The words evangelism and the gospel and where and how they are used frustrate me. They are frustrating not because what they mean in-and-of-themselves but rather the fact that they are associated –at least in my mind—with shallow, inauthentic recruiting.
The first word has come to mean ‘recruiting’ whilst the second has become a reduction of its full meaning, denoting far too little in the way of good news. By this I mean the words are usually used to convey an abstraction. They are intangible and lack descriptive value, conveying a minimalist sense of relationship or God’s creativity and don’t communicate what we mean when we say them, unless we are talking to each other, and even then they lack gravity. The words have come to mean something only in the context of salvation-from death, rather than salvation-for life (I mean real life now, cream cheese-salmon bagels and a glass of white wine type of life).
Telling people about the good news is more than the reselling fire insurance of the get-out-of-hell-free verity. It includes the fact that creation is good and the noahic covenant for all humankind bestows a God given dignity even to the most perverted. Yes of course the gospel includes the message that Jesus, the son of God, washed away your personal sinfulness, but it’s about so much more than that. The sooner we allow this to be a part of our message, the less introspective and narcissistic we ourselves will be. That might mean we can talk more honestly to people about our faith.
These words are also overused, especially among the faithful living tradition our family is a part of. This overuse causes the words to take on the form of cliché, which by definition denotes laziness and a lack of verbal creativity. In the Old Testament we are commanded (one of the first commandments found in Genesis) to be creative. So followers of the Lamb of God, lets be creative and use words that have more power to describe and convey the relationship we are talking about than when we use the words evangelism and the gospel. Alternatively let us imbue these words that have become lame with meaning and energy by couching them in relationship to a magnificent and holistic understanding of what the good news actually is (it’s not just about your hide, baby).
This challenge leads me to another problem, a frustration I have about the context in which the words are used and what we are inviting people to participate in when we use these words.
Invite people into a real relationship not just to an event
It is good that we are a church that takes its call to reach out and touch people who desperately need to come into a relationship with Jesus. This is why our family is still a part of the church we go to, but I want people to meet Jesus not be sold a product.
I think it was no coincidence that the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams condemned evangelistic bullying the same week that ‘a passion for life’ got under way in earnest. While I am not exactly sure what he said, I am certain that what our church was doing had nothing to do with ‘bullying.’ Nevertheless, I feel that what we did during our mission, could have been unhelpful and was not the right thing for some.
For those of you outside this peculiar concoction of group-think, mission is a time when we go all out, put on events every night and –to borrow a term used by a good friend of mine who isn’t a Christian—recruit for Jesus. A passion for life, rather nastily abbreviated to ‘ap4l’, was about inviting all our friends to events that might be suitable for them to come to and at which they would hear the gospel message, and hopefully be challenged, ‘turned around’ and become Christians.
Lots of people put in lots of work for these events. Some of the speakers travelled a long way to come, whilst still others felt a sense of guilt for not really wanting to invite any of their friends, I think partly because of their own fear, but perhaps also because they had a sense that ‘events’ might not be the right setting for their friends.
You see our generation craves authenticity. We are cynical and view much of what goes on in life, including our relationships, as a place where we are being sold something. We expect there to be a catch. We are perfectionists and so if you can’t present it well enough, why would I want to even consider your product? Hence I have a problem with such evangelistic events. Having alienated my friend, who rightly calls this sort of thing ‘recruiting,’ from church once, my scepticism is rooted not only in hearsay from trendy Christian trend-spotters, but also from painful personal experience. ‘Events’ tend to lack authenticity and with all the will in the world we will never be able to compete with the big, styled to perfection ad agency messages.
It’s a sales pitch right? Its two ways to live and the formula fits. You present somebody with a great new opportunity to take on “fire insurance” for free, or next to nothing, except sort of having to leave behind some things, passing the maelstrom of hell (fire insurance covered) and worshiping God for the rest of eternity. Spank me that sound’s like an amazing deal! Only it misses two key points. The first is that ultimately reality isn’t about you, and the pitch doesn’t necessarily tell you what you are saved for, but rather it focuses on what you are saved from, namely sin and eternal damnation. However, many of our generation don’t even have the category ‘sin’ any more, so not only does the pitch not sell the ‘what for’, it doesn’t even address a felt need that previous generations may have felt.
Well, let’s give a bit of context to the last paragraphal diatribe. Recently I had a conversation with a friend of mine, who has a chunk of responsibility at our church. His background is in sales, but he has since then moved on to a different sort of job working for the church. I like the guy a lot. He has a great sense of humour, he loves the people that he works with and cares a lot about Jesus. He is also authentic, which is existentially commendable.
He mentioned to me the other day that he had invited one of his friends to come to an event. The friend came and afterwards said that the event was basically a ‘sales pitch.’ Why would we want to continue in a manner that would in any way equate our faith with sales? [edit: please see Pete’s post at the end of this article, he clarifies that his friend was using language which related to his job (as a salesman) because it was terminology he was comfortable with. However, I think my point on this issue still stands.] As Skunk Anansie said: “Their selling Jesus again,” and she is quite right, at least in that part of the song.
Pragmatically speaking we cannot compete with the world of sales. People don’t like in-authenticity and if the feedback we are getting is that we ‘recruit’ and if we are in any way in-authentic because our event was seens as a “sales pitch” then what ever we are doing isn’t appealing to the demographic I am a part of. The biggest danger is that our message is perceived as a falsehood because of style.
We don’t have a product to flog. Jesus is not a product.
I doubt our church will stop having events because we are used to them, and they work for some people. Curry nights and talks by eminent thinkers are not bad in and of themselves; I just hope that the right people are invited to these things, just so the reek of in-authenticity (for those who care about that sort of thing) does not make anybody retch.
Also, not to be only critical, I will blog a review of some talks we where at recently, where Jerram Barrs spoke on evangelism (he also wrote a book on the subject). He looked at how Jesus went about ‘recruiting,’ with particular emphasis on John’s account of Jesus’ meeting the Samaritan woman a the well. There is an audio and slides to go with the sessions, and I will link to those also.