more meaningful than sound-bites and cliches. But I still feel guilty, like Peter denying Christ. I know that my old Nav-staff leader guy would be very disappointed in me. He had an act for speaking the Gospel whenever he could and you could cut the cloud of social awkwardness around those conversations with strangers with a butter knife. But it didn't matter to him if he made strangers feel even stranger. God had put him on this earth for only one reason . . . to share the Gospel. But, I wish I could be a better wordsmith in those situations.

17 comments:

Hippimama said...

For what it's worth, I think your take on evangelism is pretty authentic. I mean, who wants to be hit over the head with the gospel by someone who couldn't care less about who you are, where you come from, what your understanding of the world is, etc. etc. I spent the 4 years I lived as an evangelical feeling guilty about not witnessing at every opportunity. When I did, it felt forced and unnatural. It also felt manipulative and that made me feel horrible. Weirdly I now (as an Episcopalian) feel so much more comfortable talking about faith and reasons for believing -- mostly because it arises naturally out of conversations I am having with people I care about.

Once, in my evangelical years, my Campus Crusade guru boyfriend and I were trying to befriend a poor soul we had targeted as a likely candidate for our evangelism efforts and he asked us, point blank, whether we were really interested in a friendship with him, or whether we just wanted to convert him. GOOD QUESTION. We had no answer.

My feeling now is that if you don't love, don't truly care about another individual, then maybe you have no business in sharing the gospel. I guess you could be especially led by the Holy Spirit to speak something specific into a stranger's circumstances, but I tend to think that might be the exception rather than the rule. I love my friends (Christian or not) well, because they are my friends and dear to me, not because they are potential spiritual trophies. If the opportunity arises to share Christ, then it will do so without any arm-twisting or coersion. Which in fact it often does. Sometimes these conversations go on for years. I don't know if any of my friends will ever become Christians or even consider it. In the end, that's not up to me.

beakerj said...

I think you did the right thing. There's such a tactic as losing the battle in order to win the war...that is, to resist the temptation to nail them with the 'right' answers, in order to build proper relationships with them, in which you can live out (& love out) a far more profound Christian witness.
It gives people a chance to discover who you really are, before they can label you with their preconceptions & misconceptions...& then they are the ones who come with questions.
As you can tell, I'm the former punk (in the British sense) who was street evangelised many many times before I made a Christian friend who loved me, & then I listened!

Anonymous said...

Once, in my evangelical years, my Campus Crusade guru boyfriend and I were trying to befriend a poor soul we had targeted as a likely candidate for our evangelism efforts and he asked us, point blank, whether we were really interested in a friendship with him, or whether we just wanted to convert him. -- Hippimama

That's the kind of question you ask when you've become a notch on half a dozen Bibles. It's the first question I'd ask if somebody I met self-indentified as "A Christian (TM)" and got friendly.

Back when I was on the fringe of Campus Crusade (Cal Poly Pomona, late 1970s), a Billy Graham Crusade was in-town and the word went out to all CCCers to "Invite Your Non-Christian Friends."

Everyone except me panicked. "Oh, No! How do I make a Non-Christian friend so I can invite him to the Crusade and Get Him Saved?" (I am NOT making up that reaction. Apparently NONE of the CCCers knew anyone outside of CCC and/or their Church/Fellowship.)

Headless Unicorn Guy

jmj said...

If you believed in the paradigm that this world is insignificant, and the only thing that mattered was whether or not you had your boarding pass for the Heaven express (and that God loved you more if you "shared your faith") . . . then it would make perfect sense to treat people as objects of your evangelism and nothing else. The "friend" in friendship evangelism is simply another name for manipulation in the same way that a sociopath uses people as they weave a very complex web to get what they want.

Dana said...

My life really got upended when I started asking, "OK, what does *Jesus* say 'the Gospel', the good news, is?"

That question led me down a very interesting path...

Suffice it to say, the answer didn't have anything to do with "If you were to die tonight, do you know where you would be?" or "Why should God let you into Heaven?" And one can't quite get all the information from the bible alone without some cultural/historical help.

It was scary there for a while, but it wasn't long until I found Willard's "Divine Conspiracy" and the works of N.T. Wright. I am grateful beyond words. Now in the natural course of conversation I can speak at whatever level of relationship I have with a person and not worry about his/her "eternal destiny" or my deficiencies wrt "sharing my faith".

So much better all around.

Dana

Anonymous said...

If you believed in the paradigm that this world is insignificant, and the only thing that mattered was whether or not you had your boarding pass for the Heaven express (and that God loved you more if you "shared your faith") . . . then it would make perfect sense to treat people as objects of your evangelism and nothing else.

Oh, it gets better. Add in an application of some chapter in Ezekiel about a Watchman that "If you don't Witness to someone and they die Unsaved, GOD WILL HOLD YOU RESPONSIBLE!!!" and the Wretched Urgency ramps up to some really insane levels. Which leads to equally insane and desperate attempts to Witness 24/7. It's another facet of Guilt Manipulation, in this case the Guilt of Not Being On-Fire Enough For The LORD.

And you can take God's Hell-gun held to your head for only so long before you die, go crazy, or bail out completely.

Headless Unicorn Guy

Recovering Alumni said...

I don't think you have anything to feel guilty about! You are right, they will get to know you and see your life and how you treat people - that is 100x more important than any conversational zinger you could hurl their way.

Anna A said...

I think that you were wise in your decision. You will be working with these people and being watchful is a very good thing.

Later, when things come up, then you can speak as the situation arises.

Because I've been turned off by loud mouthed Christians, I'm probably quieter than perhaps I should be, but that is my style at work and at play. Just knowing what you believe and how it differs from the teachings of other groups is a very good thing. I think that I have spent more time clarifying and contrasting Catholic teachings with evangelical than straight out witnessing.

Anonymous said...

Been a while since I've been here...really happy to learn that your new clinic is starting up!

I can so relate to the scenario you describe. Been there many, many times, and wish I'd done it differently (more like you did)...in fact, yes, I've begun keeping my mouth SHUT more & more in such situations, even those with strangers I most likely will NEVER see again (have to trust God cares about them more than I do).

You've articulated it well: "...in their minds a sudden, and complex, lexicon of assumptions would be made."

--S. still in Boston

solarblogger said...

From your blog description, it looks like you resonate with a Christian account of good and evil. On the other hand, what you were asked to share in the past when you shared your faith doesn't resonate as well with you. Maybe there's a way of bringing up what you are convinced of without having it sound like it's attached to some NAV-staff spiel. A short line about how natural theories explain a lot, but there seems to be more to good and evil than just that might be worth throwing in.

One of the problems of evangelical spiels is that they assume that what is being shared resonates with all who are asked to share it. But we might resonate more strongly with different elements of the faith. We might have a mixture of firm convictions we hold passionately alongside orthodox teachings we hold because we're supposed to even though they don't resonate on a personal level. To communicate well, we should probably be on our own home ground.

You probably handled the dinner situation perfectly. But it might be worth thinking about how to talk about where you are with things that departs from the old models.

Rev. Ed Sarnella said...

John 15:18 (King James Version)

18If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you.

Rev. Ed Sarnella said...

John 15:18 (King James Version)

18If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you.

Eagle said...

MJ..your take on evangelism is spot on. When I was a Christian I used to evangelize anywhere and everywhere. I felt guily if I didn't...and what happened if that person died and didn't know Jesus? It was a terrible way to live. Where did I evnagelize? On a plane, Miller brewery tour, etc.. you name it.

However, I also think Christians need to come clean. All too often they are more interested in the convert than they are in the person. It becomes a game so that they can go back to their church, ministry, etc.. tell a story, and play the mind game of manipulation on others and make them feel guilty. In the end it becomes another person to brag about. And then afterward they will drop that person almost like they are gay or have HIV. Because all that matters is the conversion.

On my journey out of fundgelicalism into agnosticism I had people I somewhat knew but not too well who suddenly popped up in my life who wanted to evangelize me. "Jesus.." I thought, "How fucking stupid do you think I am?" I mean when I was at church they didn't care..now that I am leaving they suddenly do? Where was that compassion or concern when I attended?

Evangelicalsim is phoney MJ...it's all about image.

Anonymous said...

MJ..your take on evangelism is spot on. When I was a Christian I used to evangelize anywhere and everywhere. I felt guily if I didn't...and what happened if that person died and didn't know Jesus? It was a terrible way to live.

It's called "Wretched Urgency". Check the archives at Internet Monk for the essay of that name.

However, I also think Christians need to come clean. All too often they are more interested in the convert than they are in the person.

i.e. another Notch on your Bible.

Apply the "It's All Gonna Burn" crossed with "Only what's done for Christ will last" and "Saving Souls" becomes the only thing you can take to Heaven with you. Add the idea (from local Seventies hyper-Evangelicalism) that God will assign your position in Heaven by How Many Souls You Saved and the game becomes "Who's got the most notches in his Bible?"

At which point, the whole Witnessing(TM) shtick gets really dark and twisted as everybody tries to rack up the highest sales figures. Especially when Ye End of Ye World Is Nighye. It's a really bad scene, and happens all too often when "Soul-Winning" gets firewalled.

That's not "life had more abundantly," that's not even living, Period.
Headless Unicorn Guy

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