[This post is part of a series of reflections on Disbelieving Church. If you have not already done so, please check out the Introduction for a little background and a few disclaimers.]
When I was about 15 years old, the pastor of the church in which I grew up decided it was time to retire. He had been in the church for more than 25 years, and I had never known another pastor. His sermons often went over my head, but I remember being deeply impressed by his exposition of Mary being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. One year he did an intensive focus on Servant Leadership, and throughout my childhood I remember one of his key themes being “every member a ministry.” It was a reminder to a very large congregation, that being a Christian and part of a church called for commitment and action, not just attendance and social interaction.
When this pastor retired, he was eventually replaced by a tall, somewhat charismatic southerner with an impressive memory, an engaging preaching style, and a soft voice. Apart from his ability to quote entire epistles from the New Testament without looking at a page, the thing I chiefly remember about his ministry was his emphasis on evangelism. He ran special evening sessions on “friendship evangelism,” all about getting to know non-believers in order to create an opportunity to tell them about Jesus, and every sermon seemed to contain some reminder that being a Christian meant evangelising others.
As a socially awkward teenager with an introverted personality and almost no friends outside the church (I was schooled at home), I left the church every Sunday feeling like a failure because I had never “led someone to Christ.” Going to church became a regular invitation to beat myself up for failing to be a proper Christian. I dreaded hearing that message again and again and knowing I could never live up to it.
When I returned to the area of my childhood having gained my BA, I looked elsewhere for a church family, and eventually settled in a congregation which and with a pastor who nurtured my gifts, challenged my faults, and allowed me to explore what following Jesus as a young single adult might look like for me, rather than imposing a pre-made ideal of a perfect Christian. In that environment I thrived, living faith in my own way in my work environment and participating in the conversations that came up as a result, but I still never “led” anyone “to Christ.”
Eventually I came to the UK and began to experience a slightly different kind of church culture. It was here, for the first time, that I began to hear in the calls to “reach out” to the community in “mission” an increasing desire to fill emptying church buildings and replenish aging and dwindling congregations. I began to question the motives of evangelism, and to hear stories from people who worked with those on the edges of church, and of society, who said that those people wouldn’t come to church because they felt judged and unwelcome.
There was the story about a prostitute who finally came to church after several invitations from a friend, only to leave because of the judgemental looks she received; the one about the young people who came along in response to a charismatic minister, only to be put off by the sniffs and whispers when they went out for smoke breaks in front of the church. Then there was the story from a friend in the US who invited a lesbian couple to church, but, when they came, members of the regular congregation complained that they didn’t want “those kind of people” in their church.
Instead of punishing myself for my inability to “share the gospel” as I had been repeatedly taught, I began to think that Christians wanted to reach and evangelise people, to bring them into their churches, in order to force them into a predetermined mold of correct Christian behaviour and absorb them into existing church structures. New people are always needed to perpetuate the church’s existence, but too often they are implicitly expected to do this without challenge, difficulty or change to “the way we do things.”
The people I knew who connected best with those outside church, the ones who were sometimes labeled evangelists, seemed to be the people who connected least with those inside church. They ignored the labels, the walls and the incipient purity laws of those inside church, and simply connected with, helped and listened to people.
In recent years, I have come to be highly suspicious of the idea of “evangelism.” It is too often connected with ulterior motives – a desire to prop up and perpetuate the institutions of church, a desire to force the wider society to live by the moral and religious rules believers hold dear, a desire to save people from hell in the next life (often without first attending to the hell in which they live this life).
At the Baptist Assembly a few years ago, there was a session highlighting the work of those people considered to be pioneers within the Union. As the head of the pioneer collective interviewed one pioneer he asked what was the most important thing this minister had learned as he attempted to plant a new kind of Christian community in the South West. “Not to see people as targets,” the young man replied. The assembly laughed, but I didn’t think he was telling a joke. It is not a laughing matter. I believe he put the finger on one of the greatest problems of the contemporary church, and his aim was so accurate the assembled company didn’t even know they had been hit.
So I have concluded that I don’t believe in evangelism. I believe in living with, sharing with and talking to people. There is no ulterior motive. There is no need for moral policing. There is no worry whether or not my church will survive. There is no need for me to “save” or “convert” anyone for their eternal soul or for the good of my finite religious community. There is no need for me to skillfully (or clumsily) bring the conversation around to my life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ. I am free to build relationships or not to do so, as I am able, and simply to seek to practice love to the best of my ability with my family, my community and my world.
Some people may wish to call this evangelism. Some may even call it “friendship evangelism.” I don’t. The term carries too much baggage. For me, at least, it is time to let it go.