Why I gave up trying to save the world

And by ‘gave up’, I don’t mean ‘throwing in the towel’ so much as giving up a bad habit, an unhealthy addiction.

For many years I tried my best to save the world and my friends – with limited success in either case.

I tried to save my friends by telling them ‘the gospel’, convinced this was my primary task on earth as a Christian, though my awkward attempts were equally embarrassing to me and to them.

I tried to save the world by going on short-term mission, by giving to everyone and every charity that asked, talking endlessly to homeless guys, welcoming needy strangers into our home, campaigning for justice, volunteering for charity, holding prayer meetings for the world, and things of that sort.

The pressure to evangelise

Among evangelical/charismatic circles, it felt like you had to evangelise or ‘witness’; that was the Christian’s primary (almost only) purpose in this life. The time was short, the task urgent. Anyone who didn’t receive Christ was heading for eternal torment in hell, and it was every believer’s job to save as many as possible, by any means possible. We were to ‘pour out our lives like a drink offering’, sacrificing all other needs and priorities to that of winning souls for Christ.

I remember going to a missionary event and reading a sign on the wall, ‘Every second a soul passes into a Christless eternity’. I also recall some famous Christian’s dream of countless souls blindly walking the wrong way towards a great precipice, and our call to turn back as many as we could.

So almost everything was viewed through the prism of mission – meaning evangelism, meaning ‘sharing the gospel’ of Christ crucified to save us from our sins. Friendships were primarily for the purpose of ‘friendship evangelism’. Any conversation that wasn’t turned to Jesus was a missed opportunity. The arts were valued only for their missional potential as vehicles of gospel propaganda. I exaggerate perhaps, but not massively.

Accompanying this was the need to learn evangelistic techniques. You were supposed to learn your ‘testimony’, your conversion story, so you could wheel it out at any likely opportunity. You were encouraged to memorise formulas like ‘The Romans Road’ or the ‘Four Spiritual Laws’.

So I read evangelism books, went to evangelism seminars, prayed for opportunities to share the gospel and tried to work it into conversations. Without notable success.

So what changed?

The turning point

In 2001 I and my wife were on the brink of signing up with a well-known missionary organisation (who do great work), and going off somewhere like Gambia to pour ourselves out bringing God’s Word to the lost. We’d been on the orientation weekend, we’d met up with former missionaries for advice, and we were looking into funding.

I’m still not entirely sure what changed our mind – perhaps God, who knows? – but in the end we decided to buy a house in a multi-cultural part of the UK rather than going to the other end of the world as missionaries. That decision was the start of a sea change in our lives.

Over the last decade of (amongst other things) helping bring up children my life has changed, my outlook’s changed, and my faith and theology have changed. I’ve stopped trying to save the world and my friends. Why?

Changing perspectives

For one thing, I began to realise that many of my world-saving attempts were unhealthy, compulsive and short-termist. Far from being signs of devotion, they were tied into my own personal issues, and to a false model of service. I realised I needed to adjust my priorities; to stop putting the needs of all those I’m not directly responsible for before the needs of those I definitely am responsible for.

We also discovered the hard way that living to save the world and all our friends just didn’t work, and was more counter-productive than beneficial. We’d poured time and energy into friendships for the Kingdom’s sake, but had ended up with unhealthy, unbalanced relationships without proper boundaries or mutuality.

My theology was also changing. I was no longer so sure about the narrow version of the ‘gospel’ I’d learnt and had been trying to pass on. In particular I was no longer so convinced that non-Christians all automatically went to hell in the way I used to understand it.

We’re not all evangelists

Perhaps most importantly though, I realised that I just wasn’t very good at evangelism (at least the kind I’d been trained in). Over all my years of trying, I’d never successfully ‘led anyone to Christ’.

I also realised that I hated evangelising and felt deeply uncomfortable with it. And furthermore I came to see that discomfort not as a sign of failure to be ashamed of, but as a sign of God’s leading to be listened to. I’m not an evangelist, and that’s okay. What a blessed relief.

I’d dreaded evangelism for as long as I can remember. Years ago as a nominally churchgoing teenager, the idea of having to evangelise had been what most put me off making a full-blown ‘commitment’ to follow Jesus.

Of course there are healthier and better ways of sharing the good news of Christ than the ones I was taught. Clearly not all evangelism is bad or unnecessary (quite the contrary); I just think that we’ve too often bought into an unhelpful model.

So many evangelists seem to be spiritual salespeople, with evangelism a technique-centred means of ‘pushing’ God as though he were just another consumer product on the market. I don’t want to be sold God, nor do I want to sell him. And people aren’t projects; friends aren’t merely evangelism targets.

I believe that true evangelism, like true prayer and worship, must be authentic and from the heart, rather than a learned technique. It takes place when the time is right, rather than being forced or contrived.

Giving up the fight?

But have I just given up the fight and deserted my Christian duty, to others’ eternal loss? I don’t believe so.

Rather I’ve started to learn my limitations and, tentatively, the shape of my calling. I’m a rubbish evangelist, but quite good at other things which I believe are as valid and valuable as evangelism.

One body, many parts; we aren’t all eyes or ears or feet, and we can’t (and shouldn’t) all do all the tasks of the kingdom. We have different roles, and different gifts accordingly. Some folk are evangelistic, others pastoral, others good at teaching and so on. So long as we work together as a community and a body, we can enjoy and benefit from each other’s differences. If you’re genuinely an evangelist, that’s fantastic; just don’t expect everyone else to be one too.

Authenticity and creativity

Of course I do still talk to people about my faith, and contribute to ‘world mission’, but in rather different ways and with different motivation. I’m no longer trying single-handedly to save the world, nor spending my limited time and energy on things I’m unmotivated by, useless at, and not sure I really believe in.

I was never fully convinced by messages like ‘every second a soul passes into a Christless eternity’. But even if they’re true, I find them paralysing rather than motivational. Ironically, now I’ve stopped worrying that without my evangelistic efforts everyone’s hell-bound, I’m far more likely to represent the gospel, precisely because I’m not trying to do that. I’m freed up to be my full self in Christ rather than desperately trying to perform some ill-fitting and inauthentic role.

I also now feel free to enjoy and practice the arts without needing to turn them all into either Christian worship or evangelism, or to see them through the narrow prism of their Kingdom usefulness. Again, that doesn’t mean these arts are ‘unspiritual’ or have nothing to do with the Kingdom. Pretty much all art, music and story has a spiritual aspect and can be a means of grace if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. We just don’t always need to spell it out by adding a Bible verse.

It’s been said that God doesn’t need our prayers, but he wants the relationship that prayer entails. Similarly he doesn’t need our evangelistic efforts, but he does desire our creative involvement in the world he’s redeeming. As we receive Christ’s love and life in us, incarnationally bearing his image in our daily lives – each in our own unique way – we participate in and contribute to the redemption of the world. And that’s evangelism I can believe in and sign up to.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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29 Responses to Why I gave up trying to save the world

  1. jesuswithoutbaggage says:

    Evan, my story is similar. As a teenager I began to witness at every opportunity, and I was fairly successful. I never used the four spiritual laws much; I used the Roman Road I learned from John R. Rice and Jack Hyles until I discovered Evangelism Explosion.

    I was consumed with witnessing all the way through Bible college and beyond. I was so high-profile in my local church of 2000 (where I taught Evangelism Explosion), that the Evangelism professor at the nearby college would invite me to speak in his class and said I had the gift of evangelism. I responded that I had no gift of evangelism, I had the burden of evangelism–and not a burden FOR evangelism–evangelism was a great burden and obligation for me, but I thought every person I did not reach was on their way to eternal hell.

    Finally, I realized this was not the way to go, and eventually I stopped ‘evangelizing. Like you, I still love to share the Good News of Jesus when the right moment arrives, but I no longer alienate people by accosting them with the ‘gospel’.

    Good post!

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    • Hi Tim, I’m slightly reassured – and not surprised – that you have a similar story! Though it sounds like you were far more successful – and probably more determined – in your attempts than I ever was. I felt terribly guilty for not being good at ‘witnessing’ but I just couldn’t ever seem to find a way that really worked. And it always felt false somehow.

      Of course, I do believe people need Jesus – but perhaps not quite in the way I used to think, and certainly not by the methods I used to try!

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      • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

        I was somewhat successful, but it was a great burden I had to bear. I did it, not because I was motivated to do it, but because I thought I MUST do it.

        Now I share the good news in a much different way and only when someone shows an interest, seems ready, or asked questions. But this does not include some confession or dramatic ‘sinner’s prayer’; I think following Jesus is a process–not a ‘saving’ event.

        Again, we seem to have similar experiences with similar issues.

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    • epic says:

      I was originally “saved” through Evangelism Explosion! I did, and still do, think it was a “God thing”. It happened when I was a young adult and during a time in my life that I was deeply drawn to God and Christianity. I hadn’t been raised a Christian and didn’t understand the message, but was drawn to the idea of a God who loved me unconditionally, accepted me for who I was, and that in his eyes I had worth and value. (Things I’d never felt up to this point in my life.) I was too embarrassed to go to church because I had no idea how I should act or what I should do and was afraid of looking stupid, and I really had no one to explain the Gospel to me. I tried reading the Bible but could make no sense of it, the message was too foreign. They came knocking on my door one evening offering to come in and share the Gospel. I always felt like God came to meet me that night, knowing how much I wanted a relationship with him but not having the courage to actively seek him out. It was a turning point in my life. I’m personally not good at sharing my faith unless asked, and not a huge fan of the evangelical emphasis on evangelizing, but I’ll always be thankful for the people who came that evening to share the message of Jesus with me.

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  2. Terry says:

    The opening of this post reminded me a bit of our second and third years in the KCLCU!

    “I also recall some famous Christian’s dream of countless souls blindly walking the wrong way towards a great precipice, and our call to turn back as many as we could.”

    The image is problem not original to Jack Chick, but I know seeing this kind of image in many of his tracts. It’s actually quite a powerful motivator if you’re that way inclined.

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    • Terry says:

      Hmm. . . So the [quote] things didn’t work. Ne’er mind.

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      • I’ve edited the comment to make the quotes work! 🙂

        Yes, I remember one of our CU leaders sending us all out into the streets of London to preach to the lost souls, which was an unmitigatedly awful experience. I think I took my guitar and half-heartedly strummed ‘My Jesus, My Saviour’ very quietly in a corner somewhere, while desperately hoping no-one would show any interest. Luckily they didn’t.

        The souls-walking-towards-precipice thing certainly didn’t come to me via Jack Chick but I can well believe it features in his tracts! It terrified me, and motivated me to an extent but not I think in a healthy or helpful way.

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  3. Alfiethedog says:

    As often, this rings bell after bell with me too. What I want to say above all is that, however misguided, false or bizarre your attempts to save the world, it was a good person that made them. And, for certain (as I believe in my own case as well, even though I was always too rebellious to be other than a pretty crap evangelist or evangelical), God knows the genuineness and generosity of the underlying motivation. But you’re wholly right – incarnationally bearing his image in our daily lives has to be the essence of truly authentic Christianity. Almost the greatest miracle is that God wants and enables you and me to be 100% our true selves, whilst leaving all the imponderable cosmic stuff up to him with whatever level of faith we can muster. To that I say alleluia!

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    • Greetings Alfie, noble and worthy successor to the much-lamented Theo.

      I’m not always sure that my underlying motivation was as genuine and generous as you kindly suggest, though I hope it was at times. I’m pretty sure that much of the time my motivation was simply that I ‘had’ to try and evangelise or else people would be going to hell and it would be my fault; so in many cases it was more guilt and fear than anything more loving and generous. But maybe it was mixed, as these things so often are.

      Still working on the ‘being 100% my true self’ part- not to mention the incarnationally bearing his image part – but feel like I’m a tiny bit farther on the road than I was back in the old evangelical days!

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      • doncher1 says:

        What happened to Theothedog? (you don’t have to answer that if it’s none of my business, but just interested, with you saying he is much-lamented, and I remember reading lots of his comments on previous posts)

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        • Alfiethedog and Theothedog are the screen alter-egos of one and the same person who I’m very glad to say is still alive and well. But Theo the actual dog (and theological advisor) sadly passed away a few months ago, and Alfie is the new resident family canine.

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          • doncher1 says:

            Ah, sorry to hear of the passing away of Theo the actual dog (which is always a time of great sadness), but glad that the person behind the screen name is alive and well (and hopefully receiving new and fresh quality theological insights from Alfie the dog)

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  4. Thank you for this post, it is something that I have been struggling with myself and I fully understand where you are coming from. Before I left the UK I had a friend Debbie who told me that we are all cogs in a chain and our interactions with people could be a seed that leads them eventually to Christ, I have learnt over the years that to be true as I see people effected more by my actions and attitudes towards them more than anything I could have said.

    Someone once said to me that we may be surprised by who we meet in Heaven when we eventually get there, there may be some who we are convinced today would be there but never made that decision, and vice-versa some who would strongly suspect won’t be there but are.

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    • Thanks Chris – and great to hear from you!

      I agree – I think God often uses us in ways that we’re not aware of, and it may not be so much through our ‘evangelistic’ efforts that he touches other people as simply through our daily interactions and encounters, many of which may have nothing directly ‘Christian’ about them.

      These days I’m much more hopeful that most people will ultimately be redeemed and take their place in the Kingdom, but of course I can’t be absolutely certain of that. I think the Bible does allow room for that belief though, even if it is still a ‘minority report’.

      Hope all’s really well with you and your family!

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  5. doncher1 says:

    Thanks for this post. I like the part about realising you needed to stop putting the needs of those you aren’t directly responsible for before the needs of those you definitely are. I’m pretty convinced that the hardest task of all (for me, at least) is to ‘incarnationally bear Christ’s image in our daily lives’ – at home, in the messiness and ordinary routines of our everyday life and the people we meet / work with / live with, etc.

    Personally, I often find it so much easier to show kindness and graciousness and forgiveness to people I don’t know well (or live with!) and I’m painfully aware of how badly I manage this most of the time with the people closest to me. I’m sure that all kindnesses or moments of thoughtfulness can make a difference somehow, as can evangelising, but I wouldn’t like to let these things shield me from the uncomfortable truth that mostly I’m still very, very unchristlike in the parts of my life where it probably matters most.

    Sometimes I’m envious of people who are obviously good at evangelising. I always think it must be easier to be sure you’re doing something ‘Christian’, but thanks for the reminder that we’re parts of a body – I ‘know’ that but need reminding often that we don’t all have to be evangelists and it’s not a sign of failure to recognise that evangelisng just isn’t a gift all of us have (which almost makes me physically breathe a sigh of relief!)

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    • I’m with you – the hardest part of being a Christian is actually being kind, gracious, forgiving and all the rest with the people you live with and are closest to! I’m generally not too bad at displaying kindness to people I’m not going to see very often, and it feels good and often doesn’t cost all that much. But day-to-day, moment-to-moment Christlikeness with our nearest and dearest is an almost impossibly tough proposition!

      It came as an almost physical relief to me too to realise that I wasn’t an evangelist and that that was okay! I keep having to remind myself though, because the guilt and false burdens so easily start to creep back in. And I occasionally wonder if I’m just kidding myself, and the fundamentalists or more full-on evangelicals have actually got it right. But I don’t think so, and even if they have I know I can’t live that way any more.

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  6. Paul says:

    Sadly I can identify with much of what you say. Reflecting on some of my past evangelism encounters I’m so embarrassed at how little regard I had for those I bombarded with my foolproof arguments and rebuttals.I was good at it in my ‘humble’ opinion. No one was converted but they sure knew they were lost in spite of the fact they would go to great lengths to avoid such encounters in the future.
    But now, horror of horrors I’ve crossed that evangelical/liberal divide ( which at times I feel you would like to but can’t 😀 ) and have been forced to redefine many old terms, evangelism being one. Now when I encounter someone showing an act of kindness ( loving their neighbour ) I affirm them and suggest that God must be pleased with them and what they’ve done is what I understand to be in line with the central message of Jesus to love one another. Should they be of a different faith culture God’s approval still applies. So their introduction to Jesus is action rather than belief based . How much more satisfying and positive I find this approach to sharing the ‘ good news ‘. For me the pressure is thankfully off and ‘evangelism opportunities ‘ are abundant and joyful. How I wish I’d learned this many years ago.

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    • Hi Paul, I like what you’re saying, and I like your new ‘evangelistic’ approach! I do think you’re right that God’s approval applies to those whose actions (and perhaps more importantly their underlying attitudes) are in line with Jesus’s, regardless of their creed or culture, rather than to those who merely believe the ‘right’ doctrines or follow the ‘right’ religious practices.

      As you say, I’ve not completely been able to cross that evangelical/liberal divide, at least not yet! My position at present is neither fully evangelical nor fully liberal, but a kind of hybrid or synthesis – some might just call it a horrible muddle. 😉 But it sort of works for me, for now, in a slightly uncomfortable neither-one-thing-nor-the-other kind of way.

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      • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

        Hi Evan,

        What do you consider crossing over the evangelical/liberal divide? (Same question for Paul). As you know, I don’t consider that I have crossed over that divide and I don’t see a reason why I should want to. Though I am perhaps the most theologically progressive evangelical I know, I am still evangelical (broad definition). I don’t see the appeal of what is historically called liberalism.

        In your mind does becoming liberal involve discarding the resurrection of Jesus and his uniqueness as a representative of the Father? I don’t think a person needs to ‘accept’ Jesus or even know who Jesus is to benefit from his work and to experience their own resurrection and eternal life after this one, but I still believe he is the unique representative of the Father. I appreciate the Buddha very much, and have learned a lot from him, but he is not the representative of the Father.

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        • Hi Tim, good question and I’m not sure of the answer! All I know is that, like you, I don’t consider that I’ve crossed the divide, whatever it might be. I do see considerable appeal in some aspects of liberal theology, but I can’t abandon the central tenets of historic Christianity – mainly the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus, and his divinity and humanity. But maybe the labels don’t matter so much.

          And yes, I agree with you that a person doesn’t necessarily need to ‘accept’ Jesus or even know who he is to benefit from his work. I think my position is very similar to yours 🙂

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  7. Paul says:

    Hi Evan
    Thanks for your response ( and Tim too ). I want to zero in on your last phrase, “it sort of works for me”. Couldn’t agree more with that perspective. I’m a firm advocate of a ‘functional faith’. If it works for you now and does no harm to others then live it fully. It leaves room for future growth and acceptance of differences. I think the fully human Jesus would agree😀.

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    • Thanks Paul – that sounds good to me too! So, out of interest, for you is Jesus fully human but not divine?

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      • Paul says:

        The divinity of Jesus poses just too many issues for me. At this point he remains a human with an exceptional awareness of and engagement with the spirit of God that made his life and teachings a unique expression of that relationship. It’s similar to the Quaker belief that the spirit of God indwells every man but in Jesus was special. However I do remain open to the possibility of his divinity , a position I held and defended until a few years ago. The journey continues.

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        • Hi Paul, thanks for clarifying. It’s funny, not long ago your view would have upset and bothered me quite a lot. Now I find that it doesn’t, though it’s not my own view. I like your honesty and openness, and that your position is what works for you at the moment based on your current understanding but you remain open to other possibilities. I think that’s my own standpoint too, though my current belief is slightly different to yours.

          So for me, where I am at the moment, Jesus does need to be both divine and human. But I can start to see how it may not be necessary to believe this, or for it to be the case. Also I suspect that the reality we’re all seeking to describe may be more complex than we can express or understand in human thought and language at present. For me this kind of theology is analagous to (say) superstring theory – the attempt to describe the nature of reality at its deepest and most mysterious level.

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  8. tonycutty says:

    “the idea of having to evangelise had been what most put me off making a full-blown ‘commitment’ to follow Jesus” – and isn’t that interesting…the very thing they were trying to do to you was spoiling their own efforts. There’s a divine irony in that, isn’t there? If I become a Christian. I will also have to become a pushy sales guy! Yeah. And as with most ill-thought-through Christian naivete, they completely miss what the ‘world’ thinks about salespeople. Only sales managers like salespeople, and even that isn’t guaranteed. Other than that, nobody likes salespeople. What worse thing, for people who can’t stand salespeople, than someone who has only one mission, and that’s to sell something at you?

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    • Yes, it is pretty ironic! I hadn’t really thought of it quite like that before. Unfortunately it does sometimes feel like we try to operate Christianity like some kind of bizarre pyramid selling scheme!

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      • tonycutty says:

        Mmm. Personally I think that all we need to do is to be Jesus to the people we meet. Everything else follows from that!

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        • You’re probably right – I do like to over-complicate things sometimes! That’s kind of what I was trying to say in the final paragraph – let Jesus be incarnate in/through you and the rest will follow on. But of course it’s pretty difficult to do that sometimes…

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