How Evangelism Became A Dirty Word

Christians mess up evangelism.  There’s your short answer.  People, with less the honorable motives and dumb ideas became involved in evangelism.  That’s a slightly longer short answer.  The debate about evangelism is all over the map.  How do we “reclaim” the word?  What does it mean to be an evangelical or practice evangelism?  What is the role of evangelism in the contemporary church?  When the evangelical movement is seen to be so closely linked with one political agenda; how do we separate growing a church from spreading a controversial political ideology?

Evangelism is a schizophrenic issue for mainline Christians and the denominations they call home.  Bombarded by new initiatives, multi-part programs, and get-full quick promises; everyone seems to have an answer for how to save the world.  Most of the junk mail I receive is evangelism related.  As a pastor, I can word study the term to death.  In sermon after sermon, I can explain how the early church and the patristic writers viewed evangelism as a series of actions, sharing, establishing, preaching, teaching, building, community, and the like.  Yet, it’s not registering.  It’s awkward, clunky, and a little off putting.  My church would love to grow.  No one wants to evangelize.  Evangelism is an inside baseball word that we don’t use inside our baseball dugouts any longer.  Growth is code for evangelism.  Unfolding and extension are also words the church planters like to use.  I’m not saying Evangelism is passé but people of good will who love Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior go out of their way to avoid using the word.

It doesn’t help when United Methodist Bishops make stupid statements like this, “When it comes to evangelism, many Christians act like they’re taking contraceptives, rather than fertility pills.” The quote is attributed to Rev. Dr. Paulo de Tarso Oliveira Lockmann, Bishop of The Methodist Church of Brazil.*  Ancient pagan deities fertilized the world with demigod children.  Zeus may have gained followers this way, not United Methodists.  In a country (Brazil) where family planning and sexually transmitted diseases are serious public health issue, comparing evangelism to sexual intercourse is both offensive and stupid.  In a world that mistrusts Christianity because of clergy sex abuse scandals, is there any wonder people are suspicious of our evangelical message.  Evangelism becomes a dirty word when we reduce it to an implied sex act; consensual or otherwise.

For us to be right, someone else has to be wrong.  That’s the implied message of Christian evangelism (especially if John 14 is used as a guide).  No one, in the day and age, is starting tabula rasa.  Even atheism is a belief system.  Christian evangelism (i.e. growing our churches) means convincing, cajoling, and even coercing others out of their deeply held beliefs into accepting our ideas.  In traditional evangelical models, there is only one message, road, and path.  Although, we also know it’s possible for the human brain to hold two competing ideas (both of which may be equally valid) at the same time.  Here’s where the trouble begins; it doesn’t matter what we’ve evolved to do or how wonderfully complex our brains might be.  Though we might be able to listen, prioritize, believe, and reason with great verity to the claims of the Church and other world religions.  Those assertions, no matter how historic or valid, are wrong.  They are not Jesus.

There are about 10,000 distinct religions on planet Earth.  150 or so of them have more than a million followers.** Currently, United Methodism has around 8 million members.  So the right thing for me to do when preaching evangelism is to frame the debate in cutesy metaphors about sex and say, “Attention good people of Ocracoke; 9,999 religions are wrong. We, an 8 million member of the subset called Christianity, are the only people on this planet who are right.”***

I’m not willing to tell someone who cuts in front of me in line at Wal-Mart when the sign clearly reads, “THE LINE STARTS HERE” that they both rude and wrong.  After being a pastor for nearly 20 years, it’s hard to think about beginning a conversation with someone about the love Jesus while holding the underlying assumption (even if I never say it) that their faith is wrong and not worth the ancient paper their scriptures were printed on.  I think evangelism is a dirty word because it inherently carries such assumptions.  At some point, evangelism discredits world religious traditions older than and as ethical as our own.

We can be Christian, share the love of Jesus with our neighbors, and not tell everyone around us they’re wrong.  This doesn’t mean the destruction of objective truth.  Right and wrong still exist.   I think it means we realize Christians don’t have a monopoly on truth.  United Methodists certainly don’t.  Must we destroy the faiths of others to create the ideal kingdom Jesus envisioned?  I hope not.

*Reported said at the 2010 World Methodist Evangelism Conference in Brazil

** World Christian Encyclopedia by David Barrett

***Many Christians would argue that United Methodists are wrong and bound for Hell (notably the author).  This is a subject for another day.