Redeeming Evangelism

In his forthcoming book, The King Jesus Gospel, Scot McKnight relays an experience from his youth in the program Evangelism Explosion.  Doing door-to-door evangelism, he and his program mentor far over-stayed their welcome in a person’s home who finally broke down and “received Christ.”  It seems that he did so, however, just to get his visitors to leave.  But the older man partnered with Scot reported it back at the church as a glorious conversion that elicited great celebration.  Scot’s discomfort with that incident led him to reject that sort of behavior for good.

Many people could report similarly awkward episodes.  A friend of mine was at a coffee shop some time ago near a town with a large Christian college.  Every once in a while students doing evangelism training would be sent out to practice their techniques.  My friend said she saw a college student walking outside the coffee shop, passing slowly and peering oddly in.  She had a hunch about what might be happening.  This student entered and made her way over to a table where a man was sitting reading a book.  The student spoke for a minute or two and then sat down.  They talked at the table for about ten minutes and then both stood up and went outside to talk on the sidewalk for another ten minutes.  The student then left and the man returned to his table.  My friend said he looked shell-shocked.

She’s not the sort of person who normally does this, but she went over to the man and said, “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help but notice that you just had some sort of unusual encounter.  What exactly was that all about?”

“I’ve never been so insulted in my life,” he replied.  “My day was interrupted by this young woman who didn’t care at all about me, wasn’t interested in my life at all, but wanted to tell me that I needed to convert to her religion and change everything about myself.  I simply can’t believe a human would treat another human like that.”

I’ve got lots of thoughts about these sorts of strategies, but for now I’ll just say that they strike me as manipulative and offensive. 

How do they strike you?

11 thoughts on “Redeeming Evangelism

  1. Dale

    I agree, this approach seems to make evangelism not about persuasion, but coercion, which is somewhat perverse when it relates to the gospel!

    It also seems to me to be incredibly minimal with regard to the gospel. In my experience people, among whom are many friends of mine, who share the gospel in such a way tend to view the gospel as just like a letter that one can give to Jesus at the pearly gates:

    “Well yes Jesus, as you can see on this day I said that prayer and so forth”

    On a university campus in New Zealand, it is particularly annoying when I hear of my friends who are not Christians viewing Christianity as essentially a get out of jail free card, the gospel to them is something that could only be relevant at one point in their life. Such a shame that they are rejecting Jesus on the basis of a gospel they heard which is a gospel stripped of any power and beauty.

    Having said that, I also feel some shame, because of my own evangelistic laziness, weather from fear or shame, I have a hard time criticising these activities when I reflect on my own inactivity.

    Sounds like I will need to read Scot McKnight’s book, judging by the description on Amazon, it looks really helpful.

  2. Bob

    My family and I recently visited a local Fair. The idea was to see some of the children’s friends that had raised various livestock, munch on some funnel cake / corn dogs and just have a good time. Upon entering the Fair Grounds there was a tent that was offering face painting to children. My younger children were interested and my wife and I thought what the heck. Unlike almost everything else at the Fair, the face painting was free but in order to get it done you had to sit and listen to a “story”. A Church Group was wrangling little ones into a high pressure religious session that ended in a call to repentance. The children were left with the impression that in order to get the face painting they needed to appease the group and say a prayer. I was taken aback by the gimmickry of the offering and immediately steered my family out of the tent opening. As we walked away I thought of all the little ones running around the Fair with their faces painted and absolutely no idea of how to relate to God, the Gospel or to anyone who calls themselves Christian. I also thought about a future reliance on this event as a demonstration of repentance based solely on the strong desire to have your face painted. The Fair has lost a lot of its appeal to me.

    1. timgombis

      Tragically, this is so common.

      Have you read The Book of Jerry Falwell? You’d dig it, as it would seem largely autobiographical. Written by a sociologist who lived in a fundamentalist environment for two years. She has a long section on ‘Scaremare’, the haunted house that would depict horribly gruesome scenes and would end with a gospel presentation. Crazy stuff.

  3. athanasius96

    I agree that this approach is not good. The common rebuttal though is that most Christians do little to nothing in the way of evangelism (including evangelicals). So the question remains, how can we frame evangelism in a way that both does not de-personalize others and empowers our own members? Put another way, what does it look like to have faith based discussions that are personal and engaging for all parties involved?

  4. Craig Benno

    Relationship, relationship, relationship….pure and simple relationship. A church I was involved with celebrated its 150th anniversary and so we went to all the businesses in town, saying to them… its our 150th birthday, we are going to every business and asking you how best we can pray for you.

    Some told us to get on our bike and get lost… the majority were surprised and yet pleasantly engaged with us, telling us what was going on in their lives and how we could pray for them…and there were a few times of real divine intervention… such as the guy who told us… he had just thrown his hands up and said “God if your real prove it to me, I need your help!” …and immediately afterwards his receptionist came to him telling him we were at the front asking if we could pray for him 🙂

    Athanasius, I believe that we need to frame evangelism around the needs of the community we live in… Our church is setting up a food for life program, where we will provide food for low cost for low income earners. This allows us to help people where they are at, to build relationships with them and to tell them why we are doing what we are doing….therefore the framework is one of coming alongside as an equal.

  5. Jason Zastrow

    No thoughts as of now, just general excitement to see such matters raised. I look forward to the coming dialogue. Also, your Paul book is said to be in UD’s stacks, but is nowhere to be found! I had three librarians trying to hunt it down for me. It seems your work is theft-worthy! Congratulations?

  6. Allen Browne

    Some years back, I worked for a Christian media organization. Out taking photos one night, I asked if I could photograph a young chap who was pushing his bicycle through a busy shopping mall. He asked for ID. As soon as he read the title under my name, he physically stepped back and said, “Oh no: you’re church people! You’re out to get me.”
    Later that night I opened up a conversation with the Lord about how we have behaved with the gospel, what message we have actually given people. It struck me as particularly tragic that someone who was alone would be driven further away because we were out to “get” people, rather than to truly care. In the following months, that conversation with Jesus continued as I tried to learn from what he did in his one-on-one conversations, particularly the ones described in the fourth gospel. It was a life-changing conversation.

  7. Pastor Ryan

    Dr. Gombis

    As a part time youth pastor I see this type of thing all the time. The big thing here is “surveys” that aren’t surveys at all. They are just ways we manipulate people in order to get them to say the “prayer of salvation.” (which I can’t find in the New Testament) I know the Gospel is not just about individual salvation. It is about God’s redeeming community called the “church” where the Kingdom is already growing. The problem I see is our churches don’t live like they are serving King Jesus now, and church for most does not reflect the coming Kingdom.

    The question I struggle with is “What is the practical application of this understanding of the Gospel and the Kingdom to church ministry?” What does Biblical Kingdom centered youth ministry look like? Here is one thing I am experimenting with. Current pedagogical theory would say the best way to teach is by breaking students down into groups where they could be most comfortable. They say a group of 13 year old boys are most comfortable with other 13 year old male boys. We see these ideas in the church as well. Most Sunday school classes are broken down this way. Doesn’t this on some level go against the Gospel? Maybe it is ok to make students uncomfortable. Jesus came to break down the walls the world has built up. We are all in Christ, and we can all learn from each other. I have been using combined groups where the older can lead the younger. Where boys can hear what girls struggle with. Where the young can learn from the old. Where the senior can remember what it was like to be an 8th grader. I have met resistance trying this, but I am trying to be true to the Gospel.

    Thanks for your work… I am reading your book on Ephesian’s and loving it.

    Pastor Ryan

  8. Lamont Goodling

    Are you willing to unpack this slowly?

    When you evangelize, what exactly are you hoping or expection to happen?


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