A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Why I don’t Believe in Evangelism

I don’t think I agree with the church’s focus on evangelism anymore.  
When I say I don’t agree with evangelism, I am talking about what evangelism has come to mean.  The root of the word “evangelism” is “good news.”  I am not against good news.  I am not even against speaking the good news that Jesus came to earth as the clearest revelation of God’s love.  What I am against is evangelism as coercion.  Evangelism has come to mean employing any and all tricks up our sleeves to make people believe as we do.  Whether we try to “convince” people to join our church through guilt (you nasty sinner), fear (your going to hell), or by offering tantalizing gifts (come listen to our spiel and we will give you food, have faith like us and you will prosper, be like us and find peace and tranquility), it all amounts to trying to make people do what we want them to do.  And let’s face it, what we want them to do is join our church and make us feel good about how our church is growing, evidence that we are being “evangelical”.  
I can imagine that some of you at this point are saying “What’s wrong with giving folks a little gospel with their meal?” There is not necessarily anything wrong with it.  But, allow me to point out that Jesus told Peter to “feed my sheep. (John 21:17)” Period.  He did not say “feed my sheep because that is a really fantastic way to get them in the door.”  It reminds me of what those selling pyramid schemes do.   The message of Jesus is way better than any pyramid scheme.  If we have to bait people to get them to listen then something is wrong with our message.  
Furthermore, when our motives in feeding people are really about getting them to believe the way we do then sometimes our efforts at “helping” will go way wrong.  If we are focused on doing a good deed for the sake of evangelism than we are not focused on doing a good deed for the sake of the person we are supposedly helping.  If I want to bait you into our church by doing the good deed of giving you food, for example, I might not take the time to find out if food is what you really need.  Then we end up feeding the naked and clothing the hungry.  
What really gets me frustrated about evangelism, though, is that it is upheld as the highest ideal of the majority of Christian churches.  Evangelism is supposed to be our main focus and purpose.  Yet my reading of the Gospels reveals Jesus much more concerned with caring for the poor, fighting for justice and healing people.  
Yes Jesus also talks about sharing the Good News but how do we get from there to “all must believe like you do and it is your main job to make them?”
Yes we should welcome the stranger but not so we can make that person be like us.  Rather we welcome the stranger because it is the loving and compassionate thing to do and because we can learn from the stranger.  
I suppose I am being a stereotypical “bleeding heart liberal” in writing this when just last week I wrote about the value of breaking stereotypes.  But, I guess this time I am more concerned with breaking the stereotype of Christians as people who shove their religion down other people’s throats.  Furthermore, this is a cry out on my own behalf: I am longing to find others who believe similarly and to find ways to genuinely love my neighbors in a real, committed, world-changing, justice making way,
...and not as a way to get them to church.
Is there anybody out there?


Charlene said...

Thank you, Sheri.

When I lost my religion, I had more fear of being no longer "deserving" of aid should something bad happen to me than I had fear for the destination of my "eternal soul". I guess neither one is a good reason for "believing" anything, though, which is probably why I don't anymore.

Sheri Ellwood said...

Thanks, Charlene. Sometimes I feel misunderstood in my beliefs. But then maybe that is because I often look within the church for like minded folks. Maybe many of the folks with whom I could relate have already left.

Anonymous said...

My "saintly foundation" is developing some hairline cracks - and I'm feeling on shaky ground. However, what you're saying resonates with me; Brian McLaren talks about evangelism with an "E" (what you've just written about and don't believe in) or an "e" (actions and life direction shaped by love), which allows him to still claim to be evangelical. He says, "At the end of the day, I hope 'evangelical' can become an inclusive and positive term, rather than a sectarian and restrictive one........" (from the book A Generous Orthodoxy)
Yes, Sheri, some are out there!

Annie Sauter said...

Hi Sheri ( and Lynn)
Funny this should come up on my FB page today, right now, tonight, as my chicken is cooking in the oven and all should be well in the world.

I just saw the most horrible post--I literally had to block someone from my page--and that takes a lot. She was one of the so called evangelical Christians with posts all over her page about being "heaven bound" and "staying in a peaceful mind" , citing scripture , all alternating with pictures of Obama as a "dangerous Mulsim" with things like "Stick to your own kind', and then "I carry a gun because cops are too heavy". Then without a blink or a stammer, on with the evangelizing.

This kind of stuff can make people crazy. I am slow to be evangelized. We went to Bergthal for two years , Sunday school, read, prayed, then back in NY I joined a study group. Slowly slowly I was able to reintegrate some of what Jesus taught us back into my life. Just by watching the lives of people it started to creep in. Not the big things so much , the little acts of resolve and kindness.

The trust you can feel in people who follow the teachings. That part to me is the best form of evangelizing.

Annie Sauter, Oneonta, NY

Laurie said...

Wow! Sounds like you have had some bad experiences with evangelism. I think you can both serve the needs of people and tell them about God. In some cases, God is what they need the most. Think of people who are prostitutes, addicted to drugs/alcohol, have committed crimes... Some of these people may feel there is no hope, that they are bad people and that's the way it is. I consider telling such people about God's grace as giving them a tool, not asking them to be like me. I've met many people who are so gratefull that they were made aware of the grace of God. If you provide a meal for the homeless and provide testimony while they eat, they will still get the meal they need even if they don't become a believer.

Those that stand on Bourbon Street raining down guilt on everyone enjoying a holiday... yes that is counter productive. But I don't think most people spread the Word in that way.

Sheri Ellwood said...

Annie, thanks for your comments. I am glad you have had some good experience to balance the yucky. Laurie, I concede that it is possible to have a positive experience of evangelism but I wish I could agree that "most people" spread the message in a more positive way. Unfortunately I think the reputation of Christianity speaks for itself.

Travels with Grandma said...

Thanks to Laurie I just found this blog. I plan to take time to read the past ones. Having just moved to a new home, I am finding it hard to adjust to a church which is my denomination, but which, I was told just yesterday( is evangelical and that is the way "we" like it). Being a bleeding heart liberal, I guess, it bothers me that evangelical is related to Right wing and not to actions andl life direction shaped by love (thanks Sherri) I look forward to reading more of your posts. I know they will confirm my knowledge that Kansas is not made up of entirely Republican Evangelicals.

Sheri Ellwood said...

Travels with Grandma, welcome to our blog! So glad you found us! Indeed Kansas is not entirely made up of right wing evangelicals, though it often feels that way. Thank you for reading and commenting!

Dan Bryan said...

It's interesting that the "Good News" of which Jesus spoke and preached was actually "good news". At least people appeared to gather en masse to hear it.
When I was taught to evangelize, I was taught things like, "Don't leave until you get at least three 'No's" and How to Develop Interest ( or D.I. for short - I kid you not these 'methods' were given acronyms) and Create Doubt (C.D.). That I felt like a door to door salesman when I stood at a door was only confirmed by the expressions on the faces of those against which we employed our techniques. As it turned out, the best "evangelist" among us during our week-long campaigns just happened to be a retired salesman! Oh how evangelism has changed!

Sheri Ellwood said...

I was not familiar with those acronyms. All I have to say to that is "oooh ick!" Evangelism is the topic which makes me feel most like an outsider with church. I can find progressive Christians, people who look at the bible in a similar way, and such. But it seems like evangelism is always seen as the ultimate goal. I so strongly disagree. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences. Sorry the experiences were so awful.