Tuesday, March 2, 2010

christian mugging (aka bait-and-switch: the struggle for relevance {aka the dangers of an evangelism program at your church})


Many people feel {or come across to others} just like the person in the video whenever they invite someone to church--not to mention share their faith.  The focus of this post is on the evangelism side of the issue.  Perhaps at a later point I will do something on extracted Christian living, if there is such a thing.

I was recently reminded just how hard/scary evangelism can be.  I was at a large mall in the D.C. area to do some intentional evangelism.  I was not the team leader; but was bringing a group with me to work with a group that regularly evangelized at this mall [they used EE].  Although I have taken many seminary classes in evangelism and missions, gone on numerous mission trips, shared the gospel with many many people from all walks of life and religions, and have even done those "crazy" and "radical" things like open air street preaching, the hardest part for me is walking up to a complete stranger and starting a conversation [particularly one wherein I will either be asking them about heaven and hell within 30 seconds, or announcing some completely ridiculous reason as a pretext for our "random" conversation].  Once I am in the conversation and we are deep in discussion, I am high as a kite.  But after all these years and all these hours of training and experience that initial fear remains.  Fortunately, I was working with a partner who was at ease overcoming the awkward [albeit through the interjection of his own special awkwardness-more about this in another post] introductory moment.  So I piggy backed with him and had a great time.  I was able to talk with several postmodern Muslims from Pakistan and Somalia and a postmodern Catholic from Bolivia.  We made some good progress in their understanding of the gospel, so the night was a success in those terms.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting a stellar missional, cultural thinker, Derek Webster{he is linked in my blog list-go check it out}.  I listened to him for a day, picked his brain on a number of occasions, and have thought about it all ever since.  He discussed the postmodern culture of Europe.  One problem he notes in evangelism, a problem to which the postmodern mind reacts and rejects, is the bait-and-switch.  This tactic exhibits itself in people who build relationship which are artificial in their nature and are instantly turned for proselytizing.  The moment someone doesn't convert, then the relationship is over.  I remember going out with the seminary evangelism team to the hood.  My partner went up to a group of thugs and started with some kind of "you have a Jesus shaped hole in your heart."  As part of his pitch, he promised them that he wasn't like other Christians who were there just to win people and then would leave.  The sad truth is it was his first and last trip to any hood, much less that one.  He ran it, shot off, and ran out.  He fulfilled his duty; he has a war story; he is finished.  Those people are no closer to the gospel as a result of his drive by shooting.  I am sure that there are many stories like this where people go back to their home church and talk about how resistant folks are to the gospel, when in reality they just don't like suburban Christians who are too clean to actually live in this world. The other kind of bait-and-switch is the cheesy segue and shameless analogy.  Are you really doing surveys as you knock on doors?  Is the blood of Jesus really like paint?  I think you get the point....  Someone who is dead in sin and hardened philosophically to the gospel is not going to be won by some quick shot across the bow.  The key to them understanding the gospel is not to be found in some pathetic analogy wherein you take whatever {and I do mean WHATEVER} they just said and bending it back around to whatever it was your were going to say anyway.

After chewing on Websters insights for a few days, I jotted down the following statement {probably during one of the boring sessions}
Evangelism exists because missional living does not.  That is to say, Evangelism--as a system or pitch--exists because missional living--living the daily life of a follower of Jesus--does not exist.  Since missional living does not exist, we live with the reality of vast lostness living in close proximity to the church.  The result is that there is now a need for those who are on a church campus to go off campus to proclaim what they believe.  They must proclaim since they are not living it out visibly before the world.  There is a disconnect between their life and their message.  This makes the message appear as a shameless ploy to try to fix the shortcoming of not living out the faith in and before the world. 
To put all this another way, it is necessary for us to evangelize because we are not truly living in the world in a way in which we can, from the ethos of our lives, genuinely tell them the gospel with any real conviction.  It is easier to "mug" them, and then blame them for the hardness of their hearts.  Perhaps some introspection would do us some good here?  God did not divorce his message from his messenger.  He put the gospel, and divinity itself, into terms that we could understand: the person of Jesus.  Jesus lived among us and put the gospel into a context.  To be honest, the people who address their distance with the world through active evangelism are the minority.  The majority try to close this gap through the voting box!

Here is a short list of the dangers of evangelism {evangelism that is divorced from contextual involvement in the world}:
  • we start checking boxes {if we are even willing to check that box}
Evangelism becomes something of legalism.  It is merely an action which we perform.  It becomes a passionless sales pitch.  It doesn't matter if it is coherent or relevant to our hearer so long as we get through the pitch.
  • we adopt a one size fits all mentality
Similar to the last one.  If we just HAVE to get through our acronym or survey or whatever, then there is never any need to think creatively about people as unique groups or as unique individuals.  Remember, the last thing in the world a Buddhist wants is eternal life....  Hindus and cultural Catholics are happy to "receive Jesus" though that means different things to both of those groups and it doesn't mean to either of them what we intended to say.  The gospel presentation of Peter in Acts 2 and Stephen is much different from Paul at the Areopagus.  Luke's presentation of the life of Jesus is vastly different from John's portrayal. 
  • The gospel looses relevance {and we never blame ourselves}
Since the gospel is a placard and not a way of life {in this system} it comes off as headhunting.  Since the gospel is not given a face {ours} it will not be understood as it originally was {when it was Jesus' "face" on it} and the gospel will be viewed through the skewed lenses of postmodernism, Republican vs. Democrat, North vs south, black vs white, rich vs poor kind of dichotomies.   Do we really want to accept our portrayal by the media of who and what we are?  If you don't, then you better be willing to put a face and a life on the gospel {but count the cost, for you might loose your life!}  We present the gospel in such a trite scratch-and-sniff way, with no demonstration, that people are predisposed not to believe.  They appear to be "hardened."  {I am not trying to rub you reformed guys the wrong way, but I would rather work positively with God than for him to work in spite of me}  It is easier to pray for hardened peoples than to get involved in the messy, not to mention dangerous, business of living the gospel.
  • we live extracted lives
More on this in a later post.
  • the gospel has no natural context in our lives
The gospel turns into something that is merely believed and taught rather than something to believed and followed as well.  Thinking back to that guy in the hood {or any other lost person for that matter}, he had no means of connection with what my partner was saying.  My partner was only making a blitz through a part of town he knew nothing about.  The reason his presentation appeared to be artificial and empty is because it was.  There was no natural flow or context whatsoever.
  • either we are in "evangelism mode" or "personal time mode"
There is a secularization of even our Christian life.  Either we are focused on presenting the gospel {by that I mean the acronym which we like best of have memorized} that we cannot really talk and listen to people, or we are in our normal mode where we walk about with an independent, segregated life with no real connection to people. 
  • we develop relationships and conversations which are merely "bait-and-switch"
We only make friends to share the gospel.  When they don't appear to accept our trite representation of the truth, we leave them behind.  This has all the romantic appeal of someone who is looking for love only to be continually wooed by a series of one night stands.  When we bait-and-switch we are not really listening to the other person.  Typically I am with someone else when I share the gospel.  I am amazed and shocked by some of the things my partners will say.  It has no real relevance, correspondence, or or even contradiction to what the witnessee just said.  It is simply point 2.a.II of whatever method they are using.  They don't care if the other person is really saying or hearing and thus no real communication takes place.  The witnessee will raise a valid concern or question, and the person will say "well this is why..." and they will start right back wherever they were before they were interrupted.  Recently at the mall, my partner had cornered a man from Pakistan, Salmon.  When I arrived, Salmon was firmly and verbally resisting everything my partner was saying.  Finally Salmon tried to use an analogy to help my partner understand how obnoxious he was being.  He said "I like Lost.  And if I go around and only talk about Lost then everyone will be annoyed with me and won't want to hear anything about it."  To this my friend replied, "Well, lost has a lot of Christian ideas, just like C.S. Lewis' books..."  My friend was throwing out ideas and labels as thought Salmon would mystically be brought closer to cross by only hearing the word "Christian" adjective, verb, and noun forms enough times.  Needless to say, no real communication was taking place, and my friend was only putting a cheap face on the gospel.  {I will tell you how we resolved this situation in another post}

Before anyone gets up in arms and thinks I am saying that there should not be proclamation, you are wrong.  I am not saying this at all.  But there must at least be equal parts of proclamation and demonstration.  If we aren't living in the world, we have no right to speak to the world.  After all, Jesus was the one who set the model of living in the world and proclaiming the kingdom.  I am not recommending the removal of evangelism as a plan, per se, only the addition of living with intentionality in the world and loving its people the way God does.  We do need to face the facts.  Few people actually evangelize even with a method.  The problem is that they are scared and it feels weird to go talk to someone they don't know {perhaps the first step is to become involved in people's lives}.  And for the few who do evangelize, very few people listen with any real interest.  Part of this is that they are dead in sin.  But a large part of it is because in their mind there is no reason we should be talking to them.  We are complete strangers and we just walked over and are getting all in their business.  Even believers react to this methodology.  When I go out, I think it is very odd when someone just walks up to me.  I am more at ease when they are obviously there to tell me/sell me something because that always answers my first question: why?  But when someone walks across the mall straight to me and starts making small talk and asking me questions, my street smarts kick in and I am automatically suspicious, defensive, on guard.  As a result, I am not really listening as I am trying to discern their real motives.  Usually, I get to the "I need to go" long before they have time to get it all out.  Sound familiar?  If it doesn't maybe you have never been "befriended" by someone who, to your joy, invites you over for dinner only to find out that it is an Amway party...  Get the picture?

I am not advocating less proclamation, only more honest incarnation.

7 comments:

Grady Bauer said...

Wow, lots to process here. I will respond in kind with a post in the next week or so. I am good friends with Webster and will soon be transferring to work with him. I guess this puts us with the same organization. Looking forward to reading through more of your stuff soon.
Grady

Phillip said...

Rastis,

Found your site and loved this post. For years I was merely the street preaching guy and had no lasting relationship with the people I spoke to. Philippians 2 one day came real clear to me and I realized that my mind was not like Christ.

Jesus did not shout from heaven the Gospel or suspend Himself in the atmosphere but he dwelt among us. Evangelism should have never been a program but it is our way of life as believers.

Looking forward to more of your thoughts.

Sincerely, Phillip

Derek said...

REALLY good insights here, bro. Awesome stuff! I link to it from my own blog.

Derek said...

oops...I meant "I'll link to it from my own blog" :) Makes more sense now.

Gene S said...

I have spent a lifetime as a professing Christian who wanted to share the Gospel in an effective way. Much of that was frustrated by a "caned" approach with a "track" using scripture verse after scripture verse in a "proof text" fashion.

Years ago I simplified my approach to Romans 10:9 which speaks of believing in your heart and confessing with your mouth. As I talked with children, it made sense to them to talk about how much they loved their parents, but it became complete when they could tell them, "I love you!"

Now that I run a Tree Surgery business I have some of the greatest opportunities for witness ever---because I am not preceived to be a Preacher!

From my employees to my customers, they often bring up the subject of religion and I still don't tell them what I am beyond a believer! I have probably helped 10 times more people who are seeking than I ever did from the pulpit.

Why?

Because they are now being honest with me rather than pretending to be such "perfect" church members! Honesty gets one further by far than a "track" which shoots one scripture after another to "prove" they should become a believer.

Rastis said...

Thanks Gene. I have found the same thing to be true. When I was "on staff" I would be in a genuine experience with people. Everything was going great till it came time for them to ask what I did.... conversation over.

In the oilfield I can reach more people. I have an honest "platform" where "conversion" language is off the table. People open up and we have real discussions.

Gene S said...

I think we are both enjoying a new dimension of life we had no clue was there when training to become a Minister and follow our calling.

It is such a shame in the South that church members are expected to be perfect. Because of this, when I found out about a pending divorce so much water was under the bridge that I could do nothing more than say a blessing over their parting.

My training was Psychology and Counseling in College as well as Seminary. My biggest disappointment was how few church members wanted their car to even be seen at the church or my home office during the week.

People will talk--and thwart the real ministry of men or women feeling a true calling to ministry.