A friend and I were sitting across the table from two Muslim men, talking about faith. The conversation was amicable, the atmosphere friendly. At one point, one of the Muslim men interrupted himself to reassure us, “We’re not trying to convert you.”
I responded candidly: “Well, we’d love to see you become Christ-followers,” then went on to say that such a decision was theirs alone. Coercion can never produce real faith.
I really do not understand how someone who believes he has been let in on the truth – truth that would benefit others and improve their lives – would not want others to believe it too. Jesus’s people are to be ready to share the reason for their hope. St. Peter wrote, “…always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess.”
Yet, this week the Barna Group reported that nearly half of practicing Christian Millennials agree that it is at least somewhat “wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hopes that they will one day share the same faith.” Paradoxically, those same Millennial Christians are more likely to consider themselves capable of answering questions about the faith than any other generational group. Yet they remain silent.
This may reflect, in part, an unthinking acceptance of a worldview that holds religion to be a principal cause of conflict. But I suspect there is more to it than that. Millennials are articulating a concern that Christians of all generations share but are too embarrassed to discuss: a concern about the appropriateness of the way evangelism is routinely practiced.
The word “evangelism” is derived from a biblical term for telling the good news. But evangelism as it is often practiced looks a whole lot more like selling the good news. Non-Christians are viewed as “sales leads,” and sales tactics are routinely employed. One of my mentors – a good and loving man, who was also a salesman by profession – taught me to ask people, “Is there any reason why you should not accept Christ today?” because, he said. it is always easier for people in a sales encounter to answer no than yes.
“Evangelism Explosion,” an influential evangelism training program that was developed in the 1970s, taught evangelists the same kind of techniques that door-to-door vacuum sweeper salespeople employ. The goal was to get the “contact” – the church would furnish a list of prospects – to “sign on the dotted line” by praying to receive Christ. Following the evening campaign, the evangelists met together to debrief and to celebrate successes.
The denomination in which I was ordained expected pastors to practice this kind of evangelism, which left me feeling uncomfortable. I believed I had a calling to serve Christ but knew I lacked the ability to succeed in sales, which was regarded as a prerequisite of the calling.
I have come to think of this approach to evangelism as misguided. Christ’s spokesmen are not salespeople, trying to talk folks into doing something they would rather not do. They are not door-to-door salesmen, “peddling the gospel,” as St. Paul scornfully put it. A salesman may be able to manipulate people into buying a product against their will, but no one ever came to Christ against their will.
As “witnesses to Christ,” which Jesus clearly expected his followers to be, a person brings knowledge, gained by experience, to others. He or she shares the good news, not because it’s expected but because it is exciting. This is quite different from making a gospel sale.
Dallas Willard, lamenting what “witnessing” has become, wrote: “Witnessing is not thought of as bringing knowledge, but as attempts to convince people to do things … Witnessing has turned into a kind of process of bothering people, and very few people witness because of this.”
Who wants to bother people?
The best thing church leaders can do to encourage people to share the good news of Christ is to help them experience the life Jesus envisioned for, and makes available to, them. As people live the Jesus-way and experience its superiority, evangelism is the natural outcome. Instead of pushing people to share the good news, church leaders must help them live the good life.
First published in Gatehouse Media