Monday, June 11, 2007

Good News! You're Going to Hell!

The sermon at the church I visited this morning was on a topic many Episcopalians find uncomfortable: evangelism. I once heard it said that the Episcopal style of evangelism was something like leaving a bowl of water next to a lake and hoping the fish jump in of their own volition. You know, no pressure.

Evangelism is a tricky thing. The rector pointed out something which in retrospect seems obvious but isn't a distinction I had been consciously aware of; more importantly, it's a distinction which some Christian traditions disregard or try to blur: evangelism is the job of the people, but conversion is up to the Holy Spirit. They are not one and the same.

A lot of Christians try to win souls for God, or something like that, as if souls are lost items on a global scavenger hunt and the people who gather the most get into heaven. The inimitable Slacktivist once, in one of his many scathingly brilliant take-downs of the heretical Left Behind novels, talked about "right relationship as a pre-condition for evangelism."

That's the tricky part. I might go to church pretty often, but I never liked or appreciated being trapped on a subway with someone who wanted to yell at 100 strangers about how Jesus changed their lives for five minutes. Last month I went to the opera and when I came out, someone had left a brochure titled "The Burning Hell" on my windshield. Because, you know, Jesus used to anonymously leave pamphlets on people's private property and then run away.

When the necessary pre-condition of "right relationship" isn't met, instead of becoming a welcoming invitation evangelism turns into a major turn-off. "Hi, I don't know your name or anything about you, but I'd like to tell you what's wrong with your life and how you can fix it." This inevitably gets coupled with a threat: "PS, you're going to hell." It doesn't take a degree in marketing to see that this pitch sucks.

The word "evangelism" comes from the ancient Greek meaning "good news." As the rector helpfully pointed out today, "You're going to Hell!" is not good news. Clumsy (if occasionally well-intentioned) Christians have made such a bungle of evangelism that "evangelist" now is practically synonymous with "charlatan." "Evangelical" means closed-minded science-phobic bigoted theocrat to millions of Americans. That's bad news.


Gino said...

i always viewed evangelism as taking many legitimate forms.

"you're going to hell" may work, and from the looks of the number of evangelical churches, and the pop-theological culture of our world, i'd say it works.

but thats not my style.

evangelism takes many forms.
many times it is most effective just by letting someone else know what you believe. or just having a discussion of theological differences.

everytime i make public that i am a catholic,and i like it, i am evengelizing, with nothing more said.

Matthew said...

I guess these folks would counter that the good news actually is:

There's a way you can get out of going to hell!

As I'm not particularly familiar with Episcopalianism, I don't know for sure, but doesn't all Christian theology teach that if you don't follow Christ (I am the way, etc. etc.) then you are at least not going to Heaven (and therefore presumably going to Hell)? That being the case, it would seem that the urgency to give the Spirit as much opportunity to convert people would be more understandable.

Jarred said...

The problem with taking that approach to evangelism, Matthew, is that it causes a great deal of non-Christians to view Christianity and salvation as nothing more than "fire insurance." That isn't exactly the most attractive or compelling sales pitch, either.

Of course, I think part of the problem, too, is that spreading the good news is even seen in terms of "sales pitches" in the first place.

On a side note, Andy, have you ever read Rebecca Manley Pippert's book, "Out of the Saltshaker"? (It's published by InterVarsity Press.) I'd personally recommend it, as I suspect a lot of what she says will resonate with your own thoughts and those of your rector.

Mark G. said...

When I was a kid, my mom took my brother and I to a Nazarene church to hear the new preacher. He stood before everyone and randomly pointed at people screaming YOU’RE GOING TO HELL over and over until his face was beet red. Needless to say we never went back. I’ve never forgotten it and every time I pass a Nazarene church, I shudder.

little-cicero said...

Gino raises an excellent point. We often fear any discussion of religion because we fear isolation. We are in essence raising interpersonal relationships above our relationship with God: We don't hesitate to make public our friendship with a minority because there are so many benefits in doing so (I use my friendship with Andy as leverage against those calling me a homophobe ALL THE TIME!) (kidding) But a relationship with God can actually lose you friends.

You might even say the attitude is "Don't ask, Don't tell"

The result of keeping to ourselves holds the same as in politics. We can keep our John Birch Society or Scientologist views to ourselves and no one will criticize them; which doesn't benefit us in the least. Do away with this indulgent politeness and the Marketplace of Ideas will be open- only then will competition do its handiwork.

Trickish Knave said...

Evangelical sermons take 2 common forms- the hellfire and brimstone approach and the personal witness approach.

When I was a member of my old church's prison ministry (talk about a captive audience) I used the latter but one guy always use the former, often beating on the pulpit and shouting like there was no tomorrow.

Which brings a good point- hardcore evagelicals preach like there is no tomorrow, like Christ IS coming back at anytime. But I think it does boil down to a marketing package. Most people don't want to be bothered with a witness or a harrangue. I think it is those hardcore evangelicals that give Christianity a bad name and ammo for people like Rosie O'Donnell, George Carlin et al. to bash.

little-cicero said...

TK, I thank you for that "captive audience" joke. I'm visiting my cousin in jail this weekend, and I believe he'll appreciate that one!

Anything for conversation- that's the worst part of jail visitation. What do you talk about? "Yup, so uh, I see they added some flowers to the front walk. Nice touch. Yeah- so you water them. Funny, that's my job at home. So, umm..."

kr said...

A former housemate came to pretty much a complete mental stop when I mentioned to her (while complaining about what passes for evangelism in America) that "Gospel" means "good news." Seeing the blank look, I broke that down (if salvation and Heaven are for real, they are good news, and anyone who knows about them would want to share them with everyone they cared about) ...

Not surprisingly, although exposed fairly constantly to Christians trying to convert her non-religious self, she had never been exposed to this tack before.



Andy, sometimes I wish I drank coffee while reading blogs, so I could use that "coffee sprayed all over my screen" tagline ... the bowl of water/lake analogy was hilarious ;).

Jade said...

The talk about reaching out reminds me of a JW that came to our house when I was a kid. Mom always slammed the door on them, but I was never that bold, so if I answered the door they'd start talking to me. I told one once that I wasn't supposed to talk to people about religion, the girl slipped me a pamphlet and asked me to read it, and perhaps she'd sneak around again without telling my mom. All sorts of alarm bells and whistles went off with that suggestion. I believe she was probably feeling like she was saving me from certain doom, but I also think that suggesting to a 7 year old that they keep secrets from her parents with a stranger is irresponsible.

I know that JW's aren't "Evangelists" but whenever I talk to them that seems to be their message... "I have good news, I'm sharing in the word of God and I've picked you!"

Gino said...

JW's also have this habit of sending very hot attractive, but nicely attired, 20ish babes to my door, because they know i'll open it.