Evangelism was taken pretty seriously in my seminary training. The required class in evangelism was mostly about the principles and techniques of The Church Growth Movement. The class also included a complete submersion baptism in The Kennedy Evangelism method, including a weekend at a local church in which we spent about 8 hours canvassing the neighborhood, knocking on the doors of complete strangers, seeking within about 90 seconds to get to some pretty serious and intimate conversation about faith.
The Kennedy method asks folks “the diagnostic questions.” “If you were to die tonight, are you absolutely certain that you would go to heaven.” If no, then “Well, I have good news for you. . .” and then one was to launch into the memorized speech that would give the ABCs of Christianity and would propel people towards conversion. If yes, then one was to ask how they would answer God when God asked them why He should let them into heaven. Unless the response was faith in Jesus (which it almost never was), here was the other opportunity to launch into the speech that would save.
I didn’t like it back then. I attributed my discomfort to my introversion and uneasiness in talking with strangers. Almost 30 years later, I think it was due to something much more fundamental. It’s offensive; it is sanctified hucksterism that sees people as objects of a technique, not human beings whom we are called to love.
Yet, it does honor the fact that Christianity is fundamentally a proselytizing religion. After all, the last words that Jesus gave his disciples in The Gospel according to Matthew, “Go and make disciples of all nations. . .” And nearly the entire Acts of the Apostles tell stories of Peter and Paul on a mission to spread Christianity to the entire known world.
I wonder what evangelism means these days in the North American context. What does it mean to proclaim that salvation comes through Christ in the culture of 21st century America, a culture that increasingly eschews formal institutional religion for a self-designed spirituality that requires no connection beyond the self?
I’m convinced that question also has to take into account the sin-soaked legacy of Christianity from the very beginning of our presence on the North American continent. The Canadian theologian, Douglas John Hall, urges caution and humility on North American Christians who would engage in aggressive proselytizing, reminding us of multiple sins including the brutalization and near extermination of indigenous Americans, slavery, systematic racism, the exclusion of gay and lesbian persons, and the list goes on and on. No doubt, Christians have been the force for much good in the U.S., but unfortunately, the good can’t erase the legacy of hatred, oppression, and exclusion. Hall suggests that anything we say is liable to be contradicted by that legacy.
So, if the fundamental assumption of Christianity is true, that God is drawing all things, including all people, to fullness in Christ, that there is something good, salutary, and eternally beneficial to knowing God in Christ, then how does one go about the task of Christian mission without making it seem like a slick marketing campaign?
In Mohandas Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi recounts a number of interactions with Christians while he was working in South Africa. Most of them could be lumped into one negative memory of being put off by Christians whose sole agenda was conversion. As you might expect, he was particularly put off by those who tried to motivate his conversion with threats of perdition. “They would not leave me in peace, even if I desired to be indifferent.”
By contrast, one interaction with a Christian couple was positively noteworthy and memorable. He wrote of a friendship with Mr. and Mrs. Spencer Walton. Walton was the head of the South Africa General Mission. The Spencers opened their home to Gandhi, and by all accounts practiced generous hospitality. Mr. Walton “placed his life as an open book before me, and let me watch all his movements.” He mentions this fact specifically: the couple never invited him to embrace Christianity. Yet their friendship kept alive his interest in religion at that time in his life. “We knew the fundamental differences between us. Any amount of discussion could not efface them. Yet even differences prove helpful where there are tolerance, charity, and truth.”
Relational evangelism is not something new. Simplified to bare bones, it goes something like this: Befriend people who are not Christians (or not connected to the church). They will see your lifestyle and your relationship with Christ. They will want that for themselves and ask you about it. Then you can tell them about Jesus.
I certainly don’t mean to discount the fact that relational evangelism probably works. Heck, in many cases, the Kennedy approach “worked.” Yet it still feels manipulative. It feels like a hidden agenda. It feels like setting up a good thing — loving your neighbor — as the means to an end — getting someone converted.
What if we are just called to love people without an agenda? Just because it’s the right thing to do. Truth is, Jesus spoke often of loving the neighbor. But it wasn’t the means to something else. It was the end itself. If loving the neighbor is the means to anything, it’s the coming of the Kingdom of God, which is not something we do anyway; it’s always something God does. So if loving the neighbor is instrumental, we’ll leave that up to God, just as we do conversion. And in light of our Christian the dark legacy of Christianity in North America, maybe this is precisely the kind of evangelism that is needed, simply to love people. Period. That is the whole thing.
I’m not sure yet how that squares with the Great Commission of Matthew 28. But maybe at least in our context, we ought to give some serious attention to the Greater Commission, love God and love your neighbor. For a few hundred years. And then we’ll see if we’re in a better position for more aggressive proselytizing.