Evangelicals are thusly named because we are evangelistic--that is, we want to tell people about Jesus and see people follow Jesus.
For a number of valid reasons, evangelism has now become a dirty word to those of us in the younger evangelical set. Our skin crawls when we hear it and fear and anxiety grips our hearts. So with a tip of the hat to Stuff Christians Like, here's why that happens for me, maybe you can identify.
1-It's been about guilt. The way I heard it preached sounded an awful lot like religious cold-calling on an unsuspecting, uninterested soul who was just trying to get a new DVD player at Best Buy. "Sir, I can see you are looking for a new DVD player...can I tell you about the DVD player that never dies?" And to motivate us, our willingness to walk up to complete strangers was used as the measure of the fervency of our devotion to Jesus. I'd put the tenor of the pitch at roughly the same level as those guilt email forwards that tell you that you really love/aren't ashamed of Jesus only if you forward this immediately to 10 friends. And to underscore that this was possible (and to underscore how I was failing) there was always that one special speaker who'd led about 3,000 people to Lord in DVD section of Best Buy in the last year.
2-It's sounded an awful lot like sacred one night stands. Since the ultimate goal was souls in a disembodied heaven, all that mattered was that you got people to pray "the prayer." And if you got a lot of people to pray the prayer, then you were a successful Christian. Who cares if you knew or loved the person (or even liked them), if they prayed the prayer, then you and Jesus and the person's eternal destiny (hey, no pressure) were good . You love 'em, leave 'em and move on. There was even a thing that could serve as a prophylaxis against actual interaction with heathen: A tract. It earned us a reputation of ironically not actually caring about the people we were supposed to love.
3-It wasn't natural. Honestly, the messages were mixed. "Friendship with the world is enmity against God." "Separate yourself from among them." "Now go love them in Jesus' name." Holy whiplash Batman! I vividly remember walking down my High School hallway carrying my Bible completely torn up about the eternal destinies of my classmates, but not wanting to contaminate myself by actually being friends with them.
4-It's been about what to avoid. The pitch was most often centered around avoiding hell, not loving Jesus. Jesus, in contrast, talked most about what it meant to follow him and embrace God's kingdom, reserving his talk about hell mainly for the religious people who felt so smugly in the right.
To add irony to irony, the word evangelist is now hot. Apple even recently had a Chief Mac Evangelist. The business world routinely talks about being an evangelist for this or that product or service. What they mean is actually the original intent of the word: you love and believe in something so much that you can't help but share it.
We need to rescue the word and the practice. We're sent by God (the root meaning of the word evangelistic) and so need to reclaim our mission of announcing God's kingdom. Here are three ways I'm working toward doing that.
The person of peace. Jesus--and can anyone actually argue he isn't the greatest evangelist of all time?--has a strategy we've basically ignored. In Luke 9 & 10 he sends out the 12 and the 72 with the instruction that when they go somewhere, they are to look for the man (or woman) of peace. "You enter a house and announce peace to it," Jesus says. "If a person of peace is there, your peace will rest on them. Stay, build relationships, announce God's reign over all things. If not, move on."
Here's what Jesus was saying. "As you go about your life and find someone you like and who likes you, start there. Build a relationship with them, and in the context of that relationship, tell them about God's love and care for them. If you don't find someone who likes you, move on." Heaven came down and glory filled my soul when I realized how simple and natural Jesus was making it. Focused intention, zero pressure. I am now always on the look-out for a person of peace.
Increase my powers of observation. In John 4, Jesus meets the woman from Samaria at a well. He observes several things (1) She's alone. Women didn't go places like that alone in that culture. (2) It's the middle of the day in the heat. Women went together in the morning when it was cool. (3) Based on 1 & 2, he notices that she is an outcast of some sort. When his disciples come back from the store and he unpacks with them the secret of having profound spiritual conversations, he says "open your eyes and look at the fields!" In other words, notice the things going on around you. It's there that an encouraging word, a smile, a kind conversation can open the door of someone's heart.
Serve people while being normal. When I serve people, I change their perception, change my perception and break down barriers. And I serve because I love, not because I hope we'll talk about Jesus (though I do hope that happens). A great interview on ABC News about the new face of American Evangelicalism underscores this.
So what about you? What comes to mind when you think of evangelism? How do we reclaim it without all the baggage?