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?
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.