Tag Archives: evangelism

A Story from Gandhi and What It Means to Do Evangelism

Gandhi.jpgEvangelism 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.   

Into the Streets

ethiopiancross.jpgIn my life and in my vocation, I am deeply committed to the Christian Church and what it stands for. I find deep meaning in the understanding of that a life with God comes to us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I also find meaning in many of the rituals, symbols, and traditions of the Church.

I also stand as an insider looking out on a world that seems increasingly uninterested. It feels like being the proprietor of a shop that only sells winter clothing in the middle of May. I know what I have is useful, but no one seems very interested, at least not right now.

Recently my wife and I had lunch with a couple who recently retired and has spent a good portion of the last year traveling.   The wife grew up in a Jewish family; it sounds like she does not particularly practice her Jewish faith, nor her husband’s Christianity. She said, “I have not felt particularly drawn to Christianity.” With passion and intensity in their voices and a sparkle in their eyes they told us about a recent trip to Ethiopia. I wish you could have heard her describe their participation in the Epiphany celebration of the church in Ethiopia. Epiphany is perhaps the most important celebration in the Coptic Church, the time when they celebrate Christ’s birth. The celebration has the people dancing through the streets in procession to the church. The people are all dressed in white, many of them in robes; they carry crosses decorated with colorful fabric, and they twirl colorful umbrellas, part of their liturgical decoration. She told about how they were invited into the procession, joining with the Ethiopian Christians in their singing and dancing through the streets of the town; they were a bit of a novelty as the only white faces in the processional crowd. When they got to the church, she was hot and tired, and found a place to sit just outside the church door. One of the priests came and sat next to her and engaged in conversation, taking delight that she lived in the midwest, where he had spent time in theological training. She was dumbfounded that on this most important day of his religious year, a time when he clearly had many things to think about and do, he would take the time to engage in conversation with a stranger he would likely never see again.

As a token of their visit, she bought a cross pendant. She said, “I feel a little funny wearing a cross around my neck, but in that moment, I was drawn to Christianity.”  That Ethiopian Christian cross had become for her a sign of life, not as a generic religious symbol, but as a reminder of the warmth and hospitality she had experienced.

I find a pretty striking lesson for me in my own life as a Christian and as a pastor in the church. The theology, ritual, and symbol that I find so meaningful will not likely be meaningful to anyone outside the church unless and until they experience the love and grace of God embodied in the warmth and hospitality of people like me. Fewer and fewer of them are coming onto our turf to give us a chance to demonstrate that love and grace. The chances are slim that it will be through Epiphany celebrations that wind through the streets of our communities. But it will be important (dare I say essential?) that we find our own ways to get the Body out of the building and into the streets.

Of Lila, Love, and Misfits

lila.jpgBrian was one of the most interesting parishioners I have ever served. A blue collar guy in a community and congregation of the wealthy, Brian often turned heads. He’d come roaring through the parking lot on Sunday morning on his big Harley, black boots, black jeans, black leather jacket, long streaming blonde hair and beard. He’d park the Harley next to the wide portico leading to the entrance to the church, and before shutting the engine off, he’d give it one last twist of the accelerator, making sure the loud roar of the engine reverberated under the cover of the roof, startling those poor souls who somehow hadn’t noticed his arrival.

Years earlier, Brian had been on the street for a while, his life a mess as a result of alcohol and drug addiction. By the time I met him, he had found sobriety and was making a good living working in his father’s manufacturing business. He was an odd evangelist, but evangelist he was, telling everyone he knew — and often those he didn’t — about how Christ had turned his life around. He’d often bring new friends with him to church, sometimes guys, sometimes his new girlfriend.

When Kristy (not her real name) started coming with Brian, her presence turned a few heads. Her dresses were quite a bit shorter, her heels quite a bit taller, and her hair quite a bit more dazzling than what we were used to. Turns out Kristy was a dancer at a gentleman’s club (an oxymoron if ever there was one), and Brian was trying to rescue her from that life and get her a “real” job. She came with him pretty faithfully. I had a few conversations with them about church and Jesus and getting on the right track. Kristy decided she wanted to be baptized; I was never very sure whether it was something she really wanted to do or something Brian was pushing for her to do. I’m guessing it was some of both.

She showed up that morning in her Sunday best — actually her Saturday night best. Short skirt, tall heels and a top with a deep v-neck. It was quite a thing to have to decide where to have Kristy stand as she bent over the font to be baptized, a choice between having the congregation look up her skirt or down her sweater. Made me long for the old days of baptismal gowns. Regardless, it was a day of great joy and celebration. We didn’t do a lot of adult baptisms.  And we didn’t do a lot of baptisms where the contrast between the life behind and the baptismal life into which Kristy was being born was so sharp.

We didn’t see Kristy much longer after her baptism. After talk of marriage, Brian and Kristy suddenly broke up. Brian didn’t want to talk about it. I’m not sure what happened. She came a few weeks by herself and then nothing. When I asked, Brian told me she had moved back north, went home, he said. I’ve always wondered what happened to her. Did that short connection with the church mean anything, have any impact at all on what came later?

Kristy came to mind as I’ve been reflecting on Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel, Lila. Once again the story takes us back to Gilead, Iowa and to the characters we’ve already met in her previous two novels, Gilead and Home. In the first two novels, we encounter Lila as the young wife of the aging minister, John Ames. Now, we learn her story and the unlikely meeting and marriage of John and Lila.

Lila is born into a family on the very edge of survival in depression era middle America. She is taken from that family of neglect and abuse to be cared for by Doll, a loving and resourceful drifter. Doll is the only one she can trust, the only from whom she experiences love. They are virtually inseparable until Doll runs into trouble and lands in jail. Lila then has to fend for herself. While living in an abandoned shack on the edge of Gilead, she comes into contact with Rev. Ames, his church and the members of his church. What commences is an extraordinarily odd courtship and marriage. Only gradually does Lila come to know love; only gradually does she come to trust her husband and the church people around him. Constantly fearful of abandonment, she doesn’t even trust herself to stay, wondering when she will walk out the door with her baby and return to the hard life of a drifter.

Robinson captures so poignantly the cautious entry into the church by one who has learned to be suspicious of the church and church people. For those outside the church, and maybe especially for those on the edge of survival, the church can be a place to be afraid of, where those who desire to do good end up doing harm. There’s a scene when Doll temporarily leaves the loose group of itinerants, saddling them with one more mouth to feed. When they decide they can’t keep Lila, they abandon her on the steps of a church; there she is most afraid that church people will “steal” her away from Doll and that she will never again see the only one who has really cared for her, difficult though that life may be.

We get ringside seats into Lila’s struggle with the theology of exclusion so associated with the church. In particular, Lila simply can’t accept a God who would leave Doll out of heaven. Though she never got connected to the church and never was “saved,” it was Doll who saved her. We also get to see how Lila grows into the love of her husband and to some strange peace about her own part in the church. There is nothing fancy about their lives. Their love is deep, yet imperfect, hers seemingly tentative, as if that’s the only way she knows how to love. By the end, Lila seems to relax into the love of both her husband and her husband’s God.

Which brings me back to Kristy, to wondering what ever became of her. I know that wherever she is, she is still in God’s embrace. I just hope she has found a community that keeps on reminding her of that.