The Reluctant Evangelist

My pastor is doing some teaching on spiritual gifts at the moment in our church’s after-service Bible study time, and naturally, we’re doing one of those spiritual gift inventory quizzes as part of it.

I’ve done a boatload of different ones of these over the course of my Christian life. I used to love them and set quite a bit of stock in the results; these days I’ve done so many that I confess to being a bit more sceptical. Part of my mind is always looking at the test itself, cataloguing possible blind-spots and trying to determine the precise theological perspective of the testers when it comes to the supernatural. It’s always interesting to see how a “low-supernatural”-perspective quizmaker handles stuff like prophecy or the message of knowledge.

Anyway, for the first time ever on one of these I managed to score higher for the gift of evangelism than I did for the gift of teaching.

I imagine my University friends are now giggling. Geoff?? Might have the gift of evangelism???

I was well-known in my circle in those days for hating the idea of “doing evangelism” and being dragged kicking and screaming, virtually at gunpoint, through the Agapé (=Campus Crusade in the UK where no-one uses the awful word “crusade” any more)-run “evangelism training” foisted upon us by the executive committee of our Uni’s Christian Union.

One of my best friends was said body’s Evangelism Secretary, and I recall long, mutually-frustrating talks in which he endeavoured to badger me into being more active in doing evangelism and I threw up roadblocks of every conceivable kind.

The thing is, I’ve had evangelism spoken over me by almost every prophetic person I’ve encountered right back into my teens, and while the various prophetic words have always rung true otherwise, it’s something I never understood. As far as I could tell, I was a teacher much more than I was an evangelist.

It didn’t help that all the evangelists I’d ever encountered were loud, horribly extroverted expert conversationalists that naturally gravitated towards people and were good at engaging total strangers. And if they were teen evangelists, add in that they all had a fetish about telling stories involving baby poo.  (Honestly, do they train all teen evangelists in some central facility that gives them a test on the quality of their baby-poo stories? It’s uncanny…)

Evangelism wasn’t me, as far as I could tell. I was (and am) very introverted, terrible at basic conversation of the type that gets called “small talk”, and somewhat fearful of talking to people I don’t know. In addition I still have no idea how such “evangelist” types segue between regular conversation and Jesus.

I think I doubly frustrated my friend because I have the sort of mind that gravitates to apologetics. I can make a reasonable case for what I believe with most people, if they have honest questions rather than just looking for excuses not to believe. I keep that sort of stuff in my head; it’s interesting to me. And yet it used to be that I would do virtually anything rather than participate in evangelism.  Cleaning toilets looked good.

I believed what God appeared to be saying through those various prophetic words, but I didn’t want it and I didn’t see how it fit. God would have to sort it out, because I wasn’t going to.

Several decades later and I find myself both beginning to embrace the idea of evangelism and letting go of the illusion that I’m a teacher.

I no longer believe that to be the case. I don’t explain well; people frequently need an explanation after one of my explanations. Not the mark of a gifted teacher, for all my clinging to that in order to fend off those wretched evangelists.

Part of my problem was and is that the way they generally try and train you to do evangelism is so 1950s. Or 1970s at best. Tracts. The Four Spiritual Laws (or Knowing God Personally by its marginally better British title). Street witnessing. Door-to-door like a Jehovah’s Witness or other heretic sectarian.

None of this is remotely natural for me. I was always at a loss as to how you were supposed to get from introducing yourself to a random stranger to opening up a booklet entitled “Knowing God Personally” and going through it as if it’s some kind of all-purpose instruction manual.  How many times does a random stranger come up and naturally get into going through a little pamphlet with you in real life?

All evangelism training I’ve ever had inflicted upon me makes the basic assumption that you already know how to have a basic conversation, usually with a stranger.

To this day I don’t believe that’s personally all that true. I never know what to discuss with people. I’m not a sports fan (any sport), I don’t do the whole Country scene that Texans are so into, my politics are nearly diametrically opposed to the majority surrounding me, I don’t have time to watch much TV. I can barely hold up my end of a conversation with someone I know relatively well, and as for taking charge of a conversation and steering it toward spiritual things, what do you think I am, some sort of loudmouth extrovert? At best I can manage some sort of heavy-handed and contrived segue that feels completely unnatural to me and probably is worse for the designated victim.

The easy bit for me is talking about Jesus. I’m relatively comfortable discussing spiritual things or debating the evidence that the Bible is reliable. It’s actually getting to that point that I find next to impossible. I hate feeling like I’m making some sort of cold-call sales pitch. All of my cultural background screams that I’m committing the cardinal English sin of imposing on someone. Sales is so fake anyway; I don’t trust those slippery buggers in Marketing. I always get the impression they’ll say anything at all to sell their product. Truth is irrelevant; just make the sale and don’t get caught out in a demonstrable lie.

Not interested in becoming a salesman, even for Jesus.

My solution is as simple as it is counterintuitive, if my experience of evangelism training is anything to go by: place yourself in situations in which people are already primed to talk of things spiritual.

My discovery of another way dates to several years ago now, on a Youth With A Mission Discipleship Training School in Montana.

Having taken a week-long mini-outreach to the thriving metropolis of Spokane, Washington (it’s a school in NW Montana. You need a separate scale for what constitutes a thriving metropolis), we were instructed one afternoon to wander around the city looking for opportunities to tell people about what Jesus has done for us.

Ugh. Talking to strangers, with the added burden that I need to find some way to inflict a phony sales pitch on them. Double ugh.

And so I found myself wandering the streets of Spokane with a worry in my mind and a sinking feeling in my heart.

I didn’t feel I could legitimately duck the assignment. Telling lies on a discipleship training school about how hard I had tried to find someone to talk to seemed counterproductive. Besides, God talks to them, and I was sure that He’d rat me out.

I wandered past a Christian Science reading room. I had some experience of debate with Jehovah’s Witnesses and a bit less with Mormons (they aren’t as common in the UK as they are in America) but beyond being told in my growing up that they were an heretical sect (“neither Christian nor science” was the description I remember), I knew nothing about Christian Science.

“I don’t know anything about debating with them,” I thought, and carried on walking. But then I stopped. “But at least anyone in there will presumably be ready to talk about spiritual things,” I thought. “At least I won’t have to do the unnatural and nasty-minded thing of trying to strike up a bait-and-switch conversation with a stranger”. So I turned around and went in.

The great thing about walking into a den of heresy or Scriptural misinterpretation is that they will do all the work of getting the conversation onto spiritual things for you. Who needs to be able to run a conversation in order to do evangelism? Who needs to master the arcane art of Unnatural Segue or Bait-and-Switch Conversational Jiu-Jitsu? Place yourself somewhere where they want to tell you about what they believe and let them do the conversational heavy lifting!

Then ask them questions about what they say.

I can do this easily. Not knowing anything about what they believe in some ways makes it easier, because I honestly really want to understand, so that I can identify where they differ from the consensus of mainstream historic Christian teaching. And they pick up on that genuine want to know and open up. It’s so easy!

It’s nothing like how they train you to do evangelism. It’s the total opposite of any evangelism book I’ve had thrust upon me. To this day I recall the dreadful Out of the Saltshaker with a certain amount of loathing, with its hyped “this will change your life!” Americanism and its phony-sounding “confession” that the author had once found evangelism difficult. I bet you did not have my level of incapacity with basic conversation, Rebecca Manley Pippert.

Knowing God Personally booklets and all the contrived sales talk of the street evangelist or door-to-door worker do not work for me. So-called “friendship evangelism” too often felt dishonest, like I was pretending to be someone’s friend in order to target them. And when those recommending we all do friendship evangelism loudly proclaimed that “we all know how to make friends” I always felt like putting my hand up and saying “I don’t”. Other people made friends with me, but I honestly didn’t feel like I knew how to initiate friendship.

If making friends is easy for you, I can understand the attraction of friendship evangelism. To me it was always being instructed to do something incredibly difficult (making friends) in order to do something equally difficult (talking about Jesus).

If you groove to street ministry, God bless you. For myself, being accosted on the street when I’m trying to do my shopping or find some lunch by someone with an agenda makes me hostile and defensive, and you’re immediately fighting an uphill battle. And the same goes nearly double for door-to-door. I operate under the assumption that any strangers ringing my doorbell are unwanted salespeople or unwanted cultists. On the doorstep after you’ve interrupted what I was doing is not where I want to do my buying and selling or have a conversation about the True Way.

I’d much rather go onto their turf and wait for them to engage me in conversation, where they’re open to talking about spiritual things and I’m not feeling a double dose of guilt – both for inflicting someone else’s brand of in-person telesales on them, and because I ought to find nothing more fulfilling as a believer than telling someone about Jesus but actually this sucks.

I’m not foolish enough to believe that this is the sole way we all ought to do evangelism. It’s a way that maximises my personal strengths and works around my weirdnesses and weaknesses. Likely it wouldn’t work as well for too many other people. Most people don’t have my hangups and feeling of inadequacy to the apparently simple task of befriending people.

But because all of the ways I have been shown feel either unnatural or dishonest or an imposition, I had to find my way on my own. I offer this story as an encouragement to anyone else who loathes and fears the traditional ways of doing evangelism. There are other ways.  This might be one of them.


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