Monday, 20 January 2014

The "E" word- Evangelism




Margret Atwood in her book of short stories, Bluebeard’sEgg, tells a story where a woman named Christine is out on a date with a man she has just met and everything seems to go fine until her date asks her a question “Do you know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?” Then she writes this:
“Religious people of any serious kind made her nervous: they were like men in raincoats who might or might not be flashers. You would be going along with them in the normal way, and then there could be a swift movement and you would look down to find the coat wide open and nothing under it but some pant legs held up by rubber bands. This had happened to Christine in a train station once”[1]
Margret Atwood is describing the discomfort that often goes along with evangelism. She, or at least the character in her story, feels like the action is not appropriate to the relationship. It is a private thing that is suddenly made very public.  What should be an intimate moment is instead a form of violence. And, the person on the receiving end of the action, evangelism or flashing, feels violated and dehumanized.   


            This is the kind of evangelism that makes us uncomfortable. We think of someone with a bullhorn and a sandwich board handing out tracts. Or, someone knocking on the door and handing you material to read while repeating a memorized sales pitch as if they are trying to sell a vacuum. We think of Televangelists and their tearful or angry overly-dramatic pleas for converts and money. There is no real relationship, and in some ways we are left feeling used. It feels manipulative. My evangelism professor, John Bowen, calls this kind of evangelism “Flasher Evangelism”. Evangelism has become a dirty word. So no wonder it isn’t an activity we want to engage in. There is no way we want to be associated with that word. The major reason we don’t want to engage in evangelism is that we associate it with the examples I just mentioned.
But there are other reasons we don’t want to do it.  Maybe we have never seen a good example of how to do it well, so we just don’t feel like we know how. We might worry that someone might ask us questions we don’t know the answers to. We feel like we don’t know the Bible well enough and don’t know enough theology to respond with good answers. We might worry that we aren’t faithful enough and so would look like hypocrites talking to someone about Christianity when we feel like we don’t follow its teachings very well. Maybe we aren’t really sure what we believe. Plenty of us hang onto our faith by our fingernails. Our worries and doubts can leave us wondering if we really are Christians. With those kinds of doubts we feel like we are in no condition to share our belief with anyone else.
Another reason might be that because of the postmodern culture we live in evangelism can seem like we are saying that the Christian way of looking at the world is better that other ways of looking at the world. The postmodern culture says that that is arrogant and that all ways of looking at the world are equally valid. It has become unpopular or even offensive to imply that someone should become a Christian. This can lead to us feeling pretty socially awkward or embarrassed about talking to someone else about what we believe.
There is a YouTube video by Penn Jilette, who is one half of the illusionist duo “Penn and Teller”. Penn is a strong atheist and in this video he tells the story about how a man approached him after one of his shows and had a conversation with him that led to the man giving him a Bible. What would you think an atheist would have to say about that kind of a conversation?

 …. Penn says this, “he was really kind, and nice, and sane, and looked me in the eyes, and talked to me, and then gave me this Bible. And I’ve always said that I don’t respect people that don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there is a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell, or not getting eternal life, or whatever. And you think that, well, it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward. … How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that a truck was coming to hit you and you didn’t believe it and that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that. … This guy was a really good guy. He was polite and kind and honest and sane and he cared enough about me to proselytize and give me a Bible, which had a little personal note in it… and like five phone numbers for him and an email address if I wanted to get in touch. Now, I know there’s no God and one polite person living his life right doesn’t change that. But I tell ya, he was a very, very, very good man.  And that’s real important. … I still think religion does a lot of bad stuff, but man, that was a good man who gave me that book.”
That video made me think differently about Evangelism. I think Penn is maybe oversimplifying the situation a bit, but I think he also makes a strong point. In spite of the various issues that scare us off of evangelism, Penn has a point. If we really do believe in God, and that He has something to offer us in this life and in the next, then we need to think seriously about sharing that news, and that is evangelism.
If the word “evangelism” still leaves a bad taste in your mouth try thinking about it as “Spiritual Direction” instead. Spiritual Direction is about standing with someone and helping them take their next step in following God. It’s something we are called to do for each other. “Evangelism” is just what we call spiritual direction for those who haven’t taken made the decision to follow Jesus.       
There is a lot of Evangelism in our Gospel reading today. It’s not going to answer every “how to” question about evangelism, but it will give us some helpful hints. First, John the Baptist has an epiphany. He sees Jesus, in a new way at his baptism. John points to Jesus as the “Lamb of God”, the Son of God, and as the one who will baptize others in the Holy Spirit. John has an epiphany about who Jesus truly is and he doesn’t keep the news to himself. Like John, we will not be able to share what we believe about Jesus if we haven’t encountered him in some profound way. That doesn’t mean we have to know everything about him, but it is important that we have had some kind of encounter with him for us to be able to point others to him. If you don’t believe you’ve had an encounter with God that is worth praying about and seeking guidance about. This kind of an experience can also be subtle.

 John points two of his disciples to Jesus and they then leave him and follow Jesus.  John was preparing people for when the messiah would come. He was a voice in the dessert preparing the way for the Lord. John said that his whole mission of baptism was to lead to the day that Jesus would be revealed to Israel. His disciples trusted him and they knew he cared about them. So when he pointed to Jesus they trusted that relationship. They believed they could trust John. John spoke about Jesus to people who he was in a relationship with. For most of us, evangelism, or Spiritual Direction, will take place with those who we are already in relationship with. They are family members, friends, or people we work with. They are people we care about. People might not always be ready for a discussion about Jesus. Sometimes we also need to help people deal with road blocks that might get in the way of them being able to hear us properly. John baptized people repenting of sin which was their road block. Sometimes our job is to help someone understand what they believe about the spiritual life. So preparing might just be asking questions about what people believe about spirituality and just listening.
Questions like: Did you grow up with a church back ground? Most people these days don't go to church, why do you think that is?Can you imagine a church you would like to attend? What would it be like?What helps you grow spiritually?
What would a church that would help you grow more look like?What do you know about Jesus Christ?
What do you understand the heart of Christianity to be?
If you could ask God one question what would it be?
 When the two disciples left John and starting following Jesus, he asked them what they were looking for and they asked, “Teacher … where are you staying?” and Jesus responded “Come and see”. They spent a day with him getting to know him. When John pointed his disciples to Jesus, Jesus invited them to come and get to know him and see where he lived. They spent time with Jesus and were then able to make their own judgment about him. When we point people to Jesus we are inviting them to investigate.  Jesus was more than just a statement about a truth. He was, and is, a person. When we follow him it isn’t just about holding ideas in our head, it is about living a particular way of life, in relationship with a particular person. Becoming a Christian is about entry into the way of Jesus and deciding that he knows the best way for me to live. When we are baptized we are not just baptized into a set of truths like the Apostles’ Creed. We are also baptized into a way of life. Spiritual truth is lived truth. It is a particular way of life as well as a particular belief.

One of the two disciples that left John to follow Jesus was named Andrew. Once he had his own epiphany in encountering Jesus, he went to tell his brother Simon that they found the messiah.  Simon, would be renamed by Jesus “Cephas” or “Peter” which means “Rock”. … What if Andrew didn’t tell his brother? Can you imagine the early church without Peter? Peter, who led the early church after Jesus ascended into heaven. It would have been a tremendous loss to the church, but it would have been a tremendous loss to Simon. In following Jesus, Simon finds out who he truly is- Peter. When we think about evangelism we often worry that we will be annoying people, but what if pointing someone to Jesus means that they find out who they truly are? What if Andrew didn’t tell Simon? Simon would have not found his true self as Peter.   
  
Evangelism, for most of us, will primarily happen in the context of a relationship. It is about pointing to Jesus, not about having all the answers. And it is about the person of Jesus and the way of life and the story he invites us into. Evangelism has become an offensive word in our culture. But, without it there would be no St. Peter and we would not be here together now. All of us had someone point us to Jesus. It might have been a grandparent, or parent, or spouse, or a friend. I, like Peter, and like you hopefully, have a greater understanding of who I am and why I am here on this planet because I have been pointed to Jesus and Jesus has invited me to “come and see” and know him better. 




[1] John Bowen explores this story in his book, Evangelism for Normal People
[2] http://youtu.be/ZhG-tkQ_Q2w

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