Why Christian Evangelism Is Often Counter-Productive
I had a job once where I had to do cold calls. I would call and try to make a quick introduction before the person on the other end of the phone figured out I was selling something and hung up on me. Oh, how I hated that job! It wasn't so much that I got hung up on repeatedly, but that I felt I deserved to get hung up on. After all, I was interrupting people all day long, offering something they didn't want and hadn't asked for. I find that Christian evangelism is often done in the same manner- abrupt, unsolicited, and bordering on rude.
For example, I was at Target minding my own business and shopping for a beach towel when a lady with a giant, cheesy smile walked up to me and started saying she wanted to invite me to church. I informed her as politely as I could that I came to Target to look at beach towels and not to talk about church. What bothered me wasn't her enthusiasm, but the fact that she knew nothing about me. For all she knows, I was at Target shopping for a beach towel to take on a girls' trip because my pastor husband just cheated on me with the children's ministry director. That wasn't the case, but if it were, the last thing I would want would be an invitation to church!
I feel there are better ways to evangelize than walking up to strangers. America is a church-saturated culture. There is a church on every corner, multiple Christian TV channels, Christian bookstores, Christian colleges, and Christian groups at high schools and secular universities. A person who is curious about Jesus or Christianity has plenty of options to begin learning. Anyone who wants to know about Jesus can easily find answers. People who don't want to know about Jesus will not be impressed by strangers' attempts to prosyletize them. If they wanted to know, they would go looking. If they don't want to know, enthusiastic Christians are probably just going to annoy them.
Walking up to people at Target, handing out tracts, or holding up signs on street corners is more likely to irritate people than to engage them. Christians are already very visible in our culture and quite often in a negative way. Pastors with Bentleys and solid gold toilets, pastors having affairs, pastors getting caught with prostitutes, pastors promising that God will give you a Cadillac if you send money- none of these things promote love, compassion, self-discipline, self-control, selflessness or anything else Christianity is supposed to be about. Many Americans' perception of Christianity is a self-righteous religion of greed and falsehood. When a well meaning Christian tries to evangelize a stranger, he or she has no idea what sort of previous experience or ideas the stranger may have about Christianity. If the stranger has a very negative view of Christianity, little can be done to change that in the space of one conversation. In fact, the Christian just might be reinforcing that negative stereotype.
If stranger evangelism is counter-productive, what are some better alternatives? I'm sure I will catch hell (no pun intended) for saying this, but often I feel the best way to evangelize is not to evangelize at all. Before you call me a bad Christian, let me explain. I believe the best way to share with people about Jesus is to live a life that evidences His power. I'm not talking about power in the sense of miraculous healing or signs and wonders, but the power of self-discipline, humility, patience and kindness. These are things most people have trouble mustering up on their own. It's easy to be self-absorbed, crabby, impatient and difficult. This kind of behavior comes naturally. It takes a lot more effort to put others first, especially when those others are family members who drive us up the wall, husbands who won't pick up their own laundry, wives who spend too much on the credit card or exuberant children who use their new markers on the drywall.
Every day we are given myriad opportunities to do what we believe Jesus would have done or to be grumpy and self-centered. Every choice we make is either a reflection of the power of God to transform our lives or another reason for non-Christians to say that Christians are just as screwed up as everybody else. I'm not saying Christians have to be perfect; that's impossible, no one is perfect. But if there is any truth to Christianity and any truth about redemption through Jesus, then the lives of Christians should be transformed little by little, day by day to be noticeably different than the lives of people who reject Him. We shouldn't have to hold up a sign for people to know we're Christians.
It's sad to me that when many non-Christians think of Christianity they think of giant ampitheater churches with slick, charismatic pastors asking people to give more and more money. Maybe they think of hypocrisy and scandal, particularly sexual scandal because the church seems eaten up with it. I wish community came to mind, families raising children with values counter to self-absorbed consumerism, attending christenings and funerals in support of one another, or volunteers at a soup kitchen. Maybe people would be more open to coming to church if they thought it was a place of support and encouragement instead of a profit-driven corporation.
Americans are inundated with advertisements for products competing for our attention and our money. Until the lives of individual Christians and the church as a whole begin to line up with the values we espouse, evangelism is just one more lousy ad campaign. I regret to say that I believe the message of the Gospel has been lost in the greed and self-aggrandizing of the American church.