I Love To Tell The Story
When I was a senior in high school I went on a mission trip. The organization was called Operation Barnabas, named after Barnabas in Acts whoâ€™s name meant â€œson of encouragementâ€. We traveled to Grace Brethren churches (the denomination I was a part of) and would do whatever they asked of us for a few days. These stops would include manual labor, running vacation Bible schools, going door to door to hand out fliers for the church, and singing in the Sunday worship service.
On Operation Barnabas we did what I can only describe as “drive by evangelism”. We were supposed to be witnessing to people all of the time. We had all of these cute little stories and illustrations that would help us to share the Gospel and ask for a commitment. As an introvert, these expectations were torture. For one I generally don’t enjoy talking to strangers, and two it’s not in my nature to have a five minute conversation with someone and ask for conversion. I was much happier to listen to someone’s story and then maybe be willing to pray for them.
In the beginning of the summer I tried to go with it. My journal is peppered with stories of sharing the Gospel along with the statement that no matter what we were “planting a seed”. It was uncomfortable for me, though. I still remember asking two small children if they had accepted Jesus only to have their parents tell me they were Jewish.
There was one guy on the team who was great at it. Every time we would go on neighborhood walks he would come back to the group with the stories of children he had led to Christ. His numbers were amazing. I was in awe (and more than a little envious) of his extroverted nature and his ease with people. Until I saw how it was he was racking up so many â€œwinsâ€ in the evangelism column.
We were sitting in small circles, one team member and a score of kids. My kids were young, too young to understand the message. So I chatted with them, told them some stories, and listened to them. The team member told his gospel illustration and then without asking the kids if they wanted to accept Jesus had them simply repeat after him as he led them through the â€œsinnerâ€™s prayerâ€. The children dutifully repeated his every word and then he shouted out that nine kids had just gotten saved.
I was stunned and incredibly uneasy. Those kids had no idea what they had just done. They had been given no agency in making their own decision. Is this what he had been doing all summer?
In my mind this was a failing endeavor. We would roll into town, get some children to pray a prayer they didnâ€™t really understand, and then head out on our big blue bus again. Some of these kids may have been connected to the local church, but most of them probably werenâ€™t. We had no conversations with their families. For an organization that talked a lot about discipleship we certainly werenâ€™t setting these kids up to be successful in their new Christian life (if thatâ€™s what it even was).
I walked away thinking that this was a waste of time. This isnâ€™t how people become followers of Jesus. This isnâ€™t what being a Christian was supposed to be about.
We were indulging in a kind of â€œfire insuranceâ€; getting these kids to pray a prayer so we could console ourselves that they werenâ€™t going to hell. Is this what God required of us? Is this what salvation really means?
It would take years for me to finish the unraveling that started that day, but this was the moment where the thread slipped off the needle.
As I sit here itâ€™s fifteen years later. I am far removed in time from that summer mission trip (although the emotional blowback still rocks me at moments I least expect it). For years Iâ€™ve dismissed the idea of evangelism as rather ridiculous. It smells of Christian supremacism and manipulation, of fake â€œfriendshipsâ€ with ulterior motives, of a constant pushing that I was never good at. I abandoned the whole notion long ago. But now Iâ€™m having second thoughts.
In those days evangelism was simple: Tell people they were sinners but that Jesus died on the cross to save them and that if they would only believe in Jesus they could live in Heaven forever. Then push for a commitment. That was about it. After the commitment was made (if we stayed in town long enough) we could connect them to a local church. At that local church they would be told all of the other things that were required of Christians (no drinking, smoking, premarital (or gay) sex, go to church regularly, give your money to the church, convert others, etc.). Kind of like the fine print in a contract you didnâ€™t read until after you had signed. I always wondered what would happen if we included all of that other stuff in the sales pitch?
And honestly, the view I have of what it means to be a follower of Jesus is even more complicated now. Itâ€™s no longer a checklist of relatively simple (and surface) behaviours to avoid, instead, following Jesus as someone living in the first world with a chunk of privilege requires real commitment. It requires the kind of commitment that makes people uncomfortable and touches on all of the things they hold dear: how you spend your money and time, who has power and how they use it, what it means to be in solidarity with the marginalized, and more. Itâ€™s the kind of stuff that can get you thrown in jail if you take it seriously (and not in the fake â€œChristian persecutionâ€ way but in the â€œif you challenge the power brokers they try to have you killedâ€ way). This sales pitch isnâ€™t one that can be dropped in the lap of a stranger in the five minutes youâ€™re standing together in line for fast food.
What if the problem is what we thought evangelism meant and how we did it?
Iâ€™ve seen folks say that the best way to do evangelism is just to live out your life as a follower of Jesus. In some ways I agree because if we were to really follow Jesus people couldnâ€™t help but notice. But, if I really believe in this Jesus story, if I believe that following in the way of Jesus matters, that the Christian story has hope to bring to the world, that the church means something, why wouldnâ€™t I want to share that? If the story of resurrection has changed my life, if the story of a God who is relentlessly on the side of the poor and marginalized gives me hope, if Jesus has changed my life, shouldnâ€™t I not be able to shut up about it? In 1 Peter 3:15 weâ€™re told:Â Instead, regard Christ as holy in your hearts. Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it. I was taught this verse to prod me on to defend my faith using apologetics, but now I read it differently; when people notice that my actions are different than the actions of those around me, I should not only be able to tell them why, but I should want to. Why do I feel a discomfort around talking about something that has changed my life? If I have managed to reframe so much of my theology and spiritual practice why havenâ€™t I taken the time to reframe this? Maybe itâ€™s time to do that.