Friday, June 29, 2007

Nobody likes an Evangelist

Well this post is overdue, so my apologies. I've written a great deal about Christians in the US (or my impressions of them), and I've thrown it out there that I happen to be one, but I don't suppose I've given a very clear picture of what I believe and what mainstream Christians believe. I did give a brief list of some of my beliefs in the first post, but in this one I'll expand on it a bit better. Let me start by saying that I am an Evangelical Christian. There is no hiding it, and I have no shame in calling myself that. The question is: when I say Evangelical, what do you think of? And actually, while I'm asking you that, I'd really love for you to scroll down to the bottom of this post and leave me a comment with your definition or impression of what an Evangelical is. If you do this, do it before you read the rest. If you're definition changes, then let me know that too.

I've met quite a few people that equate evangelicals to Republican card-carrying fundamentalists, but that's far from the truth. While it's true that there a quite a few self-proclaimed "evangelicals" who give off that impression, they too are missing the point. In fact, I've grown up in a sphere of evangelicalism that is quite different from that, so it never occurred to me that other people (even other Christians) might be turned off by it. I've never thought of "evangelical" as a negative descriptor, but now I've realized that there has been a slide in it's usage that is causing quite a few problems. So... I thought I'd give it my best shot and set the record straight (though I owe thinking about all of this in a new light to pastor Chris who gave a very compelling message about this last fall --click on the Nov 5th sermon).

Wikipedia tells us this about the word evangelical:
"The term 'evangelical', in a lexical but less commonly used sense, refers to
anything implied in the belief that Jesus is the Messiah. The word comes from
the Greek word for 'Gospel' or 'good news': ευαγγελιον evangelion, from eu-
"good" and angelion "message". In that strictest sense, to be evangelical would
mean to be merely Christian, that is, founded upon, motivated by, acting in
agreement with, spreading the "good news" message of the New Testament."
So strictly speaking, an evangelical is someone spreading good news. So why the negative connotation? I've always considered evangelical to mean exactly that. I have some good news, and I'd like to share it. In fact, if my belief in this good news is right (and I operate under the conviction that it is) then I should be morally obligated to tell other people about it. If I kept this information to myself, I'd be culpable of a great moral harm. So it seems that I have a moral duty to let other people know what I believe. And that's where this whole thing really begins...

So I have this obligation to tell people about what I believe, but that doesn't tell me how I should go about it. Some people hand out tracks (those little salvation booklets), some televangelise, some go to foreign countries, and others spread the news a little more stealthily. Who's doing it right? Well, I'm willing to bet that every form of spreading the Gospel (yes, even televangelists) has the power to change people's lives. I believe that God can use anything and anyone. I do think some methods may be more effective than others, but whatever, that's just what I think and that doesn't mean anything anyways. To show you what I'm getting at, consider this passage from Philippians. Here Paul is telling us about a group of 'preachers' who are only preaching about Jesus because they want to stir up trouble for Christ's followers. The more they preach, the more trouble the early Christians get in. But, as Paul tells us, their bad motives actual serve God's purpose:
“It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of
goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense
of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely,
supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what
does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false
motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.” (ch 1:

There's something to this, and I think this is more important than you realize. Consider the Christians who evangelize today because they've turned into salesmen who have to pitch their product to as many people as possible. Sometimes it seems like they think they're working on commission or something. That bothers me, a lot, but even if it bothers me that doesn't mean that God isn't using their mixed up motivation for his purposes. If you've seen the movie Leap of Faith with Steve Martin you'll know what I'm talking about with all this. He certainly wasn't pitching those tent rivals for God's glory, but even he was brought to his knees in the end.

But that's a bit off track, because most self-described evangelicals preach the Gospel out of love. We are accused (quite often) of being narrow-minded and offensive because we "think that we are right and everyone else is wrong." Well, if we thought that we had it wrong, I don't suppose we'd be telling you about Christ would we? And if you think evangelizing is some sort of power struggle over the truth then you've missed our mission entirely.

So what is our mission, you might ask. Well, it's simple really. We believe that this world is imperfect, but we believe that perfection is the standard to meet. If anything less than perfection was good enough, then just where is the line, and how could anyone possible know if they were good enough? And for that matter, all those naturally-inclined-to-be-a-good-sort-of-person people would be unfairly advantaged, right? Well they're not, because even they aren't perfect. But it's okay, because God knows we suck at doing this on our own... so He sent in a pitch-hitter. Think of it this way: everyone has a chance to cheat on the biggest test of all time, and the teacher is actually encouraging it. In fact, the teacher tells you that by cheating on this test, it shows that you accept your own inability to ace it without help. It's like the test is open book, only some students are convinced they don't need help, so they never open the book. That seems silly right? So the other students (evangelicals) are desperately trying to get the other students to open their books for this open book test. It's not that we're better, it's just that we accept that we're not good at this and we want all the other students to pass too.

Now here's my problem: I don't know if God has other books out there to help the students pass. But I do know that the best one (and the most informative one) is Jesus, and your safest bet is to listen to what he said. But what about all the students who never hear of the Jesus book? I don't know. God knows, and He knows their hearts, and I know He's looking out for them too. It's like the story of the sculptor who never heard the Gospel, but who, upon marveling at the works of his hand, stopped and praised the God who created his thumb because his thumb was able to make extraordinary things. God spoke to him, and God is speaking to everyone. The question is: are we listening?

So we have a message, and the message (believe it or not) can not be told completely with words alone. The message is love. God is love. God loves us. He sent Jesus to help us because He loves us. The great commission: go love everyone with the love of God. Be loved by God, and let that love overflow into the lives of those around you. If words come into the picture, fine, but if not, that's even better. People respond to love, because love speaks to their hearts. So when I say I'm an evangelical Christian, I mean that I spend my life (well, I do a poor job, but I try) loving other people. In that way, I am spreading the message of God, which is the good news, and that good news is his love manifested in Christ. People are hungry to be loved, and God's love will satisfy them. So it's time we make sure they find it. I must share this love, because not sharing it would be a crime. It would be selfish to keep the greatest gift of all time to myself. That's why I am an evangelical.

So is being an evangelical a bad thing? Well, is loving people a bad thing? You can disagree with my beliefs and still agree that if I believe what I do then I must live how I do or else I am a horribly selfish person. That's all.
"And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ,
and to love one another as he commanded us." 1 John 3:23


Anonymous said...

Hi Lindsey,

I've been meaning to say for a while that I really enjoy reading your blog. It's refreshing to see such thoughtful material. Just to get things into the open, I'm pretty much agnostic, but with leanings towards Buddhism. I also want to add that I don't express myself particularly well through writing, so this might be a bit confused! (Certainly when compared to your clear exposition).

So: what do I think about evangelism? My understanding of it (which, I have to say, is fairly limited) is that it's to do with "spreading the word" through whichever means one feels is effective. Presumably (and putting it in the best light possible) one does this because one has been sincerely moved by one's religious experiences, and wants to help others to experience the same awakening.

My main issue with evangelism (as defined above; I'm sure you do better in your post, and maybe I'm completely off track...) is that it seems to limit the possibility of dialogue --- i.e., if I sincerely believe that I know the truth, then I'm not likely to listen to what you have to say --- and to admit what I regard as dangerous "positive feedback" loops where people of similar beliefs cluster together and mutually reinforce what could possibly be very dangerous and intolerant beliefs.


After reading your post, I don't think my main thoughts about evangelism have changed, but I do understand how it can also be a force for good, as long as the 'evangelist' admits that they do not necessarily know the whole truth. There has to be the possibility of dialogue; otherwise you've lost me already.

I should say that I've had similar urges to "spread the word" through my experiences with Buddhism --- meditation has completely changed my experience of life; I used to feel continually anxious, depressed, 'cut off' from others because I was worried about them judging me, etc. etc. --- when I started meditating regularly, that completely changed. I now feel strong urges to tell others about how it's affected me, and how I think it might help them. What stops me is that I also know that the timing has to be right --- nobody likes an evangelist, because nobody wants to be told what to do; at least nobody who feels it's important to think for themselves. In Buddhism, that's called "skilful action" (though it doesn't just apply to this situation); I'm sure there's a parallel in Christianity.

My reaction to this has been to take a similar approach to your own: I resolve to *act* in a way which reflects my beliefs. i.e. in Buddhism, that means to act with loving kindness, with skilfulness. It can be summed up succinctly as "whatever leads to greater harmony is skilful, and whatever does not is unskilful". And that may mean keeping your mouth shut if someone is not in a position to listen. (I hope I'm not having that effect on you!!! :) I think I can learn alot from what you have to say about Christianity --- I'm absolutely stoked to come across someone with deep religious beliefs who is also so thoughtful.)

Finally; the way I express this belief in daily life is, I think, similar to how you express your own: I try to love others, and to make my relationship with them one of mutual respect, and as harmonious as possible.

anyway; I hope my ramblings haven't been completely incoherent. Thanks again!

Lindsey said...

Thanks Duncan!

I really appreciate your comment, and I'm glad you've enjoyed following along with me... though I don't know if I would describe my writing as clear! I just try and write from the heart, and I'm glad to share my thoughts with whoever out there is reading them. And no worries, I followed your comment just fine, and I'd love for you to keep me posted on your thoughts in the future as well.

As for you fears for evangelism, I understand where you're coming from. A huge part of evangelizing is supposed to be listening (really listening)to the person you're talking to / getting to know. Often, you shouldn't talk at all, or at least not about what you think you should. I've learned at ton from my non-Christian friends (atheists, former Hindus, agnostics, etc), and I think they have a great deal to teach me about life and the world.

The great part about the message of Christ, is that it really is for everyone. Christ died for everyone, and all he wants is for everyone to experience his love and grace. Church (not the group of believers, but the institution), traditions, etc...are optional. The love is dished out regardless. So as an evangelist, I just want everyone to make sure they take some! But learning how to be loved isn't always easy (at least not for me), because we don't always want to think that we could be loved / need the love. Being loved requires humility and openness, and thats the tricky part. I'm still working on it, but each day gets a little bit easier. Christ doesn't need people to go to a particular church or take communion a certain way or vote for a certain candadite, he only requires that we accept his offer of love... and that, I think, is a gift that is universally understood by people of all walks and creeds. Which is why (I think) you probably resonated with some of what I said. Though if I'm wrong, let me know!

And on a side note, I think I understand how meditation has done wonders for you. For me, it's prayer (though this too I don't do nearly as much as would be good for me). Prayer is just as much about quieting down and listening to the voice of God speak to you as it is about voicing your needs. God knows what you need before you even think of it, but in prayer you find who God is calling you to be. But in this world, that's hard to do because this world is so busy and full of noise. So like mediation for you, prayer is my way of grounding myself from all the chaos of my day. I'm glad you shared that!

Anonymous said...

so i felt compelled to write after stumbling upon the post via a friend's link to a crooked timber post (i shall do so annon though ;)
christ proselytizers, but not meant pejoratively. from what i understand of the movement, it deals with a very personal committment to jesus' teaching in the new testament, and this committment gives rise to a belief in proselyization, which i assume amounts to "spreading the good news of the lord", as i remember quoted my CCD classes (i am a vestigial catholic).
what i think personally of the movement is that like most, it has been taken advantage of and used for alterior purposes (religion, politcs and large amounts of money do not good bed fellows make).
i am of course talking about the religious right. unfortunately, this conflation (religious evangelical) has usurped the public face of what could be a very legitimate personal choice. so, what i have trouble understanding, and where my general apprehension lies, is where most evangelicals beliefs lie: with the movement or with the conflation. if it is the former, then why are they silent? but if it is the latter, shouldn't there be a movement to split?
my understanding of christ's teachings amount to: "spread the good news of the lord so that we may create heaven on earth". that teaching is in accordance with every social/religious/egalitarian/humanrigts/etc/alt teaching that i have come across. so my second concern is the certitude with which evangelicals give to the holy trinity. philosophically, fervent faith in a premise does not give it any more standing; it is still a premise. i understand life desiderata, but does the evangelical movement understand (or allow for) this chasm that exists between personal faith and an extrapolation into a world truth (and i don't view damning me to hell as an understanding)?
i think spreading the good news of the lord is a powerful message, like many that exist out there of toleration and love and kindness and general egalitarian good will.
so i think in simple terms, what i would probably say to my evangelical friends when they get all evangelical on me is: "chill out, keep it in your personal sphere, because if you are really an adherent, and i am your friend, then you are preaching to the choir, you just haven't taken the time to notice it".

Anonymous said...

read the post, and i think my general outlook was pretty close. i wonder if you have heard of the muggletonians (being that you have taken classes with harry, i suspect you have ;)
i would be curious to hear your opinion on their movement.
i also question the "obligation" to protelytize. being motivated by the good news and spreading the good news is first done through living by the good news. personally, i am inclined to take a kantian approach to christ's teachings, being motivated by them. i do not necessarily see the connection between living by the word and preaching the word. quoting scripture doesn't really do it for me either; it could all be semantic games, or bad translations, or deliberate changes (king james bible).
also, i have also wondered, if heaven exists, and i knowlingly "reject" christ my whole life, yet the totality of my actions are lived according to the gospels "good news" teachings, merely because i am a morally sound person, would i be denied entrance? i don't see how, reasonably, one could be denied.
thanks for reading. you seem thoughtful on this topic, and coming from a fairly religious family that doesn't like to discuss these matters, i very seldom get an adequate response to my questions.

Lindsey said...

thanks anon,

I think I can respond to a few parts of your comment, but of course my opinion is just that, only my opinion on the matter, so take it for what it’s worth.
You said: “i am of course talking about the religious right. unfortunately, this conflation (religious evangelical) has usurped the public face of what could be a very legitimate personal choice. so, what i have trouble understanding, and where my general apprehension lies, is where most evangelicals beliefs lie: with the movement or with the conflation. if it is the former, then why are they silent? but if it is the latter, shouldn't there be a movement to split?”

Well, for starters, the conflation is ridiculous, but I understand how it came about. Ever since the Republican party hijacked the “values” discussion in politics, God-fearing Christians didn’t know where else to turn. So, somehow Falwell and Nozick became bedfellows and the Christians have been confused ever since. Spreading the news of Christ was never supposed to mean conservative economic/social policy, but because the GOP is the party that embraces Christians (manipulates them, I think, but whatever) the conflation has become inevitable. Even if the Right wing has hijacked the Christian vote, they can’t change the message of Christ, which is love. And about splitting, there is a movement! They’re not exactly attention seekers though, so I’m not surprised you haven’t heard of them. I hadn’t either, and I am an evangie, but once I found them I discovered that the dissent is spreading like wildfire in Christian churches today (esp among the youth, like myself). Check out this CT link (if you haven’t already), which is about a book that I gave one of my professors. If you can, read it, but if not, at least read the discussion on it. I think you’ll be surprised. So the answer is yes, the rocks are crying out, and it’s about damn time.

You also said, “so i think in simple terms, what i would probably say to my evangelical friends when they get all evangelical on me is: "chill out, keep it in your personal sphere, because if you are really an adherent, and i am your friend, then you are preaching to the choir, you just haven't taken the time to notice it".”

I think part of what you may be missing is the ‘why’ of evangelism. A relationship with Christ is a very personal thing, but its ramifications certainly aren’t. If Christ really did redeem all of humanity (and we operate believing that he did), then humanity ought to know… right? Think of it this way (but again, not all Christians would agree with this analogy, so take it for what it’s worth): you were given the chance to have someone pay off all of your student loans. The first step, you must agree to let him/her pay it for you (ie, believing in Christ, and this is where I’m heretical: or, perhaps God has alternative ways that we can’t tell because He knows our hearts inside and out and I suppose He could tell if we really loved Him even if we didn’t know Him to be the Yahweh of Judeo-Christianity). Now, your loan is paid, and I suppose that could be the end… but wouldn’t you want to know who did it? Wouldn’t you want to thank him/her? Maybe you’d even want to be their friend. That’s where the evangies come in, we’re just telling you who we believe paid it. It’s up to you to take it and it’s up to you if you care to know who it was. So personal sphere, I don’t know. But you’re right, they ought to know where you’re at, but that requires discussion on your part, and words don’t always come into play. Being evangelical isn’t about preaching hellfire and brimstone, it’s about loving people. If they love you with the love of God, they’re evangelizing, and if you don’t want them to love you, well that’s another story…

And as for personal faith not legitimizing a premise, well, aren’t all philosophical premises unfounded anyways? You have to start somewhere, and eventually you have to resign yourself to the fact that some premises you just have to make judgment calls about, in faith that you’re right. My faith is founded in personal experiences with God (which, I think, can not ground anyone’s faith but my own), and so I have good reason to hold it. An argument isn’t unsound if the premise isn’t provable; it just isn’t rationally persuasive if no one else will accept it. But, if people open their hearts to the possibility of experiencing God, they will experience Him, and then they too may have good reason to believe… :)

Lindsey said...

Sorry I posted the last comment before reading your follow up! And it looks like you're a student of Harry's too, and I think you're teasing me by remaining anon if you were in his class this last semester (because that means that you definitely know me). And he did tell me about that group, and I had an atheist friend ask me if that wouldn't be a better policy. If they don't know the choice, you send them to hell by enlightening them. Well I don't think that's right, because regardless of what you grow up with, your heart makes a decision, and God knows what that is.

As for preaching with words, I don't think it's mandatory, or even appropriate sometimes. Christ sent us to love, that's more often than not wordless. We are to live like Christ, and his love should flow from us. People are hungry for God's love, and they'll respond to it. Honestly, most people will come to you (and not vise versa) if you're living with the light of God. It's addictive, and people want the joy that you have. So words, not a big deal. And scripture for nonbelievers, ridiculous. What good is throwing out the Word to someone who doesn't believe in its authority? It would be like giving me a book in French law and telling me I had better follow it. Why, I live in the US? So I agree with you there. But, if you are a believer, the Word is literally food for the soul. Somehow I find what I need everytime (in joy, sorrow, anger); it's like a painting where the eyes follow you. It can be creepy how clearly a random passage can speak to you (but thats anecdotal, I don't expect you to have a clue what I'm talking about here).

As for heaven, I don't believe anyone can live well enough to get in. It can't be earned. Mother Theresa couldn't work her way up there. Everyone needs a leg up, and everyone is offered one. Heaven, I think, is living eternity in the presence of God. Hell is absence from Him. If you reject God, then heaven would be a hell for you anyways. Now, if you've ever read the Chronicals of Narnia, there's a part that I think is interesting and I have no idea if it's really how things work but I think it'd be cool if it did. There was a servant who worshiped Tash (his god, not the real one) but with a heart that was really yearning for the real God. He didn't worship God in name, but his heart spoke to God's, and that's all it took. I truly believe it's about where your heart's at, and no one knows that better than God. But again, many Christians wouldn't agree, though others would, and I admit I have no idea if my inclination is right. But I don't really need to know. I believe God's fair and it'll work out in the end, so I just work on my own heart and do my best to help other people work on theirs too.

I'm curious what your family believed? I'm sad they didn't want to discuss it, because we ought to be accountable for really thinking about and examining our beliefs. That's what I'm doing, anyway, and what I'm sure you do. But if you really do have a question, ever, fire away. No promises on an adequate answer though!