Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The things I've never let myself say about evangelism

Image source.

Both Fred Clark (the slactivist) and Dianna Anderson posted about fear and evangelism last week. Both of them are worth reading; Clark gives an overview of the role fear plays in evangelism in the culture of white American evangelical Christianity, and Anderson writes about her own personal experience with that very fear. I'd like to add some of my own thoughts and experiences.

First of all, there's this fantastic bit at the end of Clark's post, about how it's illogical to motivate evangelism based on the idea of being partly guilty for one's friends going to hell:
* The logic here is that I can incur guilt by failing to tell others how to be saved. Specifically, I incur the guilt of their suffering in Hell. I become complicit in the suffering of the damned.

That only makes sense if the eternal suffering of the damned is evil and unjust. One cannot incur guilt by being complicit in something that is good and just and desirable. The argument here, in other words, is that “Zack” and I, as Christians, have a duty to prevent God from doing evil to people like “Josh.”

Again, the emotional weight of this dramatic appeal tends to overshadow that logic, but the seed of that idea remains tucked away inside all such guilt-based appeals for evangelism. They all depend on — and thus, at some level, teach — the idea that any God who sentenced “Josh” et. al. to eternal, conscious torture would be an unjust, evil God. This is why many of the Christians who are saturated in these guilt-based appeals for evangelism eventually come to reject this idea of a cruelly unjust God — either by rejecting belief in God entirely or by learning to separate their idea of God from this sadistic folklore of Hell.

This is also why many of the Christians who are saturated in these guilt-based appeals for evangelism eventually come to embrace this idea of a cruelly unjust God. Thus, Calvinism.

Yes, exactly. This is perhaps the biggest problem with the belief in hell. (Actually, every time I write about hell, I feel like "this is the biggest problem with the belief in hell." There are so many problems and it's impossible to pick the biggest. All of them are awful.) Christians who hold to the traditional "all non-Christians automatically go to hell" view argue that yes, it is good and right and just for a loving god to send people to hell. However, they also desperately want to get people "saved" so people won't go to hell. So I ask: if it's totally fine and good for God to send people to hell, then what's the problem? Why do evangelism?

They argue that you should go to hell, but also want you to become a Christian so you won't go to hell. So... which is it?

I suppose that they would answer by saying this is an example of the conflict between "justice" and "mercy" (or even "justice" and "love"). Justice says we all deserve hell. Mercy says that's horrible. Evangelicals believe there must be a balance.

Which is just ridiculous. It means they're working from completely different definitions of "justice", "mercy", and "love" than those used in the real world.

I... what? Image source.

Another point Clark mentions is the idea of leaving someone "in God's hands" after you've said your evangelistic piece. This is huge. Christians always say "It's not our job to change people, that's the Holy Spirit's job. It's our job to love people and share the gospel." Let's take a look at what this ambivalence toward the results of our actions means in a practical sense.

I think Clark's post is a bit too cynical; while he's certainly correct about evangelism being motivated by getting ourselves off the hook for our friends going to hell, that doesn't mean we don't love those friends. Back when I was in college, I "shared the gospel" all the time. I was being "bold" and "stepping out in faith", starting bible studies, inviting people to church, asking friends, acquaintances, and strangers about their views on religion. I broke the rules of polite social interaction, I "steered the conversation", I brought Jesus up even when the other person was uncomfortable talking about it. (I can relate to a lot of the experiences Anderson talks about in her post.) And it was, more than anything else, motivated by love for God and a desire to see God do a miracle. (Maybe instead of being afraid I would go to hell, as Anderson says, I was afraid that I would miss an opportunity to experience God's power working in the real world. Maybe I was always looking for evidence and proof and I thought evangelism would bring me closer to those things. And I certainly interpreted a lot of evangelism-related happenings as directly caused by God.) But love for my friends definitely was also a huge factor.

The line "it's not our job to change people, it's the Holy Spirit's job" wasn't a way for me to get out of caring about other people. No, I cared so much, and I worked so hard for God... why weren't my friends becoming Christians? "It's not our job, it's the Holy Spirit's job" was comforting to me because I had prayed and done and said everything I possibly could, and it allowed me to stop and relax and believe that it wasn't my fault. It was God's plan. Apparently. (Interestingly, the idea that my friends are humans capable of independent thought, who have come to hold their own personal beliefs based on their experiences and choices, was never considered. Nope. It had to be my fault or God's fault.)

I remember sometimes we would encourage each other by saying God loves our friends even more than we do; God wants our friends to become Christians even more than we do. At the time, this was comforting to me. But now, well it goes back to the illogic of "it's right for God to send people to hell, but we must do everything we can to stop it!" So, umm, God feels that way too? Then, umm, what the hell?

Apparently this idea is based on a quote from Billy Graham? Image source.

The logical conclusion of "it's not our job to change people, it's the Holy Spirit's job" is that the results of our evangelistic efforts don't matter; all that matters is that we said and did what we were supposed to (which is pretty much what Clark said in his post). I assumed that this is what "faith" meant: I did what God said to, even though it didn't really ever seem to work. (By "work" I mean someone decides to become a Christian. A few people did, during my time on leadership with InterVarsity, when I was a college student, but they were so few, and none of my really close friends decided to become Christians. Certainly I celebrated "small victories", like when someone agreed to read the bible with me, or I had a conversation about religious topics with someone... planting seeds, we called it.)

But it was so hard. I was always taking risks for God, always putting myself so far out there, and not allowing myself to care about any embarrassment or awkwardness that may result. Living in denial of the fact that really, I felt like my evangelism wasn't successful at all.

I remember how, after having a "spiritual discussion" with a friend, I kept going over it in my head for days afterward. Oh, I should have said this, I should have said that... I obsessed over every mistake I may have made. I alternated between feeling horrible and feeling excited about being part of God's work. I decided that it was the devil that was trying to make me feel horrible, because I was doing a good thing.

I know how it feels to plan for a bible study and then nobody shows up. I didn't know how to understand it... I had prayed... had I been wrong when I felt like God was telling me to start this bible study? Being too afraid, or maybe not allowed, to use the word "failure." I had taken such a huge risk, put myself so far out there, that my whole identity was tied up in this. I couldn't let myself consider the idea that it was a failure.

I remember when a Christian friend prayed with me that 5 people would show up to the bible study I was leading that night. I was terrified when he prayed that. I wished he hadn't. Because then I felt like it was on me to try to find more people, invite more people, so God wouldn't look like a failure for not answering that prayer. In the end, 2 or 3 people came, and I hated how I felt like I couldn't celebrate those 2 or 3 and call it a success... I had to feel like it wasn't good enough, because he had prayed for 5.

I remember getting angry at my friends and acquaintances for not coming to my bible study, and thus causing me to be a failure, because I had invested so much of my identity in my evangelism. That's when a red flag went up- how can I be angry with them? The reason I'm doing this bible study is to provide a service to them, if they want it. Because I love them. That's all I can do; I can't force people to attend.

I remember how we used to pray so hard, before our big outreach events. One prayer meeting after another after another. And inevitably, someone would pray "if only one person gets saved, it will all be worth it." Which always seemed to me to be a way of saying no matter what happens, we won't let ourselves believe that this event didn't go well.

One night, I got this strange feeling, and I asked my Christian friends to pray for Will, a close non-Christian friend whom I'd been meeting with every week to read the bible. I asked them to pray that perhaps tonight would be the night he would become a Christian. (This wasn't even on a day I was meeting with him- I had this feeling that he might just decide it on his own.) It was a wild prayer request, a huge risk. I knew it sounded ridiculous, but I had this feeling, and in faith I took hold of it and said it out loud. I prayed that he would maybe become a Christian that night, and one of my friends prayed that I would trust in God's timing, which is TOTALLY a prayer shot-block. And no, he did not decide to become a Christian that night.

Another time, I sent out an email to one of the email lists I was on, with information about a bible study group I was starting. A random person called my cell phone and said she was interested in coming. I was so happy- clearly this is God working! I told my Christian friends about this amazing thing, how God was moving in my life and random-person's life. Celebrate! Then she never actually came to the bible study, and I had no idea how to feel about that.

Every small sign of something going well was an act of Almighty God. The bits that didn't go so well... maybe they were my mistakes, and I could learn from them and do better next time. Maybe it was the devil, trying to sabotage God's work. Everything had to be such a massive big deal. I was part of a battle. I was fighting every day, devoting myself to God, reading the bible every morning, forcing myself to have awkward conversations with my "unsaved" friends and acquaintances.

I did everything I possibly could for Jesus, and, since the results were a mixed bag, all I had was the faith that this is what God wants me to do. I so desperately wanted to know if God could see how hard I was working, if God cared about it.

And there were feelings I've never been able to put words to, questions I've never been able to ask. There are things I did, risks I took, that I knew were completely absurd, so far out of my comfort zone... On the one hand, evangelical Christianity praises that kind of behavior. Yes, do wild stuff that makes no sense for God! That's what faith is! But on the other hand, who could I possibly talk to, when I did something ridiculous for God and it pretty much failed in exactly the obvious way that the laws of physics and social interaction would predict? They'll preach it from the front of the auditorium, when someone has a feeling and their friend becomes a Christian that day, and everyone oohs and aahs and believes that story. So what happens to me, when I have that same faith but my friend didn't become a Christian that day? Was I wrong to pray for it? What is faith anyway? And who can I possibly talk to about this?

Image source.

I was all about evangelism, and it meant I had to live in denial, I wouldn't allow myself to believe that any of this stuff I did was a mistake, because I had prayed about it and done it for God. And you guys... I wish I could say something like "I'm so glad I'm not living that way anymore" but, honestly, that was the closest I've ever felt to god in my entire life. Every single day was so intense, so full of spiritual warfare, battle lines being drawn, tests of whether or not I was truly loyal to Christ.

god was here, god was with me. I saw god's work everywhere, and I prayed on my knees because I thought it mattered.

I wasn't supposed to draw conclusions based on the results of my evangelism. All I had was the faith that this was what God commanded me to do. But that's a god I don't even believe in anymore.


  1. Ahhh, I totally relate to this! I went to a way more evangelical church than I was used to when I was in grad school and basically got convinced into being "closer to God" and doing things that I totally would not do normally. But yeah... it's a weird thing because I really DID feel closer to God at that time. It's just that looking back now I can see that it wasn't really ok for me. I never felt "Christian enough" so I'd keep trying to have the sort of faith that the other students had, and just ended up feeling really bummed out most of the time. I actually wrote a blog post about it a few days ago: http://thefireflygarden.tumblr.com/post/113023828865/dear-place-i-went-to-grad-school-christian

  2. Oooh... wow, sounds like your Christian fellowship did a lot of stuff similar to mine. It's really interesting to me to read your blog post and see how you viewed and reacted to that stuff totally different from me. At the time, I bought into all of it. Now I wonder if I looked back at the stuff that happened, would I consider it to be emotionally manipulative and dishonest?

  3. I had a sort of distance from the community in the first place because I was in graduate school and most of the people in the Christian fellowship were undergrad, and thus hung out together all the time, lived in the dorms together, had classes together, etc. So I might have felt more "insider" if I'd been there as an undergrad. But yeah, afterwards I was like "wow, that was weird."