I used to think I’d be flattered if evangelists targeted me. When someone tried to convert me to their belief system, I would surely see it as a selfless act borne out of genuine concern for my eternal destiny.
I never understood people who felt discomfort when people witnessed to them. “Religion is all right,” these people would say, “but you shouldn’t shove beliefs down people’s throats!” I blamed such statements on our culture’s worship of tolerance.
But my feelings changed the day I got “evangelized.”
I was at a Winnipeg library scanning the spines of Christian books when a young man struck up a conversation with me. His presence in the religion section suggested that he was a fellow theology nerd, and I thought perhaps he wanted to be friends. After exchanging pleasantries, he asked, “Do you know Jesus?”
I was taken aback. I half-heartedly said, “Yeah, I guess so.” I’m a follower of Christ, but saying “I know Jesus” makes it sound like he’s a friend of a friend of mine. (“Jesus? Yeah, I met him at Steve’s party. He’s a pretty cool guy.”)
My evangelist asked if I attended church, and I told him I did. He said there was a potluck at his church that night, and he mentioned the time and the address. It seemed like an invitation, but I didn’t take the hint. I told him, “It was nice to meet you,” and I escaped with a book.
To my surprise, the encounter had been uncomfortable. It took reflection to figure out why it was uncomfortable, but it boiled down to one reason: he made me feel like a potential convert, rather than as a person.
The divine drama we call Scripture begins with a kind of anthropological theory, declaring that we are persons created in the image of God. This is one crucial element that separates Christianity from competing philosophies. A person has hopes, fears, dreams, insecurities, interests, talents, and, most importantly, inherent dignity and worth.
Instead of feeling like he saw me as a complex, messy, nuanced person, as Christians believe all persons are, I felt like the library evangelist saw me as another potential notch in his belt, a trophy he could bring to his potluck. It seemed that, to him, my defining attribute was not my personhood, but the fact that I may not share his specific religious beliefs.
If I am correct that this well-meaning evangelism to strangers is subtly dehumanizing, the obvious follow-up question is: How then do we preach the gospel?
Like many young people, I’m an expert at pointing out problems and clumsy at finding solutions. However, let me suggest two potential solutions:
• Evangelize by example. There is a quote popularly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that puts it succinctly: “Preach the gospel always; use words if necessary.” If people witness the transformative power Christ can have in the lives of individuals and in oppressive power structures, they’ll see Christ as a real, living Saviour.
• Evangelize within the context of genuine, long-lasting friendships. Friendship is the great embrace of someone in the fullness of their personhood.
These suggestions have shortcomings. It’s hard to quantify the results of preaching by example, and we can only take on a few deep, meaningful friendships at a time, so neither method can be shown to get the results of, say, door-knocking Mormons.
My intention is not to mindlessly complain—or to disparage the library evangelist—for we’re on the same team, but rather to spark a discussion about evangelism. Until we take into account the personhood of the one being evangelized, we are sacrificing Christian doctrine while preaching Christian doctrine.
James DeGurse, 18, lives in Winnipeg. He begins his first year of studies at Canadian Mennonite University this month.
--Posted August 28, 2014