Strategy of Evangelism or Strategy of Evasion?
Some Christians are beyond strange when it comes to evangelism. A little less than 30 years ago, I knew a young man on a church staff whose idea of making the local church fit for reaching people for Christ was to shed everything overtly religious about Sunday worship services. The irony never crossed his confused mind.
I also knew a guilt-ridden church elder whose idea of outreach was joining up with a certain parachurch ministry aimed at evangelism, but, in his case at least, the project never got any farther than occasionally having a friendly conversation with some non-believer. That to him seemed to be the end game!
In both instances, the gospel never got onto the field of play and so far as I know, neither of those individuals ever had the slightest part in leading any individual to Christ. Their kind defines uselessness.
Our inattentiveness to honest evangelism in recent times has come back to haunt our preaching in the form of skepticism. Initially we do not work at it, because we are afraid of it. Afraid of social alienation. Afraid of being looked down upon. Afraid of failure. Fear stops us dead in our tracks. Yet, like all cowards, we have to divert attention from our chicken-heartedness.
So we find some cause to bring out our bully face and to help us convince ourselves, if not others, that we are “putting it all on the line.” We may emphasize missions or even offer ourselves for missionary service or volunteer to live in a ghetto or work on a soup line or join an abortion protest or take up the fight against homosexuality or enlist in a political campaign of a Christian candidate for public office or champion the rights of the disadvantaged (social justice) or wage war on materialism and issue great calls for a return to a simple lifestyle. We will find ourselves a cause or something to martyr ourselves over. We will go to the wall over everything but the main thing.
We will do almost anything but the hardest thing—to confront unbelieving friends and neighbors and relatives with the fact that they are lost sinners that, unless they turn from their love of darkness and embrace by faith the provision God has made, they are damned to a Christless eternity—without hope and without God. I am not saying that the facts need always to be presented to lost friends and neighbors and co-workers just that way, but the point is, they need to be declared in some way, softly or bluntly or whatever, but somehow, someway.
Now that’s the really hard thing. There is nothing else quite equal to it. There is nothing else that Christians do that quite so antagonizes sinners, that so draws upon ourselves the mockery of the world, that makes us feel so lonely in it. Not that the objective is to get on people’s nerves, but simply to point out that nothing gets up the devil’s ire and draws his fire like the truth.
The blowback we sometimes get in evangelism tempts us to evade it. Our inactivity spawns inertia. Because we stray out on the periphery of duty and studiously avoid the central task, little or nothing happens. In such a vacuum of close encounters with the power and presence of God, what usually happens is that the minister, unable to question himself (he is afraid of the answers and their consequences), begins to question his message. He will either question its power to change men and societies or he will question its presentation.
In the former case, he falls back on the weapons of the world to accomplish God’s goals. I am convinced, for example, that much Christian political activism has its roots in just such a crisis of confidence in the Gospel. Lacking confidence in the Gospel, in frustration, ministers resort to political means. This will fail miserably, in my judgment. In fact it already has.
This is precisely the route liberals took when they gave up on the Gospel. Like them before us, we mask our departure with pious rationalizations. We call it perhaps “getting the salt out of the shaker.” Now who can argue with that? The problem is, for me at least, I see a lot more agitation than salinization. Who is coming to Christ? Certainly we have to stake out our Christian positions on many of these issues. What I am saying is that we can add to our agenda as necessary; but we have no right to subtract or substitute. And that, I am afraid, is mostly what this kind of activity ends up doing—subtracting and substituting.
In the latter case, we get a similar result with a different rationale. Because we are unwilling to tolerate the social risks inherent in traditional evangelism, we opt for circuitous strategies that go around by Robin Hood’s barn.
In this mode the evader of the evangelistic task likes to talk piously of a strategy of social “bridge building.” It also goes by other soothing names like “friendship evangelism.”
Now the idea in itself is sound enough, let it be acknowledged. And in some cases I have no doubt that it is a serious evangelistic strategy and one which actually bears fruit.
But for many, it appears to me, these bridges are white elephants. Bridges are useless without approaches. And we never get down to approaches. You see, our mission is not building relationships with the world. It is calling the world to discipleship. Anything short of that is functional abortion.
Let us face the reality. For most people in this mode, “friendship evangelism” is not a strategy of evangelism, but a strategy of evasion. They are not building bridges; they are hiding in bunkers. This posture is quite frequently the child of doubt, not the offspring of commitment.
And, the truth is, many preachers therefore don’t experience the power of God because they are unwilling to take the risks necessary. The power of God seems to most often find us out there on the raw edges of serious risk. Few endeavors present us with so many opportunities to encounter the power and presence of God as aggressive, up front, eye-to-eye evangelism where the Enemy is most vulnerable and defensive.