Evangelism: Loving Motivation, Loving Methods
Yesterday on the way home from some errands I encountered a pair of street-corner evangelists in downtown Toronto. It isn’t too rare to see such evangelists, although this was a slightly different location than where I’m used to seeing them. It got me thinking a lot about evangelism, as I am prone to do every so often. As I thought about it, I found two related points about what, to me, makes for good evangelism. Maybe it should be obvious but it is all about love, underlying both the motivation and the method.
Of course I can’t fully know the motivations of these two men or any other evangelists. However, at a couple of points I looked at the face of the guy closest to me. What I did find interesting yesterday compared to many others I’ve encountered is that he seemed to be really genuine, looking heartbroken that nobody was listening to his rehearsed spiel. He seemed so desperate to reach people with the Gospel. This made me feel really sorry for him, too.
I contrast this who many who I have seen who seem to be just carrying out what they perceive to be an obligation, repeating an angry message and looking as if they hate everybody who is ignoring them. I’ve even heard people justify that since the Gospel itself is offensive (and in a way, it definitely is), that’s what is scaring people off. But I really think it goes back a step further than that and becomes a case where many evangelists are actually trying to offend people because they think that is what real Christians are supposed to do. At the core of their motivations is something contrary to love.
In the Great Commission, Jesus tells the disciples why we should evangelize: because all authority on Heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus. This is fascinating since it is not what people usually talk about as motivation for evangelization.
The number one motivation given seems to be that they’ll go to Hell if we don’t. We are told to be afraid in order to make other people afraid in order to get them to become Christians. There’s no biblical evidence for this tactic, and to the contrary I would argue that if we are using fear than we cannot, by definition, also be using love since perfect love casts out fear. Even though it may seem to work short-term, I do think it results in the church becoming very shallow.
The number two motivation I’d say tends to be simply that we are supposed to. Jesus says to, therefore go do it. On one level, I really appreciate this: if we call Jesus Lord, we should be doing what he says even when it doesn’t make sense and even when it hurts us as is often the case with the call to non-violent resistance. You could even argue that this is what Jesus meant by claiming that all authority was given to him – since he has all authority, we don’t need a reason other than because he told us to.
I really think that the motivation that Jesus tells us to live by is bigger than “because I said so,” though. The Gospel according to the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) is consistently that the Kingdom of God is near. I think, therefore, that the motivation for evangelism is supposed to be the drive to invite others into this Kingdom. It is a Kingdom which cares for the poor, forgives sins, loves enemies and neighbours alike, banishes all forms of inequality, and much much more in line with the love of God. It is not about keeping people from going to Hell; it is about giving everyone a rich and fulfilling life radically different to the ways of the world starting right now. Jesus invited everyone to join in this Kingdom and then he tells us to continue inviting more. That is a beautiful thing.
Our motivations will inevitably carry forward into our methods. If we are motivated purely to save as many people from Hell as possible by getting them to say a prayer, we will use whatever means necessary to get as many as possible to say that prayer. Nothing else matters, not even further discipleship. You may notice again in the Great Commission that we are commanded to make disciples, not converts. That’s a far bigger challenge.
This means that our evangelism cannot be distinct from everything else in our lives. To be clear, I am not advocating what many mainline churches say: “I’ll just live a good life and people will eventually ask me about Jesus.” I do think that we need to speak up even when somebody hasn’t initiated the conversation, especially here in Canada and other countries where talking about religion is generally taboo. What I am saying is that evangelism cannot just be another thing on the to-do list, spouting off however it is that you define the Gospel to anyone within earshot. We must take it seriously as a true act of discipleship in which we aim to build more disciples.
It is very hard to be building disciples when we are simply spouting out information at strangers. To me, the first job of any evangelist is to listen. When we don’t even stop to talk to those who are our “evangelism targets,” how can we possibly claim to be loving them? Here’s a simple rule: treat the person that you’re evangelizing to as a person made in the image of god first and as an evangelism target second… or maybe more like 50th, although I’m not going to fill in everything else in between. A few years ago John Stackhouse of Regent College came to Queen’s University and gave a talk to campus leaders. In it, he delivered this brilliant line that has stuck with me ever since (paraphrased since I didn’t write down the exact words):
Don’t even talk about relationship evangelism. It prostitutes relationship for the purpose of evangelism.
I had never thought of it that way but whenever it pops back into my head since, I can’t help but agree. If you are just standing on a corner not even bothering to learn anything about your targets, you are simply not treating them with love. Even if you go out of your way to make non-Christian friends in order to evangelize to them, that is not treating them with love. Both are simply making them means to the end of you hitting your evangelism quota. Evangelism should flow out of relationship, not the other way around.
In a lot of ways, that’s really still about motivation. You may feel like you are acting out of genuine care but it often is not coming across that way. That’s why you need to listen. You need to understand that person and you need to understand the culture. For example, standing on a street corner in Canada immediately gets you dismissed as a nutcase. Nobody was even making eye contact with these guys as they walked by and that is the normal response. That should be a hint to try something else. Maybe people could have been more receptive to this method in other times or places but it just doesn’t come across as loving here. Use your own judgement – maybe where you are it works better, in which case, keep up the good work!
Just be sensitive to how people are perceiving your efforts because often you are probably doing more harm than good. That’s what made me so sad looking at these two evangelists yesterday: they seemed to have a genuine care for the people they were trying to reach, but they were really using their energy very poorly. I really think that their lack of relationship in their methods hurt their cause and the cause of all Christians and not just because it got less people into the Christian club or even because it saved more souls from Hell. It hurts our cause because those evangelists themselves were not living out a Kingdom mentality which is first and foremost one of loving relationship. Those walking by saw something that’s actually very contrary to the Kingdom mentality, first and foremost a list of propositions that those hearing were being told to agree to, whether that’s what the evangelists meant to convey or not.
As we all embark on the evangelism that we are called, be sure to embark with love in our motivations and in our methods.