As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
“Please, don’t answer the door,” I prayed, standing on a stranger’s doorstep, pressing the doorbell with mustered determination. Several other high schoolers—feet shuffling, hands crammed deep in hoodie pockets—clustered around me. The wad of gospel tracts in my sweaty hand was damp and wrinkled.
The door didn’t open.
I was ashamed of that prayer. Ashamed of my anxiety. Ashamed that I didn’t love Jesus enough to preach the gospel. That bizarre weekend at a youth missions conference remains one of my worst church memories. The worship sessions were fever-pitched. The calls to action were patronizing. The evangelism script was stilted and awkward, not unlike the script I had used the previous fall for political canvassing. Later, I reflected that the political campaign and the missions conference shared similar elements: scripted door-to-door conversations, large rallies, and the sinking realization that words change few minds.
I remember thinking, in the crowded sanctuary, lit purple and red with sweeping lights, “I am not this kind of Christian.”
The irony is that I work for a global missions organization. Every day I hear stories of how the gospel is speeding down the world's streets like a flood in the desert, irrigating even the nations that persecute Christians. I have looked into the eyes of people seized by that current. Life radiates from them. I know the prayer of their heart is, “Dear Lord, just open one more door. Let me see one more person today.”
The fire of the early church is still very much alive in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, Eastern Europe, and Oceana. Jesus’ last words to his disciples were, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:16-20). True to those instructions, the three primary activities of the early church were evangelism, discipleship, and charity (Acts 4:31-35).
I, however, was ashamed of the gospel. And I don’t think I’m alone. Many American Christians, even if they support global missions, seem reluctant to actively evangelize.
A study published by the Barna Group in 2018 states that “in 1993, 89% of Christians who had shared their faith agreed this is a responsibility of every Christian. Today, just 64% say so—a 25-point drop.” Believers around the world passionately witness, often at tremendous personal risk. But about half of American Christians who have shared their faith deem the activity non-essential?
What’s wrong with American Christians?
The problem could be cultural. American culture places a high value on individuality and self-sustainment, which fundamentally shape our hospitality and public life. Because our society functions on the core assumption that each individual builds a life, independent and largely unassisted by their broader community, uninvited involvement from strangers seems intrusive.
When asked why they do not share their faith, it has been my experience that many Christians, including myself, will cite a lack of opportunity. It would be awkward, even offensive to preach to our bank teller, plumber, grocery cashier, coworker, or child’s classroom teacher. The only other place we interact with other people is, well, church.
Additionally, the internet is ubiquitous. For a democratic society, we have relatively few physical structures or institutions dedicated to forum discussions or collaboration. And the internet is a notoriously ill-suited replacement for “real life” conversation. Despite many sincere and innovative efforts, the challenges of online evangelism remain many and complex.
Our reluctance to evangelize could also be due to a common fear of public speaking, which reputedly outranks fear of death. But I think our fear of evangelism comes from a more personal and specific place than a generalized fear of the spotlight.
Many Christians, particularly if they have affiliated with evangelicalism, can recall an emotionally manipulative evangelism experience.
True to North America’s individualistic values, the past few decades have seen the rise of a “personal Jesus.” This “personal Jesus” is stripped of “church”—tradition, ritual, and a good deal of theology—because such rigid things might be inaccessible to the unchurched or church-averse. This version of Jesus is accessed emotionally and individually without the help of weighty commentaries or outdated denominational structures. It seems more authentic. Chrisitan activities modeled on the concept of the personal Jesus go to great lengths to evoke intense emotional experiences because they assume theology and the other stuffy trappings of church are unattractive.
Certainly, tradition often treads dangerously close to legalism. But while earnestly pursuing intimacy with God is beautiful, the concept of a “personal Jesus” demands great emotional work from believers. If I don’t feel it—the love, the power, the joy—it must not be real. And I am ashamed.
The evangelism most Christians have experienced is of this manipulative variety: carefully planned worship services that crescendo to altar calls and intense Bible Camp fervor that dissipates jarringly once you walk out of the woods. When the emotions fade, you feel duped and dumped. And many Christians are unwilling to inflict such an experience on someone else.
Emotionally manipulative evangelism that catalyzes fear of damnation or the energy of a crowd into conversions has long existed within Christianity. We can add it to the list of shameful acts appended to true faith. It seems our faith has been used to legitimize and promote every conceivable atrocity. We also have historically been guilty of crusade and colonization in the name of Christendom. For a significant portion of history, Christianity was one more export of the British Empire and America. When we mention “missions” or “evangelism,” we fear that what we bring to mind is how so-called Christians ran roughshod over nations and peoples. We do not wish to join in trampling, nor do we want to carry that grim legacy into every gospel conversation. We dread association. We say, “I’m a Christian, but I’m not like those other Christians.”
But that exported gospel is an exploited gospel. It is not true. Every misapplication of the gospel is rooted in a misunderstanding of the gospel. An ideology that presses a cultural agenda for the fortification of political power is not the gospel.
The gospel is the wonder of a father who holds his infant for the first time. He only cares that that child is well and warm. Any other detail seems ridiculously trivial. The gospel is that love is extended to each human being. Identifying a false gospel based on its theology can be a murky business. But every gospel that fails to imitate that Divine Paternal Love is false.
The true gospel has five steps. I learned them from a bracelet. Each bead represented a simple scripture passage and an element of the gospel:
- Yellow for the holiness of God.
- Black for sin and the death it brings.
- Red for the salvific blood of Christ.
- White for hearts made clean and acceptable to God.
- Green for a new life in Christ.
How often do we miss those first two elements—the holiness of God and the gravity of sin? We forget them, not as grand concepts, but neglect them as personal truths.
The holy home of my Father-God is unapproachable because my sin is grievous and unforgivable except by the death of my precious Savior.
This simple gospel is preached daily around the world, producing a great harvest. But here in North America, we are saturated with individualism and arrogance so potent that we are offended by the suggestion that the spiritual aid we send to other countries might be needed here. Because Christianity has been framed as an export for so long, it now seems in short supply in North America. So many tracts start with accusation, framing repentance as an action to be performed to clear oneself. We are so self-made, we have lost all imagination for rescue.
The gospel, however, does not begin with accusation, fear, manipulation, pressure, or shame. The gospel begins with the goodness and holiness of God. The gospel offers not merely payment of debt but everlasting life in the presence of that Goodness.
The gospel is a key passed between Death’s prisoners with a nod toward the door to Life’s Kingdom. Of course, to leave the prison, one must acknowledge that the prison and the world beyond both truly exist. This is confession: acknowledging the prison that bars you from the life beyond and then bolting for the door. Confession is preaching the severity of sin and the efficacy of the cross.
We have stopped preaching the gift of the gospel. We have used it as a club with which to beat the world rather than offering it as a key to another kingdom entirely. And testimony is the remedy. When we remember the prison out of which we were called and what delight we now experience, it stokes our urgency to share that freedom with others. The best way to explain what Christ can do for you is to share what he has done for me. Testimony is built on confession rather than accusation. And the beauty of confession is that there is no longer any shame in it.
“There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
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